After the 1-0 loss to Lyon in the first leg of the Round of 16 of the Champions League, Maurizio Sarri seemed frustrated that his Juventus team couldn’t move the ball much quicker in midfield. That indeed was true, as the Bianconeri looked drab and rusty in the heart of the park and Lyon were happy to restrict them to playing harmless sideways passes for a majority of the game. A Lucas Tousart goal was enough to hand the French side a 1-0 victory. It was perhaps ironic that Houssem Aouar had to assist Lucas Tousart for the goal, considering how Juve were looking at him for the dynamism he brings to the midfield.
With the second leg now approaching, nothing much has changed. Juve have won the Scudetto and a case can be made that they tiptoed over the line, even though the losses to losses to Roma and Cagliari can be ignored. There have been games post-lockdown when they have looked like a Sarri team that can unlock defences with slick passing from midfield. There have also been games when they’ve looked the same drab Juve that lost to Lyon. The defeat to Udinese was an example of how teams can find it easy to see them pass the ball around and they can sit deeper themselves.
Amidst all of this, Paulo Dybala has been vastly important to helping Juve ‘move the ball quicker’ in midfield. He drops deep and either using a penetrative pass or a dribble into the final-third, he cuts open the opposition defence like no other player can. When Aaron Ramsey plays in attacking midfield, this process is better as the Welshman’s midfield movement proves annoying for the opposition.
Rodrigo Bentancur has been one of the success stories of the 2019-20 season and he has learned the art of holding his own in midfield, circulating possession and often winning the ball back. The Uruguayan can often make in-roads into the attack and his assists tally of seven shows how effective he can be in that regard. He possesses a versatile nature that saw Sarri use him in the regista role for Miralem Pjanic earlier in the season.
The precision in movement and passing that these three provide will be crucial in the second leg. Adrien Rabiot has impressed post-lockdown and he now seems to be understanding the system a lot better than he used to. He has been seen showing off his ability to carry the ball into the advanced positions and the manner in which he cuts through the opposition has been catching them off-guard.
In these four, Sarri seems to have found a core group of players who can make his system tick from midfield. He didn’t have this core performing in cohesion pre-lockdown and it showed against Lyon. Rudi Garcia’s men looked threatening on the break in their recent penalty shootout loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the Coupe de la Ligue. They did try to play out from the back, but couldn’t always do that efficiently.
It was their first competitive game in four months and the trio of Aouar, Moussa Dembele and Memphis Depay did threaten on the counter-attack, with the Dutchman failing to find the final ball on many occasions. Those are signs that the French side would rely on quick attacking transitions whenever they win the ball back. This could mean that Juve get a lot of the ball, especially as they play in Turin in the second leg of the tie.
In Cristiano Ronaldo, they certainly have someone who has knows the art of turning Champions League ties around. He did that against Atletico Madrid last season, grabbing a hat-trick in a Federico Bernardeschi-inspired performance. He, along with the four core midfield players, will be huge for Juve in the second leg.
It has been a natural case of Sarri finding his most reliable players with the passage of time. For many, it was bound to happen at some point and probably has now. The Old Lady’s hope should be that Rabiot, Bentancur, Ramsey and Dybala tick from midfield and help Ronaldo score in another vital CL game.
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