Am I like Trezeguet? Let’s be serious…He wrote history for this club, I still have to take the pen in my hand. I am enjoying the moment, that’s all. – Alessandro Matri
When Alessandro Matri joined Juventus during winter transfer window of 2011, the news met a mixed reaction from fans. To some, it was a panic buy after the club missed out on heavily linked Giampaolo Pazzini. Others cringed at Matri’s price tag should Juve exercised the right to buy. Pazzini’s eventual transfer to rivals Inter added more salt to the injury. Pazzini was a more proven striker in Serie A while Matri’s record of 42 goals in 124 matches for Cagliari was hardly earth shattering.
Matri’s debut didn’t go well for Juventus as Delneri’s team slumped to a 2-1 loss against Palermo. The match was almost over in first 20 minutes as the Sicilians raced to a 2-0 lead. Matri was invisible for most of the match but could have earned a penalty in second half when he was brought down by Mattia Cassani. He quickly bounced back with two well taken goals against his old side Cagliari – keeping it classy by refusing to celebrate. Things got even better in the next outing, his first derby D’Italia when his goal eventually proved to be the winning goal and also one of the few delightful moments for the Juventini in a forgettable season. More goals followed as he finished the season with 9 goals in 15 matches – joint top scorer for the Bianconeri with Quagliarella but with a better strike-rate..
Among the players whose loans Beppe Marotta and Co. chose to extend, Matri’s was most anticipated and few Juve fans had doubts that he would not join Antonio Conte’s team. After having a good pre-season Matri was expected to start regularly but he was benched, somewhat surprisingly, as the coach preferred Mirko Vucinic as a lone striker. After a string of games where Juventus often looked toothless upfront, he was brought back in the first team against Genoa. Matri’s record of 5 goals and 3 assists since that game has helped Juventus string their best unbeaten streak in almost one and half decade. In Matri, Juventus finally have a striker who can finish clinically – someone in the David Trezeguet mold.
An Important Player for Conte’s Team
At 6 feet, Matri is not the towering center-forward who smothers defenders with his strength; neither is he a fleet footed gazelle who outruns his markers. He isn’t the most skillful striker around. Instead, Matri relies on his off the ball movement, instinct and positioning to score his goals. He uses his strengths to suitably cover his other deficiencies. At this point of time it might be an overstatement but it can be remarked that no other Italian striker since Filippo Inzaghi has had instinct and positioning as good as Matri’s.
Matri’s first goal for Juventus in Turin, in last season’s Derby D’Italia is an example of how good his positioning is. With Sorensen’s cross dipping in he sneaked past Cordoba but managed to stay onside before heading the ball in. The first of his two goals against Genoa this season was one which would have made Super Pippo proud – Marchisio’s long ranger was heading towards the goal but the Genoa ‘keeper had it covered. Matri applied the slightest deflection to the ball with his toe and it completely wrong footed Frey. In the 2-2 draw with Cesena last season he once again showed his poacher’s instinct to score Juve’s second goal when he somehow managed to connect an awkward header after Del Piero’s shot rebounded off the post.
The Milan Primavera product may not be a particularly speedy player but he has a burst of pace which is one of his most lethal weapons. There are times when he plays on the shoulder of his marker, anticipates a pass from one of his team mates and then beats his man with a sudden acceleration. One of the best examples of such a run from Matri is his goal against AS Roma last season. Matri expertly beat Roma’s offside trap to latch on to Fabio Grosso’s pass to score a lively individual goal. Another telling example of Matri’s pace was the build-up for Vucinic’s goal against Inter few months back. Matri starts the move by passing towards Lichtsteiner. When he starts the move he is outside the Inter box – he rapidly moves past the Nerazzuri defence to meet the Swiss’ cross and takes a shot. Vucinic takes advantage after Inter custodian saves Matri’s shot to put Juve 1-0 up.
Vucinic-Matri-Pepe, a potent trident for Juve
Matri’s mobility upfront has opened up new vistas for Antonio Conte tactics. In a 4-3-3, Vucinic, Matri and Simone Pepe form an extremely fluid trident by interchanging positions rapidly. While Vucinic cuts back from the left wing, Matri and Pepe frequently switch positions amongst themselves. This has a two- fold effect. Matri pulls out his markers (usually central defenders) out of position by drifting out creating space for Pepe, who moves into goal scoring positions almost unnoticed. This has resulted in the tireless ex-Udinese winger reaping a rich reward in terms of goals in last one month. Matri also drifts out towards the left wing occasionally as this goal against Lazio shows. Vucinic releases him with a juicy long pass on the left flank and Matri finds Simone Pepe (making one of his fly-under-the radar runs) for the only goal of the match.
Since joining Juventus Matri has played with a number of partners up front and he seems to develop a good mutual understanding quickly. He combined well with Del Piero last season despite rest of the team going through a nightmarish period. Take the goals he scored against Cesena and Chievo last season – two very similar goals. With Del Piero in possession, Matri begins his diagonal run across the goal. Juve’s all-time top scorer releases the ball at a perfect moment, allowing Matri to score from a difficult angle. Matri’s combination with Mirko Vucinic left a lot to be desired in beginning of the season but things have changed in last few matches. A lot of Juventus fans were eager to see the effects Matri would have when paired up with Fabio Quagliarella. This is yet to happen this season regularly with Antonio Conte preferring the Montenegrin ahead of the ex-Napoli striker.
Matri’s understanding with the Juventus’ ‘MVP’ midfield has also borne rich fruits so far. A delicate dummy from Pirlo led to a goal for Matri against Genoa while he returned the favour to Marchisio aginst Palermo with a dummy of his own. Under Antonio Conte Matri’s ability to create opportunities for his team mates has certainly improved.
The Way Ahead…
Another feature of Matri’s play is both his strength as well as his weakness. When Matri is in goal scoring positions he often chooses to take a first time shot or a volley, rather than taking an extra touch. He often manages to score goals from efforts like these purely based on his instinct. This season he has scored goals against Fiorentina, Palermo (from an excellent Lichtsteiner assist) and Genoa with first time shots and had a particularly exceptional first time volley against Napoli chalked off. However, there are times when he misses the target because of pulling the trigger too soon. In his Juventus career Matri has so far scored 15 goals from 60 shots on goal – not an alarming stat by any means but certainly there is a room for improvement.
It might be too early to expect Matri to fill up Trezegol’s boots. The much maligned Amauri had a brilliant start to his Juve career before setting new standards in missing goal scoring chances. Matri’s style of play does mean that he will be less prone to being a failure like Amauri but only future knows the answer to this question. He has certainly made a booming start to his career in the black and white jersey – scoring 15 times in 27 matches and scoring/assisting against the likes of Roma, Lazio, Inter and Napoli. He also seems to be a well-liked footballer on and off the pitch, staying away from controversy and saying the right words in interviews.
It will be interesting to see how he shrugs off a lean patch of form and subsequent fan pressure – something he is yet to face in a big club like Juventus (and one certainly hopes he doesn’t!). There have been matches where he was anonymous in first half but came back strongly in the second and made important contributions. Matri’s start has been encouraging and Juventus fans would be hoping that he continues his goal scoring form to become an important player in the new Juventus as well as the national team.