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The new Ministry of Defence….

January 11, 2018

On 14th July last year the football world stood open mouthed as Leonardo Bonucci stood in front of a huge Champions League trophy with various AC Milan suits close by, for him he had completed a move to Milan after an apparent deterioration of relations between him and management in Turin. For Juventus it meant a re-build of sorts, the famous BBC trio of Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini was finished and nervous glances were made towards the upcoming season; simply put, how do you replace arguably the world’s best defender? Juve didn’t do anything, while not many outside of the club’s Vinovo training ground thought the current crop of defenders could live up to last season’s exceptional defence, the coaching staff at Juve clearly did. Either way it was an uneasy defensive group which started the season and it was clear to see they were not on the same wavelength. Despite this good early season team form hid the defensive frailties, but they were exposed during defeats to Barcelona in September and away to Sampdoria, later in November. The Sampdoria game was arguably the latest turning point during the 2017/2018 season.

 

Juve stumbled and limped towards that game by turning out below par performances which were masked by wins over Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League and Fiorentina, Udinese and Benevento in Serie A. It is common knowledge Max Allegri’s Juve teams start slowly and peaks around Christmas, but they looked tired and unorganised at times. All this while Napoli, Inter Milan and to a lesser extent, Roma and Lazio were all effortlessly striding through the season. Allegri made a number of changes to the starting line up for the Sampdoria game which in the end really came back to haunt him as Juve were outclassed; the 3-2 score doesn’t reflect how pathetic Juve were on that autumnal afternoon. Since then Juve have played, amongst others, Barcelona, Napoli, Inter and Roma. They have also encountered tricky games away to Bologna, Hellas Verona and Cagliari, not forgetting a home a Derby della Mole cup tie against Torino. During that time Lionel Messi, Dries Mertens, Mauro Icardi and Eden Dzeko have all failed to score against Juve as they stretched an impressive clean sheet run to eight games.

 

Considering the uncertainty after Bonucci left, the below par performances and early defeats to Barcelona, Lazio (twice) and Sampdoria, it is refreshing and extremely satisfying to see such a commanding defence week after week. There is an air of inevitability to Juve’s recent play, their rivals have experienced indifferent form to a greater or lesser extent and it’s as if all the early misgivings have been part of Allegri’s plan and we’re now seeing the real, confident Juve. Should an expected return to the top of the league materialise before too long, their rivals’ confidence will sink further.

Obviously eight successive clean sheets would certainly point to a much improved defence, to cement this fact, if you compare before and after the Sampdoria game, the first 18 games Juve conceded 19 goals, whereas the last 11 have only found the opposition celebrate once.

There is a case to be argued that had the defence still included Leo Bonucci and a healthy Buffon, it would’ve been given much more credit than it has and it seems as though Juve’s recent defensive improvements have gone under the radar somewhat.

 

Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli have been as dependable as ever, while Mattia de Sciglio and Wojciech Szczesny have both slotted in to the first team very well, the former has been affected by injury recently but has proven to be very reliable in a problem position. Once the injury problems fade he should feature regularly. The latter has turned out to arguably be the signing of the season for Juve. He has gelled well with the four in front of him; this hasn’t been a settled defensive group by any means, partly due to rotation and partly due to injury, and it’s very obvious his performances have lead to an increased confidence for him and those directly in front of him. In fact it can be said if it wasn’t for his saves against Roma and in particular, Cagliari, Juve would’ve dropped points in those games and not maintained their recent impressive run. On current form Juve definitely have a great replacement for Buffon.

 

Kwadwo Asamoah continues to deputise for the inconsistent, Alex Sandro. The Ghanian is very much a polarizing player but he is one of those vital cogs in the machine; a squad player of limited ability but great desire, he has done everything which has been asked of him and Juve could do a lot worse than to keep hold of him, as interest from abroad continues to periodically rear its head. He could certainly be needed as there has been some speculation about Sandro’s relationship with management at Juve. If he leaves in January we could see Leonardo Spinazzola return from loan at Atalanta sooner than expected to help Asamoah at left back.

 

The biggest improvement is from Medhi Benatia, since his full time re-introduction to the side he looks a different player and has been rejuvenated by an increased stability and confidence. The differences between the player we saw looking intimidated against Barcelona in September to the one who put in a commanding performance and scored the winner against his former employers from Rome in December are vast. Casting an eye to the future, if Benatia continues this upward trend it now seems Daniele Rugani is the odd one out, with Mattia Caldara returning in the summer it remains to be seen whether we’ve seen the last of Rugani in a Juve shirt.

Again Juve have proven to be very able to grind out wins, the recent away games against Cagliari and Hellas Verona prove their ability to win while not at their best, indeed both teams played above their level and both pushed Juve hard in the second half, but the Bianconceri do what they do best, win. It may not be pretty at times, but the statistics tell all we need to know of Juve’s recent form. Since the 18 November defeat to Sampdoria there have been 11 games in all competitions, nine victories, two draws and just one goal conceded. Italian football, the birthplace of the catenaccio style of defending, historically loves a good defence and this Juventus back line is shaping up for a memorable season.

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  • Jas

    Great article mate! Benatia has had a Renaissance as of late, lights out. Barzagli is 37, it would be beyond foolish to sell Rugani. I still think he’s got world class potential, lacks playing time. Allegri needs to include him in more games…… Andrea is great but again 37…

    • Cheers! Agreed with Benaria and to a certain extent, Barzagli, for him I think he’s on borrowed time. If Höwedes is ever healthy I think Barzagli’s days are numbered. I’m certainly not doubting his quality though. As for Rugani, who knows? Personally I don’t think I’ve seen enough to convince me he’s good enough to start week in week out. I maybe wrong. If he leaves I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • Valuable focus, Dave. I appreciated the read…

    I suspect that Rugani might be sold in the Summer for whilst he has zero experience of the club culture I was so impressed with his form last term that I was a little bothered during the Summer that we were focusing on Spinazzola, rather than Mattia, yet I suspect enquiries were made and shut down and demands made of sticking to the deal. Mattia is a beast. Only if Barzagli leaves, would Rugani remain, I presume, and this is very unlikely, for we won’t stick with two youngsters in one of the most important areas of the field.

    As for Spinazzola, I was very much against his transfer in place of Asamoah. The african is considerably more powerful, stronger defensively and does offer support on the flank, not to Sandro’s guile, but he is dependable, has a great engine and has become very solid in the defensive phase since his move from a dynamic CM to a marauding LB. I like Spinazzola, but have seen nothing to consider him anywhere near as reliable defensively as Asamoah. In terms of competition with Mandzukic and Costa, he comes out third, yet perhaps Mario will depart, seek a new adventure and find himself playing a more comfortable role.

    Szczesny is quality. When Buffon suggests he was the best keeper in the league last year I listen…At Arsenal, he was a joker, and allowed to be, treading water, never forced to mature. Roma and italian football culture as a whole, alongside marriage (I believe) allowed him to become a man and focus more seriously on all areas of his life. The result was to find himself…given such gilded accolades by a living legend who anointed him successor in waiting.

    I would like to believe that Benatia could become a rock and the idea of him sharing the CB roles with Chiellini and Caldara next term is encouraging. Yet far more stern tests await. We have seen other sides in periods of topsy turvy form. And Max sets his season up to begin peaking in February, when the CL and other competitions become more serious. Before which, we see haphazard performances, often grind out results, yet Max doesnt care; he is conditioning the squad and working out the best way forward in February.

    Thank you for the piece and wishing you a glorious start to the new year.
    Cheers,
    Daniel

    • Alexis

      I don’t think Rugani will be sold, Dan… him and Caldara will be the future pairing for this Juve side… Barzagli and Chiellini are not exactly offsprings and a time will come where they will play less and less, which means more time for the youngsters…

  • Alexis

    Great article Dave!

    The depth in this team is extraordinary (with Schick’s signing, to deputise for Pipita, it would’ve been perfect) Allegri has great options all across the board and can chose the starting 11 depending on form… this will definitely come handy in the CL… In comparison, a team like Inter completely lacks depth, an example is when they had to play Davide Santon in central defense as both Miranda and Rannochia were injured… our next CL opponents, Spurs, also suffer from this problem as they have a very strong starting 11 but few options to come of the bench…