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  • August 7, 2019

    Life after the BBC: Juventus rejuvenates their defense

    By Flavio Fusi
  • While the 2019-20 Premier League season is at the starting gates, the Italian Serie A won’t start until August 24. With the start date over two weeks away and the summer transfer window for Italian clubs open until September 2, there is a good chance that most of the teams’ rosters will look different a month from now. 

    Indeed, there haven’t been that many transfers so far, and it is safe to say that most of the signings won’t alter the league balance, not least because the team that made the most impressive signings happens to be the same side that’s dominated Serie A for the past eight years.

    Juventus filled front pages with marquee signings: they secured midfield free agents Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot and they brought back club-legend Buffon while accumulating over €160 million in sales (including those of João Cancelo, Moise Kean and Leonardo Spinazzola). They also outspent everybody else with Matthijs De Ligt’s purchase, the highlight of the first month of a transfer campaign devoted to the restyling of the defensive department of the roster.

    Juventus built almost a decade of success on their megalithic defense formed by Anrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini. But not even the BBC, as they were nicknamed, could stop Father Time: after 16 trophies with the “Old Lady” Barzagli (38) hung up his boots at the end of last season. Bonucci (32), who rejoined the club last summer after an unlucky one-year spell as AC Milan captain, was the youngest of the three but he struggled, at least by his standards, in 2018-19. Plus, in theory, he is not particularly suited to play in a high defensive line, as Juve will with new manager Maurizzio Sarri. Chiellini, who will be 35 in a few days, is still one of the best defenders of world football and, according to Transfermarkt, lost just six games due to injuries last season, but not even the Bianconeri captain can be eternal.

    Daniele Rugani, the only other center-back on Juve’s roster after the departures of Benatia and Caceres, has always been considered the ideal heir of the Juventus tradition of superb Italian defenders. Surely talented, the ex Empoli defender is still only 25, but during his first four seasons for the club, he failed to become a regular in the starting lineup, and he has often been involved in transfer rumors (including right now, to Arsenal). As a defender, last season he was dead last both in combined tackles and interceptions and in tackles per dribbled past (Tack/DP%). Despite featuring in 1350 league minutes, he doesn’t seem to be pivotal in the Bianconeri future anymore. 

    But the aging of their most iconic defenders is not the only reason to worry. The Juventus defense became more porous game after game throughout last season. They conceded just 12.0 expected goals in the first 19 games of the season, while the total amount of xG for the second part of the season was 17.2. Or, if you prefer, Allegri’s team conceded just 0.63 xG per game in the first half of the season and 0.90 xG in the second half, for an alarming increase of around 43%.

    Sure, Juventus ruled the league for the eighth season in a row and focus naturally decreased as they coasted to another domestic title and with Champions League being the main aim for the club and players. Yet, such a decline in performance (which happened in attack as well) was a wakeup call for club management, who decided to center the first part of the transfer campaign on younger defenders who would be heir to Barzagli and co. 

    After chasing him for weeks and beating no less than the competition of FC Barcelona, Juventus signed Matthijs De Ligt for a reported fee of around €75 million. Many people consider the Dutch international the best young defender in Europe and after witnessing his performances in last season Champions League, it is pretty hard to contradict them.

    In comparison with Allegri’s, Sarri’s style requires defenders to stay much higher on the pitch both with and without the ball, and De Ligt physical means and ability to read the game (developed playing in midfield for Ajax youth teams) make him suited to cover the space behind him. But his contributions don’t stop on the defensive side of the ball.

    Even for a product of Ajax Academy, the Dutch international is excellent with the ball at his feet: compose and clean in his passing game, De Ligt should adapt almost effortlessly to “Sarriball”. As you can see from his radar above, he excels in both passing percentage and xG build-up and he is expected to play a predominant role in build-up for Juventus as well, especially considering that he will likely replace Bonucci in the starting eleven, who under Allegri has been the main Juventus option in moving the ball from the back (even if Chiellini’s contribution and smart passes are often undervalued). If possible, the Dutch’s passing sonar confirms once again how he is already a world-class defender when it comes to passing the ball.

    The media coverage around De Ligt purchase was enormous, both because of the amount of money involved and of the potential of the player. Yet, his blockbuster acquisition overshadowed other important moves for the future of the Bianconeri defense. Months before Ajax center-back’s official move to the club, Sporting Director Fabio Paratici had paved the path to Turin for two more young prospects at center-back: Merih Demiral and Cristian Romero.

    Demiral (21) arrived in the Serie A last January from Alanyaspor for €12 million (five for the loan, plus seven to buy in June). He joined De Zerbis’ Sassuolo, but many saw the long shadow of Juventus behind this transfer. Indeed, after only six months with the Neroverdi, the center-back of the Turkish National Team joined the “Old Lady” for a reported fee of €16 million.

    Demiral impressed at Sassuolo: since his debut against SPAL last February, he never skipped a minute of playing time in the Serie A.

    What immediately shows up, even to the eyes of the most inattentive observer, is his physical supremacy over the opponents. Even though he is tall (190 cm) and heavy (he is listed at 86 kg) the Turkish defender can generate a surprising top speed after he gets going. This combination of physicality, strength, and pace make him almost unstoppable in individual duels. 

    The sample size is relatively small (he played 1360 minutes in 15 games), but last season only AC Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli (87%), among central defenders, topped Demiral’s 86% in Tack/DP%.

    Demiral excels in aerial duels due to impressive elevation and leaping ability: last season he won a crazy number of duels (3.71 per 90, that puts him over the 95th percentile of center-backs in Europe) with a success rate of 80%. His ability to head the ball is particularly useful also on the offensive end, and he and Cristian Romero were the youngest defenders to have scored at least two goals in Serie A in the 2018-19 season. Juve generated 0.36 xG per game on set pieces, and both of them could be very useful in dead ball situations.

    The Turkish international is also fairly good with the ball at his feet, an aspect of his game that will be fundamental if he stays at Juve. Demiral seemed likely to be loaned out, but during the summer he showed the aggressiveness and the intelligence required to make the right decisions in Sarri’s defense. The 21-year-old has every characteristic of the modern defender: now he has to prove he is ready to establish himself in an elite defense.

    If Demiral will likely stay at Juventus, Romero will play for Genoa for at least one more season. Just a few weeks younger than Demiral, the Argentinean defender was bought by the Rossoblu from Belgran for €4 million. His good performances in the first half of last season were sufficient to grant him a move to Juventus, which secured his arrival for this summer after agreeing a €26 million fee last January.

    Romero can play both as right back or center back: last season he played mostly as the right sided center back in Genoa’s three at the back system, even though after Ivan Juric was fired, new coach Cesare Prandelli fielded a four-man defense from time to time.

    Cuti” as he is nicknamed, showed character and a strong personality, establishing himself as a regular for Genoa after his debut, ironically enough, against Juve. In a similar fashion to Demiral, Romero is a very aggressive defender. Last season he recorded 11.2 pressures per 90, showing very good anticipation and decent pace. His chest is not as wide as De Ligt’s, but his natural strength and determination make him a good marker. 

    Romero performed 3.9 combined tackles and interceptions per 90, a number that only Genoa captain Domenico Criscito was able to top. He was also the Rossoblu top defender in Tack/DP% (77%) and aerial wins percentage (55%). Those two values are not top-notch, but we have to keep in mind that Genoa were quite bad last season and survived relegation by the skin of their teeth, only thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker that saw them prevail over relegated Empoli. His passing percentage (82%) is not impressive for a defender, but he is composed with the ball at his feet and could develop his technical skills further.

    However, sometimes Romero is overly aggressive, and his decision-making is not unquestionable. This is probably the reason why Juventus decided to let him spend another season at Genoa. He needs to refine these aspects and playing as many minutes as possible is the only way to do it. Yet, once again Fabio Paratici leveraged Juventus dominance of the internal market to anticipate potential competitors and secured the club another elite-potential defender.

    Another player that arrived this summer and could play a relevant role in the defense of the future is Luca Pellegrini. The left-back arrived from Roma in the swap that simultaneously saw Spinazzola join the Giallorossi for €26 million. The substantial fee of €22 million paid for Pellegrini raised some eyebrows, but the move allowed both clubs to register significant capital gain by selling a homegrown player and got Juve the control over one of the most intriguing Italian prospects.

    Pellegrini is managed none other than by Mino Raiola, who negotiated him a €1 million salary at Roma even before his Serie A debut and after two consecutive and dramatic injuries to his left knee. He finally debuted with the Giallorossi last season, before moving on loan to Cagliari where he spent the second part of the season playing 12 out of 17 possible games. 

    From a statistical point of view, Pellegrini’s numbers are not impressive, but by watching him we could guess why Juve viewed him as a promising under the radar signing and didn’t miss the opportunity to grab him. Pellegrini is an offensive-minded left back who can also play at wingback. He has shown a good vision of play for a player so young, so much so that he played in midfield for Italy at the recent U-20 World Cup. 

    Quite pacey, Pellegrini likes to buccaneer down the flank and especially during his few games for Roma, showed a tendency to play the ball diagonally from the side to the center of the pitch. He is also equally aggressive off the ball (he recorded 16.7 pressures per 90, an impressive value for a fullback), but opponents also beat him too easily (his Tack/DP% is 64%). 

    All in all, is too early to give a definitive judgment on him, but he has always been considered a top prospect at the youth level (he collected 36 caps with Italian youth National Teams), and after recovering from two serious injuries Juve have decided to bet on him. The club and Sarri now have to decide if it is better to make him grow together with the more experienced players of the team or to loan him out, with multiple teams interested in him (Cagliari seems favored over Atalanta and Sassuolo).

    In the span of a month, Juventus bought three modern central defenders that potentially could substitute Barzagli, Bonucci, and Chiellini and help the club transition to another winning cycle (including the best young defender available in Europe), plus probably the best young Italian left-back, while also amassing € 100+ million in capital gains. Even though the club was criticized by fans about the potential swap between Romelu Lukaku and Paolo Dybala, further up the field, and a seemingly curious decision to jettison Cancelo at right back, when considering their moves collectively it is hard not to underline another masterclass in squad and financial management.

    Article by Flavio Fusi