Juventus’ defence is one injury away from falling apart and they should sign a new defender in January, writes Jyotirmoy Halder.
In Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’, the poet compares a pen to a gun. Giorgio Chiellini had one — not a gun but a pen — that evening. It was a wholesome setting for the individual under the spotlight. With Juventus’ vice-chairman, Pavel Nedvěd, sitting beside the man of the hour on a different chair, Chiellini picked up a retractable pen, clicked downward on the top of the tool to retrieve the tip, and then used that to sign the papers left unattended before him on the ashy table. And then came a fist bump between the two separated by an age difference of 12 years.
It was Giorgio Chiellini’s contract extension ceremony that led to Juventus uploading a four-and-a-half-minute video on their official YouTube channel afterwards and that has so far accumulated more than 140k views and over 8.5k likes. Not only did the veteran defender, with just that one signature, pen a two-year renewal but also it was the confirmation of Chiellini pledging his loyalty to a club where he had confirmed to stay for 19 long years — nine years more than what the Greek took to conquer Troy in the great “Trojan War”.
“I always want to enjoy every moment and to think of the present,” Chiellini went on to justify his decision to extend his contract at Turin. The 37-year-old’s contract renewal eventually put an end to those long-running speculations of him hanging his boots at the end of the 2020/21 season. But, on the other hand, it also gave rise to numerous other complexities.
What changes did the Juventus defence go through in the summer?
Let’s start by recalling that it was not an easy summer to do business at all, especially for the top Italian clubs. Most of them were busy hiring a perfect man to lead a team, an astute candidate to manage a title aspirant. And Juventus apparently were no exception.
The departure of Andrea Pirlo renouncing the managerial role at the club that followed the return of Massimiliano Allegri to the throne had already caused much hullabaloo. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the financial burden was too much. And thanks to Bianconeri’s greater needs in the midfield department, Andrea Agnelli and co. chose to completely overlook the necessity for reinforcements in the team’s defensive unit. Yes, you know what the next sentence is going to be – they ended up signing no defender from the latest summer transfer window.
While Juventus made no summer addition to strengthen their rearguard, there were certainly some notable outgoings that took many by complete surprise. First of all, they let go of Cristian Romero — Serie A’s best defender for the 2020/21 season. While on loan at Atalanta, Romero had an excellent season last term. Consequently, Atalanta chose that it was best to trigger the permanent-buy option worth around €16 million in Romero’s contract. After making the deal permanent, however, Atalanta, instead of keeping hold of the asset, considered selling him to Tottenham Hotspur for a deal reported to be around €50 million.
Anyone, even with a teeny-weeny knowledge of mathematics could sense the profit La Dea had made from that sale.
Securing Romero’s permanent acquisition and then selling him at a more exquisite price left Atalanta with a void to fill in the centre of their defence. They decided to raid Juventus once again, hence signing Merih Demiral this time on a season-long loan deal with an option-to-buy. Touted to be a brilliant prospect, Radu Dragusin was in search of regular playing time. At Juventus, it would’ve been impossible to get that. So, he joined Sampdoria on a dry one-season loan at the dying stage of the summer transfer market.
With Daniele Rugani coming back from his one-year loan spell from Cagliari Calcio and Chiellini tying his future to the club for two more years, the Juventus hierarchy considered halting their hunt for a new centre-half.
Were all the Juventus moves rational?
Juventus and rationality may not be synonymous all the time. And the summer transfer window left a note explaining the reasons why. They needed hard cash not only to survive amid the uncertain period inflicted by the pandemic but also to make some reinforcements in other areas of the pitch.
They did get the requisite funds by selling Cristian Romero, who had already made up his mind about leaving Juventus. Furthermore, as Atalanta triggered the option-to-buy clause, there was nothing the club could do to save Dragusin in this instance. However, Demiral’s departure raised the eyebrows.
Signed in 2019 as a part of a project that has had seen youngsters such as Luca Pellegrini, Dejan Kulusevski, Federico Chiesa, Matthijs de Ligt, Weston McKennie, Moise Kean and Kaio Jorge joining the Turin-based club over the years, Demiral was thought to be the future of the club’s defence growing grey-haired with the tandem of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
The astonishment reached the sky when it appeared that the club had allowed La Dea to insert a permanent-buy option in Demiral contract as they had done when signing Romero from Juventus. Considering how Atalanta, as a football organisation works, only an over-optimistic Juventini could hope to see Demiral in the Bianconeri colours next season.
After Juve lost Demiral to a rival conspiring against the Old Lady, was there any need to let Dragusin go in the same summer? Well, it is indeed true that he did not do anything spectacular in the four chances given to him by Andrea Pirlo last season. But, he would loved to make this his breakthrough campaign at Turin.
If letting them leave was the part of a well-orchestrated plan, then Juventus should’ve brought someone else to at least be the cover at the centre-back position. Instead, Allegri’s decision to keep trusting his former protégé in Daniele Rugani doesn’t make sense at all. The Italian defender has clearly failed to reach the promise he showed a few years back. Several reports linked him with a move away from Turin. Did Juventus finally get rid of him? Of course, they didn’t.
How is Bianconeri’s defence one injury away from falling apart?
When it comes to the full-back positions, Juventus don’t have much to worry about, with the likes of Danilo, Juan Cuadrado, Alex Sandro, Mattia de Sciglio, and Luca Pellegrini building a formidable squad depth in that respective part of the pitch. But the club’s defence has to endure a lot of rough experiences over the next few weeks.
Let’s estimate the magnitude of our concerns – the current roster of Juventus possesses four senior centre-backs in Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs De Ligt, and Daniele Rugani. Two of them are currently at the wrong end of their thirties, meaning they are more prone to injuries than others.
If we bring numbers into the equation, data from Transfermarkt shows that Chiellini had six different injuries last season while Bonucci, 34, had three. It is apparent that the 37-year-old is the most fragile of the two. Henceforth, since joining the club for his second stint as a manager, Allegri has shown more faith in the pairing of Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt.
The Italian-Dutch pairing has come up as the go-to defensive duo for Allegri and Juventus. It is the pair that led Juventus to keep their first clean-sheet last week in the Derby della Mole after going 20 games without one in Serie A.
Allegri has been pretty fortunate as none of the four defenders has sustained any serious injury so far in the 2021/22 season. The Bianconeri are set to play AS Roma, Zenit in the Champions League, Inter Milan, a stubborn Sassuolo, Hellas Verona, Fiorentina, Lazio, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Atalanta in what is going to be a hectic, gruelling run of fixtures over next few weeks.
And that will undoubtedly take a toll on the bodies of the defenders. The likelihood of injuries will enhance rapidly. Squad rotation will then become an integral part of the season. But since Juventus haven’t had a relaxing start to their domestic season, don’t have the luxurious bench and all of their upcoming games will be against tougher opponents, the situation could get worse soon enough defensively for the black and whites.
So, what could be the remedy? Perhaps a loan move in the summer to just have one more defender available on the bench could’ve done some good.
But as Juventus were not competent enough to envision the possible outcomes of the Demiral-and-Dragusin departures, Allegri might have to just cunningly navigate Juve’s ship and somehow move to the port marked as the January transfer window, where they might be able to sign one or two new names to attack their future endeavours and ambitions. Whether or not the Old Lady’s defence reaches that far without sustaining much harm remains to be seen.