This was meant to be Daniele Rugani’s year, having learned from the BBC of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, the best defensive trio of this past generation. Instead, the Italy international finds himself unappreciated at Juventus.
When looking at the defence from a statistical point of view, one sees that not all has been right for the Old Lady, with an aging and jostled backline. This past season, Juventus saw its highest total goals allowed since the BBC trio’s unification.
With Chiellini and Bonucci having been the most frequent tandem, the average age of their starting centre-back pair is now 33. Upon Barzagli’s retirement and Medhi Benatia’s departure, sporting director Fabio Paratici knew some fresh blood was needed to ensure improvement. With the sensational move for Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt and arrival of impressive Merih Demiral from Sassuolo, there’s less room than ever for Rugani.
In 2013, a young Rugani was fighting to help his hometown club of Empoli in Serie B, coached by an unknown manager by the name of Maurizio Sarri. It was a youthful crop of talent, with smart, impressive football. Requiring his defenders to draw in tight to one another, the young centre-back took naturally to his commands, showing awareness and control well beyond his years. The pair finished above 20 others that season, winning automatic promotion to Serie A. The 20-year-old was the standout player in defence, and maintained his form the following year in the top flight.
Juventus noticed their co-owned youngster was showing the signs to be a potential prodigy, and in the winter of 2015, bought him outright. In order to keep up the good work, Sarri and Rugani would stay connected for the remainder of the season. The loan continued to bear fruit, as Empoli finished almost 10 points above the relegation zone, and had the second fewest goals allowed for teams in the bottom half of the table.
In the summer of 2015, both Sarri and Rugani moved onto greener pastures, with the defender under the tutelage of the BBC. He earned 11 starts over each of the next two seasons, learning the discipline of not only becoming, but staying as a champion, and developing his overall abilities. His marking, anticipation, and reading of the play steadily progressed. However, completely replacing one of the trio was proving an almost impenetrable task. They were not just a wall in defence, but also in holding their place in the starting lineup.
It seemed that with Sarri at the helm for Juventus, Rugani would finally get his chance. Predicated on tactics that require a rigid defender, he would find consistent time rotating with Chiellini and Bonucci, rather than as a sporadic player to fill the gaps.
Yet not all was right for Rugani in Turin. With the massive deal for de Ligt, Juventus and Sarri had chosen their leader of the defence for years to come. It’s a terrible feeling for a player to see a younger, more capable player figure bought in their place, especially when all the signs seemed to point in your favour. For a player who already had a vulnerable psyche, this lack of confidence made him reconsider his career with the Old Lady.
The centre-back has now reportedly accepted a move to the English Premier League. With Arsenal seeing their captain Laurent Koscielny depart for Bordeaux, the Italian is now expected to be a key player in restoring the London side’s backline.
When we analyze Rugani’s skills and deficiencies, the mood becomes somewhat ominous. The EPL is known for its high defensive lines, all out attack, and physically imposing players. A centre-back, especially for Unai Emery’s squad, must be able to recover quickly, and match the pacy wingers and built strikers that epitomize the league.
In his career, Rugani has been anything but. He’s often been caught out for mental lapses and making late tackles during the past four seasons with Juventus, and isn’t particularly fast. With consistent playing time though, it’s hopeful that he can build a good run of form, and leave those mistakes in the past.
It was only five short years ago that he kept a pristine record of avoiding all yellow and red cards. Knowing that he won’t need to replace arguably the best defenders of the last generation could also calm his nerves, and with newfound confidence, the Gunners could have an important part of their future arriving.
Rugani now walks on the tightrope of his career. If he can make it to the other side, he will be a constant feature in one of the world’s top clubs, but if he slips, it will be the last chance where he’s viewed as a future top defender. The time is now, and it’s an opportunity the young defender must capitalise upon at such a pivotal time in his career.