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Manuel Locatelli of Juventus FC celebrates during the Serie... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

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A blueprint to the future of the Juventus midfield

The long-maligned unit in the middle of the park finally has real promise. But it’s up to the front office not to bungle it.

In the last six weeks or so, a very interesting development has taken hold at Juventus. The midfield is actually good. When was the last time we’ve actually said that with a straight face? Probably the morning of the Champions League final in Cardiff in 2017.

Frankly, the midfield was on a steady decline ever since Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal left the team in 2015. Neither of the two were ever adequately replaced. Sami Khedira was effective enough in Vidal’s old role for a few years until his body started to betray him, and Miralem Pjanic was never really a regista, despite manning the position gamely for most of his career at Juve. Throughout the years, the unit was manned by half-measures like Blaise Matuidi or futile attempts to replicate Beppe Marotta’s early success in the Bosman market like Emre Can and Aaron Ramsey.

But things are starting to change for the better.

While not at the soaring heights of the old MVPP days, the current first-choice midfield of Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot has been a consistent and active plus for Juventus since the season resumed after the World Cup. And the best part is there is a ton of room for growth.

Indeed, some of the key pieces of the midfield are either very young (Fagoili, Fabio Miretti, and a few others on loan) or just coming into their prime (Locatelli). The potential for putting together a midfield that could even approach the halcyon days of old is very much there.

The new-look front office needs to make the right decisions to make that happen. A few wrong turns, and we could be right back where we’ve been in the engine room for years. But there’s reason to hope that things will turn out right.

So, how does Juventus turn promise into substance? Here’s how I would do it.

First off, Fagioli and Locatelli must be looked on as foundational pieces. Locatelli has started finally coming into his own at Juve after an up-and-down start, and has even started to adapt the regista role, which he’s never a complete match for. Fagioli, on the other hand, has been a revelation. Denied the chance for real minutes until just before the World Cup when injuries forced Massimiliano Allegri’s hand, he’s been one of the true breakouts in Serie A this year. He looks more and more like Claudio Marchisio by the day. There are likely to be changes in the team in the near future, but these two need to be constants.

The biggest of those potential changes regards whether or not Rabiot remains with the team. The 27-year-old Frenchman is having a career season. Frankly, he’s played about as well as any midfielder in Europe this year, scoring seven goals and adding three assists in Serie A and another two goals and an assist between the Champions League and the Europa League.

It’s a delayed payoff for the €7 million-a-year Bosman transfer that he signed in the summer of 2019. Keeping him in Turin would definitely be a plus, but the financial aspect of that means it’s very much up in the air. Rabiot wouldn’t even have been at Juve this year had his mom-gent, Veronique, demanded a €10 million annual salary that even Manchester United balked at, scuppering a proposed transfer deal. There are no indications that that demand has been lowered.

As the season has gone on and Rabiot continued to play out of his head, the mood at Juve has reportedly begun to shift a little more toward meeting that demand. But that would come with a lot of risk. In his previous three seasons at Juve, Rabiot has only come close to this form once, for about four weeks during the post-lockdown restart in the summer of 2020. To place Rabiot at the very top of the team’s wage bill only to discover that he reverts to the mean without a payday on the line would be a severe blow, especially given the team’s current financial woes.

FC Internazionale v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Francesco Scaccianoce/Getty Images

At the moment, I’d list Rabiot’s chances of staying as a toss-up. Juve might pony up what he wants, but there’s always the possibility of an ambitious Premier League team (coughNewcastlecough) popping in with a bigger offer. If he stays, great. If not, the team can work through it, because there is a piece coming back into the picture that could see the team cover the roles in midfield.

That piece is Nicolo Rovella.

Frankly, the fact that Rovella was loaned out to Monza in August is a travesty. He had been excellent in preseason and played well in cameos off the bench in the first three games of the season. He had the look of a young player ready to contribute, but with two young players in Fagioli and Miretti also in the fold, the quintessentially Italian decision was made to loan him out and bring in a player with Experience.

That player, Leandro Paredes, has been an unmitigated disaster. He’s started only five games — only one of which has come after the World Cup — and when he has been on the pitch he’s tended to be a net negative as opposed to an actual contributor. He’ll almost certainly be going back to Paris Saint-Germain after the season.

Meanwhile, Rovella has flourished in his time at Monza. While he has missed eight games due to a pair of injuries, including a current ankle problem, he has been one of the key drivers of a Monza team that has seriously overachieved this season. His stats are impressive: he averages a key pass a game and has an 89.4 percent pass completion, while also contributing 2.1 tackles and 1.9 interceptions a game on the defensive end. He outperformed all of his parent club’s midfielders during their two head-to-head meetings, playing key roles in both of Monza’s shocking victories. It’s no wonder the team has a loss and two draws in the four games since his injury.

All indications are that Rovella will be retained next season, which is only what he deserves. Rovella’s presence will be a positive in all scenarios. He is the pure regista that this team has been craving for a while now. Whether Rabiot is retained or not, he can be a major contributor to the midfield. If Rabiot stays, he can either serve as depth himself or play in front of the defense and allow the team to always have a high-powered midfielder available off the bench to change a game. If Rabiot leaves, he’s an automatic starter at the regista spot, moving Locatelli into a more natural position farther upfield, creating a potentially deadly box-to-box combination with Fagioli.

Nicolo Rovella (R) of AC Monza is challenged by Fabio... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Depth should come from within as much as possible. It might be tempting to send Miretti out on a loan next year after he hasn’t quite risen to the point some people thought he might in his first full season with the senior team, but I think that would be a mistake. Letting Miretti continue his development at home, where he can be watched closely by the coaching staff and pushed by his teammates, is probably the better option for him. Ditto for Enzo Barrenechea, who would be a natural backup to Rovella and have the chance to develop behind him.

You’ll notice that I’ve written 1,200 words in this piece and have not once mentioned Paul Pogba. That’s because, at this point, I’m not confident that he’ll ever be healthy and available for more than a handful of games at a time. Given the sheer tonnage of games he’s missed since 2019, he’s no longer a reliable option. If by some miracle he does manage an extended period of health, that’s great.

But it makes for a bunch of questions about where he’d play, and at whose expense, especially given that all three current starting midfielders have made themselves somewhat undroppable with their current form. Rabiot leaving next year would give him a good route to starters’ minutes, but that could still cause a logjam between Locatelli, Fagoili, and Rovella for the other two spots in midfield. Granted, having a lot of quality midfielders is a good problem to have, but the fact remains that Pogba’s place as a long-term piece of this midfield simply can’t be taken as a given at this point in time, and until he proves it I’d plan as though I won’t have him available.

The one thing I wouldn’t do in the next transfer window is give in to the temptation to buy another big midfield piece. Given Juve’s financial problems, resources are likely going to be extremely limited in this transfer window, and possibly the next few. Juve’s internal options are very, very good right now, and it makes no sense to drop a high-priced player like, say Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, while you try to rebuild the rest of the roster. The team is going to need fullbacks and possibly even a center back or two in the immediate future.

With the NextGen finally producing players like Fagioli, and with the current unit creating great chemistry, picking up a big name for the sake of it would be a waste of resources. It would be the kind of move Andrea Agnelli would make, and I think we can all recognize the squad building under his supervision post-Marotta was a complete failure, riddled with deals aimed more at marketing the team than making it better.

Juve has the pieces of a high level midfield lined up. They should allow those pieces to flourish and use what resources they have elsewhere on the roster. If they lean on this bumper crop of young pieces they have, they can turn what has been the team’s biggest weakness for years into a long-term strength.

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