By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
Football has never been such a squad game as it is in the modern era. Whereas in bygone years clubs would often go a whole season without using more than 18 to 20 players in total, the combination of greater demands on the body and an increased focus on rotation of key men has led to fewer and fewer players being ever-present during any single campaign.
Some, though, remain as irreplaceable as ever, and in the case of Juventus’ Giorgio Chiellini, there is seemingly no option that can even come close to giving the Bianconeri the effectiveness and reliability that they get from the Italy international defender. So much so, his current lay-off with a calf muscle tear has impacted greatly on the club’s season, and his absence from Tuesday night's Champions League first leg clash represents perhaps the Bhoys' greatest hopes of progressing to the quarter-finals.
Since the former Livorno man sustained the injury in training in December, the Old Lady have gone through their poorest run of form of the campaign, dropping valuable points in their attempted title defence and being eliminated from the Coppa Italia as a result. And in many of those matches, there have been clear issues down the Juve left due to their difficulties in replacing their dependable No.3.
Whether they have turned to Andrea Barzagli, Martin Caceres or Federico Peluso in their search for a replacement on the left of the back three during his absences this term, Antonio Conte and his staff have remained clueless as to how to significantly patch up their side defensively. Andrea Pirlo may be their creative leader, Gianluigi Buffon their iconic shot-stopper and Arturo Vidal the side’s beating heart, but nobody has proven as important to the cause as Chiellini.
In the time-honoured tradition that you ‘don’t know what you've got til it’s gone’, Juve fans have come to realise over the past couple of months just how much Chiellini’s role impacts on the rest of the Bianconeri’s gameplan.
|THE CHIELLINI FACTOR | How Juve have coped without their rock
|WITH CHIELLINI||WITHOUT CHIELLINI|
|Goals scored per game||2.32||1.69|
|Goals conceded per game||0.63||0.88|
|Average possession %||54.2||56.4|
A record of 14 goals conceded in 16 matches without their defensive leader may not sound too bad, but compare that with just 12 in 19 when he has been available and you see a marked difference. Add to that the fact Juve score fewer when he is not playing, and you get a loss ratio of 18.75% in his absence compared to 5.26% when he is present.
But why would Chiellini’s presence or lack thereof have an impact on their goalscoring? Well that can be answered in part with numbers, but there is also evidence to be gained with the naked eye.
Juve have enjoyed more possession when Chiellini has not played this season (56.4% against 54.2%), yet they have been much less successful. That is because their time on the ball tends to come much deeper without Chiellini in the side, brought about by a greater collective responsibility in defence, meaning that the dominance of territory which came earlier in the season is not so evident at the moment. The need to hold onto possession has become more pressing, such is the nature of their defensive structure when they lose the ball.
Chiellini’s game is about dominating his territory, whether that be in the air or on the ground. He takes ownership of the left side of the pitch in the defensive half. Theoretically, a quarter of the pitch is his to patrol. And he does so with real authority, artistry and vigour, making the wing-back role of Kwadwo Asamoah, who is not a natural defender, so much easier to negotiate. His sense of responsibility to the cause is almost unmatched in the modern game, making him one of the game’s true warriors.
Yet without him, there have been moments of clear weakness. Barzagli and Caceres have each had their limitations exposed by the request for them to play on the left side, even when they have been boosted by the employment of a more natural defender to their left in the absence of Asamoah due to the Africa Cup of Nations.
Moreover, Peluso has come in and immediately exemplified the difference between Chiellini and the rest of Serie A’s left-sided defenders. The 29-year-old was considered Italian football’s best alternative to ‘Chiello’ before his move to Turin, yet he has quickly been exposed as a poor replacement in the channel. On his debut alone, he was shown up twice by Mauro Icardi as Sampdoria won at Juventus Stadium, and positionally he has looked no better when called upon since.
If Celtic are to make the most of Chiellini's absence, it is not just by attacking the Juve left that they could succeed either. Without his leadership and confidence, the rest of the defensive line has looked largely less assured. The Hoops can count themselves fortunate that such a rock is missing from the Bianconeri line-up, and a failure to cash in could well leave them counting the cost when the teams meet again in Turin in three weeks time.
The sooner Chiellini returns to the Juventus back line, the better it will clearly be for the Scudetto holders, and with his comeback scheduled before the end of the month, it is vital that he is available for the remainder of the club’s European campaign thereafter if they are to have any hope of going deep in the Champions League. And if Celtic can take advantage in the meantime, then Juve may well still be left counting the cost.