Back-Up Plan: Juventus Looking for Midfield Options Beyond ‘M-V-P’

The start made by Juventus in the 2011-12 season has been a joy to behold for all fans of the Bianconeri, a huge fillip following some dire years under the previous management regime. As vital a role Antonio Conte, the new stadium and finding a right-back worthy of the name have all played, it is undoubtedly the perfectly balanced M-V-P midfield trio of Marchisio, Vidal and Pirlo that has led the Old Lady out of those darkest days.

Since arriving on a ‘free’ transfer from Milan, Andrea Pirlo‘s resurgent form is almost the perfect metaphor for Juve’s change in fortune: written off as yesterday’s man and his signing deemed the latest in a string of poor decisions by Beppe Marotta, his form has caught everyone by surprise. Pirlo leads the league in completed passes and his probing from deep in midfield, combined with his calm demeanor on the ball, are key in the possession-based gameplan implemented by Conte.

Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio meanwhile, combine attacking impetus with defensive awareness and ability to make the three-man unit one of the best in Europe. As if to highlight that point, Vidal has completed more tackles than all but three men in Serie A, while il Principino is the joint topscorer for i Bianconeri this term. The time they are spending together on the pitch will stand the team in good stead next season, when they are hopefully asked to make the same impact in the UEFA Champions League.

“Ah… Sir? We Need Backup!”

Yet that very objective presents a further issue. Currently only playing one game per week, there is no way the three can play every game in three competitions with Pirlo a particular cause for concern. The playmaker will be 33 by the end of this term and has already shown signs of fatigue on the rare occasions Juventus have played two games in quick succession, such as against Fiorentina or vs. Napoli.

Looking to the bench, options are relatively thin on the ground with Michele Pazienza and Luca Marrone as the only recognised central midfielders in the first team squad. Because of this the club has been linked with a string of players, from Angelo Palombo of Sampdoria, Fiorentina’s Riccardo Montolivo and, most recently, an alleged €11 million bid for Porto’s Fredy Guarín.

Given the clubs need to improve its financial status – expertly recapped, dissected and discussed by the brilliant Swiss Ramble recently – such an outlay is not only unlikely but perhaps ultimately unnecessary. Given that, with the ‘free’ (no, I will never tire of putting the term in quotation marks) signings of both Pirlo and Pazienza, added to the fact Marchisio and Marrone are home-grown players, the €10.5m fee paid to Bayer Leverkusen for Vidal is the total cost of the midfield. Undoubtedly a simplistic, not to mention perhaps specious, argument, but perhaps convincing the Juve board to spend more than that on one single player (especially when he would essentially be a reserve), would be particularly difficult for Beppe Marotta.

In-House Options & Lads On Loan

So what other options are open to the Bianconeri at this time? As already noted, Conte has Michele Pazienza and Luca Marrone at his disposal. At 29 years of age, Pazienza is a solid professional who can provide the defensive solidity needed to close out games whilst also being a vastly underrated passer, as his 84.7% completion rate attests. Marrone is equally comfortable in possession and has the benefit of having spent a year working with Conte at Siena last season. The 1990-born Turin native made nineteen appearances for the Robur, fully understanding the coach’s demands and having a steady influence in their promotion campaign.

Between them the two men have made only fleeting cameos this term, featuring in tandem in the Coppa Italia win over Bologna, while former Napoli man Pazienza also starting against Cesena (when Pirlo was suspended) and making seven sub appearances, to give him a total of 143 minutes on-pitch action.

In addition to those two Juventus also have an interesting pair of midfielders out on loan at other clubs. Swedish midfielder Albin Ekdal was signed in 2008 from IF Brommapojkarna at just 17 years of age. He played largely for the Primavera, but made his first team debut less than two months after moving to Turin. He has since spent a season on loan at Siena, scoring his first Serie A goal against Inter in a 4-3 loss, before moving to Bologna where he continued to shine. Now at Cagliari, the 22 year old has not only played over sixty Serie A games but also made his full International debut for Sweden.

Quietly and unassumingly going about making a name for himself in the same uncomplicated manner with which he plays, 20 year old Manuel Giandonato made his first start for Juve in the Europa League tie with Red Bull Salzburg last season when Gigi Delneri had few options available to him. He made two more starts before being sent to Lecce this past summer to gain experience and the now replaced coach Eusebio Di Francesco continually praised his ability. He is a genuine regista, technically excellent, an extremely accomplished passer who cites Fernando Redondo and Xabi Alonso as his role models. That in itself gives a great insight into how he views himself as a player, while an interview in La Stampa last year was equally revealing:

When you wear the shirt of Juventus the margin for error is very low in games and also in training. Is it pressure? Not really. Perhaps because having the role I play on the field I am accustomed since childhood to having pressure & responsibility. It’s a role that I like, so I willingly accept the responsibility and pressure that comes with it. In fact I use them to be stimulated to do better.

The Kid from Resende

Those two may well be on the right path but there is also another youngster, one whose development is much further behind all the other four alternatives but a player that may in the future have far more to offer. Gabriel Appelt may have been ineligible to play in competitive action until this month but it has not prevented him from making a huge impression since arriving from Resende. Technical coordinator Mauro Sandreani was impressed from the first time he saw him as he told Sky Italia:

In February we went to watch him live in Brazil. He is a phenomenon, not only for his technical skills and tactical awareness but also for his strong personality.

After arriving in the summer, Gabriel made his bow in the annual Villar Perosa friendly before travelling with the Primavera, in order to take part in the Tirreno e Sport tournament right before the start of their league campaign. With some great performances against Botafogo and Milan, as well as a wonderful goal in a first team friendly against Savona, the midfielder has caught the eye and regularly earned a spot training with Conte’s squad, where he has looked every inch ready to play at that level. While he may only be 18, it is hard to imagine Marotta paid over €3m for a player to fill a role already well covered in the Youth Sector, no matter how talented he may be.

Essentially a defensive midfielder, Gabriel adds technical quality and precise passes to his ability to shut down opponents. He has the ability to become a complete modern midfielder, echoing both the defensive and offensive strengths so evident in Marchisio and Vidal, making him an almost perfect back up to them. He appears to be extremely quick, a quality he uses more when not in possession, as can be seen in the well-circulated clips of his match-up with Ronaldinho’s Flamengo. His passing is also good enough to fit Conte’s style, as do his comments to Tuttosport shortly after signing his first Juventus contract:

I hope to play as a starter, to fight and win the championship. I really admire Del Piero, he is an incredible player. I am already one of you, a Juventino. It was difficult to mark Ronaldinho but I learned a lot from that experience. Now I hope to be able to mark other champions in your calcio, that will be great.

So Who Needs Guarín?

With Gabriel, Albin Ekdal and Manuel Giandonato on the books, plus Michele Pazienza alongside Luca Marrone already in Conte’s squad, that €11m fee for Guarín (as talented as he may be) looks increasingly wasteful. Thanks to the efforts of Marotta and Fabio Paratici, Juventus already have a wealth of players ready to step up and well, sit down, to back up the M-V-P trio.

And who knows… eventually one of these guys may actually displace (or replace) one of the stars they are warming the bench for!

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