The fairytale from the Upside Down is officially over. I honestly can’t decide if this season was the longest or the shortest, but it was certainly the most excruciating. The negative elements of this 2022-23 campaign, on and off the field, are so obvious, so omnipresent, and so palpable that they don’t even need to be stated.
Despite everything, though, such is sport’s true reflection of the most visceral truths of ordinary human life that even in the darkest moments there are little moments of light. To wit: we’ve got enough doom and gloom to last us all summer, and I’ll sure as heck grab a torch and explore those dark caves when the time is right, but for now let’s momentarily contemplate the good.
From goalkeepers to youngsters to the birth of a new capitano, here’s the best stuff I saw unfold this year.
1. The late-blooming bricklayer
Federico Gatti did not launch like a rocket into the starting lineup as soon as the campaign commenced. In fact, the 24-year-old rode the pine for the large majority of the beginning of the season, appearing sporadically either a substitute or starting against lower-table sides.
When March and April rolled around, however, the young center back announced himself more and more. There was almost an inverse relationship between the decline of Alex Sandro (playing as a center back) and the arrival of Gatti. I’m very far from crowning him the next great Juventus central defender, but Gatti’s play has been hugely encouraging as we look into the future.
2. The best goalkeeper room on the planet
Every time someone starts to doubt Wojciech Szczęsny, the Polish keeper delivers. Every time I wonder if Mattia Perin can stay sharp while spending much of the year on the bench, he shines. And even though Carlo Pinsoglio didn’t log a single minute this year, he’s without a doubt the best third keeper you could imagine.
I don’t think it can get better than this bunch, and even in a bad year that remained true.
3. The Serb (no, the other one)
Filip Kostić does what Filip Kostić does and knew Filip Kostić would do: he crosses the ball into the box. The Serb led the team in assists and was a constant, consistent presence on the left flank this year in a season when the Bianconeri most frequently played a three-man back line. The very few times Kostić was disappointing seemed to be when he was, simply, overworked (see next section for solution).
More than the assists, however, this is the kind of hard-working, blue-collar player you want on your team, the kind you go to battle with. I hope he has a few good seasons yet in Turin.
4. The kids are all right
Examining the rise of the U-23 squad and the players the project has produced is a subject in its own right, and while more than two of the kids have contributed consistently to the senior squad I think the play of Nicolò Fagioli, who just took home the U-23 Serie A Player of the Year award, and Samuel Iling-Junior, who had a wonderful hockey assist on the last goal of the season, deserve special mention.
Beyond Fagioli’s obvious love for the club, his play has steadily evolved past where many, I think, thought it could. He’s become both dynamic and disruptive, but maybe more important than that he’s maintained some flair to his game while eliminating mistakes; in other words, he’s more consistent. Given the financial restraints of the club, we could be seeing a lot of him in the midfield next year, and I think that’s a good thing.
Iling-Junior has a speed and 1-on-1 confidence that very few in this current Juventus club have. Somewhat similarly to Gatti, he was mostly an afterthought at the beginning of the year, but the longer things went on the more I wanted to see him on the pitch. If he was right-footed I have the feeling that we would’ve seen a lot more. As it stands, if Juventus resist the offers that are surely to come from the Premier League this summer, the left-sided duo of Kostić and Iling-Junior could be a great point of strength next year.
5. The rise of a leader
When Giorgio Chiellini trotted off to Los Angeles for his MLS escapades (he’s done pretty well!), there was a void: not just the big presence at the back, not just the big goofy grin, but the spiritual compass, the guy who was the very embodiment of grinta. If, when Juventus swapped Joao Cancelo for Danilo back in 2019, you would’ve told me that Danilo would be the guy who might step into the leadership void, I probably would’ve laughed at you. Yet here we are.
Danilo is not the same as Chiellini; he never will be, and that’s OK. He’s not the same player, and he’s not the same leader. But the Brazilian, in his quiet and humble manner, has slowly and steadily become the spiritual epicenter of the players.
I wish we could say “things can only get better from here,” but honestly a statement like that is making some serious assumptions; we’ve seen enough this year to know that things can always get worse, and they very well might. But whether things get better or worse next year, whether or not Juventus climb back into the top four, whether they secure the Scudetto or fall to the middle of the table, hang on to the good morsels.
I for one feel a strange, exhilarating sort of excitement at the thought of next year, a season with no Champions League and diminished aspirations. A season for the true Juventino to say: fino alla fine.