If you watch American television (unlike our millennial brethren, my wife and I haven’t yet cut the cord) you might have spotted a particular commercial over the last few months. Jennifer Aniston is the pitchwoman, hawking a line of dietary supplements centered around collagen. There are a lot of shots of Aniston doing fitness things and drinking coffee with a collagen-infused coffee creamer and collagen-spiked water while, in a layered-on voiceover, she recites a monologue that’s about as meandering as the copy of a cologne commercial, the gist of which is that if you use said product, you’ll be “supported from within.”
The concept of being supported from within might be one that Juventus is going to have to become familiar with this year. Between the pandemic and the top line of the wage bill, the money for this transfer window is incredibly tight. The only reason they’re even remotely the favorites to land their top transfer target of the window is because Manuel Locatelli doesn’t want any other club. At this point in the preseason, it’s hard to see any major transfer operations besides Locatelli coming off without the unlikely event of Cristiano Ronaldo leaving the team.
There may be some more tweaking around the edges with small-money but high-potential moves like Kaio Jorge, but unless something unforeseen happens there probably won’t be much more action on the market this summer.
With that in mind, it’s important for Juve to turn their thinking inward if they want to get back into the title picture this year.
There are two main points to this. The first is about getting more out of players who have room to improve, the second is to, finally, start getting some production out of the youth sector.
The first is simple on paper: make guys better. With Massimiliano Allegri once again in the manager’s office, it’s incumbent on him to do that. There are certainly players on this team that can step up and improve. Dejan Kulusevski, whose first season didn’t live up to his talent despite a strong finish, is clearly a candidate, although much of his issues a season ago came from being played out of position, something that Max isn’t shy about doing to a player. If Adrien Rabiot can take the next step and eliminate stretches where goes invisible maximizes his talent consistently, he could become a true monster in midfield. Rodrigo Bentancur needs to be better at everything after a horrific season.
The second has been a bugaboo of mine for years. In the last 15 years, you can count the number of players from the youth sector who have made an impact on the first team with two fingers. Claudio Marchisio, of course, was excellent until his ACL injury in 2016, while Moise Kean was electric in 2018-19 before being sold off in shocking fashion rather than built upon.
While it’s certainly true that not every prospect from the academy will turn into a world-class star, and that bumper crops like the La Masia group that propelled Pep Guadriola’s Barcelona teams aren’t the norm either, but for so few players to make any kind of contribution to the first team is counterproductive. A player developed in-house costs the team nothing at all, leaving money free for the fees and wages of bigger-ticket acquisitions in other areas. Productive academies also takes the sting out of the occasional depth crunch mid-season. And when players do succeed, the credit goes to you and you alone, serving as a true enhancement to your brand.
While the circumstances behind why are different, Juventus find themselves in a situation similar to the one Chelsea was in a few years ago when they had to serve a transfer ban for violating rules on signing youth players. Unable to bring players in, they were forced to look to their youth ranks. They promoted the likes of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James, and Callum Hudson-Odoi and gave them significant minutes. They all found success. All four have since been capped by the England national team, with Mount and James being named to the Euro 2020 squad.
While the state of Juve’s roster doesn’t necessitate that many players, there are certainly some young prospects who deserve some longer looks in the first team this season. Nicolo Fagioli clearly earned an opportunity to show what he can do with the big squad last year, and arguably should have been given that opportunity at the end of last year when the rest of the midfield was floundering. One of the reasons I’m against the rumored return of Miralem Pjanic is precisely because it would prevent Fagioli from getting a proper look.
But perhaps the player who will get the longest look will be Radu Dragusin. With rumors growing that Merih Demiral will be sold this transfer window, either as a cash-in or because he wants a regular starting spot that he won’t be getting (or both), the center-back room is going to be interesting for Juve. If Demiral goes, it will leave Giorgio Chiellini — who is all but certain to be back at this point — Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, Daniele Rugani, and Dragusin on the depth chart at the position. Depending on whether the money from Demiral’s sale is reinvested (and where) or simply used to help cover the pandemic losses, the team may be forced to use Rugani and Dragusin as the back end of the depth chart in the middle of defense. That potentially leaves a big opening for Dragusin to get some time to impress, especially if injuries were to hit the top pairing — or if Max gets crazy and goes with three in the back.
There are other names that might make an impact. Koni De Winter scored a goal in last week’s friendly and plays at a position — fullback — that is still woefully undermanned. Felix Correa and Matias Soule could also both earn themselves a look, although the winger positions are far more crowded.
Until the soccer economy improves and the Allianz Stadium turns back into the money-maker that it is, Juve are going to have to operate differently, and that means relying more on their young players. It’s been an area they’ve been deficient in for years, but with the team sagging more than it has in a decade, it’s time to start trusting them. Combined with improvement from a few key players, and Allegri could yet move this team back into contention for a scudetto — with support from within.