Arsenal‘s failure to sign a centre-back has been almost as infuriating and drawn out as their inability to secure a defensive midfielder. Which was nearly as maddening as their long-time refusal to recruit a top-level No.1.
While Gunners coach Unai Emery has focused his search for new players on a wide forward and a left-back this summer, the centre of defence is the position supporters have been crying out for investment in.
In Emery’s defence, he signed Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Borussia Dortmund last summer. The hope was the experienced Greek international would plug the gaping hole in Arsenal’s backline. He didn’t.
The situation has been exacerbated by Laurent Koscielny‘s decision to down tools in an attempt to force through a return to France. Reports claim the 33-year-old has already agreed on personal terms with Rennes but the North Londoners are steadfast in their refusal to allow him to leave.
Speaking after a 1-1 draw with Angers on Wednesday night, Emery said: “Koscielny is a very important player for us and I don’t lose hope for him to be with us next season.
“But at the moment his first idea is still to leave and this situation is making us change our ideas about the centre-backs.
“At the moment we have six centre-backs but (Rob) Holding and (Konstantinos) Mavrapanos are coming back from injury and the situation with Laurent is difficult.
“It makes a big difference to us if Laurent plays or not. The transfer window closes in eight days and we need to speak about what we do now.”
That’s where Rugani comes in. The Italian’s current employers, Juventus, have the opposite problem: too many centre-halves.
Rugani must be wondering if his first-team chance will ever come having made his Juve debut six years ago. Something has to give and the 25-year-old could be that something.
His career has been on hold since returning from two years on loan at first club Empoli in 2015.
Two summers ago his chance looked to have arrived when Juve sold Bonucci to Milan. Within 12 months he was back in Turin, blocking Rugani’s path. This summer the veteran Andrea Barzagli moved upstairs, breaking up the famed BBC from which Rugani learned so much.
“They’re helping me getting integrated into the group and I routinely try to learn from them,” Rugani told Vivo Azzurro. “From Bonucci I’d steal his character and his ability in directing play, from Chiellini his aggression and his skill in marking, and from Barzagli the sense of positioning, the concentration and the continuity.”
But with de Ligt set to become Juventus’ defensive leader for the next decade, Rugani’s chances of a regular first-team berth still haven’t improved.
So what would Arsenal be getting? If reports are to be believed, the Gunners will launch a two-year loan offer for Rugani, who was Juve’s third-most used central defender last term.
Comparing the Italian’s statistics to Arsenal’s existing central defensive options is a pointless exercise. The difference between the standing of the two sides, not to mention their stylistic differences and the nuances of the Premier League vs. Serie A, make it an unfair comparison.
We can, though, scrutinise Rugani’s numbers against Chiellini and Bonucci, the two defenders he shared starting duties with last term. Despite featuring in just 1,350 minutes vs. 2,471 (Bonucci) and 1,990 (Chiellini) he comes out favourably in the key defensive metrics.
Rugani won more aerial duels per 90 than his more senior team-mates and was only just shy of their interception figures. While his 0.33 tackles per 90 are comfortably behind Chiellini (0.59), it’s worth noting he only attempted 0.53 tackles per 90, giving him a success rate of 62.2 per cent. Chiellini attempted 1.09 and prevailed in 0.59 (equivalent to 54.1 per cent) while Bonucci contested 0.66 and won 0.33 (50 per cent).
There’s a similar story to be told when it comes to passing too. Rugani was third among the trio for attempted passes (51.53) – Chiellini (60.38) and Bonucci (58.86) – but boasted the best completion rate; 90 per cent against 84.9 (Chiellini) and 86.6 (Bonucci).
A graceful, unflustered defender who reads the game well and times his interventions to perfection more often than not. But opportunities in Turin do not look like they will open up for him.
Even the appointment of Maurizio Sarri, who tried to bring him to Napoli after he impressed at Empoli, won’t improve matters. The former Chelsea coach is as stubborn as they come and will not budge from his favoured 4-3-3 system meaning that unlike during Max Allegri’s reign there won’t be the potential for a third centre-back.
Until now Rugani has been learning from some of the best in his position, studying their every move and picking up invaluable experience as the understudy to the best defence in Europe.
But his football scholarship is over, he’s ready to graduate and embark on a gap year – or two – at Arsenal.