Maurizio Sarri’s remit of a regista has to be one of the most demanding positions in world football. A ‘regista’ translates to director in English, an individual who directs and orchestrates the offensive play of the team. It requires a specialist, a player who intrinsically knows the role’s every specific detail. They are tasked with being the side’s sole passing metronome, ensuring it is never thrown off-kilter nor put in state of disorganised chaos. Essentially, they are to be the beating heartbeat for their 10 other teammates on the pitch. Many have tried, few have succeeded. In the past, Sarri’s most revered aide has been Jorginho, the player that followed his countryman from Napoli to Chelsea. But for the beginning of his Juventus reign, Miralem Pjanić was the man handed the daunting, potentially perilous role.
However, in recent weeks, reports suggest Sarri remains unsure about the characteristics of Pjanić in providing the utopian regista he so often endeavours. This perhaps presents an opportunity for someone else within the Juve ranks to step up and take on the mantle.
A growing influence
Though not playing as the deepest midfielder at Juve, Bentancur’s minutes on the pitch have increased notably this season. Under Massimiliano Allegri last term, the Uruguayan started 67.7% of games he featured in, arriving off the bench on 10 occasions. In comparison under Sarri, Bentancur has started little under 80% of Serie A matches he’s been involved in (78.9), coming onto the pitch just 3 times as a substitute.
Generally utilised as an archetypal number 8 within Sarri’s tactics of a 4-3-3 system, Bentancur has recorded six assists in his 19 appearances in Serie A, ranking him sixth in the league. But when it comes to assists per game, he is only behind Luis Alberto, who has 12 assists. Per 90, Bentancur has an assist rate of 0.38, with Alberto no more than a cigarette paper higher, with a metric of 0.40. For comparison’s sake, we can gain a deeper insight into Bentancur’s influence by contrasting his numbers with Ciro Immobile at Lazio. Immobile – one of Serie A’s most prominent players when it comes to making an impact in the final third – has just one more assist than Bentancur. But more pointedly, Immobile holds a significantly lower rate of assist production, despite playing 773 more minutes than the midfielder. Essentially, Immobile has recorded just one more assist for the equivalent of 8.5 matches more.
There is evidence to suggest Bentancur is not only aiding the much-needed balance within a Juventus side packed with flair yet perhaps void of rudimentary discipline but is also taking on additional responsibility too.
Bentancur’s promising audition in the deeper role role came in the 2-0 win over Inter, which earmarked him as a potential solution. Bentancur (1) showcases his defensive nous and reading of the play when out of possession. As the ball is played to Inter’s left wing-back Ashley Young, Bentancur recognises there is space in-behind Juan Cuadrado (2). Since Aaron Ramsey (3) is unable to support from behind the ball, Bentancur starts the recovery run.
A few moments later, Ramsey eventually recognises he’s out of position, and quickly gestures for another Juve player to cover. But due to Bentancur already reading the Inter move, he is close enough to stay with the run of Nicolo Barella.
Upon Barella’s first touch, Bentancur is tight and aggressive after closing down the space and instantly engaging. This results in Barella player facing the touchline and away from goal, destroying the initial threat of space in-behind. Bentancur ends up making the tackle.
Possesses deep-lying hallmarks
This season, Bentancur’s passing success rate suggests there is a touch of guile and technicality to his perceived all-action, energetic style. So if Pjanić were to move on in the summer, and Sarri is unable to be reunited with Jorginho or someone of his ilk, there is categorical proof that Bentancur can provide the ample benefits for the team when in possession. Per 90, he makes 59.24 passes, with an impressive accuracy of 90.97%. In fact, when observing his passing metrics, they show unequivocally that he’d be far better suited to generating attacks and offensive patterns of play from deep. To draw similarities once again to arguably the most proficient playmaker in Italy, Alberto makes fewer passes (56.77) but also with a reduction in success accuracy.
The instance below suggests the natural propensity Bentancur may be able to provide Juventus when playing deep. As Juve recycle the ball around the back whilst under pressure, Bentancur drops in to create a passing angle. Hands outstretched and checking his shoulder, the image clearly shows the Uruguayan is demanding the ball. Note that the check of his shoulder ensures he has time to receive and establish early passing options for himself.
Because of the previous glance before the ball was played, Bentancur recognises he has time and space to receive on the half-turn. The second look-up upon his first touch confirms the picture of his next pass in his head.
Bentancur’s accomplished passing range means he has the confidence in playing a typically risky pass out from the back, successfully. This ultimately results in the single diagonal ball taking five Udinese players out of the equation. Therefore, in just one action, Bentancur’s combination of awareness and technical ability has single-handedly resisted the Udinese press. This results in a 1v1 situation for Gonzalo Higuain.
This season, the analysis shows Bentancur makes 6.02 progressive passes, pushing the ball forward an average distance of 226.08 metres per game. His passing success rate only goes marginally down to 88.57% when he attempts passes over more than a 20m distance.
You could expect his passing data to be even greater, had his appearances been more in his suited deep-lying playmaking role, where Pjanić currently operates in. Instead, his remit is to be one of the two more advanced midfielders, where his area for which to function are congested and being a passing option is not always geared to incessantly receiving the ball.
Considering the expected financial dent transfers will take this summer due to COVID-19, procuring players that have the requisite ability to work how Sarri would want them too, may be prohibitively expensive.
Proficient out of possession
When a manager opts to alter the position of a player and moves them further back, there is a particular dilemma to contend with. The prominent question that always needs to be considered is whether that particular individual can cope with the added defensive responsibility. They would now have to operate in a different area of the pitch, where every decision made is scrutinised and every mistake cutthroat. Therefore, it requires a meticulous and measured thought process that can take time.
But during this inadvertent halt to the Serie A season, Sarri may have already had ample time to consider Bentancur’s aptitude from a defensive standpoint. From a quantifiable perspective, the best way to judge a midfielder’s defensive effectiveness is by analysing and combining their defensive duels and recovery metrics.
Out of possession, there is evidence to suggest Bentancur has the requisite ability to fulfil the traditional regista role. This season, the 22-year-old records 9.04 defensive duels per 90 and wins over half of those, at 53.32%. To understand the relevance, we can look at Sandro Tonali, who has had an eye-catching campaign in a similar role. Although Brescia are out of possession far more than Juve – meaning they are more likely to engage in defensive duels – Tonali averages significantly fewer duels, at just 5.9 per game. Bentancur’s recoveries are much higher too, with 7.26 recoveries compared to Tonali’s 6.15.
This perhaps indicates that by switching the former Boca Juniors’ man into Pjanić’s position, it is likely to provide auxiliary steel to the midfield and a more apt shield for the defence. Per game, Pjanić wins just five defensive duels in his own third, underlining the lack of robustness in front of the back four. With Bentancur employed in a more forward-thinking position so far under Sarri, he is only inferior to Cuadrado for recoveries completed in the final third (13.9).
A case in point below, as soon as Udinese make their first forward pass within their attacking pattern of play, Bentancur is on the front foot and initiates the trigger to press. This instantly prevents the Udinese player from receiving on the half-turn and playing forward.
Bentancur’s combative approach to close down forces the ball back into a more winnable area for Juventus, because of the three Juventus players that are all in close proximity. Bentancur’s forward momentum allows him to carry on the pressure and create a serious opportunity at winning the ball in a viable area of the pitch.
All indications point towards Bentancur being far more suited to be playing deeper. When played as a box-to-box midfielder, he makes little under two dribbles per game (1.97) and scarcely just over one progressive run (1.02). Thereby the notion that Bentancur’s 6ft 1’ height would suit a rangy, languid up and down box-to-box midfielder is a somewhat hazy interpretation.
Instead, he could potentially become an eminent pressing trigger for the team, even from the deep-lying role. This season, Bentancur has proven adept at making successful counter-pressing recoveries, making 3.8 regains per 90. 83.75% of those come in the middle or attacking third. This metric could be a vital aspect to consider for next season, assuming Sarri’s unwavering belief on possession football continues. Having Bentancur initiating the press and urging players further forward to win the ball back higher and quicker, would more than flatter Sarri’s challenging remit of his regista.
In fact, one commonly cited optic in Bentancur’s skill set is his expertise in committing intelligent fouls. Each game he brings a distinct South American spite which is typically innate in many of the top superstars from the continent. In an era that is often viewed as an altogether too soft and gentle one, Bentancur’s attitude to combat offers a refreshing reminder of a niggly, persistent battle-horse, yet still enriched with the unwavering skill required to be a footballer at the top-level.
This can be seen below as Bentancur becomes the direct instigator of Sarri’s insistence on possession-based football; a key feature in Juventus’ shape without the ball is to regain it as far up and as quickly as possible. With the front three all pushing high, Bentancur elects to squeeze, condensing the space for which Inter can play out.
As Inter attempt to play through the thirds, the ball is passed into midfield. But before the pass is received, Bentancur is already on the front foot and looking to apply immediate engagement.
The instance below perhaps encapsulates how the role of a deep-lying midfielder has evolved in recent years. Not just wholly responsible for shielding the back four, they are now tasked with making higher and braver tackles, being at the forefront of their side’s aggression when closing down. Here, Bentancur makes an assertive tackle and breaks up Inter’s rhythmic possession.
Given the midfielder’s metrics both in and out of possession, there is a sufficient case to propose Maurizio Sarri bedding in Bentancur into the role until the end of the season. Not only could this maximise the 22-year-old’s influence, but it may also add another wrinkle to Juventus’ occasionally stale game. It would also fashion a caveat to those of whom maintain that ‘Sarriball’ is predictable and tenuous. Rather, it would give the side a much sought-after boost, adding another dimension to both defence and attack.
Many will claim Sarri is a stern taskmaster and may only ever be content if he was to have a replica Andrea Pirlo that played against England in 2012. But considering the substantial evidence that points towards Bentancur having the intrinsic dexterity to be a successful deep-lying midfielder in the modern game, the risk may be worth taking.
And as Juventus prepare to enter the back-end of the Serie A season with their Scudetto silverware and monopoly of Italian football under siege, pulling off an unlike-Sarri decision may just prove to be genius in the end.