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Juventus Finding Their Feet, but Sami Khedira the Key to Resurgence

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterNovember 26, 2015

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 18:  Sami Khedira of Juventus FC in action during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Juventus FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 18, 2015 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Juventus’ slow start to the 2015-16 campaign has been well documented; the stark comedown in form and league position, from UEFA Champions League runners-up and Serie A winners to bottom-half strugglers has been difficult to choke down.

Not long ago, Juan Cuadrado was arguably their only in-form player, with mistakes haunting the defence, a lack of service blunting the strikers and a haphazard approach to midfield play generating a severe turnover deficit. Only Gianluigi Buffon kept it respectable.

A three-game domestic win streak, though, has moved the Bianconeri into sixth and just nine points off league leaders Internazionale. In other leagues that would seem a sizable gap, but in Serie A—where inconsistency reigns supreme—it puts the club in a serious title-challenging position.

The streak started with a rousing victory over fierce local rivals Torino, developed thanks to a 3-1 dispatching of Empoli and reached three with a tight 1-0 win over Milan, decided by a lovely Paulo Dybala strike.

Juventus' coach Massimiliano Allegri takes part in a training session at the Juventus Training Center in Vinovo, near Turin, on November 24, 2015, on the eve of the UEFA Champions League football match Juventus vs Manchester City.   / AFP / MARCO BERTOREL
MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City cemented their place in Europe’s latter stages come spring 2016, completing the double over the Premier League side thanks to a solitary, wonderful Mario Mandzukic goal. From the outside looking in, it very much looks as though Massimiliano Allegri has hauled his men back on track.

Mandzukic put in a rare good showing, pressing like a mad man, ruffling Nicolas Otamendi’s feathers and providing an option for Alex Sandro’s excellent crosses. Paul Pogba looks to be enjoying himself again and isn’t trying to do everything himself, while Buffon kept to his usual best.

But despite the upturn in form and fortunes, Wednesday’s win compounded one very obvious fact: Without Sami Khedira, this team struggles badly.

The amount of errors Juve made in midfield was absolutely astonishing; it’s a wonder they won the game and kept a clean sheet, given they were seemingly contriving to give Man City every opportunity to claw their way back into the contest.

Credit: Canal+

Pogba’s flashy game was entirely offset by Claudio Marchisio turnovers—mostly in dangerous areas—and those mistakes seeped into the defensive line, too; Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli both lost possession in critical areas and forced team-mates to double back to bail them out.

Losing Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal in the same summer is rough, and the Bianconeri have struggled—technically, physically and emotionally—for long stretches without them. Welcoming Stephan Lichtsteiner back into the XI after injury has restored a leadership presence, but it hasn’t completely fixed the issues haunting the side.

In recent weeks, the errors have been leading to fouls, which have in turn led to goals. As B/R’s Adam Digby revealed earlier this month, Juve have conceded an average of 16.5 fouls per game (according to WhoScored.com), and Allegri has bemoaned the fact that opposing teams have converted those opportunities into goals, per Football Italia.

Against City it was more of the same, with Fernandinho blazing an early chance well over after Giorgio Chiellini had struggled to clear a ball into the box and ended up falling over. Raheem Sterling missed a sitter, too, with Chiellini’s deflection actually taking it closer to the goal than it would have landed if uninhibited.

Contrast this haphazard, error-strewn performance with the one that saw off Sevilla 2-0 at the Juventus Stadium in September, and it becomes difficult to believe it’s the same team. That night, Khedira entered the XI following an injury lay-off and shocked even the most ardent of fans with a stellar, controlling display. He’s the difference.

Credit: Canal+

A World Cup, Champions League, La Liga and Bundesliga winner, Khedira adds a steely measure of organisation to Juve’s midfield and a trio of he, Marchisio and Pogba is quite clearly the best Allegri can field.

True, the manager has rediscovered his own confidence and has begun rotating his formation and XI based on his opponents—restoring the tactical nous that helped them prosper in 2014-15—but this team feels incomplete without Khedira.

He doesn’t shuttle forward as much anymore—a torn ACL in 2013 has severely tempered his body’s ability to handle a physical load—but he brings tactical knowledge and a high football IQ to the Bianconeri’s engine room. He oozes confidence and settles those around him; Pogba feels more assured slaloming forward when Khedira is in reserve to mop up any issues, and Marchisio becomes a more box-to-box presence, too.

That sort of assurance will eventually seep through the XI if he can sustain a run in the side. It’s jarring to see Bonucci—usually so consistent and decisive in everything he does—committing nervous errors that lead to goals conceded.

Juventus' midfielder Sami Khedira (L) from Germany celebrates after scoring during the Italian Serie A  football match Juventus Vs Bologna on October 4, 2015 at the 'Juventus Stadium' in Turin.  AFP PHOTO / MARCO BERTORELLO        (Photo credit should rea
MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

In a great number of ways, things are looking up for the Turin-based club. We’re seeing less and less of the underwhelming Hernanes, Dybala is getting more time as a starter in response to Alvaro Morata’s disappointing start to the season and Pogba is most certainly rediscovering his groove.

Allegri’s tactical tweaks are beginning to work again as he adjusts his setup with confidence—before, he was persisting with the same/similar XIs in blind hope they’d turn the corner—and he could be well on his way to shaking off the unfortunate reputation he’s earned for leading a club into regression in his second season in charge.

But Khedira is the key piece, and if his fitness can be managed appropriately, Juventus will continue to surge up the table. At Real Madrid he became something of an afterthought, but we’re talking about a player Joachim Low relied upon at the World Cup 2014 and someone who would have started the final but for a cruel warm-up injury.

The reigning Serie A champions and Champions League runners-up have been under the microscope all season for all the wrong reasons, but the dark clouds finally appear to be parting.

If Allegri can preserve Khedira, this side will take flight once again.

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