You didn’t think you’d avoid this over such a long break, did you?
Yes, it’s that time again. One of my periodic rants about Juventus’ youth development. This time, however, it’s a little different than usual.
Because over the last few months Juve has, in fact, finally allowed some if its youth to play. The results have been quite pleasing. It’s not a stretch to say that much of the six-game domestic unbeaten run that Juve finished the 2022 calendar year with was in large part thanks to the club’s internal promotions. Fabio Miretti and Nicolo Fagioli have brought not only skill, but energy to a team that for much of the season looked like it had none.
Their play and their attitude has garnered praise from older teammates such as Danilo. The Brazilian defender, who seems more and more to be turning into the team’s true leader, has credited the two with pushing the more experienced players, and compared them both to 22-year-old Manchester City star Phil Foden, who he watched when he was at City when he was younger.
Regardless of how it came about — and it’s very much arguable that had it not been for a succession of insane injury crises neither one of them would have gotten the chance to shine — the fact is that, unlike multiple other promising youth sector products, they have been playing significant minutes, and in those minutes they have given some pretty significant contributions.
But the job is only half-done.
Miretti and Fagioli — to say nothing of Nicolo Rovella, who has been having an excellent season on loan at Monza — have shown that they deserve to be contributing members of the first team. Now they need to be given the room to breathe and flourish, to finish their development without any impediments. If they do, they could form a fantastic, young, and largely home-grown midfield core that could drive Juventus for the better part of a decade.
Which is why the reports about Juve’s supposed interest in Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic the last few weeks have me furious.
If the reports of the team’s interest in SMS are indeed true — and there’s a lot of smoke there from some pretty good reporters — there could not possibly be a more Italian move. With two incredibly talented young midfielders breaking out before their eyes, the front office’s response is to spend anywhere from €60 million to €100 million on an older player to block them. It’s a song we’ve heard sung time and time again, not only at Juve but in the country at large. Getting experienced players into the lineup trumps the development of talented youngsters. There have been various attempts to change that in recent years, but if there is any constant in Italian culture it is inertia. The only thing that changes with any alacrity on the peninsula are governments.
Granted, Milinkovic-Savic is still very much in his prime and most certainly a high-level player. But given the realities facing the club, combined with the impressive form of its young midfielders, the idea of signing him looks more like Andrea Agnelli getting another bout of Galactico Fever than anything else.
Those realities are twofold.
On the one hand, Juventus is still a team with some real financial difficulties. They just posted record losses for the second straight year, more than a quarter of a billion Euros for the 2021-22 fiscal year. While having the backstop of Exor will always keep the team from going actually bankrupt, Business Daddy has never shown much interest in pumping funds into the team just for the sake of making signings. Juve has shown an ability to pull money out of nowhere before — I’m still not quite sure where some of the money for Dusan Vlahovic came from last January — but Milinkovic-Savic would be a large outlay that would eat up a large portion of any transfer budget. That’s not great, because Juve would be left with relatively little money to deal with the second big issue: this team is going to need to do some revamping over the next few transfer windows.
Juventus is going to need to do some serious work on the back line between now and the beginning of the 2023-24 season. That’s kind of ironic, considering the fact that they currently have the best defensive record in Serie A. But there’s going to need to be some serious refreshing in the very near future. Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro are both in the final years of their contracts, and both are looking at the end of their time in Turin. Even if Sandro were to extend his contract, he’s shown in recent weeks to be more effective as a center-back than a full-back. Danilo, while effective on the right flank, has also moved inside with greater regularity this season, especially when Massimiliano Allegri deploys a three-man back line. Next year will be the last on Leonardo Bonucci’s contract, and his reliability at this point in his career is questionable at best.
All this points to the need for a major revamp in the back. Perhaps Koni De Winter, who has been impressing on loan at Empoli, will come back to fill one of those spots (or more, given his versatility), but this team probably needs a body in the middle at perhaps two out wide.
With so much need in the back, spending the kind of money it will take to pry SMS loose from Lazio — and let’s be real here, just because the Serbian’s contract ends after next season does not mean Claudio Lotito will be logical and lower his price demands in order to make something before he leaves as a free agent — is a bad use of resources.
If the rest of the team was set and Milinkovic-Savic was the last piece of the puzzle, that would be one thing. But it’s not, and he’s not. Juve’s shopping list is going to be extensive the next two transfer windows, and burning a large part of a limited transfer budget on him when players like Miretti, Fagioli, and Rovella are showing that they are good enough to do the job themselves is simply wasteful in a moment when the team is far from flush with cash.
The play of youngsters like Miretti and Fagioli has created a promising new foundation for the midfield. For the first time in a long time, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the things that need fixing on this team. As good as he is, Milinkovic-Savic would block those young players, and the expense necessary top acquire him would likely prevent the team from adequately filling all of its needs. Juve’s management should be smart about this: let the kids play in the middle, and spend the money on other units.