"We are very pleased and proud to have signed Mattia Caldara," Beppe Marotta told the Corriere dello Sport in February 2017, the Juventus director grinning after his latest acquisition scored twice for Atalanta against Napoli. Coming just a month after he had signed the young defender, he was already helping the Bianconeri, the brace in a 2-0 defeat for their closest rivals helping the Turin giants take another step towards the league title.
Marotta had snapped up Caldara for €15 million – with a further €10 million in potential bonuses – and immediately loaned him back to his boyhood side until the summer of 2018, making that display at the Stadio San Paolo an unexpected but welcome surprise. He had only broken into the Atalanta first-team in October 2016, making just eleven appearances when Juve snapped him up and the Bergamo native could not believe how quickly the move came about.
"I thought it was a joke,” Caldara told Tuttosport shortly after signing his contract in Turin. “I didn't believe it after only a dozen of Serie A matches, I was sure they were just rumours but …” his voice trailed off, scarcely able to articulate what it meant to him to know his future lay with Italian football’s grand Old Lady.
Yet earlier this week it seemed as if the joke was continuing as Leonardo Bonucci’s desire to return to Juve was revealed, followed quickly by the idea that AC Milan had requested Caldara move in the opposite direction.
It was strange enough to hear the former news – particularly after Bonucci’s acrimonious departure just 12 months earlier, but the latter suggestion is frankly ludicrous. To suggest that the Bianconeri would part with the 24-year-old before he had even played a single minute in their colours is to ignore the meticulous planning that Marotta and his colleagues have put into building the squad currently available to Coach Max Allegri.
Clearly looking to maintain their position at the top of the Serie A standings while aiming to win the Champions League, the club have pushed themselves into contention thanks to years of careful and strategic work behind the scenes. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo – obviously a short-term move designed to help those European ambitions – is a headline-grabbing, landscape-shifting deal, but the effort to secure long-term solutions such as goalkeeper Mattia Perin and forward Federico Bernardeschi should not be overlooked.
With their current crop of central defenders either at or just beyond their peak, Caldara is very clearly the future of the Bianconeri rearguard, a player who made his full international debut last month and who is still improving and honing his craft. Andrea Barzagli is 37, Giorgio Chiellini about to turn 34 and Medhi Benatia is 31 (the same age as Bonucci), while Daniele Rugani has struggled with the pressure of playing at the highest level and looks set to join Chelsea before the new season begins.
It is therefore no surprise that Marotta moved quickly to dismiss the idea that Caldara might be sacrificed in any potential deal. “Leonardo [Bonucci] wants to come back to us and we want to satisfy him,” the director was quoted as saying by Italian website TopCalcio24. “It’s a complicated negotiation though. We’re trying and we’ve offered [Gonzalo] Higuain to the Rossoneri, but without a positive result. Mattia Caldara to Milan? He’s unsellable for us.”
In truth that should be the end of the discussion. Yes of course, Bonucci is currently a better player than Caldara, but Juve hardly struggled in defence last term, their 24 goals conceded the second fewest of any side in Europe’s top five leagues. The idea that the Bianconeri should sacrifice a future star in order to re-sign a player who has effectively looked to walk out on his club in each of the last two summers is frankly ludicrous.
Bonucci could help in 2018/19, sure, but what if a year later he decides it’s time to move again and demands a switch to Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City? Juve would receive a transfer fee, but Caldara could already be at Milan rather than in Turin. That is not a risk the Bianconeri should be looking to take, nor is it a decision that sits well with Marotta’s frugal and intelligent approach since his arrival in 2010.
Far more likely is paying for Bonucci outright, selling Rugani to Chelsea and keeping Caldara, who seems determined to seize his chance. “It’s nice to be linked [with Milan],” he told Sky Italia earlier this week, “but I am happy at Juventus and I want to stay here.” In a stable environment where he can work as an understudy to Barzagli, Chiellini and Benatia, the younger man knows he can continue to develop and improve while learning what it takes to represent Italy’s most successful club.
He has already experienced continental action with Atalanta, taking part in huge Europa League clashes with Everton, Lyon and Borussia Dortmund, yet understands his place with the Bianconeri must be earned. “I have to demonstrate that I deserve to be here,” he told reporters at his inaugural press conference, and now he must be given the opportunity to do just that rather than immediately being packed off to Milan.
Bonucci – a vital part of the side who helped reinvigorate the Old Lady once again – will always be a part of the club’s glorious past, and he may well pull on those famous black and white stripes once again before the transfer window closes.
But Mattia Caldara is the future, one that Juventus should not and must not waste.