About 10 months ago, I wrote an article about the future of the captaincy at Juventus after the imminent retirement of Gianluigi Buffon. With San Gigi expected to officially announce his retirement at a press conference on Thursday (I’m not crying, you’re crying), the future of the captain’s armband will be coming to the fore again in the weeks and months ahead — and because a lot has changed since my last foray into this topic, I decided it was worth revisiting.
What hasn’t changed since I wrote my article last July is where the armband will end up in the immediate future. Giorgio Chiellini is a stone-cold, lead-pipe lock to be the new captain next season. He’s about to complete his 13th season with the team. He’s been an integral part of it for 12 of those campaigns, and has been part of the captain’s hierarchy since the 2010-11 season, when he became third in line behind Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero.
He’s been captain-in-waiting ever since, and he thoroughly deserves the honor. But there are questions afoot as to what might happen after he’s gone.
Chiellini will be 34 years old before the 2018-19 season begins. He finished last season looking quite healthy and strong, but this year he has again struggled with the injury problems that have been the bane of him for years, most likely because he has gotten less rest than he did a year ago.
Buffon was the same age when he assumed the captaincy from Del Piero, but outfield players don’t age as gracefully as goalkeepers, and Gigi was an alien even in that regard, as he’s really only shown the first signs of truly slowing down in the last 18 months or so. As fitting as it is that Chiellini will get the armband, it’s likely that his captaincy will be a relatively short one.
That’s what makes things interesting, because since I wrote my last article, the situation behind him has grown less clear by several orders of magnitude.
When I last wrote about this, the succession after Chiellini seemed pretty clear. At the time it seemed certain that Leonardo Bonucci would follow Chiellini and carry the armband for a few years after that before the team’s next generation took on the mantle.
Ten days after my last article published, Bonucci’s sudden and acrimonious transfer to AC Milan went official.
So much for that.
That’s not the only thing adding intrigue to the situation going forward. By the time the 2018-19 season begins in August, it’s entirely possible that Juventus’ captain’s hierarchy will have been completely gutted.
Claudio Marchisio, who is next in line behind Chiellini, has been mostly frozen out of the team after dealing with more knee problems early in the season, and the rumors are rampant that he’ll be leaving for more playing time in the summer. Given the fact that he’s only a year younger than Chiellini it’s likely he would never have been the full captain — a cruel twist of fate, considering the service he’s given to the club he’s supported and been a part of since he was a boy — but he may not even be in the picture to deputize next season.
Also out of the picture is Stephan Lichtsteiner, who captained his first game from the start in September and announced earlier this month that he will be moving on after his contract expires. Sami Khedira, who hasn’t captained a game from the beginning but has been handed the armband mid-game a time or two this year, has also been making noise about testing his mettle in the English Premier League, and Juve with a ready-made replacement for him (supposedly) ready in Emere Can, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that he would be sold to get something out of him before his contract is up next summer.
So, theoretically, in the space of a year, Juventus could end up losing five of the seven players who have worn the armband at some point that were on the roster at the Champions League final last year in Cardiff. Only Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli would remain in that scenario — and Barzagli is only going to be playing another year, max.
That means the new generation of Juve players is going to have to grow up faster — a lot faster — to fill in the leadership gaps.
Last year I posited two players who could end up long-term captains when the current leaders are gone: Paulo Dybala and Daniele Ruagni.
In the season since, both of those suggestions are looking less likely. Dybala looked fantastic at times, but also saw a lot of fallow periods. At times he didn’t look all there mentally, as distractions in his personal life and the weight of being dubbed a successor to Lionel Messi began to weigh on him. If he remains with the team long-term, he could have a chance at the armband, but at this point he’s shown that he’s not yet ready to be a leader.
Rugani had a turbulent year. He’s turned in two of the best individual defensive plays by a Juve player this season — sliding block to block a potential equalizer against AC Milan at the San Siro and a successfully disrupting a one-on-two rush away against Torino — but didn’t regularly displace Medhi Benatia in the starting XI, despite the Moroccan’s poor start to the year. This has led a lot of people to dismiss him as unfit for Juve. I, for one, am not one of those people. I still think he has what it takes to be one of the best defenders in the league, but he’s going to have to put more of a stamp on next season in order to be considered for the captaincy in the future.
The question now is two-fold: who will be the long-term captain in the future, and who will be in the short-term captain’s hierarchy behind Chiellini?
If you were to go simply by length of service, names like Miralem Pjanic, Gonzalo Higuan, and Juan Cuadrado would be candidates to be vice captains after Barzagli (provided, of course, the 37-year-old does actually re-sign himself). Dybala would have to be in that conversation too—perhaps throwing him into the fire would help get his head on straight. A dark horse could be Douglas Costa, who practically glowed last month when discussing his decision to move to Turin, showing the kind of dedication that would eventually be worthy of a spot on the list.
Longer-term, guys like Federico Bernardeschi and Mattia Caldara could make enough of an impression to be potential captains in the future, and, as I mentioned, I think it’s a mistake to completely discount Rugani at this point.
But at the end of the day, this is all conjecture. The fact of the matter is that Chiellini really is the only certainty at this point. He now has an unenviable task. He was always going to have to help shape a new generation of leaders for the club, but until last year he didn’t need to do so to prepare his immediate successor. With Bonucci gone, that’s exactly what he’s going to have to do, while simultaneously being the team’s on-field leader.
But if there’s any man capable of doing this, it’s Chielo. He has played with some of the greatest players this club has ever seen. Del Piero, Buffon,Pavel Nedved, and Andrea Pirlo come to mind. His heart, passion, and love of the club have probably been rubbing off teammates for years now as vice-captain. If there’s anyone that can mold this team’s next leaders, it’s him.
Just who that ends up being, only time will tell.