Matthijs de Ligt and Paulo Dybala’s Importance to Juventus Reinforced by Milan Defeat

Paulo Dybala (centre) and Matthijs de Ligt (R) both missed out on Juventus’ clash with Milan through suspension | MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo bounced Juventus into a 2-0 lead inside ten second half minutes at San Siro, taking the Turin giants ten points clear at the top of Serie A after second-placed Lazio’s surprise slip up against Lecce.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulled one back for Milan with a 62nd-minute penalty and by the time the clock had ticked over to 68, the Rossoneri were in the lead.

Ante Rebic continued his fine form to make it 4-2 and consign a bemused Juventus to their first league defeat since Serie A returned. Aside from the notable lack of composure during – what Maurizio Sarri described as – the ‘blackout’, Juventus were without two of their most crucial players through suspension: Matthijs de Ligt and Paulo Dybala.

Only Leonardo Bonucci has made more appearances for the Old Lady than Dybala this season while De Ligt has established himself as first-choice in the centre-back slot next to his Italian teammate.

As the press offered up their own explanations for Juve’s collapse on Tuesday evening, Sarri was keen to distance himself from the straightforward excuses, telling the Gazzetta dello Sport: “If it was because of Lazio’s result, we wouldn’t have played for the first 60 minutes at a very high level.

“If it was because of De Ligt’s absence, it couldn’t have been possible that Milan had their first shot on goal after 62 minutes. Therefore these are all things we bring up to justify a ‘blackout’ that is hard to understand.”

Sarri looks on as his side falls to just their fourth league defeat of the season | MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images

The idea of trying to underplay the importance of De Ligt and Dybala – which the Italian press have already termed ‘the dependence on the D factor’ – started before kick-off. Sarri was keen to stress that there would be ‘no drama’ in the pair’s absence and ‘there are strong players at their posts’.

There emphatically was a healthy dollop of drama and the replacements for ‘the D factor’ were less than convincing.

Gonzalo Higuaín, in his first start since Italian football returned in June, was understandably sluggish and faded as the game wore on, seemingly exhausted when his night ended after 70 minutes. But Juve netted two goals – the first a sensational solo run from Adrien Rabiot into space created Higuaín’s clever run.

Juventus – a side who last conceded four times in the 2017 Champions League final – should not need five goals to win a game.

In De Ligt’s place Sarri turned to Daniele Rugani – once the toast of Italian football after two impressive seasons with Empoli, under the stewardship of Sarri. However, the 25-year-old made just his fourth Serie A appearance of the season against Milan and was at fault for the game winning third goal, looking woefully short of confidence throughout.

Some may leap to the Italian’s defence with the reasoning that this was Rugani’s first game since testing positive for COVID-19 back in March. His teammate Dybala also contracted the virus and while the side weren’t short of goals in his absence, the Argentine has been in scintillating form since the restart.

Paulo DybalaPaulo Dybala
Paulo Dybala has 11 goals and five Serie A assists this season | Chris Ricco/Getty Images

Starting nominally as the team’s central striker, Dybala has four goals in four league games since football’s return, popping up across the pitch, allowing Ronaldo to drift towards the middle. After starting the season seemingly on the brink of a move away, Juventus are now in talks to extend the 26-year-old’s deal beyond the current expiration date of 2022.

De Ligt, who arrived from Ajax in the summer for £77m, has also enjoyed a significant change in fortunes in the second half of the season. At the start of the campaign there appeared to be some sort of magnetic attraction between the ball and De Ligt’s outstretched hand – the Dutchman has conceded three penalties in Serie A this season, no player has been at fault for more.

Yet, as his understanding of Italian has improved, so have his performances. With Giorgio Chiellini’s season hampered by injury, Bonucci has marshalled the defence alongside De Ligt for the majority of the campaign, guiding the 20-year-old through matches at times.

Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de LigtLeonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt
De Ligt and Bonucci have been Sarri’s first-choice centre-back pairing this season | Silvia Lore/Getty Images

However, with his regular partner sidelined, it was Bonucci who conceded a penalty for handball against Milan, as the team’s captain on the night looked as nervy as Rugani.

The loss of players as talented as De Ligt and Dybala would be a significant blow for any side, but their absence is not the sole cause for Juve’s ‘blackout’. Despite their lead at the top of the table, the Bianconeri have lacked fluidity for much of the season even with ‘the D factor’ in place.

Yet, taking them out of the side is hardly going to aid their struggles and, as much as Sarri will protest, the 61-year-old can rest a lot easier knowing they will both be back for Juve’s next game. And not too soon, with a daunting visit from high-flying Atalanta on the horizon.