Three weeks ago, you could forgive a Juventus fan for being more bullish about the midfield than one had in quite some time. With Paul Pogba returning to join talented pieces like Manuel Locatelli and Weston McKennie, backed up by Denis Zakaria and three solid young prospects, things were finally looking up for a unit that had been in flux for nearly half a decade. While certainly not on the level of the MVPP midfield of a decade ago, it certainly had the potential to match what we saw when a prime Miralem Pjanic and a pre-injury Sami Khedira were manning the engine room.
It took all of 10 days for that optimism to fade.
For some (myself included) Pogba’s return was tempered by the fact that his injury history was reaching “Not great, Bob!” levels. That reared its ugly head early, undercutting an excellent performance in the team’s first friendly when he was diagnosed with a tear in his meniscus. Initially faced with anywhere from two to five months out, depending on which surgery he chose, he then imprudently chose Door No. 3 and decided to simply try to rehab the knee, turning his leg into a ticking time bomb in order to try to stave off surgery before the World Cup.
A week later came another blow. Hours before what was supposed to be his first action of the preseason slate, McKennie dislocated his shoulder in training, leaving him out for a month. What had been a highly promising unit was suddenly in crisis with only about two weeks left before the season started.
Juve are now looking at playing the first chunk of the season’s games seriously shorthanded in the middle of the park. Given the fact that it looks exceedingly likely that Adrien Rabiot and Arthur are on their way out of Turin before the end of the transfer window, the depth chart for the season’s first three to five games has suddenly shrunk to Locatelli, Zakaria, and those three aforementioned youngsters.
Now, it’s time to let the kids loose.
One of the diseases of Italian football is a patent refusal to allow young players sufficient time to grow unless they display the characteristics of a true alien very early on. It has severely hampered the national team in the last decade and a half, and it has had a profound effect on the club level as well. I remember well writing about AC Milan from 2015-16, watching them continually give minutes to players like Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, who were at that point clearly washed, at the expense of players like Locatelli.
Juventus have this bug to an absurd degree. Over the last 20 years there have been maybe two players from their youth sector who have made significant contribution to the first team: Claudio Marchisio and Moise Kean. It could perhaps be argued that Sebastian Giovinco qualifies as well, but he needed a two-year sojourn to Parma before he was a solid first-team player.
Until Kean broke out four years ago (God it’s been that long already), the youth system hadn’t even really been producing anyone that could seriously be looked at as a major prospect. But that has now changed. Nicolo Fagioli and Fabio Miretti are two of the most highly regarded midfield prospects to come out of the Juve youth sector since Il Principino himself. The club also moved early for Nicolo Rovella, snapping him up from Genoa after just a dozen or so appearances for the Grifoni and loaning him back for the next 18 months.
This trio has the potential to become the long-term backbone of Juve’s midfield. They’re also showing that they’re ready for the opportunity in black and white. Miretti’s late-season cameo produced some of the best performances by any Juventus midfielder all year. Rovella, playing for a Genoa side that ended up relegated last season, had more key passes (30) than any Juve midfielder. He beat Juve’s leader — Rabiot, of all people — by nine, despite playing 11 fewer games. Fagioli’s season on loan at Cremonese in Serie B was incredibly similar to the one that made Sandro Tonali so highly sought-after at Brescia three years ago. The difference was that he was already a Juve player, so there was no wild media speculation about which big club was going to pay out the nose for him.
Neither Fagioli nor Rovella looked out of place on the United States tour — especially Fagioli. Miretti has yet to feature as he just returned to training after a busy summer with Italy at the Under-19 level, but it was clear that Allegri was impressed with him at the end of last season. There’s little point in dropping money on an external option like Leandro Paredes when you could fill those minutes with any one of these talented young players and use the money you’d be spending on some of the several other holes the club still has to fill (coughLeftBackcough).
Given the fact that so many other clubs can punch far above Juve’s weight financially at the moment, a productive youth system is vital. Even those teams that can outmuscle Juve financially are also better at putting players through their youth sectors. The Real Madrid teams that knocked Juventus out of the Champions League in consecutive years had Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez as regular contributors. The Barcelona team that beat them in Berlin was obviously based on a bumper crop from La Masia. The Chelsea team that annihilated Juve at Stamford Bridge this past November had four academy products in their starting XI, and six of them played overall. Even Manchester City, one of the poster children for everything that’s wrong with soccer and money in the modern era, have a regular starter coming out of their academy in Phil Foden.
Juve, on the other hand, has been unable to turn out much of anything from their youth sector until Fagioli and Miretti, while Rovella was a prudent early buy of a talented young player. Now, it’s imperative that whichever of those three stays — and it’s still likely one of them is loaned out despite the midfield depth problems — is given the opportunity to take advantage of the sudden availability of minutes in the wake of Pogba and McKennie’s absence. While adding an extra body for the midfield isn’t the worst idea in the world given the significant fixture congestion that the World Cup will create at the beginning of the year, that player shouldn’t be brought in at the expense of the young players that are already there waiting to break out.
In 2013, Pogba himself took advantage of a Marchisio injury to fully break out. It’s time to let the team’s youngsters get that same opportunity. The rewards could be felt for years to come.