Top of Serie A despite the league actually being competitive this year? Check. In a great position to reach the Coppa Italia final? Check. Giorgio Chiellini now back to full fitness after a long-term knee injury? Check.
On the surface, things aren’t looking too bad for Juventus, fine in fact.
But if you delve a little deeper, maybe just watch 15 minutes of any recent Juve fixture, and it’s clear to see that all is not well in Turin.
Olympique Lyon v Juventus – UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg
Despite an indifferent campaign in his sole season at Chelsea, I Bianconeri hired Maurizio Sarri in the summer following Massimiliano Allegri’s departure, supposedly in a bid to establish a new footballing identity at the Allianz Stadium.
But Sarri has swiftly destroyed everything that defined the Italian giants in the 2010s. The grinta, the ‘never say die’ attitude, the feeling of invincibility. It was a culture established by Antonio Conte and one built on by Allegri.
Now, it’s only the variation and craftiness of Paulo Dybala that’s making this Juve side barely watchable. Not even the penalty merch–, ruthless goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo – despite the best efforts of social media to convince you he’s playing on the same level as longtime rival Lionel Messi – is making the Bianconeri an enjoyable watch.
Overall, it would be an insult to even describe Sarri’s current side as even in the shadow of the free-flowing, dynamic Napoli outfit that helped the 61-year-old Italian establish himself in the upper echelon of the coaching world.
The tepid 1-0 defeat at Lyon in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie was one that seemed inevitable after a string of unconvincing displays, despite the French outfit being seventh in a division widely regarded as one being full of a bunch of farmers. Or for a bunch of farmers. It’s never been entirely clear.
Houssem Aouar,Miralem Pjanic
And at the heart of their struggles was their incoherent, ineffective and seemingly incompetent midfield trio of Miralem Pjanic, Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur.
But while the aforementioned threesome were continuously scratching their heads asking themselves ‘how do you play this midfield thing?’ at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais on Wednesday night, two men on the opposite side put on a clinic in midfield play.
On his Champions League debut and in just his second game for the club, Brazilian Bruno Guimarães was nothing short of majestic, but it was a Frenchman just one year his junior who stole the show: Houssem Aouar.
Deployed alongside Guimarães and Lucas Tousart – who stood out defensively throughout – in a 5-3-2, Lyon’s midfield trio showed off to their Italian counterparts what a dynamic, balanced midfield looked like. One that doesn’t have a mental barrier when it comes to entering let alone affecting play in the final third.
During his showcase to the world, Aouar served as the conductor for his side, the tempo-setter. Often he would play off one or two touches to progress play – with his swift, intricate movements in possession allowing him to break away from pressure to advance his side upfield.
Smartly, he operated on the left-hand side to open up more angles and passing lanes infield. His ability to glide past opponents, however, enabled him to also beat opponents down the flank, making him unpredictable. It was this attribute that helped him set up Tousart’s winner, leaving Bentancur for dead with a change of pace out wide before picking out the onrushing Frenchman inside the area.
By the time his masterclass was over, the silky, elegant Aouar had finished the game with more key passes than Juve’s midfield combined (3), was second to only La Joya in terms of dribbles completed (3) and had completed the tastiest of nutmegs in his own third on Dybala himself.
The France Under-21 international’s confident display on Wednesday night wasn’t a one-off either. He’s been exceptional since he burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 2017 – rising through Les Gones’ academy.
Last season he was somewhat outshone by Tanguy Ndombele on the grandest stages but this time around, he’s taken Europe’s premier competition by the scruff of the neck – making four goal contributions in just five Champions League starts. For context, the midfield three that Sarri deployed on Wednesday have contributed to ZERO goals in 17 appearances between them.
With Sarri’s departure from the Old Lady seemingly inevitable, it’s clear that a revamp of the midfield is required for Juve to re-establish themselves as Italy’s dominant force, and Aouar should be part of that rebuild.
The Frenchman’s dynamism and magnificent interpretation of space add a whole new dimension to the Bianconeri, providing penetration, press-resistance and creativity we don’t see unless Dybala’s in possession.
Like Ndombele last season, Aouar seems destined for a move away from Lyon this summer and according to Italian news outlet Tuttomercato, Chelsea are ‘seriously interested’ in bringing the 21-year-old to Stamford Bridge in a £43m deal – a more than reasonable price for a man of Aouar’s talent.
And despite their financial restraints due to the gargantuan Ronaldo deal in 2018, this is a deal that Juve should be all over. They were served the Aouar experience first-hand on Wednesday night.
Juve have lost the identity that made them such an imperious force and at the moment, they look like a side on a downward spiral despite still enjoying a relatively successful season up to this point.
And while the potential signing of Aouar would only be a piece in the jigsaw, it’d be a significant step in the right direction for the Old Lady, especially when it comes to recruitment after losing their way on this front in the past few years.