Juventus’ midfield has been an issue for almost half a decade, with the problem becoming existential during Andrea Pirlo’s sole season at the helm.
There was once a time when Massimiliano Allegri had the luxury of calling upon four bona fide world-class options for three midfield slots. And as the old saying goes, you never know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Alas, Juve’s imperious quartet of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio swiftly evolved into a triumvirate of functionality.
Nevertheless, the combination of passer Miralem Pjanic, runner Blaise Matuidi and the all-action Sami Khedira provided a stable base in the middle of the park as the Bianconeri reached their second Champions League final in three years in 2017.
The decline of Juventus’ midfield
That trio showed almost immediate signs of decline after their defeat to Real Madrid in Cardiff and despite the club making a concerted effort to rejuvenate their midfield since, a sustainable solution has appeared out of their reach. Under Maurizio Sarri, an ageing midfield was galvanised by an exuberant Rodrigo Bentancur before the Uruguayan’s form nosedived amid a bleak period with Pirlo in charge.
Bentancur’s swift hero to zero status in Turin epitomised the instability that surrounded Juve’s midfield during this period. Adrien Rabiot was yet to make an impact following his arrival in 2019, Arthur Melo struggled with injury during his debut season, while Weston McKennie faded after a bright start.
Once again, steps were taken in the summer to replenish this crucial part of the pitch and the club made a big breakthrough by signing Sassuolo and Italy star Manuel Locatelli. Then, in January, Denis Zakaria was brought in as a replacement for the unfairly chastised Bentancur to add yet further freshness to the midfield.
Juventus’ midfield is in its best place since Massimiliano Allegri first left the club
The Old Lady certainly have light years to go before they’re able to replicate their 2012 to 2015 peak, but there’s a feeling that Juventus’ midfield might be in the best place since Allegri’s initial departure.
Why? Well, first of all, there’s depth. Arthur is starting to garner the trust of the boss, McKennie has been one of the Bianconeri’s most consistent performers in recent months and even Rabiot has impressed at times this season. There’s also a genuine star in Locatelli and Allegri’s set to unlock the majestic Italian with a systematic switch.
With subtle variations of the 4-4-2 being prominent during the first half of the season, Allegri has dabbled more with the 4-3-3 to begin 2022. His great Juventus sides of the past were built around their imperious midfield trio and while the current iteration isn’t close to reaching that pedestal, there’s no doubting that Juve’s best midfield combination has the potential to lay the foundations for a new dawn in Turin.
So, what is the best combination?
What is Juventus’ best midfield combination?
Presuming that Allegri maintains the more dynamic and progressive 4-3-3 we saw in the victory over Hellas Verona, the midfield consists of a regista at the base of midfield and two box-to-box players that operate from more advanced positions in the half-spaces.
In the regista role, Arthur is the most obvious fit and he’s impressed in the new year. The Brazilian is beginning to offer more bite defensively while providing plenty in possession as a result of his elite ball-retention skills. However, Zakaria should eventually evolve into Juve’s starting #6. While the Swiss midfielder has primarily functioned in a double pivot throughout his career, he has the skills to blossom as the sole holder. Zakaria’s not your archetypal regista, but he’s efficient in possession and demonic without it. We saw the benefits of his long legs against Verona and his effortless gallop allows to him cover ground at a canter. He’s certainly much superior at defending space compared to Arthur.
Nevertheless, both options are viable for the time being. Although, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see new arrival Zakaria usurp the Brazilian before the season’s out.
Ahead of the holding midfielder, Locatelli is a shoo-in for one of the roles. His majesty as a box-to-box midfielder was on full display for Italy at the Euros and he showed tremendous form in a more advanced position on a couple of occasions in January.
So, that leaves McKennie and Rabiot for the other slot. The latter tends to ghost through games but he’s astute defensively and capable of offering the odd sequence of attacking thrust. McKennie, on the other hand, isn’t as shrewd as the Frenchman but he’s a live wire that contributes in all phases. And while Rabiot has the edge from a technique perspective, McKennie’s ability without the ball can’t be overlooked. There’s an element of Thomas Muller to his game, with his knack of finding space between the lines and in the opposition box an invaluable asset.
In Allegri’s 4-3-3, McKennie will have the attacking freedom to join Paulo Dybala between the lines and make his trademark surges in behind defences. The role suits him down to a tee and by allowing him to operate from the right-half space, where he can rotate and overload this zone with Dybala, Allegri will continue to get the very best out of him.
So, while Rabiot is a valid option, McKennie is best suited to partnering Locatelli ahead of either Arthur or Zakaria. However, come the start of 2022/23, we may well see Nicolo Rovella and Nicolo Fagioli competing for regular Serie A minutes.