At their pre-season retreat in the Aostan hills, it didn’t take onlookers long to recognise the coach leading the Juventus squad through a punishing series of drills. It was not Antonio Conte, nor even fitness chief Paolo Bertelli, but midfielder Arturo Vidal who was forcing his teammates to push harder and run further than they had before. Just two months earlier, in a late April derby against city rivals Torino, the Chilean had done much the same, driving his side forward against a determined opponent before breaking the game open with a well-struck shot from 25 yards out.
The game seemed to be headed for a draw before Vidal made that decisive intervention, and the celebration would further establish the strong bond he has forged with Conte. The player sprinted through the rain towards the bench with the coach meeting him. Both men leapt into the other’s arms, sharing an embrace that endured even as the rest of the team joined them. Since the two arrived at Juventus back in 2011, superlatives have rained down on the club, praising the coach for building an all-conquering team in his own image.
But if this Juventus is shaped to the never-say-die attitude that has been a hallmark of Conte’s career, it is Vidal who embodies that on the pitch, a living, breathing example of the Juventus spirit, which is so often the topic of discussion. Arriving from Leverkusen after an impressive final season, his role in the team was uncertain, images of Conte leading him by the hand through drills in his early days making front page news in Italy’s sports papers. He soon made his importance clear, forcing the coach to switch from his initial 4-2-4 formation and joining Claudio Marchisio and Pirlo in a well balanced trio that would sweep all before it.
Without the distraction of European competition, a side who had disappointed since their 2007 return to Serie A went through the entire 2011/12 campaign undefeated. Pirlo’s intelligent passing saw him lead Serie A with thirteen assists, but it was Vidal who underpinned the side, a 7.52 WhoScored rating marking him out as the division’s fifth best player. He had contributed seven goals and three assists in 33 league appearances; making 57 passes per game at a completion rate of 85.1%. He also made 2.2 interceptions and 5.4 tackles in each match, earning the nickname ‘Captain Hook’ for a knack of chasing down opponents and scooping the ball away cleanly.
His second season would be his breakthrough campaign, improving almost every facet of his game as his average rating rose to 7.74, putting him behind only Pirlo’s 7.8. He was Juve’s top scorer and assist maker with 10 and 8 respectively, adding a further 3 goals in the club’s return to Champions League action. As the best players always seem to, he raised his game in the elite competition, making more tackles than any other player, while no player who reached the knockout stages could better his 7.93 rating.
Conspicuously absent from the Ballon d’Or shortlist, Vidal has again taken on more responsibility this season, typified by his performances in recent weeks. With Leonardo Bonucci and Angelo Ogbonna suspended for Juve’s visit to Livorno last month, an injury to Andrea Barzagli seemed to indicate a crisis as Conte had lost three of his best central defenders. Yet it proved to be no problem at all, Vidal slotting into the middle of the back three as if he had played there all his life. His accomplished display saw him make 5 tackles and 3 interceptions, while also controlling possession as he made an impressive 107 passes at a completion rate of 94%.
Just three days later, FC Copenhagen visited Turin for a Champions League game the Bianconeri simply had to win if they were to hold on to any hope of qualifying for the knockout stages. Back in his usual midfield role, Vidal gave his side the lead from the penalty spot, only to see former Juve man Olof Mellburg scramble an equaliser. Again, the Chilean would lead the way, converting another spot kick before sealing the first hat-trick of his career with a superbly taken headed goal. It saw Vidal join Omar Sivori, Paolo Rossi, Michael Laudrup, Alessandro Del Piero and Pippo Inzaghi as the only players in the club’s history to net a European Cup treble. He went home with the match ball tucked under one arm, where it would soon be joined by his new contract as he signed a deal that ties him to the club until 2017.
That is a huge fillip for the Bianconeri, and further proof they have re-established themselves as one of Europe’s premier sides. President Andrea Agnelli may have declared Italy is “no longer the final destination but a transit destination,” for players, but Vidal seems content to call Turin home for the peak years of his career. The extension comes at a perfect time for Juventus, and underlines his importance, given that he has now made 92 Serie A and Champions League appearances for the team.
His 30 goals in that time mark him out as the leading scorer in the Conte era, with a further 17 assists. A total of 455 tackles and 53.9 passes per game make for a staggering contribution from a player who is arguably the most complete midfielder in Europe. Even more striking is the importance of those goals, with no fewer than 12 coming with the score at 0-0, and a further ten with Juventus up 1-0 and looking to kill off opponents. With another seven earning the club a draw, his scoring has directly resulted in success, as he has scored at the most vital moments over the past three seasons, seeing Juve win 20 of the 27 games in which he found the net.
It is clear that the player is worth every penny of his new deal, particularly given his initial transfer cost the Bianconeri just €10 million. That too now looks like incredible value for the man known in Turin, as King Arturo who, much like he did in pre-season, pushes this Juventus to be the best that it can possibly be.
Can Vidal inspire Juve to another Serie A title? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below