Questioned about Daniele Rugani’s lack of playing time, Max Allegri was unequivocal in his response. “It’s beyond doubt; he is the future of Juventus,” the coach told reporters, adding that the central defender “has a bright career ahead of him” but that he needed to wait his turn due to the club’s depth in that position.
The problem is, that press conference came in November 2015 and that “future” has yet to arrive. Since his move to Juventus became permanent in the summer of 2015—now three and a half seasons ago—Rugani has made a total of 51 Serie A starts, meaning his total number of appearances in all competitions for the Bianconeri (77) is still below his number of league starts (78) during a two-year stint in the Empoli first team.
It is understandable that the presence of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci would limit the chances for the Lucca native in those early days, but even as the first of that trio has begun to decline and the latter spent a year at AC Milan, Rugani has remained a bit-part player.
He has found himself losing playing time to Medhi Benatia, Martin Caceres and Angelo Ogbonna at various times, something which many hold Allegri himself accountable for. Yet to insist the Juve boss does not trust young players is to ignore evidence to the contrary as Rodrigo Bentancur’s appearance total already sits at 51 despite the Uruguayan being almost three years younger. A case of, as Manchester United legend Sir Matt Busby once famously remarked, “if they are good enough, they are old enough.”
By the same token, it is odd that Rugani, who will turn 25 in July, is still regarded as a promising prospect, a label that would never be applied to Federico Bernardeschi, Emre Can or João Cancelo, despite the fact all four players were born in the same year (1994). That he is older than both Alessio Romagnoli of Milan and Inter defender Milan Škriniar must also be noted, particularly as that duo are both much closer to the finished article and far more accomplished in their play than the Juve man.
Those who support Rugani continue to lean on reassuring stats such as him playing every minute of every game during his one Serie A campaign at Empoli without being booked, yet repeatedly watching him flinch away from contact makes that much less impressive. In two crucial matches during last season’s run-in he did just that, ducking away from the ball and allowing Inter and Crotone to score goals that could have derailed Juve’s title hopes.
They are far from isolated incidents and they are clearly not mistakes (to write off a pattern of behavior as such is misleading and dangerous), but right now they are immaterial. Barzagli, Bonucci, and Chiellini are all injured, while Benatia has ended his time in Turin to move to Qatari club Al-Duhail and Caceres is seriously lacking match sharpness.
That means Rugani is no longer “the future of Juventus” but is instead the only fit and available central defender in the squad. He will never get a better opportunity to showcase his talent, clearly set for a sustained spell in the starting XI in games that will prove crucial to the Old Lady’s hopes of success this term.
It is a daunting prospect, and there is every chance that his place at the club is on the line. If Rugani thrives over the coming weeks, he will repay the faith of everyone who shrugged off the doubts, the poor performances, and costly errors to still believe in him. He can prove that he deserves a place in central defense for years to come, and that Juve were right to turn down lucrative offers from Arsenal, Chelsea, and Napoli in order to retain his services.
The flip side to that is if he fails.
Perpetually in “win now” mode, the future is a very fluid concept for sporting director Fabio Paratici, a man whose current brief is to maximize the club’s chances of winning the Champions League during what remains of Cristiano Ronaldo’s peak years.
If Rugani shows that he is still not ready to assume such responsibility, the club cannot afford to continue waiting around for him to learn how to carry that weight. The chance is his to capitalize on, and whether he succeeds or not is going rest entirely upon his shoulders, which suddenly makes the forthcoming matches against Sassuolo and Frosinone very interesting.
There are no players for Allegri to select over him. Every excuse for both the player and his coach have been stripped away, and what remains is a two-match audition that will not only show if the Italy international is capable of playing against Alvaro Morata, Antoine Griezmann, and Atlético Madrid, but if he is in fact good enough to remain in Turin at all.
Because, to paraphrase a line from The Dark Knight, Daniele Rugani might not be the central defender Juventus deserves, but he’s the only one they have right now.
Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for FourFourTwo, The Independent, and elsewhere. Author of "Juventus: A History In Black & White." Follow Adam on Twitter.