Juventus returned to action on Saturday, taking on Melbourne Victory in their first pre-season friendly and eventually lost on penalties after the International Champions Cup clash finished 1-1 during 90 minutes.
The result is ultimately meaningless, with such outings far more about players regaining match fitness ahead of their first competitive fixture. With the drawing of the Serie A calendar in Milan on Friday, the Bianconeri are now aware that they will open their 2016/17 campaign with a home tie against longstanding rivals Fiorentina later next month.
That will see the reigning champions looking to defend their title for a record sixth-consecutive season, and it appears they may well do so with Gonzalo Higuain donning the famous black and white stripes.
Indeed, while Juventus were on the pitch in Australia, it was being reported in Italy that the club have agreed a sensational deal for the Napoli striker. Transfer expert Gianluca Di Marzio revealed on his website—translated by David Amoyal—the player took a medical with the Turin giants and has agreed terms on a four-year contract.
That potential signing and its ramifications were discussed at length in this previous post, but the game at AAMI Park actually served to highlight an issue arguably more important than the possible arrival of Higuain.
Devoid of the international players yet to return to training after their summer outings, the starting XI contained some unfamiliar names to all-but the most ardent of fans. Selected alongside recognisable faces like Paulo Dybala, Kwadwo Asamoah and Alex Sandro were four members of the club’s youth sector.
One of them—Spanish defender Carlos Blanco—introduced himself to a wider audience in spectacular fashion, lobbing the goalkeeper with an audacious shot from just inside the opposition half.
However, perhaps the most important takeaway lesson from this game came not from that wonderful goal, but from the story of another man who lined up at the back for the Bianconeri.
Filling in at the centre of coach Massimiliano Allegri’s three-man defence was none other than Luca Marrone, a once-promising young player whose career has drifted aimlessly over the past few seasons.
Now 26 years old, the Turin native has made just 26 first-team appearances for a club he joined back in 1998 as his early promise was simply allowed to fade away. He was given his first opportunity almost seven years ago, as the then-Juve boss Ciro Ferrara called Marrone up from the youth sector.
An intelligent, left-footed midfielder, he had helped the Bianconeri Primavera (under-19s) team to lift eight trophies and would make three appearances before being sent on loan to Serie B side Siena for the 2010/11 campaign.
There, under the guidance of Antonio Conte, he would make 18 appearances—and score one goal—as the Tuscan side won the second-tier title with some ease. After the coach was appointed by Juventus a year later, he would insist the youngster was not loaned out again, per La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t TuttoJuve, link in Italian).
His first season back with his hometown club would see Marrone struggle to find space in an impressive side that won the title without losing a single match, but the 2012/13 campaign brought increased opportunities for the fringe players.
Even with the Bianconeri making their return to the UEFA Champions League, Marrone had been expected to leave once again but told reporters that he had discussed his chances with Conte and opted to stay and fight for selection.
“I’ve spoken with the coach and with the club,” he said per Football Italia. “We all believe that it is better for me to play 10 games for a big club like Juventus instead of 30 for another team. Staying here will help me to grow in terms of dealing with certain types of pressure.”
He made exactly the number of appearances he had agreed upon with Conte, with Juventus winning on nine occasions and drawing the other fixture in a new role as Leonardo Bonucci’s understudy.
Instead of being deployed as a midfielder, Conte selected Marrone in the same defensive role he occupied against Melbourne Victory on Saturday and his stats made for impressive reading.
According to WhoScored.com, Marrone averaged 1.8 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per appearance in 2012/13, while his passing was excellent—a major factor in his ability to adapt to the role.
Like Bonucci, he shared playmaking duties in order to free up Andrea Pirlo, averaging 48.9 passes per game and completing them at an excellent rate of 91.8 percent, per the same source.
That form prompted another of his Italian international team-mates to hint at what may lie ahead for the talented Marrone, as Andrea Barzagli told reporters, per Goal.com's Stefan Coerts:
Luca possesses great quality. He’s good at man-marking and can withstand physical contact. He is very good as a central midfielder, but he also knows how to adapt well as a central defender.
When he’ll be able to play more regularly he’ll also gain consistency and will be the future of Juventus.
Yet he never fulfilled that promise nor built upon the one good season, instead being sent out on a succession of loan deals with Sassuolo, Carpi and Hellas Verona. Marrone is now little more than a tale of what-might-have-been, and he is far from the only graduate of Juve’s youth sector to succumb to such a fate.
Indeed, Claudio Marchisio remains the only player to enjoy sustained first-team success after progressing through the club’s academy and is the only one to do so who has featured regularly over the past three decades.
Juventus have instead opted to sign players such as Medhi Benatia and Hernanes, often giving youth products from other clubs—such as former Genoa stand out Stefano Sturaro—those opportunities.
Clearly such a policy has not harmed Juve’s chances of success as they continue to dominate the Italian football landscape, but it is highly unlikely that any of the names who played in Melbourne will progress into coach Massimiliano Allegri’s plans on a more frequent basis.
As discussed in this previous post, there are a number of players who should enjoy that chance, with promising full-back Pol Lirola and striker Moise Kean foremost among them. Yet to do so would require a complete shift in the way the Old Lady thinks about her homegrown young men.