Gianluca Frabotta will not likely go down in the annals of Juventus history as one of the great left backs to have worn the black and white stripes.
The 21-year-old Italian, who before his shock starting appearance on Sept. 20 was little known to most, including Biaconeri faithful, was ravaged through and through against Inter Milan.
On the first goal, Frabotta even managed to get beaten twice — first when Achraf Hakimi cut inside all too easily to commence the attack, and then getting caught completely out of position when Arturo Vidal, after a couple touches on the ball, splashed a pass out wide to Nicolo Barella, alone on an island. The midfielder nonchalantly made space by deking the oncoming Frabotta and then played a cross to the Chilean for the first of Inter’s two goals.
The Hakimi-Barella connection tortured Frabotta all night. In another instance, Hakimi gathered the ball near the sideline in his own half as the Juve left back over-committed to pressure; the Inter wingback played a pretty simple touch out to Barella as both players then beat Frabotta for pace, leaving the Juventus defender straggling behind the play on an unconverted Romelu Lukaku chance.
But still, despite the Inter thrashing, despite the lack of concrete production — Frabotta has registered a single assist on the year, although it was a game-winning helper against Sassuolo on a low cross that skidded through the box to Aaron Ramsey — Frabotta has some serious onions, and Andrea Pirlo has onions for playing him. Despite the issues Frabotta has had, the youngster sporadically remains the best man for the job in the estimation of his manager, and not only against the minnows of Serie A.
This unexpected experiment is telling for what’s going on at the club right now in terms of composition, and it’s going to pay dividends for the club moving forward, speaking here not just in the case of Frabotta but of the entire Juventus Under-23 project.
For years depth has been crucial to Juventus, but that depth has been the product of financial primacy in Serie A and has remained true alongside a practically nonexistent youth program. The times, though, they are a-changing.
I remember when the team sheet for the Sampdoria game came out. It was the first game of the season, and we were all wondering what in the absolute heck we were going to see in the first game of first-year manager Pirlo. Needless to say, I did not expect Frabotta, nor do I guess many others did, and for the 60 minutes between the release of the team sheet and kickoff I furiously Googled away to learn that which I did not know.
I didn’t find a lot. But in the months between then and now I feel like I’ve learned what Frabotta brings (and doesn’t bring) to the table and why Pirlo has elected to play him there instead of other options.
Is Frabotta an Italian incarnation of Marcelo? No, I don’t quite think he is. But the 21-year-old, in the highest praise I can probably give him, has rarely or never seemed like he doesn’t belong on the pitch — the Inter game notwithstanding, and Hakimi has been doing that to left backs of all kinds all campaign long.
Frabotta is a sensible player. He actually holds onto the ball pretty well, is able to turn efficiently, and he makes the smart, short, simple pass. Occasionally he makes very good passes, although they do seem more of the direct variety rather than crosses. Frabotta does sometimes stray out of position, and in some regard that seems difficult to fault him for. When Cristiano Ronaldo is on the pitch, Frabotta is being asked to both cover defensively and also run all the way into the attacking third to at least provide a nominal outlet on the flank.
That’s not an easy balance to strike. The disconnect between Frabotta’s experience level and the job he’s being asked to do — and the stage on which he’s being asked to do it — is what leaves me so impressed. He more than convincingly covers for his lack of game time.
Most of all, Pirlo has decided that, as much as possible, players ought to play the positions they play in. I wrote way back in early October that, from my point of view, the wingback slots should be occupied by wingbacks (or fullbacks, or Juan Cuadrado!). With Alex Sandro missing large stretches because of injury and now the virus, Luca Pellegrini on the Ligurian Coast, and Mattia De Sciglio jaunting about in Lyon, Frabotta is the only natural left back in the current bunch (unless you count Danilo’s ability to player either flank, an option that hasn’t been available almost at all given the depth problems at center back).
Pirlo has seemed to agreed with me, even to the extent that he has repeatedly chosen Frabotta over Federico Bernardeschi for the left wingback spot. The former Fiorentina man has played virtually every position besides goalie and center back. I think many of us expected that perhaps Frabotta was an early-season experiment that would surely run its course, but Bernardeschi has not apparently shown Pirlo enough on the training pitch (or the actual pitch) to warrant consideration at crucial moments in that position. That tells me a lot about Frabotta (and a lot about Bernardeschi!).
I am mostly just impressed with Frabotta’s demeanor. There’s no chance in hell this kid was thinking a year ago that he’d be in the starting lineup for Juventus at the beginning of the year, let alone in the Derby d’Italia. Yet here he is, and he’s doing just fine.
The youth project
Frabotta has played the most minutes at the most crucial times for Juventus, but he’s not the only Juventus U-23 player to feature on the first team this year. Romanian center back Radu Dragusin has earned some minutes, and might earn more depending on what happens with the back line in the coming months. Manolo Portanova and Wesley have played, and my new favorite player Hamza Rafia is the reason Juventus advanced to take on SPAL in the next round of the Coppa Italia.
For the most part, none of these players has looked completely like a fish out of water. I know that’s a low bar to set in some ways, but I think there’s a lot of optimism that fact creates for me. We’ve talked about Frabotta, mentioned Rafia’s game-winning goal, but Wesley had some fantastic (and also some bad) moments at right back while Dragusin looked fairly stable playing at the back.
One has to think that a lot of this stems from the U-23s playing in Serie C now — these kids are playing against men, not primavera squads composed of other kids. When Juve lifted the Supercoppa against Napoli they were facing a pretty dangerous Giovanni Di Lorenzo, a guy who was playing in Serie C not that long ago. The point is, Serie C may feel like a ridiculously lower-tiered league, but in reality it’s professional calcio played by real men who have aspirations of climbing the ladder. And these Bianconeri youngsters are reaping the benefits.
There are others on the U-23 squad who might, at some point, play some minutes, whether this year or in years following, players who have at least made the squad list for match days with the first team: Felix Correia is scoring goals in Serie C; Nicolo Fagioli is wearing the No. 10 shirt ably; and Daouda Peeters — who has appeared on a number of Belgium youth national sides — has been a mainstay in the midfield for the U-23s.
I’m not going to pretend like I’m an expert on these players, or in youth football and scouting in general. I’m not. But if what I’ve seen from Frabotta might be true of just two or three of these other U-23 players, then Juventus are setting themselves up for an even deeper squad in the years ahead. At the very least, the club is providing itself with small bargaining chips that might be used as makeweights in transfer deals, something that is perhaps already happening if the deal involving Portanova to Genoa (and Nicolo Rovella to Juve) is indeed true.
But the upside is much, much higher: cultivating an active and purposeful (rather than nominal) youth program gives Juventus depth and bargaining chips, sure, but it also gives Juventus a lot more tickets in the youth talent discovery lottery. In years past Juventus have had to mooch off other academies or grab free transfers of youngsters to really strike at hidden diamonds, but the U-23 creates a larger, competitive pool of kids gunning for stardom. That rocks.
This is the kind of thinking ahead that, year in and year out, places this organization ahead of its peers. It’s not going to single-handedly win Scudettos or make smart tactical decisions or hire the right managers, but it’s a piece of foundational work that will certainly help the club in small incremental ways and might, just might, pay off big some day.