Top of the table and with one foot already in the last eight of the Champions League. Four more points in Serie A than at the same stage last season. And 12 more top-flight goals to boot too.
It’s that statistical backdrop which raises doubts over the question of whether Juventus have really missed Simone Pepe this season. Limited to just 26 minutes of action against Lazio, it was suggested this week that the injury-plagued player will probably not be seen again this campaign.
Those 2012-13 numbers certainly make impressive reading even though the Old Lady, unbeaten in Serie A last term, have lost four in 25 games this time around. But take the stats out of the equation and consider what Pepe offers and it is clear that boss Antonio Conte has been handicapped.
Pepe, admittedly, is not a world-class player – he’s nowhere near that. Conte has played alongside enough of those in the past to know that Simone doesn’t fit into that category. But even the Roman himself is well aware that he isn’t in the squad to provide flair or to even make the difference. He’s there to do what the Coach wants and offer tactical elasticity.
“I may not have the class of others, but I think I can always make a contribution with hard work and effort,” the 29-year-old said last term. “The objective for me is to do what the Coach asks and then it is my turn to give my all. I’ve always said that unless a player is a world-beater, he needs to work for the good of the team.”
Pepe was one of numerous Beppe Marotta signings who came good in his second season with the Old Lady. A victim of the lack of results under previous boss Gigi Del Neri, he became an important pawn for Conte as his six goals in 31 League games clearly illustrated.
Pepe, as well as embodying the kind of spirit that Conte looks for in all of his players, allowed the former Siena tactician to use a variety of systems following his arrival at Vinovo. After quickly shelving the 4-4-2, or 4-2-4 if you like, the Bianconeri mainly employed two formations last term – the 3-5-2 and the 4-3-3.
The former Udinese man was instrumental in the latter. A wide player who mixes offensive forays with defensive cover is a rare commodity in the present Italian game – and Conte wasn’t afraid to take advantage of it.
While the club’s market moves in the summer of 2012 underlined that the 3-5-2 was the way that the Coach primarily wanted to go, the absence of Pepe means that Conte hasn’t really had the option to go back to 4-3-3 if needed. One can argue that Mauricio Isla could do a Pepe job, but the problem is that the Udinese version of the Chilean hasn’t shown up in Turin after some serious injury issues of his own.
“I’ve grown as a player thanks to Conte,” Pepe stated. “Last season was where I, let’s say, graduated. I even learned how to score goals… Having started life as an attacker I had those characteristics to do that, but the Coach really helped me to improve. After all, it has always been said that a player gives his best between the ages of 27 and 30.”
The club joker was one of the revelations of 2011-12. After a mediocre first season in Turin and the club’s decision to then sign a host of new wide players, there were some who thought that Simone would struggle for a game.
“It’s true, the club did bring in a lot of competition and they were all good players, but then everyone saw what happened on the pitch,” Pepe commented. “The thing is, you don’t play almost 150 games in Serie A by chance. And there must be a reason if I have been called up to the national squad by Marcello Lippi and Cesare Prandelli.”
After proving his worth last term, Pepe was set to be an important figure again – especially given the new demands of Champions League football. But it has proved to be a season to forget after picking up an injury in the Trofeo TIM summer triangular tournament, on a terrible Bari surface which also saw Martin Caceres limp back to Turin.
It was a left thigh issue which sidelined the Italian international, one that will now require surgery after four separate relapses. “We have decided that I will undergo a little operation in order to get back to playing as soon as possible,” he stated this week.
“I thank my teammates, my family and the club who have supported me and allowed me to keep a smile of my face – even though it’s not always been easy. Now there will be an operation and, after that, we can begin to discuss a recovery period.”