Juventus Youth Report : Leali And Boakye Excel In Serie B


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The concept of co-ownership is a unique phenomenon in Serie A transfer market. Coupled with co-ownership deals as well as good old loan stints hundreds of youngsters are sent around Italy to gain first team experience away from the bigger clubs. Juventus is no exception to this rule. The club’s newfound focus on youth investment means that a host of young Juventus players were sent to a wide spectrum of clubs all over the peninsula. Some of these players excelled while others failed to break into first team of their clubs. Among the loaned/co-owned players two – Nicola Leali and Richmond Boakye had wonderful seasons while the likes of Federick Sorensen and Gabbiadini also performed well in patches.

Nicola Leali

Eyebrows were raised when the highly rated young ‘keeper was sent to Vitrus Lanciano on loan. Juventus had paid a hefty sum for the youngster in the summer and it seemed like sending the boy termed to be “next Buffon” to a potential basement side of Serie B was not the best idea. Hailing from Lanciano in central Italy, most famous for the first Catholic Eucharistic Miracle, Vitrus had never qualified for Serie B till last season and were bookies’ favorites to slide back to Italian third division. In hindsight, this decision proved to be a masterstroke. Playing behind a defence which lacked quality as well as experience at the top level, Leali’s goalkeeping skills were put to use very frequently during the season. Vitrus toyed with relegation all season but were finally able to escape the drop thanks largely to the 20 year old’s prowess under the sticks. Some of his best performances came in tough matches – a 2-2 draw away against Empoli, another 2-2 draw against eventual Cadetti winners Sassuolo, where he denied Boakye, also owned by Juventus, several times and an invaluable penalty save in the 1-0 away win Reggina. Against his old club Brescia in late October Leali’s lack of experience was exposed for once as he was sent off for a rash challenge on Juan Ignacio Gomez.

Overall Leali played 37 matches for his club and was their starting ‘keeper. He conceded 51 goals in 37 matches and chalked out six clean sheets overall. Some of his best games came during the business end of the season as Vitrus lost just once in April and May eventually staying safe from relegation. His performances in Serie B didn’t go unnoticed as the 20 year old was selected as the best goalkeeper in the division in the seasonal awards. He was also selected for the Italian squad for Euro U21. Given Leali’s impressive showing in Serie B he is likely to be loaned out to a Serie A club next season, a return to Juventus may have to wait for a while still. However, he has already proved that investing in him may turn out to be one of the smartest transfer moves that Juventus has done in recent past.

Richmond Boakye

Unlike Leali, the Ghanaian was sent to a club which was a known entity to the player himself. Boakye first came into scouts’ notice after scoring a dozen goals for Sassuolo last season and was purchased by Juventus on a co-ownership with Genoa. Loaned back to Sassuolo, Boakye started where he had left off for the Neroverdi last season – scoring three goals and notching up an assist in his first three starts.

Under former Lecce coach Eusebio Di Canio, Sassuolo played a dynamic 4-3-3 formation which saw them net the second highest goals in Serie B. Di Canio had led them to a third place finish last year as they narrowly missed out on promotion and his awareness of Boakye’s strengths and weaknesses helped the player to go further. While he was used mostly as a center-forward last season, the Ghanaian played on both wings this season, along with reprising his role from last season. Forming a wonderful combination with 18 year old Domenico Berardi, perhaps the best and most exciting player in last season’s Serie B, Boakye found his best form in late November and December when he bagged eight goals and three assists in eight games.

Travelling with his national team for the Africa Cup of Nations was a treasured experience for Boakye, even though he didn’t get to play, but it eventually affected his club form, just like it happened for compatriot Kwadwo Asamoah in his parent club. He had to wait till March to get his first goal of 2013 – it came in the form of an important spot kick, which he won himself, a winner against Cittadella. He finished his season strongly as Sassuolo completed a fairytale story to get promoted to Serie A after the doldrums of Serie C1 just few years back. As a testament to their marvelous team performance four Sassuolo players finished as top scorers with eleven goals – Boakye was once of them. However, in terms of goals per minute Boakye’s one goal in every 186 minutes was the best strike rate for the Serie B winners. He also notched up seven assists.

It is likely that the 20 year old will stay for one more season in Sassuolo. In an interview after their promotion he had this to say, “I don’t think it’s a bad idea to go back to a team that qualified to Serie A and you get more playing time.” Should he continue his steady upward rise then he may well make a return to the Juventus Stadium in the near future.

Other players

Unlike last season Federick Sorensen finally got the match time that he deserves in Bologna. The 21 year old Danish defender made 20 starts for Bologna in Serie A, coming off the bench five times more. Sorensen’s time in Juventus was marked by his clean style of defending and things haven’t changed in Bologna where he committed just 39 fouls against his 71 successful tackles. One aspect that has really improved in the Dane this season, an aspect that is important in Conte’s system, is his passing percentage. With 82% success rate in passes Sorensen matches the rate of Juve’s first choice central defenders. Sorensen’s solid season means that he may still make a return to Juventus but it depends in the end on how impressed Conte has been with him.

Italy U21 regular Manolo Gabbiadini also had a good season in Sorensen’s club. For the Azzurini he plays a more central offensive role but was used on the wings at times at club level. The 21 year old was impressive nonetheless, scoring six goals and assisting twice in 20 appearances. Often likened to Cristian Vieri in playing style, Gabbiadini’s aerial prowess was an asset to his team and he scored a number of headed goals including one on 10th minute at San Paolo in a 2-3 shock victory.

Unlike Gabbiadini, the future Juventus career of his often strike partner in Azzurini, Ciro Immobile, looks in doubt. The former Juventus Primavera top scorer wasn’t helped by Genoa’s chaotic season and managed to score only five times in 33 appearances. At 23 years, Immobile will soon cross the promising youngster bracket and it doesn’t look likely that he will be coming back to Juventus.

Pro Vercelli’s first season in Serie B in more than half a century eventually proved disastrous as they were sent back to Serie C1 with a crash. Pro loaned in as many as 18 players in a forgettable season as some of them left in winter due to lack of playing time or poor usage. One of them was young defender Alberto Masi, who rose to prominence in the same club during their promotion to Serie B last season. Till December Masi started 13 times for Pro before suffering from an injury at the hour mark against Vicenza. Sensing a lack of progress in his old club Juventus plucked him out of Pro Vercelli and sent to a more solid mid-table outfit Ternara. The 20 year old recovered from his injury well and ended his season strongly with a hatful of starts in Ternara. Despite some rumours of him being brought back to Juventus, Masi is likely to remain out on loan next season as well.

One player who did do well in Pro Vercelli was Gabriel Appelt, one of the two highly rated Brazilian brothers owned by Juventus. The 19 year old central midfielder made a good start to his career in one of Italy’s oldest clubs but unfortunately suffered a hairline fracture on his calf-bone in mid-November. He was in prime form before he got injured and took four months to return to the field. Since recovering Appelt made more than a dozen starts for his club though had to suffer the pain of relegation as Pro won just thrice between March and May. Along with Boakye, Chibsah was also an important part of Sassuolo’s promotion campaign and is likely to go back to the club when they play in Serie A next season.

Off field developments

Different sections of the media have reported two off-field deals which can have an impact on Juventus’ approach to youngsters in future. None of the deals have been confirmed by the club officially yet.

The first reported event was an agreement with German club Eintracht Frankfurt. In April, Tuttosport reported Eintracht sporting director Bruno Hübner quoting that his club may consider a sporting partnership with Juventus which will help the clubs to develop youngsters more efficiently. Eintracht, German champions in 1959 and UEFA Cup winners in 1980, did extremely well in Bundesliga this season when they became the first team in eight seasons to qualify for Europe straight after getting promoted. Die Adler are not one of the traditionally rich academies in Germany but have recently made considerable improvement to their youth system. This 2011 report by Bundesliga officials on German youth scenario makes a special mention about Eintracht Academy and the overhaul it has gone through since 2010.

This deal is also being said to be brought on because of Eintracht signing a three year sponsorship deal with the FIAT group, which has a historic association with Juventus. Sporting the Alfa Romeo brand logo on their shirt, Eintracht will get 20 m Euros in three years. Notably, Juventus also has a similar shirt deal with another of FIAT’s brands, Jeep.

If the deal is officially signed then it may prove to be a strategic master-stroke from the current management given the current boom in German academies. On the other hand, it may prove to be a desperate attempt to get some scraps of the same boom which went wrong. Only time will tell. Either way, the club doesn’t make any financial losses.

Another recent development sees Juventus reportedly entering into an agreement with French side SC Bastia. This agreement involves the loaning out of Juventus prospects to the 2011/12 Ligue-2 winners so that they can gain first team experience. French clubs in general, have a good record in grooming young players and Bastia isn’t an exception to this rule. The likes of Michael Essien and Alex Song developed into world class players after plying their trade with I Turchini early in their careers. Italian clubs, in general, prefer co-ownership deals more than straight loans which in turn make it more difficult for the parent club to bring back a player should he do well on loan. If Juventus do sign such a deal with Bastia then some of the brighter prospects in the club may get experience of top level football without the complications of a co-ownership deal. There are also rumours that Juventus may enter into a similar deal with beleaguered Scottish giants Rangers FC.

These deals may or may not work out for the best eventually but in the end, they are right steps taken in a league which has a reputation of not giving youngsters best shot at glory.

(All stats courtesy of http://www.transfermarkt.com/)