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The Quiet Evolution of Rodrigo Bentancur

Image: Nicolò Campo, Getty Images

People never really talk about Rodrigo Bentancur. And that includes us at Scouted Football. It does feel like he has been around forever, but he is only 22. Quietly, the midfielder is putting together an extremely impressive season, and is unquestionably now Juventus’ most important midfielder.

Since arriving from Boca Juniors, in a move that saw Carlos Tévez head in the opposite direction, Bentancur has showed his quality in defensive phases. While he has always been a little reckless in terms of bookings, his defensive attributes have allowed him to at least be relied upon as a safe option, despite being just 20 years old upon his arrival in Turin three years ago this summer.

Typically, Bentancur plays on the right side of a three-man midfield, bustling up and down the pitch, keeping everything very simple. His primary objective has generally revolved around breaking up play, fouling cynically when required, and being the nominal muscle in a midfield unit that has lacked such a skillset since the peak days of Arturo Vidal. Under former coach Massimiliano Allegri, he functioned as a water carrier, funneling the ball wide or toward Miralem Pjanić, who fulfilled much of the creative work.

Some lackadaisical moments in possession made Allegri's interpretation of him somewhat understandable, but Bentancur returned this summer a mch more rounded player. Part of the credit should go to Maurizio Sarri, who has invested a lot of faith in the 22-year-old to be a key cog in every phase of play. Although this is partly due to the complete lack of midfield options at his disposal, Sarri has tinkered with Bentancur’s role, giving him more freedom to venture forward and participate in the attacking phase. Although slightly skewed since he now takes the occasional corner, his shot assists per 90 minutes have doubled from 0.95 to 1.9 this season, and his xG Assisted per 90 is up from 0.06 to 0.18. Impressively, this has been done without any drop off to his underlying defensive numbers; which, by the way, are excellent.

This statistical radar and set of percentile rankings from Statsbomb’s Flavio Fusi highlights just how dominant Bentancur is, and hs been, this season in Serie A.

Credit: StatsBomb

From this, we can see that he ranks in the 95th percentile for pressure regains, in the 87th percentile for pressures, in the 96th percentile for possession-adjusted tackles, and in the 92nd percentile for possession-adjusted interceptions. Combine that with being in the 90th percentile for xG Assisted per 90 and 83rd percentile for deep progressions. Monstrous.

Sarri is now coming to grips with how to best utilise Bentancur. In Juventus’ last match in Serie A before the league’s postponement, he slotted into the role normally played by Pjanić and was fantastic. While he obviously does not possess the same passing qualities as the Bosnian, Bentancur seemed to balance out the team from his position at the base of midfield, affording the likes of Blaise Matuidi, and Aaron Ramsey in particular, to attack further up the pitch.

Bentancur's work rate is astounding. He's not super quick, but his first, second, third and fourth efforts are crucial in stabilizing Juve through the middle of the park. This box-to-box effort, clipped beneath, is a great example; pressing outside the edge of the attacking penalty area, he pressures three times and then sprints back to block off Romelu Lukaku from wheeling onto his favoured left-foot.

His defensive positioning is extremely clever. Notice him hold his run slightly to block the passing lane before pressuring Lautaro Martínez to play the ball out wide.

But the passing range is improving rapidly, too. This cross-field ball in the lead up to Juventus’ second goal was crisp and well-weighted, accessing an isolated attacker.

This impressive outlet pass also highlights the increased range of passing that Bentancur is developing. Juventus fans will recall this style of outlet pass as a trademark of the synergy that Andrea Pirlo and Stephan Lichtsteiner developed at the club a few years ago.

But, more than anything, the most important development is his willingness to play this pass.

Not too long ago, Bentancur would have looked to play that pass wide to Douglas Costa. Instead, he sparks a dangerous attack centrally with three team-mates parked between Inter’s midfield and defensive lines.

Miralem Pjanić has been a key fixture of Juventus’ midfield in his regista role, but is it time for Sarri to pass the baton onto Bentancur? Giving control of the midfield to the Uruguayan certainly shores up the defensive woes that have crept into the team under their new coach this season, but Sarri’s system is also reliant on a playmaker that is more comfortable dictating the tempo of matches than Bentancur.

Perhaps, with Pjanić turning 30 in April, Sarri will head down the Bentancur route. With his decision to play him ahead of Pjanić against Inter, it certainly seems as though Sarri favours the high pressure, high intensity style of Bentancur against stronger teams. Quietly, the 22-year-old has slipped under the radar turned into one of the best young players around, yet very few have noticed. That should change.

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