It was difficult for a lot of fans to keep up with the Italian team at the Under-20 World Cup. The time difference with South Korea, especially for American fans, could thwart even the die-hard fan. But Juventus fans had a vested interest in the Azzurrini this cycle. Five players with ties to the Bianconeri were included in the 21-man roster: defender Filippo Romagna, midfielders Francesco Cassata, Mattia Vitale and Rolando Mandragora, and winger Riccardo Orsolini.
Orsolini is one of the most recent additions to Juve’s fold. A product of Ascoli, he turned heads during the 2015-16 season when he scored 17 goals and notched nine assists in 21 games for Ascoli’s Primavera side, as well as three in three at the annual Viareggio tournament. He had scored four times in ‘16-17 when Juve sealed a €6 million deal for him on the penultimate day of the winter transfer window. He finished the season at the Marchese club, ending the season with eight goals and six assists on at team that finished relatively comfortably in mid-table in Serie B.
The Under-20s showed off Orsolini to the world beyond Italy’s second tier, and his performance left us with only one conclusion: this kid is straight fire.
Orsolini played in every game for Albergio Evani’s side, and scored in five straight games from the second group match to the semifinal. The five tallies beat out the United States’ John Sargent and France’s Jean-Kevin Augustin for the tournament’s Golden Boot award, joining a list that includes the likes of Argentinians Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi.
It’s not just the quantity of the goals that made the youngster stand out, it was the quality. Aside from his first, a penalty against South Africa, every one of Orsolini’s goals was a thing of beauty. Against Japan, a waist-high volley. Against Zambia, a diving, glancing header. Against France, a low volley that nutmegged the keeper from seven yards. Against England, a vicious first-time thunderbolt from the top of the penalty area.
Now, of course, winning the tournament’s Golden Boot award is not a guarantee that Orsolini will develop into the kind of player that Messi and Aguero evolved into — but it’s a heck of a good start.
Next month, Orsolini will start his first preseason camp in as a Juventus player. A week ago, his agent told Premium Sport that he will accompany the team on their tour of the U.S. for the International Champions Cup, at which point the club will decide whether to loan him out for the season or keep him on the roster.
There are pros and cons for both sides, but I’m very much leaning to developing him as close to the J-Stadium as possible.
Obviously, there would be benefits to a loan. He would have a better chance of playing every day, which can only be a help to him in the long run. Normally I’m all for this sort of thing — I’ve railed before about the lack of playing time given to younger midfielders like Mario Lemina and Stefano Sturaro as detrimental to their development.
But I think the benefits to keeping him outweigh the downside of less immediate playing time.
In the first place, this team needs wingers.
After Massimiliano Allegri made the change to the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” system, forward depth became a huge concern — one that was only made worse by the ACL injury Marko Pjaca suffered on international duty. Zinedine Zidane coached circles around Allegri in the second half of the Champions League final, but if the Tuscan had had some more wiggle room up front he may have been able to adjust to the Frenchman’s moves.
Orsolini is a high-quality option for that depth that’s already in-house. Depending on what other moves are made this year, he may even turn other players on the squad into the depth players. That is particularly the case of Juan Cuadrado, whose nosedive in form over the season’s final six weeks or so is indicative of the need for an upgrade on the right. The fact that the left-footed Orsolini’s best position is as an inverted right winger also adds a tactical wrinkle that Allegri couldn’t exploit last year.
Having Orsolini close would also give him that much more time to integrate into Allegri’s tactics, dramatically reducing his learning curve when he finally makes his way into the starting XI.
Beyond the tactical benefits to keeping him, there’s also long-term strategy to consider.
Juventus has made it a point to get their hooks into Italy’s most promising young talent. They often buy them early. Take, for instance, Daniele Rugani, who Juventus identified as the future of the back line as far back as 2013. Others that have been part of this strategy are Simone Zaza, Manolo Gabbiadini and Domenico Berardi.
It’s Berardi’s story that makes me wary of what I’ve come to think of as “loan exhaustion.” Juve first gained an interest in him in 2013. Keeping him at Sassuolo for the 2013-14 season made sense, but as the seasons and sagas wore on Berardi got further and further away from the club. Wary of not getting playing time, he opted to stay at Sassuolo this season rather than make the final move to Juve, and now it seems like one of the most talented players in a generation will likely be plying his trade for one of their Serie A rivals.
This is the kind of thing that Juve allows to happen all too often. Talented players like Ciro Immobile -- an academy product who bounced around on loans and co-ownership deals for four years before moving on totally — and Berardi are players that could have been fixtures for Juve for a long time, but the delay in integrating them into Juve’s fabric ended up pushing them away from the club for good.
With one of the oldest rosters in Europe, Juve can’t afford to have that happen with their young talent anymore. Young players like Orsolini are vital for the future, on the field and off. Developing these talents will allow Juve to spend their budget — which is still much lower than Europe’s superteams — on better transfers and, perhaps more important, better wages for the players already on the team.
There are differences between Orsolini’s situation and the ones the likes of Berardi and Immobile endured. For one thing, both of them were on co-ownerships for much of their respective sagas. In Berardi’s case especially, that reduced the control Juve had in the situation. With co-ownership now banned in Italy, that problem is greatly reduced.
But it still may not be the best of ideas for a prospect like Orsolini to leave the nest. Learning as a backup means there will be less pressure on him right away, and he will be able to soak up the team’s culture from leaders like Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Claudio Marchisio.
As beneficial as the playing time of a loan would be for a guy like Orsolini, Juventus needs to start bucking the trend that so many of Italy’s biggest teams are guilty of and let their youngsters start staking their claim in black and white stripes rather than somewhere else. The sooner he starts playing in a Juventus shirt, the sooner he will end up realizing his potential and playing his way into the starting lineup. Allegri should keep him in the squad when the International Champions Cup is over.