With AS Monaco the latest team to slice through their side with consummate ease, the fact that former Tottenham striker Dimitar Berbatov was among the scorers was perhaps a secondary concern for Arsenal supporters.
The Gunners will now travel to the Stade Louis II needing to become the first visiting team to score three times since September 2011, yet their main concerns undoubtedly lie with their own defensive fragility.
Conceding at a rate of more than a goal per game in the Premier League this term, Arsenal have long-standing issues at the back that remain unaddressed, though that is not for lack of effort. Reports in Italy believe Arsene Wenger’s bid to sign Daniele Rugani in the January transfer window was refused by Empoli, and while his name may not be instantly recognisable to casual fans, the 20 year old is certainly building a solid reputation among more avid Serie A viewers.
The decisive factor in him failing to arrive at the Emirates Stadium is that Juventus already co-owned the central defender, picking him up in the summer of 2012 before loaning him back to boyhood club Empoli a year later. He impressed both in the Bianconeri youth sector and in the Tuscan club’s successful promotion push last season, helping them finish in second place in Serie B and secure their return to the top flight.
Juventus took the decision to leave him there last summer, much to Empoli’s delight, and all three parties have been rewarded with a stellar campaign from Rugani. Expected to struggle in a relegation battle, Maurizio Sarri’s side sit comfortably in mid-table thanks to a solid defensive effort that has seen them keep the third-most clean sheets in the league. Indeed, despite sitting in fifteenth place, only five sides have conceded fewer goals, and Rugani is a major reason why.
According to statistics from WhoScored.com, he has averaged an impressive 1.1 tackles, 0.8 interceptions and 7.6 clearances per game. Standing 6'2" tall, Rugani has matured physically, winning 3.1 aerial duels per game and becoming a dangerous threat at set pieces, weighing in with three goals thus far. The latest of those came in last week’s win over Chievo, but it was perhaps his most recent performance against Palermo that warrants closer attention.
Simply put, Rugani turned in a flawless display that not only belied his tender age, but also ensured the stellar Rosanero duo of Paulo Dybala and Franco Vasquez were unable to continue their impressive scoring streaks. The pair has shared nineteen goals between them and has an incredible chemistry, but Rugani repeatedly flawed their attempts on Sunday, registering two blocked shots, three interceptions and a staggering fourteen clearances over the 90 minute encounter.
Playing with the poise and confidence of a veteran defender, he committed just one foul which took his tally for 2014-15 to just nineteen. Never rashly going to ground and displaying a wonderful ability to read the game, the most eye-opening statistic may well be the fact that Rugani has yet to receive a single yellow card this term. What makes that even more surprising is that he is the only outfield player in Serie A to have played every minute of the season to date, starting and finishing all 25 games of the campaign.
With the statistics supporting the visibly clear ability he possesses, it is perhaps no surprise that Juventus chose to exercise their option on Rugani last month, meaning the player will head to Turin this summer. “He’s ready for any club at European level,” Empoli coach Sarri told Corriere dello Sport when asked if the player could make the step up to that level. “He’s a star in the making, he’s got everything.”
Undergoing heel surgery after the World Cup, Andrea Barzagli has yet to step on the field for the Bianconeri this term, and there is perhaps no more capable replacement for the former Wolfsburg stopper than the Empoli youngster. There are many similarities in their respective approaches, and Rugani played well enough to be added to the Italy squad by Antonio Conte back in November, taking a place on the bench for matches against Albania and Croatia.
He may initially struggle to displace Azzurri regulars Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in Turin, but his agent is convinced Rugani will be more than just a backup for the Bianconeri. “He’s determined to do well there, and at his age, anyone who plays for Juventus has the right ambition and the desire to achieve something,” David Torchia told Tuttomercatoweb after the deal was finalised.
“Sooner or later you have to test yourself against the best,” he added, and Rugani is now set to do just that. Sadly for Arsenal fans, it won’t be with them.