During the second half of last season and in the beginning of the 2011-12 Serie A season, Alessandro Matri has simply been a revelation for Juventus. Between Alessandro Del Piero's natural aging, Fabio Quagliarella's terrible luck with injuries, and the combined form, fitness and attitude issues with Amauri and Vicenzo Iaquinta, the Old Lady were without a reliable striker for quite some time. Now, they have a reliable man up top and it's made all the difference.
Matri has been just one of a number of additions to the Juventus squad, but his play has arguably been the catalyst to their run to the top of the table. Claudio Marchisio and Gigi Buffon were already at the club, while Andrea Pirlo is not the kind of player who can turn a game on its head at any second.
Strikers are so highly valued - arguably overvalued - for this reason. It doesn't help that goals are what the average fan pays attention to and that goal-scorers sell shirts, but Matri's impact and the impact of other quality strikers is not just about the fact that they put the ball in the back of the net, it's that they can do something to change the complexion of a game instantly. Pirlo can get the best out of a talented squad and dictate play for 90 minutes, but he cannot turn coal into diamonds in a split second like Matri can. This is why he, not Pirlo, is the biggest reason for Juventus's turnaround.
They have not been the best team for 90 minutes in all of their wins this season. In fact, it is not unreasonable to argue that they have not been the better side for more than 45 minutes in a majority of their wins. They are a very good team that can become a dominant team as their personnel has time to mesh, but they are not currently a dominant team. They are a very good team, benefiting from the facts that Inter Milan are not a good team, AC Milan just became a great team, and Napoli are hot and cold. This is why they are on top of the table, along with Matri's ability to turn games.
But he doesn't just turn games with his goals. Yes, Matri is the team's co-leader with five league goals on the season, but finishing isn't even Matri's greatest quality. He is a great scorer of goals, but he is not a great goal-scorer. He is not an Antonio Di Natale, David Villa or Javier Hernandez. Matri plays his best with his back to goal, and his value is much more in his touch and his distribution than in his goal-scoring.
In that way, he's much like Wayne Rooney at Manchester United. With Paul Scholes aging, Javier Hernandez looking for a playmaker and no true No. 10 in the side, Alex Ferguson made a bold move last season. He took the player who was previously thought of as his best striker and put him in an attacking midfield position, utilizing his playmaking ability and giving him a more free role. It worked to perfection.
Is this the kind of role Antonio Conte should play Matri in on a regular basis? No, almost certainly not. He's an excellent back-to-goal striker and he's had great success in that role. However, with Claudio Marchisio out for the match against Napoli due to suspension, Conte is probably best off getting creative, rather than sticking in a faux-like-for-like replacement.
Former Napoli man Michele Pazienza will probably start in the absence of Marchisio. This will probably push Arturo Vidal further up the pitch as Juventus keeps a very similar formation and attempts to play the same way. Pazienza is a respectable enough player who will make a couple of very nice tackles during a game. He will probably not give the ball away in dangerous positions. He's a solid veteran who doesn't make mistakes.
But with Andrea Pirlo in midfield, is another player whose main function is to simply not screw up necessary? There's no better player in the world at holding the ball than Pirlo. With Vidal in the team, is a ball-winner needed? Vidal is a brilliant tackler, a tireless worker and a fantastic athlete that accounts for Pirlo's general lack of the latter two qualities. Pazienza simply has no purpose in this match, which is not to be disrespectful to him. Once again, he's a fine player. He's just a fine player that serves a minimal purpose in a midfield with Pirlo and Vidal.
If Conte agrees with those sentiments and doesn't want to go with Pazienza, then the next logical option is to throw on Fabio Quagliarella and go with a 4-4-2, or move Mirko Vucinic inside, bring in one of Juve's many wingers, and do the same thing. The problem is, that plays right into Napoli's hands. Their three-man back has, predictably, shut down teams playing 4-4-2 and struggled with one and three striker systems.
And this is where Matri and the "Rooney Role" comes in. If Matri is brought back into the midfield and a striker is inserted, it creates inherent matchup problems for Walter Mazzarri's system and personnel. Napoli simply wouldn't be able to keep pressure on Pirlo, deny service to the feet of Matri, and track the slashing inside runs of Juve's wide players.
Instead, Conte will start Michele Pazienza. He will have an average game. Unless Matri has a blinder from his center forward position, it will be a missed opportunity. The public will be left to wonder what could have been, except they will ask the wrong question.
What would this game have been like with Marchisio?
That question is purely hypothetical and absolutely pointless, because Marchisio was never available for selection. There was nothing that Conte could have done to make him available. There's a much better question to be asked.
What was Conte's best option to replace Marchisio?
Against Napoli, probably not Michele Pazienza.