With a third of the Serie A season remaining, there is a familiar side currently sitting atop the league table. Juventus lead the way once more, as they go in search of their ninth successive scudetto. If the campaign does get back underway following the coronavirus pandemic, they will be favoured to fend off the challenges of Lazio and Inter to continue their domestic dominance.
Everything appears rosy. Yet delve a little deeper, and things are not going quite as smoothly as they initially seem for the champions. Since the start of December, Juventus have lost three of their last six away league games. Add in their Champions League and Coppa Italia fixtures, and the side have failed to win five of their last nine matches away from home in all competitions.
This worrying run has left supporters trying to understand what has gone wrong. The defence remains as solid as ever, with Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt forming a steady partnership, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala are both having stellar seasons up front. This leaves the finger to be pointed at the midfield.
It’s not just the midfield as a whole, though. One midfielder has come in for particular criticism in recent months – Miralem Pjanić. Having publicly backed the Bosnian playmaker, Maurizio Sarri opted to finally drop the 29-year-old for the team’s crucial clash with Inter in their final game before the league was brought to a temporary halt in mid-March. Now the question must be asked – is Pjanić’s time in Turin coming to an end?
When a new manager arrives at a club, fans and media alike try to work out who will flourish in that coach’s preferred system. Pjanić and Sarri appeared a match made in heaven. This was the manager who had made Jorginho into one of the best deep-lying playmakers in European football during his time at Napoli. Many expected him to do the same with Pjanić.
The former Chelsea manager made his intentions clear in his opening press conference:
“I would like to see Pjanić make 150 touches per game”, he announced. It was immediately clear that Sarri viewed Pjanić as a key cog in the Juventus machine, hoping that he would be able to dictate the tempo of the game each week.
As the season began, he did just that. Pjanić registered 124 touches in a 2-0 win against SPAL in late September, leaving Sarri to purr with pride at his midfielder’s swift development.
“Pjanić is improving a great deal in the number of touches and the vertical passes he is coming out with”, he said. Juventus and Pjanić were clicking into gear as ‘Sarriball’ started to take shape.
Caught by the chasing pack
At the start of the season, there was little argument that Pjanić stood head and shoulders above the rest of the midfield. The statistics indicate that it remains the case, to a certain extent.
Of Juventus’s current crop of six central midfielders, no player has scored more league goals this season than Pjanić, with only Aaron Ramsey matching his total having played in a more advanced role throughout the campaign. Only Rodrigo Bentancur has provided more assists.
Pjanić’s game should not purely be judged on goals and assists. Playing at the base of the midfield, he is expected to start moves, not necessarily finish them. Yet the numbers do also provide some insight into how his form has dipped in recent months.
In the opening nine league games of the 2019/20 season he scored three times and delivered three assists. He has featured in 13 Serie A matches since, managing just a single assist, which came back in November. Having started the season controlling the midfield whilst also producing the goods in the final third, he has since gone off the boil. Once the cream of the crop in an underwhelming midfield, he is now just one of the pack.
Dropped for the Derby d’Italia
In truth, it had been coming. Pjanić’s form has dipped dramatically in 2020, with the midfielder making an uncharacteristic mistake to allow Hellas Verona back into the game in early February, and then being taken off on the hour mark when Juventus slipped to a 1-0 defeat against Lyon in the Champions League.
Admittedly, the latter game came after a recent injury setback, but Sarri would still have expected more from the experienced campaigner. Too slow in possession, a lack of incisiveness with his passing and clearly lacking in confidence, the Lyon loss showed that Pjanić was struggling. Sarri had a decision to make ahead of the top-of-the-table clash with Inter.
The outcome did not go in Pjanić’s favour. Sarri opted to move Bentancur into the holding midfield role, meaning that Pjanić had to settle for a place on the bench. The change worked, with Juventus running out comfortable 2-0 winners, and Bentancur offering the team a calming presence in the middle of the park.
It is a role that he has grown into, having initially arrived in Italy as a more advanced midfielder. Speaking last month about his new position, Bentancur said: “I like playing in that role too and must do my best to help the team”. With the Uruguayan continuing to improve, and building his confidence as a holding midfielder, Pjanić has a fight on his hands to win his place back in the team.
The beginning of the end or a minor blip?
Pjanić was arguably the first name on the teamsheet back in August. That is no longer the case, and many welcomed the decision to drop him earlier this month, frustrated by his recent decline. Chelsea and PSG are rumoured to be interested in acquiring the midfielder’s services when the summer transfer window opens, in a move that would bring Pjanić’s four-year stay in Turin to an end.
Yet it must be remembered what he has achieved since joining back in 2016. Pjanić has been an integral part of a side that has won three Scudetti and two Coppa Italia titles, ensuring that Juventus remain a force in Italian and European football. Whilst he has endured a testing 2020, his supporters will argue that his class will shine through in the long run. When the season resumes, he could well be refreshed, and able to show the sort of form that he was able to produce early on in the season.
For now, his future appears to hang in the balance. Can Pjanić return to his best and prove that he can still play a major role at Juventus? The final weeks of the 2019/20 season should provide us with the answer.