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One of the overlooked parts of Antonio Conte’s hugely successful Juventus tenure was that he won three consecutive Serie A titles without a recognised left-back in his squad. During his three-year reign in Turin, the current Chelsea boss recorded an undefeated season, a Serie A record 102-point tally while also reaching the Champions League quarterfinals and Europa League semifinals.
Even putting aside everything else, he achieved those feats while playing Kwadwo Asamoah (who did remarkably well), Federico Peluso and Simone Pepe on the left flank, occasionally even using Simone Padoin there. Immediately after Conte quit the club, Juventus signed Patrice Evra from Manchester United and the team unsurprisingly looked much more well-balanced with someone naturally capable of filling that role.
The Frenchman helped the Old Lady win only the third league-and-cup double in their history, while they also reached the Champions League Final for the first time since 2003.
Not content with that, they then handed FC Porto €26 million for Brazil international Alex Sandro, a player who brought a much more dynamic approach to the role than the ageing “Uncle Pat.”
As 2015/16 progressed, the two men shared the left-back slot, with coach Max Allegri easing Sandro slowly into the side. In many games he still relied upon Evra’s experience and savvy, but by the time the current campaign began it seemed the Brazilian was unquestionably and undeniably the first choice.
Watching him in action it is easy to see why and, as with many of his compatriots, the first thing you notice is his ability going forward. Strong and powerful in possession, he possesses a top speed that few opponents can match, but he is also able to hold off any marker who gets close enough to challenge him for the ball.
Sandro in full flight is a joy to behold, like a taller version of the great Roberto Carlos (minus the obsession to repeatedly attempt to repeat the one good free kick he ever struck). Like the former Real Madrid man he often looks to get to the touchline and drill a dangerous cross low into the area, looking for either a team-mate or a defender to put it into the net. It was a tactic that bore fruit against Inter back in September, the 25 year old laying on a simple goal for Stephan Lichtsteiner (see video below).
66′ Lichtsteiner pic.twitter.com/NzmBFXCkpa
— Futbol Sound (@SoundFutbol) September 18, 2016
It is no surprise to regular watchers of Juventus that only Miralem Pjanić equals the number of chances Sandro has created (36). After 18 games, he has completed more dribbles (32) than any of his team-mates, but the fact he has also completed more total passes (865) is a shocking statistic. Overall, he has averaged 48.1 attempts per game, completing 84% of them, ensuring his side retain the ball while continually pressing forward to make that advantage tell.
Yet the most important thing is that Sandro is also a superb defender. Capable of patrolling the flank on his own as a wing-back in the 3-5-2 formation that has become a Juventus hallmark, he is just as comfortable — perhaps even more so — in a four-man backline. While that gives him more freedom to run from deep and overlap the midfielder ahead of him, it also requires him to diligently take up the right position when Juve lose the ball.
That is something else he has proven fully capable of, grasping the nuances of Allegri’s formation and playing in a league that places immense tactical demands on its players. That is clearly most true of defenders in Serie A, but Sandro has never struggled, and he has slotted into the vaunted Bianconeri rearguard seamlessly.
His total of 44 tackles leads all Juventus players by a staggering 21, while his 40 interceptions is yet another team high. Rarely, if ever, caught out of position, Sandro has been good enough in the air not to get bullied at the far post by strikers who make that deep run. An underrated yet valuable skill for a full-back hoping to make an impact at the highest level.
“The most important thing for any player is getting a consistent run in the team,” Sandro told Sky Italia last month. “I’m doing that at the moment and I’m delighted, I give my all every day to improve my game wherever possible. My goal is to learn something new about my position every game.”
Already an exceptional player when he arrived in Turin, he has been true to those words and improved exponentially in the eighteen months since making that switch. Unsurprisingly, his form has seen Conte and Chelsea linked with a move for him now the January transfer window has opened.
That could prove hugely difficult however, with Sandro under contract until 2020 and Juventus preparing to offer a one-year extension to that deal, while also raising his wages from €2.8million to €3.5million per season. They do so not only to ward off the interest of the Premier League leaders, but also to reward the performances of the Brazilian who has now blossomed into one of the finest exponents of his role.
“He’s one of the top three left-backs in the world,” Allegri remarked back in November, but went on to say he believes Alex Sandro “can still improve.” That would be a frightening proposition for those preparing to face Juventus, but would undoubtedly see the Old Lady fielding even more offers for their Brazilian gem.