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Is Daniele Rugani a first-team defender again?

While the Italian center back never really lived up to high expectations in his first stint in Turin, Rugani is now looking at more minutes and he seems to be stepping up when Juventus needs him the most.

Juventus FC v UC Sampdoria - Coppa Italia Photo by Massimiliano Ferraro/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For the first time in over three years, Daniele Rugani has started five straight matches for Juventus. The same Daniele Rugani who was one of Europe’s top transfer targets in Turin for what seemed like a decade, but also the one who had never fully proved himself over the veterans in the Juventus defense.

He sat in the second team for years and while he had plenty of opportunities to play and start in all competitions, Rugani never made it over the hump.

But now, in a season where quarantines are opening up starting spots all over Europe and injuries are still as relevant as ever, Rugani has pushed his way — or maybe been forced — back into the picture. And with options running slim, Max Allegri has taken notice.

With Leonardo Bonucci out, Rugani has entered the picture to play alongside Matthijs de Ligt, making it even more clear that Giorgio Chiellini doesn’t have the legs to be a consistent starter anymore. And while there has clearly been some rust with Rugani returning, he has played beyond what most people expected from him.

In three of the last four matches, Rugani has finished with the highest match rating for a Juventus starting center back. He scored in the midweek Coppa Italia clash against Sampdoria, his first goal since the last time he started consecutive matches for the Bianconeri.

Rugani has been more than competent on the ball, completing 92 percent of his passes from the back over the last five matches including a perfect 11-of-11 on long balls in the last three. During that span, Rugani has led the team in clearances and interceptions.

Of course, it’s not just about individual success. In the past, when we talked about Rugani, we had to talk about the team success to get past some of his mistakes, but it’s starting to look like Rugani’s play is having a real correlation with how well the team plays and specifically how they defend.

In nine appearances by Rugani across all competitions, Juventus has earned 2.44 points per match. It’s a small sample size, but it is by far the highest PPM among Juventus players this season. Now, some of that may be because he was getting the playing time in easier matches but the job was still getting done.

According to FBref’s on/off splits, Rugani is the team’s second most valuable defender only behind de Ligt. His +0.24 per 90 minutes is well beyond the performance mark of Chiellini and Bonucci who sit at a shocking -0.67 and -0.7, respectively. Rugani ranks fifth in the team in +/- per 90 minutes, behind the likes of Federico Bernardeschi, Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala and Manuel Locatelli.

Rugani still has a lot to prove to be in the first team consistently, especially once the most important matches of the season start to arrive over the next couple of months. But with Bonucci out for at least a few more weeks, it’s hard to argue against Allegri’s inclusion of Rugani to pair with de Ligt, Chiellini and Danilo as he has the past few matches.

With Bonucci’s timetable still being somewhat indefinite — the latest update being a possible return after the international break — it seems Rugani will be at the top of the defensive selection for at least one more match. And it’s hard to say he has not deserved it.

Rugani, who is just a couple of months removed from his own injury (shocker, I know), has seen his performances get better and better with each match and it’s clear some confidence is growing in the player, both from himself and his teammates. And while Bonucci and Chiellini just had one of the best summers of their careers, the fall and winter have not been as kind and neither player should still have an untouchable spot in the starting XI at this point in the season.

It already appears Rugani is ahead of Chiellini in the selection process, at least for the time being to make sure the veteran makes it to the end of the season, and he may be closer to Bonucci’s spot than anyone could have anticipated back in August.

Bonucci clearly has his strengths but inconsistency has been a plague this season and the mistakes are getting worse and worse. Plus, they always seem to pop up at the worst time.

And we all know Rugani has been the same way in the past so its definitely possible he reverts to that kind of play with any extra playing time he gets but sometimes you just have to run with the players in good form. And I never thought I would be saying this, but right now, Daniele Rugani is one of those players.