Moise Kean is truly incredible.
The young Italian striker is rapidly becoming one of the biggest up-and-coming talents in Europe. On Nov. 19, 2016, he became the first player born in the 21st century to play in one of Europe’s Big Five leagues when he subbed in for Mario Mandzukic against Pescara. Three days later, he became the first to play in the Champions League when he came on as a late sub against Sevilla. A few minutes later, Leonardo Bonucci scored the game-winner, and Kean’s jubilation was a thing to watch. In the last game of the 2016-17 season, he scored the winning goal against Bologna, becoming the first player born in the 2000s to score in the Big Five.
Did I mention that he was barely 17 years old by that point?
After a year on loan at Hellas Verona, Kean is back in the fold, and has even been given a relatively low squad number (18), a sign that the team intends to keep him around. He didn’t score in his cameo Young Boys, but he showed why everyone is so high on him. He made some great runs through the defense and put himself in really great positions. It was a lot like the performances of Rodrigo Bentancur last year — you could tell that there is a ton of talent in the kid that’s ready to boil over.
At the moment, Kean is really the only natural backup for Mandzukic on the roster, and the team really should focus on getting him as many minutes as possible for him to complete his development. He’s a big piece of the future not just for Juve, but for the Italian national team as well.
The Azzurri, of course, are in major rebuilding mode after failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years. Since Roberto Mancini took over this past summer, Italy has begun to ever so slightly nudge the ship into a positive direction, and on Sunday in the UEFA Nations League they put in what may have been their best performance since Euro 2016. They dominated Poland in Silesia, holding the ball in the attacking third for large stretches of the game and rarely allowing their opponents to threaten.
The one major concern coming out of the game was the lack of a finishing touch. Italy was in and around the Poland penalty area all night and racked up 18 shots. But all that pressure failed to really do much damage. Italy struck the crossbar twice and forced Wojciech Szczesny (hi Woj!) to make three excellent saves in the first half, but only one other shot had found the target before Cristiano Biraghi slid in at the back post to poke home Kevin Lasagna’s flick on a corner.
Italy’s profligacy very nearly cost them dearly. Had they lost on Sunday, they would have been relegated to the second tier of the new Nations League, which would have adversely affected their seeding for Euro 2020 qualifying. As it stands, they will welcome Portugal to the San Siro with a chance to advance to the semifinals and improve their standing in qualification even more.
But if they’re to do that, they’re going to need to hit the mark more often in attack. That means they’ll need a reliable striker, which right now they don’t have. The three top options as a No. 9 — Mario Balotelli, Andrea Belotti, and Ciro Immobile — all have their weaknesses. Balotelli may still be the most naturally-gifted attacker Italy has, but whatever team he plays for is at the mercy of his constant shifts in mentality and fitness. Belotti has failed to reach the heights he was at two seasons ago when he inspired Torino to slap a €100 million release clause on him, and Immobile has never really been able to carry his good form for Lazio over to the Nazionale, having scored only seven times in 34 games.
The lack of reliable options inspired Mancini to spend this international break tinkering with a false nine formation. The result on Sunday was an improvement over some of the lifeless performances of the late Giampiero Ventura era, but a reliable striker is still necessary to take the next step.
This is where Kean may be able to come in.
The teenager’s climb up the Italian youth ranks has been rapid. In two years, he’s gone from playing in the Under-17 European Championships to being a revelation at the U-19 Euros, where he scored four times, including once in the semifinal and twice in two minutes as a substitute in the final to overturn a 2-0 deficit. This month he made his debut for the Under-21 squad, and is likely to be in the squad for either the U-21 Euros or the U-20 World Cup this coming summer.
He’s also coming up on the moment where far too many Italian youngsters have hit a wall over the last few years.
In recent times, Italy’s clubs have had a terrible record when it comes to letting younger players make their mark at the senior level. The claim that Italy simply doesn’t produce players that are up to snuff anymore is, in my opinion, incorrect. Italy’s recent results at junior international tournaments — second at the U-19 Euros this past summer, third at the U-20 World Cup last year — is evidence that the talent is there. The problem is player development. Too many good youngsters end up getting derailed when they get to the point where they could be ready to make the jump to the senior level when their clubs play older players ahead of them rather than allowing them to develop.
Juventus are just as guilty of this as anyone else. While the emergence of Federico Bernardeschi is important, a number of other promising Italians have been stalled in the Juve squad. Chief amongst these players is Daniele Rugani, who’s never been able to get an extended run with the team after the arrival of Medhi Benatia despite his impressive finish to the 2015-16 season. Young winger Riccardo Orsolini, the Golden Boot winner at last year’s U-20 World Cup, was sent on loan to Atalanta last season but was never used by Gian Piero Gasperini despite an impressive run in preseason, and eventually had to be moved midseason to get him any playing time at Bologna.
The rest of the league has to account for their own contributions to these problems as well, but Juventus now has one of Italy’s best young prospects on their hands, and they need to be sure they nurture him properly.
If Juventus truly are the standard-bearers of Italian football, as has been ceaselessly mentioned over the years, then they bear a responsibility for the totality of it, not just for themselves. I know this may not mean as much for those non-Italian fans out there. I know many Italian fans still bear a grudge against FIGC over calciopoli. I am not one of those people. I am Italian, and the Azzurri are always just as important to me, if not more so, than Juve. They, like every club in Italy, bear some of the responsibility for bringing Italy back from the brink and back to respectability. If nothing else, a revitalized national team will bring a higher profile to Serie A and, by corollary, to Juve and their brand, on the field and off.
Right now, Juve’s part of that responsibility pertains to their two young forwards. Bernardeschi has taken a massive step this year and looks to have wrapped up a place as a key piece of the Italy setup going forward. Kean isn’t at that point yet — yet being the key word. But in the coming years he will be — especially if Italy’s problems in front of goal continue. Juventus needs to find places to give him minutes. Not only will that make the transition easy when Mandzukic’s battle with Father Time comes to a close, it will also prepare him for the time when Italy needs its young players to step up to the big time.
Please, don’t blow this.