Merih Demiral shows Juventus what they’re missing in defensive exhibition

Short-sighted recruitment is one of the primary factors as to why Juventus are currently struggling their way through a transitional period.

Strange decisions in the transfer market towards the end of their dominant reign over Calcio have set the club back years, and although marked improvements have been made in this department in recent windows, the decision to loan Merih Demiral to Atalanta with an option to buy befuddled many.

While rumours emerged in the summer of the defender wanting to leave following a frustrating season under Andrea Pirlo, nothing was concrete. Nevertheless, Juventus facilitated his exit without much resistance as an in-need Atalanta came calling.

For La Dea, Demiral was the ideal replacement for Cristian Romero, who was on his way to Tottenham Hotspur following a stellar campaign in Bergamo.

Juventus have little centre-back depth after Demiral’s departure

Daniele Rugani is Juventus’ fourth-choice centre-back. (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Despite Demiral’s exit, the Bianconeri refused to add depth at centre-back in the weeks that remained of the summer transfer window. Their priority was Sassuolo midfielder Manuel Locatelli, whom they eventually snagged, and a ‘replacement’ for Cristiano Ronaldo after he declared his intentions to depart in late August. Perhaps a shortage of funds prevented them from bolstering in defence.

Still, with the Turkish international out the door and no one being brought in, Massimiliano Allegri was/has been left with four senior centre-backs for the 2021/22 season. Matthijs de Ligt is one of Juve’s most prized assets, but the Dutchman’s been supported by a 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci and 37-year-old Giorgio Chiellini as well as Daniele Rugani, whose career has spiralled faster than anyone could’ve imagined.

This has left Allegri two centre-back injuries away from disaster. But, fortunately, his options have held up for the most part as we approach December. While Chiellini and De Ligt have both had fitness concerns this term, Rugani’s started just one Serie A game thus far, with Bonucci a near ever-present in the backline.

Overall, Juventus’ defensive performance is some way down on a long list of issues this season. They’ve conceded 16 times in 14 games, the fifth-best record in Serie A, and they’ve only surrendered an open play xG of 9.4, which ranks third in the division.

In Saturday’s defeat to Atalanta, the defence once again held firm against one of Italy’s most explosive attacks. According to Understat, Juventus limited La Dea to their lowest xG haul of the season (0.57), but Duvan Zapata’s brilliant finish was enough to earn the visitors all three points.

Demiral shines in Atalanta’s win against Juventus

Merih Demiral stifled Alvaro Morata on Saturday. (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

The Bianconeri, despite a mini-resurgence in the second half, worked Juan Musso just twice as they accumulated a meagre xG of 0.82 – their lowest of the domestic season. And it was Juventus loanee Merih Demiral who proved pivotal in shunning the Old Lady.

Gian Piero Gasperini’s man-orientation is tailor-made for the aggressive Turkish defender, who operates at the heart of Atalanta’s back three. Alvaro Morata was his assignment on Saturday, with La Dea’s idiosyncratic defensive system facilitating a bona fide one-vs-one duel between two former teammates. Demiral followed Morata’s every move as he dominated the battle.

The defender didn’t give the out of sorts forward an inch throughout, as the Spaniard was restricted to functioning as a mere wall for Juve players to bounce passes off. It’s no surprise Morata hasn’t scored in Serie A since mid-September considering he’s never facing the goal. Nevertheless, the Juve forward had some success linking play as his side sought to compromise Atalanta’s aggression through swift up, back and through passing sequences, especially in the first half. Morata, for example, played a role in creating Juve’s best chance of the opening period, as his layoff for Weston McKennie was the penultimate action in Federico Chiesa bearing down on Musso’s goal before being caught by Rafael Toloi.

Next time around, however, Morata was careless with his first-time pass back to Paulo Dybala, instead finding the feet of Berat Djimsiti. One pass and three touches later; the ball was in the back of the net via Zapata.

As for Demiral, he had little involvement in his side’s goal, but he was crucial in preventing his parent club from restoring parity. His ten combined tackles and interceptions were a game-high, as his gritty resolve and shrewd man-marking deterred Morata.

While there was little by way of savvy possession play, Demiral’s stout defensive work was mightily impressive as he made the Juventus hierarchy pay for dismissing him in the summer. The defender epitomises the rugged aggression and grinta that Allegri is attempting to restore among the Bianconeri, and while he’s well-suited to Gasperini’s system, Demiral, alongside De Ligt, should be a cornerstone in Juve’s rebuild.

But, Juventini will have to cope with the harsh reality that we might never see the Turkish international in Bianconeri colours again. His future will be revisited in the summer, but surely Atalanta will trigger the reported €25m option to buy clause inserted in his loan contract.

Thus, instead of restoring Juve to a pedestal to which they belong, the sight of Merih Demiral harassing a Juventus number nine into submission is a sight we might have to get used to seeing in the many years to come.