Juventus modified their midfield during this summer. Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi were sold while Sami Khedira is now out of the project. Arthur Melo was called to replace the Bosnian and this Brazilian was paid only 10 million. Also, McKennie was an unexpected market hit and Andrea Pirlo decided to bet again on Aaron Ramsey and Rabiot. With Rodrigo Bentancur, the Italian manager has four midfielders for two places.
Andrea Pirlo’s football idea
In the first two games of the season, Pirlo lined up his Juventus in a 3-5-2 on paper but it was bound to change during the defensive and the offensive phase of the game. In Pirlo’s UEFA Pro license thesis on his theory of football, he mentioned that in possession he either likes to play a 3-2-5 or a 2-3-5 formation. The most important factors are three: he wants his full-backs or wing-backs, depending on the formation, to push forward and join the attackers; he wants two midfielders with complementary features and lastly three defenders capable of keeping the line high in order to reconquer the ball as quick as possible.
These concepts are like Maurizio Sarri’s style of play. However, the system is rather different. The former Napoli manager prefers a zonal defending while now the focus is firstly on the opponent. This approach is also a consequence of the three-man defence that allows the thirds to protect their zone better. Juventus have got aggressive players capable of assault efficaciously far away from the penalty area. Matthijs De Ligt, Danilo, Merih Demiral and Alex Sandro exalt themselves in these cases.
However, if the opponents are able to go beyond the first pressing, Pirlo likes his team to switch to a more conventional back four with another line of four in front of them during the defensive phase of the game. Pirlo intends to shape a team that controls the game and reduces the phases of positional defence.
McKennie “the bodyguard”
In this vision, McKennie is vital to regain the ball and replenish the man between the lines. Along with that, the Italian manager wants one of his midfielders to join the two forwards in possession and able to lower his position out of possession, like Ramsey did against both Sampdoria and Roma. In the image below we can see one of the strengths of the American: he reconquers the ball to speed up the transition. Then Ramsey passes to Cristiano Ronaldo. And the Portugal international hit the crossbar.
Also, here, we can see McKennie able to intercept the pass of Albin Ekdal. As a matter of fact, the former Schalke 04 midfielder closed his game with interesting stats: 94 touches, 88% of accuracy passes, one key pass, 4/5 long balls, two shots on target, one successful dribble, 1/2 aerial duels won and 5/10 ground duels won. Furthermore, two clearances, three interceptions, and four tackles. An impressive debut.
The heatmap below is clear. McKennie touched lots of balls especially in exit ball phases while lowering or raising his barycentre and moving to the left. Meanwhile, Frabotta pledged the width and Ramsey moved between the lines. The aim is offering support and provoking the opponent to press, which creates gaps to be exploited through short or long passes.
Another interesting situation is represented in the image below: how Juventus changed his tactics in the defensive approach. This decision is affected by the presence of McKennie. The traditional mode is to always keep the two centre-backs connected. But Leonardo Bonucci here leaves the space near Giorgio Chiellini and moves to the right, creating positional superiority. The midfielder is ready to take his position if Sampdoria manages to cross or move the ball quickly.
Rabiot “the crazy horse”
And Rabiot? The French regained the confirmation thanks to his improved performances after quarantine. He understood what Maurizio Sarri wanted but now Pirlo changed his tasks and position on the pitch. As a matter of fact, the Italian manager wants to use only two midfielders with complementary characteristics in order to have another man between the lines and two forwards, Dybala and Ronaldo.
The former PSG started both with Sampdoria and Roma. In the first game, he was the chosen man to look for and create the width. In the image below we can see how he finds Frabotta. A good overall analysis: 107 touches, one of the best on the pitch, 93% of pass accuracy, 4/5 long balls, two clearances and three interceptions.
Rabiot was important in the exit balls lowering his barycentre, and he has also got important defensive and athletic qualities. Pirlo appreciates his counter-pressing approach in line with his football philosophy. The midfielder lost 10 possessions, but he got back three times. I reported one of them in the image below. As we can see, Rabiot moves high, simplifying the negative transition.
Now, an obvious question arises: why do I say that Rabiot and McKennie cannot form an effective double pivot? The concept is simple: as we will see later, both players are not so reliable yet. Their features are the ones that Pirlo wants from his midfielders, but this couple is not ready to compete at high levels. There are many reasons.
The mains cause is that Arthur and Bentancur have the same complementary characteristics which are exponentially more profitable than that duo. In the following radars we can see those differences. We start with Arthur and Rabiot. The Brazilian has got better stats in xA per 90 (0.12 vs 0.05), passes into final 1/3 per 90 (7.97 vs 3.75), yards progressed per 90 (449 vs 300), pass completion % per 90 (90.1 vs 87.9) and dribble success per 90 (90 vs 75.8).
McKennie is better in interceptions for 90 (1.94 vs 1.73). On the other hand, Bentancur beats the American in successful pressures per 90 (6.98 vs 6.42), successful tackles per 90 (4.54 vs 2.19) and pass completion per 90 (87.3 vs 80.3).
It seems clear that Pirlo will not bet heavily on the duo we saw in the first two games of Serie A. They are only two good reserve players at this time. Both the French and the American have not marked technical features. In this vision, it is hard to pass the first pressing or the opponent’s man marking.
In the image below we can see this situation. Danilo is obliged to try a through ball to Alvaro Morata. McKennie is followed by Jordan Veretout and Rabiot by Lorenzo Pellegrini. They have a remarkable physical impression but neither the French nor the former Schalke 04 have got rapid brilliance in the decision-making. The outcome is a deep ball movement slowed down.
Also, in the following image we can see this problem. In this case the lack of personality is evident. The double pivot is fixed, flat and does not pledge positional superiority. In a stagnant tactical context, the positional attack is deleterious. The numbers speak for themselves: in his 62 minutes of the game, Rabiot lost 12 balls. A high number for the French, the appointed one that must be the playmaker of the duo. Mckennie did not play better: 0/2 ground duels won, 1/4 aerial duels won, 4 possessions lost, and only 43 touches in 58 minutes.
Another important aspect is Juventus behaviour out of possession. With Ronaldo and Morata on the pitch at the same time, the Bianconeri can never plan of recovering the ball in the final third. The two forwards adopt a short pressing while the midfielders are always climbed over by Roma’s approach. Mancini and Pellegrini always find Dzeko and the three Juve defenders often suffer in open balls situations. In this way, Juventus risks to be extremely long and so vulnerable. As a matter of fact, Pirlo’s team conceded 2.66 xG and was able to draw the game only thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo and the inaccuracy of Dzeko & Co.
Rabiot and McKennie cannot form an effective double pivot. Arthur and Bentancur will be Juventus starter, especially in the Champions League. It is not a matter of experience but aptitude of playing at high levels. As we saw, the French American connection would be counterproductive in important games.
The former PSG is still a mystery. He failed last year and now he does not seem to be a Pirlo’s priority. As a matter of fact, both the Uruguayan and the Brazilian were out of condition in the first two games. The Italian manager put them on the pitch in the last 20 minutes of the game against Roma. Despite being shorthanded, Juventus were able to get a draw in the game and they seem to control the midfield better.
Regarding Mckennie: he was a Pirlo request. His energy and dynamism make us remember the prime Arturo Vidal. He could be a pleasant surprise. In the Juventus midfield, he has got features that no one is endowed with.