You might have heard this one before this season. Danny and myself, in particular, have brought this up quite a bit. One could even say we’ve been harping on it. But as we come out of the international break and enter one of the early season’s more important phases, it bears repeating again.
Daniele Rugani needs to be the full-time starter at center back. Medhi Benatia needs to take a permanent place on the bench.
Rugani is the future of defense for Juventus and for Italy. The youngster has been on the radar as one of the brightest young defensive prospects in the world since his breakout Serie B season with Empoli in the 2013-14 season, when he was just 20 years old. Making his Serie A debut the next year, he played every minute of the 2014-15 season without once being booked, forming a formidable partnership with Lorenzo Tonelli and helping lead a Maurizio Sarri-helmed Empoli side to 15th in the table.
In the two-plus seasons since he’s returned to Juventus — the Bianconeri bought out the remainder of his co-ownership deal with Empoli in January of 2015 — he has largely been on the bench, which is understandable considering the fact that he was playing behind the legendary BBC defense of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Cheillini.
But with Bonucci gone (*silent weeping*) and Barzagli finally succumbing to Father Time, it looked like this season was finally time for Rugani to stake his claim as a pillar on Juve’s back line for years to come. After a two-year apprenticeship behind one of the best defensive lineups in history — not to mention having Gigi Buffon behind him in goal — he was ready.
At least according to everyone except the person who actually makes the lineups.
Massimiliano Allegri has, for some reason, refused to give Rugani significant minutes this year. He has preferred Benatia in bigger games like the Supercoppa Italiana, the Derby della Mole, and both of Juve’s Champions League ties, including a starting spot alongside Barzagli for the opener against Barcelona when Chiellini was injured. Rugani has been relegated to playing smaller games against the likes of Cagliari, Chievo, and Sassuolo.
This is entirely the wrong approach. Not only is it hindering the team’s future, it’s bad for the now as well.
Now in his second season with Juventus, Benatia has never really melded with the rest of the defensive unit. When he’s on the field fans tend to hold their breath, because a mistake is usually coming. Whether it ends up being harmless, like when he gifted a breakaway in the Champions League against Porto that came to nothing. Other times he’s been a legit disaster, as he was at the Camp Nou, where he was directly responsible for the last two goals in the 3-0 loss.
In the five games Benatia has started this year, Juve has conceded seven times while he’s been on the field. Rugani, on the other hand, has started the same number of games and the team has conceded only three.
You be the judge of who makes the defense better.
Benatia simply isn’t good enough. Rugani is a better defender right now. He’s far better at positioning himself and anticipating opponent’s movements. He’s not the kind of player who racks up a lot of counting stats. Much like Paolo Maldini, when he’s on form he uses his positioning to negate a threat without ever needing to make a tackle.
Why Rugani is being relegated to smaller games in favor of a player he’s clearly better than is a mystery. He has proven himself in big games in the past. Last November, Rugani was pressed into service during an injury crisis in a pivotal Champions League group stage game away to Sevilla. Winning the game would all but assure Juve of winning the group — anything else would have put their qualification for the knockout round in question.
In hostile territory at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Rugani excelled. He made a pair of tackles and four clearances — second on the team — while completing 87.8 percent of his passes and making a key pass.
Having already shown he can perform under high pressure on the continental stage, it’s anyone’s guess as to why he’s not being allowed to do so now.
Allegri’s failure to trust Rugani is another example of what I think is the great disease of calcio. Coaches tend to prefer older players over promising youngsters — often to the detriment of their development. Only at smaller teams like Empoli or Sassuolo can a player like Rugani or Domenico Berardi really break out, and even then, once they move they sometimes get bottled up by veterans that aren’t as good as they are.
In Rugani’s case, the men ahead of him on the depth chart were all elite.
But now he’s constantly being overlooked in the biggest games by a player that he’s already better than. There’s no point in Benatia starting over him. Rugani, along with Mattia Caldera when he finally arrives from Atalanta, is the future of the team’s back line. Benatia is the future of nothing, and isn’t even making much of a positive contribution in the present.
In a mid-break press conference, Allegri was asked about Rugani and acknowledged the player’s growth, but said that he “has to make the last step.” The thing about that is that he has to be give the chance to make the step in the first place. He isn’t being given that opportunity, and every week he isn’t allowed the chance to do so is holding Juventus back both for the present and the future.
That needs to change — now.