Sami Khedira's versatility, talent key to Juventus success against AC Milan
"Despite the gap in points there has been in recent seasons, games between Juventus and Milan have always been close," Massimiliano Allegri explained at a recent news conference.
Indeed, Milan's youthful exuberance combined with Vincenzo Montella's tactical intelligence has created a team that has navigated tough fixtures well, beating Juventus twice and even managing to win the Supercoppa trophy this season. A side that play to their strengths and mask their weaknesses well, Milan like to take risks and believe in their collective energy and talent to make the difference.
On Friday evening, Juventus will face the Rossoneri for the fourth time this season and all anyone can discuss is which formation they will play. Three games played against Milan, three formations deployed, and yet the only one that unleashed the true talents of this Bianconeri side was the 4-2-3-1 that resulted in a 2-1 win in the Coppa Italia.
A shape that exploits the pace of Juan Cuadrado, that has turned Mario Mandzukic into the world's greatest team player and strengthened the relationship between Paulo Dybala Gonzalo Higuain, few have mentioned the resurgence of a certain Sami Khedira.
The German has long been referred to as "injury prone" and in physical decline after suffering so many traumas in recent years. However, this season, only Higuain has played more minutes for Juventus than the former Real Madrid midfielder.
Tactically versatile and one who has been taught to consistently seek progression, Khedira is turning in beautifully balanced performances that have enhanced Juve's interpretation of their new shape. Combining the offensive skills he learnt at Stuttgart with the tactical intelligence he exhibited at Real Madrid, Khedira is back to playing his best football.
A constant presence, Khedira has rediscovered the form that once earned him Jose Mourinho's effusive praise. Not only does his understanding of the game ensure the side is never top heavy but he helps knit the defence and attack together, allowing Miralem Pjanic the freedom to create in much the same way he helped Xabi Alonso.
Composed on the ball, he wins back possession yet rarely fouls his opponent. His injury problems behind him, the player is back to happily covering ground, tracking back to produce important tackles as well as exploiting the gaps in the final third to elevate the side's overall quality of attacking play through the middle.
His experience has allowed him to understand when to run forward and when to hold his position. Calm and an accurate passer, he knows how to set the rhythm of a game. "Khedira is good at dictating the tempo, as if it needs to be 30km/h he goes at 31, if it has to be 50km/h he goes at 51," explained Allegri.
Having always been hailed for his stamina and intelligence, few have rightly pointed out how versatile Khedira truly is. Against Barcelona, Mourinho once deployed the German behind Karim Benzema as an almost trequartista to initiate a pressing game at the very top, while at Stuttgart he was often tasked with making penetrative runs through the middle to give another option in attack.
At Juve, he performed excellently in a midfield three where he and Paul Pogba attacked the space and provided depth. With Dybala dropping deeper he, Khedira and Pogba rotated possession beautifully, exploiting openings and offering passing outlets to build play between the lines.
Now back to playing in a midfield two, Khedira sets the tempo of the game and facilitates the transitions while ensuring balance. He is back to managing the game, and Allegri is thrilled to have his talents in his team.
Set to play against Milan, Khedira will need to help Juventus show why experience can prove to be the difference. Cynical ruthlessness made the difference for Barcelona when they astonishingly defeated PSG to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League on Wednesday and the same will help Juventus continue their winning streak against Milan.
With Cuadrado suspended, Juventus will either play with Dani Alves or Marko Pjaca in Cuadrado's place in a 4-2-3-1 or play with an extra man in midfield in a 4-3-1-2 which would see Claudio Marchisio return to the starting lineup.
Whatever formation is chosen, Juventus must prove that their poor performance against Udinese was a one off and that normal service will resume.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.