Juventus Beat Sassuolo as New-Look Midfield Thrives Without Paul Pogba

Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2016

Juventus' Miralem Pjanic celebrates after scoring during a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Sassuolo at the Juventus Stadium in Turin, Italy, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (Alessandro Di Marco/ANSA via AP)
Alessandro Di Marco/Associated Press

This week saw the Italian champions celebrate the anniversary of their current home, September 11 marking five years since Juventus Stadium hosted its first official league fixture against Parma.

A sunny afternoon back in 2011 saw the Bianconeri sweep the Crociati aside 4-1, and the team looked to post a similarly comprehensive performance to mark the occasion this weekend, dismantling Sassuolo by a 3-1 scoreline.

Starting on the opening day at the superb Turin facility, then-coach Antonio Conte would unleash a midfield trio that would become among the most feared in Europe. Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo—known collectively as the “MVP”—would lead the club to four consecutive Serie A titles.

Joined by Paul Pogba, they also reached the 2015 UEFA Champions League final, before Vidal and Pirlo opted to leave the club. Their young French team-mate would do the same this past summer, joining Manchester United in a blockbuster deal that broke the world transfer record per BBC Sport.

On Saturday evening against Sassuolo, current boss Massimiliano Allegri would be—thanks in no small part to Marchisio’s ongoing fitness battle following knee surgery—forced to unleash a new-look midfield of Sami Khedira, Mario Lemina and Miralem Pjanic.

While they may not possess the high-profile reputations of their predecessors, all three played vital roles in the victory over Sassuolo, showing that life for Turin’s grand Old Lady has indeed continued apace despite those high-profile departures.

Kwadwo Asamoah was a surprise exclusion
Kwadwo Asamoah was a surprise exclusionVINCENZO PINTO/Getty Images

Perhaps the one surprise in the starting XI was Lemina, chosen to play as the central holding player and deepest midfielder of the trio here. That meant Kwadwo Asamoah was dropped to the bench, with many perhaps expecting him to play on the left and Pjanic as the anchor after some earlier comments by Allegri.

“He seems like Hernanes, who last year had never played in front of the defence and now looks like a totally different player,” the coach told Sky Italia back in August (h/t Football Italia). “I think Pjanic will become one of the best in the world in that position.”

With that in mind, it was somewhat odd to see Lemina given the nod in the role once again, but his performances so far this term certainly merited such a decision being made in his favour. Bagging two goals last term, the Gabon international was arguably at his best without the ball, figures from WhoScored.com showing that he averaged 2.3 tackles and 1.8 interceptions per outing in 2015/16.

Mario Lemina
Mario LeminaValerio Pennicino/Getty Images

He also completed 2.2 take-ons and 46.3 passes per game over his 13 appearances in all competitions, prompting the Bianconeri to sign him outright from Olympique Marseille this summer. However, in an interview with JTV (h/t Juve’s official website), Lemina explained that he was still working on many aspects of his play:

Honestly there is plenty for me to improve on, both defensively and going forward. Equally I’m still young so I’m hungry to gain more top level experience and hone my mental game at the same time.  To do both these things I’ll need to focus on getting as much game time as I can and staying injury-free for as long as possible.

That was very evident against Sassuolo, with statistics courtesy of WhoScored showing he registered two tackles, two interceptions and one clearance while also completing 96.6 percent of his 59 pass attempts and two dribbles.

His impact on the game was evident in both phases, snuffing out opposition attacks before helping drive Juventus from the back. Indeed, the shots below highlight one example of him picking up the ball from Gigi Buffon and carrying it forward with intent, his movement ensuring the team did not drop too deep and allow the Neroverdi back into the game.

@Adz77 via Wyscout

However, he was far from the only one to shine, with Khedira delivering yet another stellar performance for the Bianconeri. The Germany international had looked sharp in both his previous outings this season, his well-taken goals proving vital in wins over Fiorentina and Lazio before the recent international break.

Once again he was at his best here, his perpetual movement never allowing Sassuolo to be comfortable in midfield, making runs between zones to confuse defenders and drag them out of position.

According to statistics from WhoScored, Khedira registered no tackles and no interceptions, yet his presence was vital to the victory in so many ways. He connecting with 90.9 percent of his 55 pass attempts, including a header that created Juve’s second goal of the game for Gonzalo Higuain.

Yet perhaps the game in Turin this weekend will be best remembered for the competitive debut of Pjanic, signed from AS Roma at a cost of €32 million, according to Juve’s official website. His first appearance for La Madama had been delayed by a niggling injury, but he was excellent in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s comfortable 5-0 win over Estonia earlier in the week.

“I had small physical problems for the first two matches, but I’m fine now,” he told Premium Sport (h/t Football Italia) last week. “Now there will be Sassuolo, then Sevilla. An important cycle awaits us, but we’ll be there.”

Given his obvious quality, it was no surprise to see him included from the start against the Neroverdi, and Pjanic certainly did everything he could to help the Old Lady clinch all three points.

Nominally fielded on the left of Allegri’s midfield trio, the FourFourTwo Stats Zone graphic in the tweet above shows the 26-year-old registered one tackle while completing 54 of his 62 pass attempts and his one take-on, much to pleasure of his new boss.

“It was an objective, as we didn’t manage to rotate the midfielders as much,” Allegri told Sky Italia shortly after the final whistle (h/t Football Italia). “Pjanic likes more freedom and can roam, so the other two must move as a consequence. It’s good to avoid giving the opposition reference points.”

The midfielder also got himself on the scoresheet against Sassuolo, getting into the box to crash a great header against the bar after some stellar work from Paulo Dybala. Yet Pjanic did not stand and rue his misfortune, instead reacting quicker than anyone on the pitch to smash the rebound beyond goalkeeper Andrea Consigli and into the net.

It would not be lost on Juventus supporters that their new central trio were rounding into such great form on the same day an anonymous Pogba failed to prevent Manchester City winning a Premier League clash at Old Trafford, with United overrun by the visitor’s rampant midfield.

The Bianconeri will be further boosted in that department when Marchisio returns, but for now it seems Khedira-Lemina-Pjanic is the best solution for Allegri and Juventus. They will hope to shine once more when Sevilla visit Turin on Wednesday night, with the Old Lady looking forward to Champions League action once again.