Let’s start at the beginning. Juventus fans were never under any illusions about Paul Pogba. The Frenchman may have been transformed from an under-utilised player in the Manchester United reserves into one of the game’s most prominent midfielders, but he was never going to be loyal.
Having already changed clubs four times while still a teenager and employing Mino Raiola as his agent, Pogba’s career was inevitably going to be somewhat nomadic. Sure enough, the player whom supporters of the Old Lady had seen rocket to superstardom left for UEFA Euro 2016 and never returned.
No player has ever earned a club more profit than the difference between the minimal fee the Bianconeri sent to Old Trafford to acquire him and the world-record sum he fetched just four years later.
But this isn’t about Pogba, it’s about replacing him. Given the choice of which Serie A player they would sign to fill that void if money was no object, followers of Juventus would’ve offered up a very short short-list.
All of which is said to say this: Miralem Pjanic was and is the perfect acquisition for Juventus in 2016. He is a midfielder who possesses every quantifiable attribute the current team lacked and needed in abundance, a player capable of filling a multitude of roles with remarkable versatility and a signing that sent a signal of intent loudly across the continent.
Yet much like Pogba’s thus-far disappointing second spell in Manchester, Pjanic’s time in Turin is going under heavy scrutiny. Yes, despite the club suffering a catastrophic number of injuries to key players—especially in midfield—he has been widely criticised for failing to make a significant impact.
Let’s pump the brakes and look at the facts. Following the win over Napoli last Saturday, he has three goals and three assists in just 818 minutes of action. That’s more goals than any Juve player not named Gonzalo Higuain or Paulo Dybala, and a team-high tally of assists, but look even deeper.
According to WhoScored.com, only Dani Alves (77) and Andrea Barzagli (57.4) have made more passes per game than Pjanic’s average of 54.8. His average of 2.9 scoring chances created per game is another team high, although as the graphic below highlights, Alex Sandro has a higher overall total.
There is no denying that Pjanic has not yet reached peak form in a Juve shirt, but those figures show a player making a significant contribution to a team who have struggled at times this season.
The fact that the club gears its preparation towards contending for trophies in March, April and May makes that an impossible task, with arguably none of his team-mates playing at their best either.
A case could be made for Gigi Buffon or Barzagli doing so, but neither of those men rely on their physical fitness as much as a dynamic midfielder like Pjanic, so that, too, is understandable.
Pjanic was undeniably poor in his most recent outing against Napoli, the team improving when Claudio Marchisio replaced him with around 25 minutes remaining. Putting aside the fact that the Italian would make almost any team in Europe better for his inclusion, it was a rare off day for the man who made way for him.
Indeed, even when Juve have struggled this term—which unfortunately has been an all-too regular occurrence—Pjanic has tried to carry them forward. Identifying games in which he has visibly struggled is a difficult task, but the 2-1 loss to Inter Milan in September would arguably be foremost among them.
Fielded as the central player in coach Massimiliano Allegri’s three-man midfield, the graphic above highlights just how well-covered the 26-year-old was by an uncharacteristically well-drilled Nerazzurri side that day.
Yet Pjanic still made his presence felt, with a flowing team move in the first half showcasing just what he brings to the side. An Inter attack ended with the ball in Buffon’s hands, the goalkeeper rolling the ball out before the former AS Roma man picked it up deep inside his own half.
As can be seen via the video in the tweet above, he plays the first pass of the sequence, then trails the play over 60 yards up field, eventually taking a shot after great individual skill from Dybala.
Pjanic had previously enjoyed a fine debut outing against Sassuolo on September 10, playing in a role on the left of midfield and getting on the scoresheet. As the FourFourTwo Stats Zone graphic in the tweet below shows, the 26-year-old completed 54 of his 62 pass attempts and his one take-on, much to the pleasure of Juve boss Allegri.
“Pjanic likes more freedom and can roam, so the other two [Mario Lemina and Sami Khedira] must move as a consequence,” the coach told Sky Italia shortly after the final whistle (h/t Football Italia). “It’s good to avoid giving the opposition reference points.”
After the Inter defeat, Allegri would return his new signing to that role on the left and was rewarded with more good performances. According to WhoScored, only Alves made more passes than Pjanic, as he added one assist in a 4-0 win over Cagliari, then scored one goal and laid on another assist in a 45-minute UEFA Champions League outing against Dinamo Zagreb.
Figures from the same source show that he then laid on a staggering six clear scoring opportunities in a 3-0 win against Empoli on October 2. If it is easy to say that opponents like Zagreb, Cagliari, Empoli and even Sassuolo don’t offer intense enough competition, Juve’s second visit to San Siro would bring the best from Pjanic once more.
Juventus would lose again, but their No. 5 did everything he could to help avoid that 1-0 defeat to AC Milan. The video above shows his every touch from that encounter, but the statistics support what unfolded within the 90 minutes, as Pjanic performed well despite the result.
After thinking he had opened the scoring only to see the match officials rule out his set-piece effort, the midfielder continued to give a stellar contribution, as the FourFourTwo Stats Zone graphic in the tweet below highlights.
Solid as ever in his passing, Pjanic created five clear scoring chances, won two tackles and the only aerial duel he contested, as well as making one clearance. Buffon has since told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) that he was “a little upset” that his side didn’t protest the legality of his team-mate’s free-kick more vociferously.
They would bounce back with a 1-0 win away to Olympique Lyonnais, with WhoScored showing that Pjanic again played a vital role in the victory. Two tackles, two interceptions and two chances created—the play often went through him rather than anyone else as Juve ground out another result.
The same source named him man of the match against Sampdoria on October 26, Pjanic weighing in with another goal and an assist to Giorgio Chiellini from a corner. He made two other scoring opportunities, with Allegri telling Sky Italia (h/t Football Italia) that his midfielder was somewhat fatigued against Napoli as a result:
Pjanic worked very hard when defending and I think he was a bit short on fuel, so he was fatigued and has been playing a lot lately. He had a good pass for Gonzalo Higuain in the first half, he has different characteristics to a classic midfielder, but can improve when he’s sharper and less tired.
However, Buffon insisted in his own post-match interview that the team must do more. “If we want to play on a par with Barcelona and Bayern Munich,” the skipper told Sky Italia (h/t Football Italia), “then it is our duty to do better and find another gear.”
Some of that must come from Pjanic. He has been somewhat hesitant to push forward when teamed with Hernanes in midfield, recognising—as most observers do—that the Brazilian is weak defensively.
It is therefore no real surprise that some of Pjanic’s best displays have come when Mario Lemina is alongside him to provide greater security. The Gabon international started the aforementioned matches against Sassuolo, Cagliari and Lyon, but it is the return of Marchisio that should make the difference.
The team looked sharper against Napoli once the Turin native took to the field, but when he lines up next to a fresh-and-ready Pjanic, Allegri and Juventus will finally have the midfield they need to compete at the highest level.
His first four months have not been perfect, but he is delivering and will continue to do so.