It’s fair to say both Felipe Melo and Alberto Aquilani had seasons to forget in 2009/2010. This campaign, however, has seen the pair justify their lavish price tags by coming together at Juventus to create one of the most effective central midfield partnerships in Serie A with their blend of creative contribution and defensive security.
Admired for their extraordinary talent, it was surprising how badly the duo performed for their respective clubs last season. Having just completed a successful season at Fiorentina in 2008/2009, Melo arrived to an overly ambitious Juventus squad led by an inexperienced Coach in Ciro Ferrara, who greatly needed a midfielder with different skills.
Deployed in an unfamiliar role, the Brazilian international was required to offer some creativity to a defensive midfield trio that specialised in tackling. Burdened by his heavy price, Melo’s greatest failure lay in his attempts to do too much, and frustration eventually got the better of him.
Aquilani, meanwhile, was enduring a torrid time at Liverpool, albeit largely through a string of injury problems, and the English Press were sceptical of his worth.
“At a reported £20m, he’s [Aquilani] got to be the worst buy,” commented former England captain and TV pundit Gary Lineker on Mail Online.
In fairness, when he played, the ex-Romanista actually produced worthwhile displays. Deployed perhaps a little too far up the pitch to fully exploit his long-range passing, OPTA statistics showed that in terms of assists per minutes, Aquilani was the best across the top five leagues in Europe. But, like Lineker, many assumed that the Italian’s sporadic team appearances were down to then Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez’s doubt in the player’s ability to adapt to the Premiership.
However, now in tandem at Juventus, Melo and Aquilani have been a revelation, and much of it is down to Coach Luigi Delneri and his tactics. Delneri has cemented a midfield relationship in which if one of the pair advances, the other stays back to maintain the shape of the team.
Melo uses his tough exterior and brutish force efficiently to break up opposing play and win back the ball, whereas Aquilani’s elegance is on hand to elongate play and deliver those long, defence-splitting balls forward for the attack to convert. When played alongside one another, you can fully admire their respective skill-sets working in harmony.
If Aquilani pushes forward to deliver a ball with such pace that no defender can intercept it, Melo will stay behind and guard the rear – often slipping into the back-line when Juve defend, to form a 5-4-1 shape. Alternatively, when Aquilani sweeps the ball from defence to launch a counter-attack, he allows Melo to participate in the offensive side of the game.
Melo is the greatest benefactor of this partnership, as the player who achieved a 90 per cent pass completion rate in the 2010 World Cup has finally begun to replicate his international form for his Club. Much of it is down to a Coach who allows him to only take on the duties he can perform while simultaneously offering him unconditional emotional support to boost his confidence.
Due to Delneri’s tactics, Aquilani has also turned into a more complete central midfielder, as his defensive skills have improved whilst his ability to spin the ball off either foot is still heavily exploited.
Providing they maintain fitness, there is no reason why together Melo and Aquilani cannot go on imposing their contrasting strengths to refocus the side, much like they did so effectively in Juve’s fine win against Catania last month. There were mixed fortunes for the pair in 2010 but 2011 bodes well.