At some point last fall, during Juventus’ dismal opening stretch of Serie A play, Massimiliano Allegri fielded another lineup with Manuel Locatelli deployed as the regista.
And once again, to the shock of zero people on planet earth, it did not work.
The former Sassuolo and Milan man, the man with the floppy hair, was supposed to be the start of a renewed midfield. The man with the Bianconeri love as a kid was supposed to help shore things up for a unit that has struggled for years, supposed to bring all the things we’d seen little glimpses of in his stellar time in green and black: flair and stability and vision, an intoxicating smoothness on the ball.
Yet last season, outside of a few matches, Locatelli was disappointing. As a regista, especially, he looked consistently clunky, as if, despite training with the club for months, every time he received the ball he had no idea what to do with it. Every second spent in self-doubt hampered his play, and month to month there was little progress.
Something, though, has changed.
Slowly but surely, Locatelli has started to show the signs of palpable germination, a growth on full display against Lazio in Thursday night’s Coppa Italia quarterfinal win. If he can perform like this on a consistent basis, there are seriously good implications for the stability of a club submerged in nothing but instability.
The complete performance vs Lazio
In the 70th minute against the Biancocelesti in Turin, Juan Cuadrado collected the ball on the right side of the pitch and dished to Locatelli in the midfield. In a move reminiscent of peak Miralem Pjanic or, dare I say it, Andrea Pirlo, Locatelli, without looking up, without taking multiple touches, curling his body around the ball, chipped an immaculate pass over the Lazio defense, the ball landing perfectly at the feet of Moise Kean; the striker didn’t convert the chance, but it was maybe the single best piece of distribution I’ve seen out of Locatelli.
The pass was great not just because of the technical skill needed to complete it, but because of everything else: Locatelli knew exactly where the players on the pitch were, and he knew which player was on the other end of that pass. If Arkadiusz Milik was in the No. 9 spot in that moment, I doubt Locatelli would perform the same action; he knew his personnel. There was the technical component, the vision component, and then there was the complete confidence — the complete lack of self-doubt — to try to pull it off. He wasn’t afraid of an Allegri tantrum or the possibility of failure.
Locatelli was everywhere against Lazio: distributing the ball, sure, but also defending the net. Lazio had very few real sniffs at goal, but I distinctly remember one threatening-looking shot, taken just outside the edge of the box, snuffed out by a diving Locatelli — one of four blocks for the midfielder. Defensively, he added three interceptions and two clearances and the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.
At this juncture, next year’s midfield looks as murky as everything else. Weston McKennie just left; Adrien Rabiot is presumably gone; Paul Pogba will be rehabbing a different injury; Leandro Paredes will probably be back at the Louvre. Locatelli is the closest thing to a safe bet to don the Juve kit, and if I could pick a single midfielder for that to be the case, it would be him.
Not just “a” building block
In a season rife with various low points, the game against Lazio was arguably the most dire “backs against the wall” moment for the Bianconeri. With the 15-point deduction and the abysmal restart to the Serie A campaign, with the hope of playing European football next year nothing but a candle floating on a buoy in the middle of a stormy ocean, the Coppa Italia is one of the last vestiges of pride for which the team can fight. And Locatelli fought like a warrior, with a focus and determination and freedom that should help spark the rest of the team.
As I wrote in my last piece, the future of this club is not going to be for the faint of heart; it doesn’t take a genius to see that. The reality of the situation is that, in all likelihood, we will be entering a period of austerity. For the foreseeable future, there will be no out-of-the-blue big investments as happened with Dušan Vlahović a year ago; there might only be out-of-the-blue sales. There will be no deus ex machina capital infusions; there will instead need to be shrewd signings like Milik, or home-grown players who step into first-team roles.
Whatever the future does or doesn’t look like in detail, I know for certain one thing that I’m looking for in the remainder of this season: building blocks. The Old Lady might not be forcefully relegated like last time, but there will be a great temptation to jump ship for certain players, especially when English clubs can spend hundreds of millions of Euros over a January transfer window without batting an eye, and, coupled with the club’s financial state, there will probably be the need to acquiesce as we’ve already seen with McKennie.
Locatelli has all the right ingredients not just to be “a” building block, but possibly “the” building block of the future. He’s a Juventino through and through, he’s talented as hell, he’s evolving, and when he’s on his game he changes the pitch from end to end. He certainly hasn’t reached this level on a consistent basis yet, but his stellar performances are becoming more familiar, and that bodes well for a club in need of solidity.