Ever since his performances for Italian minnows Empoli propelled to him to prominence, Daniele Rugani has been linked with a raft of clubs from around Europe.
When Maurizio Sarri left the Tuscan side to join Napoli, the Partenopei wanted to sign Rugani in order to reunite him with the coach, while Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United were also mentioned as potential suitors for the promising young central defender.
Unfortunately for them, Juventus had already made their move. Six years ago they bought half his contract in co-ownership and Rugani spent the 2012/13 campaign in their youth sector, returning to Empoli the following summer.
There he helped Empoli gain promotion to the top flight and he shone during the 2014/15 season at the Stadio Carlo Castellani, playing every minute of all 38 Serie A games without so much as picking up a yellow card.
Sharp in the tackle, excellent at reading the game and strong in the air, he was returning to Turin a vastly improved player with incredible potential. It seemed the Bianconeri had found the perfect player to learn from their fabled “BBC” backline. Indeed, with Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini all in their 30s, the youthful Rugani was in the ideal position to grow and become a cornerstone of the team for years to come.
Given the presence of that aforementioned trio, his first campaign under Juve coach Max Allegri went exactly as expected. Rugani made 21 appearances in all competitions with most coming against Serie A’s smaller clubs or in the Coppa Italia, gaining valuable experience but remaining firmly a reserve as Juve marched to a league-and-cup double.
It was the perfect apprenticeship for central defender and the star pupil seemed acutely aware of his good fortune. “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.”
Rugani was visibly maturing but occasionally still looked timid and unsure of himself. Fast-forward to the present day, two more years have passed and he has essentially stood still.
Already 24 years old and surpassed in the pecking order at Juve by Medhi Benatia, he is still raw and relatively inexperienced. Since leaving Empoli he has started just 45 matches in all competitions, and is rapidly falling behind a number of defenders from his own generation.
Former Italy Under-21 team-mate Alessio Romagnoli is six months younger but joined Milan at the same time Rugani moved permanently to Juve, featuring in more than double the amount of games overall (99) thus far.
Despite the Rossoneri missing out on Europe for two consecutive campaigns, Romanogli has also seen more action in continental competition this term (six appearances, 508 minutes) than Rugani has in three seasons combined (five appearances, 291 minutes).
Born in May 1994, he is two months older than Rugani and was bought outright by Juventus in January 2017. He is set to join them at the end of the current campaign with a vast wealth of experience to his name.
It remains to be seen how Caldara adjusts to the pressurised environment that envelopes every player who pulls on the Bianconeri shirt. Yet where Rugani had just one season of Serie A under his belt when he moved to Turin, the Atalanta man will benefit from playing games at Everton’s Goodison Park, Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion and Lyon‘s Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
He seems better prepared, more focussed and, with goals against Lazio, Napoli, Roma and even Juventus to his name over the last 18 months, Caldara has proven he can thrive under the brightest spotlight.
That is definitely not something that can be said of Rugani. At the start of this season, following Bonucci’s shock decision to leave for Milan, he seemed set to play a major role and was given starts in the first four rounds of Serie A.
Yet when Juve made the trip to Camp Nou to face Barcelona in the Champions League, he watched from the sidelines and quickly lost his place to Benatia who now regularly features alongside either Barzagli or Chiellini.
Both Italian stalwarts seem certain to stick around next term, Benatia is arguably now the club’s most impressive defender and Allegri will want to see what Caldara – who could cost a total of €25 million – is capable of.
Where does that leave Rugani? The Juve boss has now abandoned the three-man defence completely, meaning he will effectively be the fifth-choice central defender for a team who field just two at once.
A change of scenery could be just what he needs to realise that immense potential that has remained untapped at Juventus, because Rugani remains a promising talent and one any of those teams would be fortunate to capture.