After the miserable results of the latest campaigns, there has been no end to the blame games played in Turin and among the diaspora of Juventini on the web. Fingers have been pointed in almost every direction, and it’s fair to say that very few involved with the club since 2006 can be said to be completely guilt-free. ‘A Point to Prove‘ is a new series where we will focus solely on the PLAYERS. In the end, they are the ones who need to perform to get us out of this mess – and quite a lot of them have… something to prove.
“Old, defensive Italian coach” was one of the most common criticisms launched at Gigi Delneri last season. Like Trapattoni’s famous substitution of Gattuso for Del Piero, the Friulan manager was seen as too cautious and unwilling to gamble for a result. While there is some valid criticism of his overly defensive style of play, his willingness to field young players certainly shatters the stereotype. At the very beginning of his brief Juventus tenure, Delneri went as far as to entrust both full-back positions to two young, unproven Italians – Paolo De Ceglie and Marco Motta.
At the time, Marco Motta had more experience at higher levels: during his Roma days, he famously dominated the flank against Arsenal and was touted as a future fixture in the Azzurri. Paolino on the other hand, as his nickname suggests (it means “little Paolo” in Italian) was and still is rather unheralded; a nobody to those not closely following Juventus. Yet, and despite the player’s lack of appearances in that position, this author has always been a big believer in De Ceglie’s potential as full-back. Excellent crossing ability, decent defending skills, good pace… all the ingredients are there. So just what has been holding De Ceglie back all this time??
First Steps as Nedved’s Deputy…
The left-back position has been a nuisance problem for Juventus ever since Calciopoli in 2006. When we first returned to Serie A, Ranieri envisioned Giorgio Chiellini (another one of our players with unachieved potential himself) as a starter, with Cristian Molinaro ready to step up from the bench. Then Jorge Andrade’s knee went crack, which coupled with poor CB displays from Domenico Criscito led to Chiellini moving to the center full-time. Former Siena terzino Cristian Molinaro thus naturally inherited the berth at left-back, and a string of positive performances (at least by Claudio Ranieri’s standards) seemed to indicate Juve need look no further, at least for the time being.
However come the following year, the requirement for a Molinaro back-up was pressing. Enter Paolo De Ceglie, a young Valle d’Aosta-born midfielder who, like Molinaro, had also spent time developing at Siena. Rising through the ranks of Juve’s Primavera alongside Claudio Marchisio and later, Sebastian Giovinco, De Ceglie had up until this point primarily been playing left-mid, following in the footsteps of his childhood idol Pavel Nedved.
During the 2008-09 season, with Ranieri clearly preferring Molinaro for the left-back position, De Ceglie was used more often in a vice-Nedved role, putting in some solid performances on the wing and delivering key passes into the box through the use of his two primary attributes: pace and accurate crossing. During this time, the one-sided nature of Cristian Molinaro was becoming more and more apparent. For all the solid defending the ex-Salernitana player was able to do, he was very rarely ever able to contribute offensively (crosses being his major shortcoming), yet just as it appeared De Ceglie would finally take a more prominent role as left-back, the player picked up an injury and was ruled out of the end of the season with a collapsed lung. In his absence and with the progressive decline in performance by Molinaro, it was clear that Ferrara (who had in the meantime replaced Ranieri) would be searching for a different left-back in the coming Summer.
Left-Back Explosion with Delneri
It would have been courageous at that point to have given the starting shirt to De Ceglie, but understandable that Ferrara (under Marcello Lippi’s recommendation) preferred the experienced Fabio Grosso to join the squad. Unfortunately, it is inequivacable Grosso turned out to be a much worse full-back than Molinaro, with occasional positive offensive forays outweighed significantly by poor man-marking and atrocious positioning. When Zaccheroni arrived mid-season to replace an out-of-favor Ferrara, Grosso was benched and De Ceglie took up the starting shirt. A few positive games coupled with more shaky ones led Fabio Grosso eventually getting his spot back, suggesting that perhaps De Ceglie was not the type of player to rise to competition, needing assurances from his coach instead.
Leading further credence to this theory was Paolino’s performance under Gigi Delneri, taking over manager duties in May 2010. From day one, the ex-Sampdoria coach praised De Ceglie, and froze his only other serious competitor, Fabio Grosso out of the squad. In summer pre-season training, Delneri spent quite a bit of time with Motta and De Ceglie, working on his complicated system which primarily engaged the defensive duties of the full-back (a system he quickly scrapped with Martinez’s flop, it must be noted). De Ceglie responded very well with a clear progression in his defensive abilities as his confidence continued to grow. The left-back from the mountains had always had a good offensive production, but now was adding better positioning and crucially, the skills and confidence to defend against an opposing winger one-on-one.
Sadly for Paolino, his progress was delayed by yet another freak injury. Juventus took on Milan at the San Siro, and De Ceglie was again positive, setting up Quagliarella with a perfect cross for the opener and holding his own on the flank. A few minutes later a nasty clash with Bonera seemed to leave De Ceglie off better, as he continued to play (to some difficulty) while the Rossonero was stretchered off in pain. However whereas Bonera returned to the squad weeks later, De Ceglie’s fractured knee-cap ruled him out until February. The date was continually pushed back and he was only able to rejoin the first team against Napoli on the last day of the 2010-11 season. When speaking of his happiness at Juve, Delneri singled out four things from the Fall: Quagliarella and Aquilani’s arrival, Iaquinta’s form, and De Ceglie’s maturation under his guidance.
2011-12: Year Zero
De Ceglie certainly divides opinion amongst the Juve faithful. Many see nothing special in him, an average winger who is shaky at full-back, though much of the criticism is similar to what Balzaretti and Zambrotta endured early in their Juventus careers- that they weren’t defensive enough to play fullback, that their offensive contribution was outweighed by defensive slack. Italy is famous for converting pacy wingers into full-backs, Gianluca Zambrotta being a prime example, and in many cases, it’s not until age 24-25 that these players start to blossom. Zambrotta, Cassani, Balzaretti, and Abate have all followed this stage of maturation. He’s very similar in ways to Milan wing-back Ignazio Abate. After spending a year on loan as a winger at Torino, Abate returned to Milan. He spent a decent season with Leonardo and following a full season under Allegri, was able to transform his raw pace into that of a quality full-back. Given his progression until that ill-fated AC Milan game, it is quite possible had De Ceglie not crossed knees with Bonera, he would be spoken of in similar terms to Abate.
Ultimately, De Ceglie’s success this season depends on whether Conte can put faith in him or prefers to go with the more experienced Reto Ziegler. In any case, this is year zero for the still young Valdostan. Last year was his to seize, though fortune had other ideas and it has led to a reset. De Ceglie has stiff competition in the well-travelled full-back from Sampdoria, and at age 24, Paolino needs to start producing or showing improvement or he will very likely spend time on the bench and eventually be shipped off. He has not had many long spells in the first team, and some have led to middling results, but the potential is there. It’s up to Conte, the central defenders, and of course De Ceglie himself to realize that potential, clearing Juve’s problems at left-back once and for all.