The Old Lady is, well, old.
On any given night, multiple of the following players are probably in the starting 11 for Maurizio Sarri’s side: Cristiano Ronaldo (34 years old), Leonardo Bonucci (32), Juan Cuadrado (31), Gonzalo Higuain (32), or Blaise Matuidi (32). Gianluigi Buffon, at the spry age of 41, is the club’s backup goalkeeper now that Mattia Perin has been sent back to Genoa. Sami Khedira (32), believe it or not, is still on the team. Giorgio Chiellini (35) remains, when healthy, an important part of the defense. And even the players I feel like are youngish or in their prime aren’t that young: Alex Sandro turns 29 in a couple of weeks, Miralem Pjanic will be 30 this spring, and the speedy Douglas Costa (29) is quickly approaching the age when speed recedes.
Virtually every unit has extremely pressing questions about depth and the near-term future. There is, of course, one exception: center back.
As they are wont to do, Juventus are loaded with central defenders. Bonucci has enjoyed a mild renaissance after a decent campaign last year and, before that, what could only be described as a disastrous sojourn at AC Milan. Il Capitano is still arguably Juve’s second-best player behind Ronaldo when healthy.
Behind those two stalwarts, though, there’s a bevy of options: Matthijs de Ligt (20), Merih Demiral (21), and, oh yes, Daniele Rugani (25). Cristian Romero (21) is gaining valuable experience on loan at the struggling Genoa, having appeared 16 times already this season; for comparison’s sake, Rugani has a whopping three appearances and Demiral has just five.
In other words, Juventus have an embarrassment of riches at center back — to such a degree that potential landmines are already surfacing. Transfer rumors abound. Egos are fragile. Minutes are limited. It’ll be a juicy storyline to follow for the next two transfer windows.
Nugget-sized profiles of Juve’s young center backs
A rapid breakdown of Juve’s young guns in front of goal:
de Ligt: A complete center back at 20 years old who really doesn’t have a glaring weakness. Sure, there have been some mental mistakes in his adjustment to Serie A, and he has six arms which have contributed to the high number of handballs, but he’s a ridiculously complete player not just for his age but for any age: passing, a pretty sound dribbler, strong physical presence, fast. What can’t he do? Best quality: a natural-born leader.
Demiral: Physical, fearless, and (in a good way) a little reckless. He’s like the starter kit version of Chiellini. He may not be as good on the ball or in distribution as de Ligt, but he’s a positionally intelligent defender whose aggression and physical attributes make up for his occasional mistakes. Best attribute: unrelenting aggression.
Rugani: A complete center back in that he’s not terrible at any one thing but he also doesn’t excel in any one thing. He’s not overly physical or aggressive; it took him 12 years at Juventus to earn his first yellow card. At the same time, I think Juve fans are harsh on him. When he plays, he doesn’t do a lot to wow you, but he also doesn’t sink very many games. Best attribute: calm in possession.
Romero: He’s still at Genoa, but the young Argentine appears to have a bit of the Demiral/Chiellini anger streak in him with a less physically imposing frame. But any time you can add a player with drive and grinta, you’d love to do so. He’s shown the ability to carry the ball pretty well at Genoa. Best attribute: aggression (he gets a yellow card in basically half of his games).
Possible solutions to the Demiral-de Ligt conundrum
If Juventus must move one of Demiral, Rugani, or de Ligt, as appears to be the case, here are the three possible outcomes.
1. Sell Rugani, keep de Ligt and Demiral.
In a world where everything is perfect and nobody is greedy and countries don’t violate each other’s sovereignty and I own 300 acres of shoreline and pasture and hardwood forest in western Michigan, this is the scenario that would happen. Rugani is several years older than both de Ligt and Demiral, but he’s clearly below them in the pecking order and in actual talent.
If Juve were able to get around €25-30 million for the Italian, maybe this is somewhat viable. Any time I watch the Premier League, I find myself convinced that Rugani would be a pretty good improvement on about three-quarters of the teams. Go have yourself some fish and chips, Daniele.
2. Sell Demiral, keep de Ligt and Rugani.
If you were to judge reality on Google results from tabloids, this would be the most likely scenario over the next two transfer windows. Demiral spent his first few months in Turin hardly playing at all, and the rumors about moving the Turk started swirling. Juve probably won’t do anything else in January, and they certainly won’t move a center back while Chiellini is still in recovery, but over the summer this is definitely an option for the club.
Selling Demiral would, of course, be a bitter pill to swallow. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that what makes me excited about Demiral and de Ligt is not just how good they are individually, but how dominant it feels like they could be as a pair.
3. Sell de Ligt, keep Rugani and Demiral.
This option isn’t one currently being discussed or written about, but it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see how this scenario plays out: Demiral keeps starting ahead of de Ligt, Chiellini returns, Bonucci stays on good form, and de Ligt only gets to play against Lecce and Hellas Verona. After three months of that, I’m quite sure the Dutchman — and his agent — would be ready to kiss Turin goodbye, and I’m also quite sure that Juventus could find a suitor to at least recoup what the Bianconeri spent last summer.
This is probably the least savory option for most Juventus fans, as most of us consider de Ligt to be something quite extraordinary. I include myself in that camp. Nevertheless, this does remain a potential option, and the blow would be softened if Demiral keeps improving and shows himself to be a near-equal to de Ligt.
The specter lurking over the bright future of the center backs
The stupid fact of football is that, at the end of the day, there are bills to pay, books to balance, and shareholders whose wallets need fattening. Juventus have a massive set of expenses, including but not limited to Ronaldo’s gargantuan salary.
Juventus need to make money, and if the club can ratchet up Demiral’s market value and clear a huge profit off the young player, you can absolutely bet that option is going to be actively discussed at the very least. While I highly, highly doubt Fabio Paratici does anything too significant in January, there are already rumors swirling about Demiral and clubs like Leicester and Arsenal. If the young Turk keeps playing well, maybe a side like Manchester City enters the picture and offers 75 million tokens for him. You just never know with these English sides!
Call me a pessimist, but I can’t shake the feeling that a future with Demiral and de Ligt, who might complement each other so well, with a backup tandem of Rugani and Romero, is just too good to be true. I feel that one of Rugani or Demiral is going to be moved away from the squad to relieve the backlog of players at the position; Bonucci is on contract until 2024, after all. The reality is that Rugani is not going to fetch any sort of high price.
I am no seer, however. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the club finds a way to keep all of these players. That indeed would be pretty special, because maybe, just maybe, it looks like the Bianconeri have not one but two world-class central defenders on their side — who happen to be 20 and 21 years old, respectively.