Adrien Rabiot had been linked with several of Europe’s leading clubs when, in July 2019, he agreed to join Juventus from Paris Saint-Germain, signing a five-year contract to move to Serie A after becoming a free agent at the age of 24. Given the presence of Aaron Ramsey, Weston McKennie, Arthur, Federico Bernardeschi and others, there is perhaps greater competition for selection at Juventus than for any other midfield in the world, even after the departures of Blaise Matuidi, Emre Can and Miralem Pjanic.
In Andrea Pirlo, Rabiot has a manager who was once the calibre of midfielder he aspires to be, and he will hope to improve in the way Fernandinho did under fellow midfielder Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. “He’s a former great midfielder,” the France midfielder said. “On the principles of the game and what he wants to put in place, it suits me, so of course, that can help me improve. A coach like Pirlo, for me as a midfielder, it’s perfect. Carlo Ancelotti made me go up to the first team (at PSG but) I spent only six months with him.”
In Paris, Rabiot was largely selected as a central midfielder, but he is also comfortable in a defensive role, whether as the single pivot or as one half of the double pivot at the base of midfield. He is most suited to playing in a three as a deep-lying playmaker responsible for progressing play through the thirds, and favours adopting positions in the inside channel, providing a passing link between central defenders and wide players. Should opponents attempt to counter at a time when a full-back is out of position, Rabiot’s deeper positioning means he is capable of providing cover and delaying attacks while teammates recover their positions.
He is most comfortable in a deeper position because of the increased time he is given to receive possession and then execute his next move. His forward movements continue to improve and, as is consistent with midfielders playing under Maurizio Sarri, Juve’s manager throughout 2019/20, he has started to make penetrative runs off the ball (below) to receive a line-breaking pass, draw an opponent out of position and create space for a teammate, or to link with those in attack.
His ability to protect the ball while under pressure is a particular strength. Rabiot uses his arms and core to resist opponents and create an opportunity to pass, and that physicality often masks the extent to which his technique can suffer while under pressure. His occasionally poor body positioning and awareness means there are times he cheaply loses the ball.
His defensive qualities also help him in his deeper role. Rabiot’s strength makes him capable of moving opponents off the ball and dispossessing them, or of disrupting their attempts to attack or progress play. He is similarly effective when pressing, when he regularly detects the angle required to prevent forward runs or passes, or to reduce the spaces his opponent could otherwise use.
Role at Juventus
In the 4-2-4 and 4-2-3-1 shapes so far favoured by Pirlo, Rabiot consistently features as one of their two deep-lying midfielders. His qualities on the ball mean that his role is to receive and then advance possession when they are building their attacks. Both Rabiot and the central midfielder alongside him seek to position themselves in the half-spaces when Juve build from the back, so that those in central defence can play diagonal passes to them. A consistent route of progressing possession is to complement these diagonal passes with a third-man run on the blindside of an opponent.
If those in central defence instead adopt wider starting positions, Rabiot and his midfield partner take up narrow positions to encourage diagonal passes to the full-backs on the outside, and then offer blindside movements in an attempt to receive the subsequent pass. The positioning of the talented Paulo Dybala is also influenced; if Juve’s midfield two are wider, he will withdraw from the final third to provide an additional option in midfield; if they are narrow, he instead moves into a wider position.
Rabiot operates from a deeper and more central position when Juve build with a 3-2-5. Via Danilo moving from left-back to contribute to the formation of a back three and Juan Cuadrado advancing from right-back to become their right-sided forward, Rabiot becomes one of the two midfielders offering security against counters, and a point through which to recycle and switch play.
When they are defending, Rabiot remains central in their 4-4-2. When doing so in a mid-block against opponents with three central midfielders, he relies on the forwards in front of him screening passes to the deepest of that midfield three, and he takes one of the other two. His primary responsibility, regardless, is to ensure that Juve remain compact, and to negate attempted penetrations through the centre of the pitch. He impresses in moving in response to his teammates’ positioning, with the level of pressure he applies to the ball and (above) when protecting the ball in the event of a regain.