Why Claudio Marchisio is still the prince of Turin

Why Claudio Marchisio is still the prince of Turin

AFTER 73 MINUTES of an all-action display, the fans in the deafening Juventus Stadium stood on their feet to applaud their hero as he departed the pitch. Six months without any football action could not hinder the elegance of the excellent Claudio Marchisio, as his return to the pitch from a career-threatening knee injury went as he would have hoped. A player who oozes class every time he is on the ball, his consistency is remarkable and his influence in this all-conquering Juventus team is immeasurable, albeit often invisible to the passive fan.

That night against Sampdoria, in October 2016, brought a sense of relief not only to Marchisio, but to the fans who have always loved him. The midfielder was forced to miss six months of his career, which included the European Championships with Italy, but while he was forced to sit on the sidelines, his unique talents didn’t seem to suffer.

Marchisio is the embodiment of Juventus, and since his debut for the first team, his role has evolved from the offensive force that he was high in midfield to becoming a melodic protector of the Bianconeri back line. He is  the undervalued, underappreciated glue who holds his team together.

A player whose best years have often been blighted by injury, Marchisio’s influence on Juventus is impeccable, and in a similar manner to Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, he controls matches with his exquisite range of passing and composure in the middle of the park. Replicating his importance has proven to be a difficult task and that is why the club’s last two managers, Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri, have fielded him over several others in the club’s most crucial matches.

Football in Italy is romantic, and Marchisio’s love-affair with Juventus goes a long way back. Just like the legends before him, who inspired and changed the state of calcio, he is held in high regard by the Juventus and Azzurri faithful. For years, they have reaped the benefits of what Marchisio has had to sow and for all that time, his importance to the team has been difficult to measure.

Everyone associated with Juventus loves Alessandro Del Piero. There’s no way arout it, and a young Claudio Marchisio accepted that. He is an emblematic figure in Turin, an icon whose legend grew every year when he was at his best, and one of the symbols of the aforementioned romance in Italian football. Every kid in Turin wanted to be like him, and one of the city’s natives, Marchisio, idolised the immense talents of the great man.

Born to Juventus-supporting parents and season-ticket holders, there was no second team in the city for Marchisio. Like his inspiration, Marchisio started his career higher up the pitch, playing just behind the striker, but his diminutive size wasn’t the best of characteristics for the role, and he was brought deeper into midfield, where he has excelled over the years.

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The Calciopoli scandal hit Italian football hard, and disgraced champions Juventus were most affected as they were relegated to Serie B. As top stars left, spots opened for some of the club’s younger players, and Marchisio took his chance with both hands. Still a fresh-faced 20-year-old at the time, he shared a changing room with some of the game’s finest, and while that brought a certain amount of pressure, he showed his class on the pitch amidst a less-competitive playing environment.

Having started the season with the Primavera side, he ended it as Didier Deschamps’ go-to midfielder. Playing alongside the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Pavel Nedvěd and Del Piero, he displayed a sense of maturity well beyond his years and would form a solid squad core alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Sebastian Giovinco – three players that were set to be given attention as they continued to develop.

Juventus were promoted back to Serie A at the first time of asking, but following the departure of Deschamps at the end of the season and the subsequent appointment of Claudio Ranieri, Marchisio was loaned out to Empoli. Perhaps this was a better move for the player’s development. He was unlikely to see much playing time as Juventus were aiming for a swift return to the top of Italian football’s hierarchy. At Empoli, he was given a chance to expose his abilities on the continental scene, as they also competed in the UEFA Cup.

The move proved to be a success as Marchisio, despite Empoli’s domestic struggles. would play frequently at home and abroad, and would excel in his midfield role. It was a year to gain experience in Serie A, and perhaps a relegation fight taught him more as a footballer, rather than success combined with infrequent playing time would have at Juventus. The Bianconeri would recall him at the end of the season as they strengthened their squad following their return to the Champions League.

The next three years saw contrasting fortunes arrive Marchisio’s way. He played the way that was expected of him, and his development was going according to plan, despite occasionally turning up in the unfancied position on the wings. After a solid 2008/09 season where he was undoubtedly one of the club’s best players, even going on to become a common feature in the Italian national team, Juventus’ off-pitch struggles along with his knee problems hindered progress.

By 2011, Juventus were a far cry from the club they once were, and were still feeling the effects of the Calciopoli scandal from five years earlier. Mid-table and Europa League qualification became synonymous, so did chopping and changing managers. For Marchisio, his importance was recognised with an improved contract, and in the summer of 2011, the team would be revolutionised following the appointment of former player Antonio Conte.

Conte’s appointment saw a different side of Marchisio come to the fore. The manager brought a fresh tactical approach by revitalising the three at the back with a 3-5-2. Marchisio played alongside Andrea Pirlo and the tenacious Arturo Vidal in a three-man midfield. The role gave him greater defensive responsibility as Pirlo’s defensive frailties could have been exposed. From a free-roaming central midfielder, Marchisio evolved to a protector of his defence and his tactical nous allowed him to interchange to a more offensive role, making him an effective part of Conte’s plans.

The first ground-breaking display of this improved Juventus team came at home to defending champions AC Milan. Playing at the new Juventus Stadium, the unbeaten Juve were at their best in a solid 2-0 win. It was a display of their midfield’s quality, led by Marchisio, who was mostly playing as the attacking midfielder and scored both goals late in the game. His traits were utilised to perfection to halt Milan and declare their title credentials to the watching world.

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In a match where they dominated the midfield, Marchisio casually spread passes and broke lines with relative ease. They were able to fashion chances at an alarming rate and Juve’s defensive structure isolated the Milan attack in a near-perfect performance. Conte’s tactical brilliance spread Milan and the utilisation of Marchisio’s talents in midfield allowed chances to be created through the middle. It was a statement victory, and a sign of things to come.

Juventus would complete a historic unbeaten season on their way to becoming champions. It was a season of brilliance, and Claudio Marchisio was at his best, earning a nomination for the league’s Italian Footballer of the Year as well as earning a spot in its Team of the Season. He would register a number of fine performances, including crucial showings against local enemies Torino and rivals Fiorentina, and his form would make him a mainstay for the national team as they headed out the Poland and Ukraine for the European Championships.

Conte’s system worked and was later replicated by Cesare Prandelli for the Azzurri. He pitched Marchisio alongside Roma’s Danielle De Rossi, and the move worked to perfection. The 3-5-2 was creating waves around Italy and this would be the way forward. At the Euros he would start every match as Italy made their way to the final before losing to Spain.

It was strange that for a player of Marchisio’s qualities, he was 25 when he had his breakthrough season, and it took a tweak of tactics and new management to bring out his best. He’s never too ostentatious when playing, smoothly passing it around when he’s given the freedom in midfield and inspiring the Juventus attack. In a team that contained several legendary figures, he was the silent champion in the middle of the park, making his team tick and having a crucial hand in their resurgence from obscurity.

Indeed, his style of play has earned plaudits from current and former professionals, with many likening him to the great Marco Tardelli, including for Milan and Fiorentina forward, Stefano Borgonovo: “Marchisio is very good and has excellent technical tactical skills. He has everything to get to the highest levels: quality, tactical sense, dynamism and a virtue that makes the midfielder a great player. He has personality, he reminds me of Tardelli.”

Over the next few years, Marchisio would establish himself as a big-game player. He was an untouchable figure when it came to derbies and crucial knockout cup ties and would see himself reinstated into the team in such situations, even if he had missed prior matches. The 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons were different compared to the invincible campaign of 2011/12, but he still made an impact when his team needed it most.

He suffered with niggling injury problems, which have so often blighted this wonderful player, but in matches against the likes of Torino and the following season in the Europa League knockout rounds against Fiorentina and Lyon, he was at his very best again. Despite winning the league in both years, the arrival of Paul Pogba, combined with knee problems that limited the number of starts he made, meant he would be saved for the biggest games.

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Conte’s disagreement with the Juventus board led to the arrival of former AC Milan manager Max Allegri to the Juventus dugout. The appointment eventually spelt the end of Conte’s 3-5-2 and back in vogue was the traditional 4-3-3, which saw a shift in Marchisio’s role. He’s become the man who links his team together, being able to pass it out from deep and link defence with attack. Without a player with the same skillset as the Italian until Miralem Pjanić found his groove recently, Juventus looked sluggish in the middle of the park.

Allegri’s first season was historic on so many levels. Not only were they dominant in the league, but they also won the Coppa Italia and finally fulfilled their potential in Europe. Marchisio again stood out in big matches, and the 2014/15 Champions League was another example. Starting from the knockout rounds, he was a composed leader, and his fantastic ball retention abilities made him vital against high-intensity sides like Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.

While maintaining their strength in defence with arguably the three of the best defenders in the sport in the form of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, and the evergreen Gianluigi Buffon in goal, they were dominant at the back. The flair came from Pogba, who was given the freedom to express himself as he was well-protected by the tried-and-tested triplet of Pirlo, Vidal and Marchisio. This team was a well-oiled machine, and they deservedly made their way back to the European elite with their first Champions League final since 2003, where they would come up against Barcelona in Berlin. 

Despite having Pirlo and Vidal in midfield, it could be said that Marchisio was the most tactically aware. He had proven to be a key source of communication between Conte and the team, and he repeated that under Allegri. While on the pitch, his awareness made him invaluable; that was seen in the Champions League final, where he was directing instructions to an oblivious Vidal right before they conceded. He even started the counter-attack that led to Juve’s equalising goal, but the brilliance of Barcelona was difficult to overcome, and they were beaten 3-1 in a scintillating final.

That summer saw the departures of Pirlo and Vidal, which meant that the midfield had to be revamped, and in came Sami Khedira and Hernanes. In a transitional season, Juventus were still able to dominate the domestic scene and win another double of the league and cup, their fifth Scudetto in succession, but their European campaign was underwhelming, knocked out in the last 16 stage by a dazzling Bayern Munich side.

For Marchisio, though, the season was worse. He missed the first two months through injury, which played a big part in the Bianconeri’s inconsistent form early in the campaign as they won just three of their first 10 league matches. After his return to the side, their form significantly improved and they would lose just once from the end of October until the start of May, winning yet another league title. However, the season ended in despair for Marchisio as he picked up a shocking knee injury in a 4-0 win at home against Palermo.

The Juventus Stadium was in stunned silence as their icon was stretchered off the pitch. With the title all but sealed and no European football to compete for, this wasn’t as big a blow to the team as it could’ve been, but his absence was still a major loss. He would miss the subsequent European Championships and the start of the following season, which was when he received a rapturous applause on his return against Sampdoria in October.

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Juventus were a superpower once again. Conte’s appointment was a masterstroke, and that good work was carried on by the innovative Allegri. Their might was back, and so was their power in the market. After a year, they finally brought in able players to help them compete on the European stage again. Argentine hitman Gonzalo Higuaín was purchased from Napoli and along with him came Bosnia’s Pjanić from Roma. In the process, Juventus greatly weakened their rivals.

With the departure of Pogba to Manchester United, Marchisio’s role would evolve again, now becoming a regista, creating play from deep in midfield. With his intelligence, composure, vision and passing, the change was easy, and with the talents of Pjanić to support him, this represents as good a deep midfield duo that Juventus have had in recent years.

Juventus would run riot again, and would make another Champions League final. And to no surprise, it was the big nights where Marchisio would define his value. Whether it was domestic matches against Napoli or Champions League clashes against the likes of Barcelona or Monaco, Marchisio always stood out for his ability to dictate the game. He didn’t start the Champions League final in Cardiff, only coming on as a late substitute, and it is no shock that by the time he came on, Juventus were already done and dusted.

They missed his creativity in midfield as Sami Khedira and Pjanić were consistently out-thought by Real Madrid’s trio of Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos. 

Johan Cruyff, football’s most innovative mind, once said: “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”

Claudio Marchisio has defied that throughout his career. A player of immeasurable class on and off the pitch, he is the perfect example of a loyal, committed footballer. He makes Juventus gel, dictates the play, and reads situations with his experience and intelligence. Despite his persistent injury problems, he is still one of the most respected figures in football, becoming a leader for his side and a point of reference for the younger players who are set to carry the Bianconeri responsibility in the coming years.

Players have come and gone but Marchisio has remained steadfast, maintaining his level of performance when fit and shining brightest in the biggest games. His role has constantly evolved but he has never slowed down, adapting and overcoming the challenges in front of them.

By Karan Tejwani  

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