How will Cristiano Ronaldo fit into Maurizio Sarri's Juventus?
The Old Lady is hungry for a Champions League title, having displayed their dominance in Italy, it's been over 23 years since they last held the Ol' Big Ears. Last season seemed to be theirs for the taking till their campaign was pushed off a cliff by the swashbuckling boys at Ajax, one of who is now Juve's crown jewel in defence.
Juve had brought in the Champions League's all-time greatest hitman and possibly thought it was going to be their key to the title. However, they looked shellshocked when Ajax beat them in their own backyard. As it unfolded, it was the last Juventus campaign they would have under Massimiliano Allegri.
Neither Allegri nor the Club Chairman Andrea Agnelli clarified why the former boss left the club after five trophy-laden years in charge, except to say that it was better to leave on a high than to drag it out. You would expect though, that winning the Champions League is on their mind.
A few leagues away, a certain Maurizio Sarri caught their eye as he tried to get his Chelsea side to play football his way. By the end of his decent league season, one good cup run, and his first-ever major honour later, it was already time to bid goodbye. Italy called and Sarri answered.
Sarriball & Cristiano Ronaldo's evolution
With his arrival at Juventus, you can be sure that he's bringing along his style of football along with him. All the quick passing from the back, triangles in midfield, and interchanging further up the field is coming to Turin. Barring a few potential barriers to this, the Italian giants seem to have the team conducive to Sarri's style of play.
One key tenet of Sarri's sides is, and always has been hardworking wingers who track back and tuck in alongside midfielders so the team can then employ a press high up the pitch. At Chelsea, Sarri believed that Eden Hazard's less than enthusiastic approach to defence meant that the team would be weaker in defence with him playing on the wing. He also intended for him to focus his considerable talents in attack rather than track back. This meant playing Hazard through the centre on a number of occasions and it could be a likely route for Sarri when fielding Ronaldo.
We've all witnessed Ronaldo's gradual evolution to a more central player, literally gravitating towards the middle. The Portuguese striker does his best work coming in from either wing to terrorise defences and cut through all pressure to more often than not, find the back of the net. This works well for Sarri, in attack. In defence, however, he'll have to employ a number 9 willing to do the work that Ronaldo may not.
Ronaldo thrives playing with a striker who is adept at bringing the wingers into play. He linked up well with Higuain at Real Madrid, but Dybala playing a false 9 may also be the answer for Sarri. As we saw with Hazard to Chelsea and Mertens at Napoli, it may be the preferred option for the new Juve boss.
A more interesting approach may be a two striker system that Sarri employed in his early days at Empoli.
The 4-3-1-2 will see Ronaldo move to a more central starting position and allow for the close positioning centrally that Sarri likes for quick interchanges in the final third. The full-backs will push up and stretch the play by providing options on the wings.
Given the attributes Ronaldo has, he can fit into either of these systems with little to no variation of his natural game.
Sarri's comments & pre-season
Speaking during pre-season, with particular focus on Ronaldo, the Italian manager indicated that he would start off with Ronaldo most probably on the left, at least during tour, but also added that the striker could "play anywhere".
Sarri has been true to his word so far, playing the high-profile forward on the left in attack. The defensive transitions have been interesting to watch, and though perhaps not the final product, it looks like Juventus are going to let Ronaldo hang up top and let him be the quick out ball for them in defence while the rest of the team plugs holes behind him.
Asked about his tactics in a press conference, Sarri reiterated that Ronaldo would be their most important player and that he would have more or less a free role to go where he wants while the other 10 players organise defensively.
Essentially, it would mean Sarri relying on Ronaldo's experience to sense when he needs to contribute defensively for the team and alternate that with resting up and providing the team with a potential quick break when the possession turns over.
So, where will Ronaldo play?
Keep an eye out for the top left quarter on any heatmap you see for Ronaldo this season as he's most likely going to be occupying that area the most under Sarri. His forays centrally will also become an important fixture of this Juventus side, and if Sarri can set this team up to play those quick passes in midfield, we're going to see Ronaldo having a field day in front of goal this season.