The Prince of Turin

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Look away and you might miss him, that’s how inconspicuous Claudio Marchisio can be. But for Juventus, his absence has been felt so far this season. But perhaps more keenly, at the start of the 2015/2016 season as the team sought to go one step further than the previous year by securing the immortal treble. With Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal on the “transfers out” portion of the summer ledger, recurring muscle injuries to Marchisio decimated the midfield that propelled Juventus to the 2015 Champions League Final, with the Serie A favourites picking up a paltry 5 points from the first 6 league games. Pre-season talk had centred on the lack of a true Trequartista – Roberto Peyreyra was still seen as a stop-gap and after botched pursuits of Mkhitaryan and Draxler, “The Prophet” Hernanes was signed from Inter Milan. But faced with a changing of the guard, Paul Pogba failing to live up to his new No10 shirt and Hernanes adapting slowly to his new environment, Marchisio’s absence took on greater significance. It is no coincidence that Juventus’ form picked up when he returned from injury or that he has only featured in one more loss after that before a cruciate ligament knee injury against Palermo in mid-April (the dead rubber group game against Sevilla that condemned Juventus, to a joust with Bayern Munich in the first knockout stage).

Often likened to the Marco Tardelli in his homeland, Marchisio lacks the aura and pedigree of the legendary enforcer. Moreover, Marchisio’s career is yet to provide a defining moment comparable to Tardelli’s, whose howitzer and subsequent celebration in the final is perhaps the enduring image from Italy’s 1982 World Cup triumph. The 2015 Champions League Final could have been it. Il Principino (The Little Prince) had been Juventus’ standout player for most of the game, starting the move for Morata’s equalising goal with a clever back-heel to Lichtsteiner. Alas, it was not to be: Ivan Rakitic’s performance and Pirlo’s tears have both proven more memorable. And this inconspicuousness extends to periods of controversy. His game-changing dismissal in Italy’s defeat to Uruguay in the final group game at the 2014 World Cup, a watershed moment for many a player, was overshadowed by Balotelli’s antics and Suarez’s bite, earning him a mere footnote in Italy’s surprise elimination.

It is testament to Marchisio’s fortitude that the sternest test in his career also made a significant contribution to his evolution. Paul Pogba arrived at Juventus and hit the ground running straight away. For a while, Marchisio kept Pogba out of the team but the youngster’s flashes of brilliance became too frequent to be ignored. It is to his credit that Conte’s solution (playing four central midfielders in a 3-5-1-1) turned out to be a tactical masterstroke as Marchisio excelled just behind the striker. Unfortunately, the following season (2013/2014) was a real struggle for him. The signing of reliable centre-forwards (Tevez and Llorente) coaxed Conte back to 3-5-2 while injuries hampered Marchisio’s involvement even as Pogba began to consistently demonstrate just how precocious a talent he was. Marchisio’s response was to reinvent himself. By the time Allegri arrived in the summer of 2014, he was a different player, one focused more on controlling the tempo of a game as opposed to reacting to it. That is the quality that led him to deputize for and eventually replace Pirlo, underlining his new importance to the team. In the face of an insurmountable talent gap, he triumphed through diligence and intelligence. And today, you are most likely to find him at the base of the Juventus midfield. His conversion into a Busquets-type midfielder is a surprise given the attacking tendencies of his younger years, yet serves as a reminder of his adaptability. 30 now and following significant injuries, he plays the game more with his mind than his legs. What remains is his appetite for the big games (e.g. the Champions League final) as he can count goals against AC Milan, Lazio, Torino, Inter Milan and Fiorentina in his relatively modest collection.

In an era where central midfielders are distinguished mainly for their athleticism or ball retention, Marchisio remains a notable exception. An all-rounder. He doesn’t always look the part – lacking the grace of compatriot Pirlo or the sheer running power of longtime partner Arturo Vidal. Yet he possesses an astonishing array of qualities that have often made him indispensable to Juventus. His movement and directness allow an effective, if unorthodox interpretation of the Trequartista role he has sometimes played and his tenacity, vision and intelligence made him (and Vidal) the ideal box-to-box foil in Antonio Conte’s all-conquering Juventus side. Most recently, his distribution, composure and reading of the game have made him an unlikely heir to Pirlo as conductor of the Juventus orchestra. This season, he has been sorely missed with neither Mario Lemina, Hernanes, nor new boy Miralem Pjanic looking like a natural fit for the role. Marchisio is a manager’s dream: with the stamina, technique and tactical understanding to perform to at least a 7/10 level anywhere across the midfield. Yet it would be unfair to say he excels at nothing as he has often starred as a traditional central midfielder when given license to both attack and defend. He is the type of player that suffers from the highlights reel culture perpetuated by YouTube and shows such as Match of The Day. A goal, an ingenious piece of skill, a raking pass, a crunching tackle, a marauding run. Marchisio is capable of all these at different times yet none directly define his game.

Unsurprisingly, his versatility was initially a boon. Shunted around midfield for both Juventus and Italy, he sometimes underwhelmed and although his talent was obvious, at times it was difficult to see what he brought to the team. For Juventus, the muscle of Felipe Melo once seemed more effective; for Italy, he struggled to overtake a talented generation that produced the likes of Pirlo, Gattuso, Ambrosini and later, De Rossi. Meanwhile, Juventus’ return to Serie A post-Calciopoli was marked by a relatively high turnover of coaches and players which meant that Marchisio’s role changed quite often even as his importance grew. Conte’s arrival ushered in a new era of stability and Marchisio thrived as part of a famous midfield trio. Over the years, his two colleagues would receive most of the plaudits but during that period, Marchisio was exceptional.

Under Conte, he was the bridge between Pirlo, the suave pass-master, and Vidal, who closely mirrored Conte’s ultra-intense helter-skelter hard running approach. Sharing the box-to-box duties, Marchisio did not so much charge round the field as he dutifully covered. Perhaps his big game mentality is borne from the composure and grace he displays which partly earned him his nickname. This character was no doubt conditioned by his time in Serie B (with Juventus) and relegation from Serie A with Empoli (while on loan). Indeed, these facts, and the loyalty and groundedness they showcase, make him extremely popular in Turin. For a club that suffered such lows so recently, the resurrection is sweetened by the role played by the likes of Marchisio and Gigi “Superman” Buffon. Moreover, as Italian football transitions through its current lull, Marchisio serves as a throwback to an era when Serie A was the dominant force and a local Italian boy could ascend to the pinnacle of European football.

Born in Turin, Marchisio has spent all his professional life on the books of Juventus. A slow burner Juventus career (he made his Serie A debut for the Bianconeri at the age of 22) may still attain immortality through the most ancient of devices: the one-club prestige. In today’s game, financial and competitive pressures at the highest level have gradually killed off the one-club man. Raul, Xavi, Gerrard and most significantly, Alessandro Del Piero, are all players you would have foreseen ending their careers at their favourite clubs. Today, Francesco Totti offers the finest example. Rarely has a player constituted such a significant part of the identity of a club but until recent, even his future was in doubt. This is a shame as Italy has provided some of the most memorable one-club men, from Sandro Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti (Inter Milan) to Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paulo Maldini (AC Milan). But Marchisio offers hope. His new contract will keep him till 2020 when he will be 34 and his desire and adaptability make him a likely candidate to accomplish what even the great Del Piero (Juventus record appearance holder and goal scorer) could not – retire with his beloved Old Lady.

Marchisio is set to return to action over the next few weeks and the excitement within the Juventus ranks is evident. Outside of Turin, if his status remains low-key, it is uncertain to posterity. Marchisio stands a distinguished performer; a decorated player; a strategic component of one of the all-time great Juventus teams; a key actor in the post-Calciopoli narrative. Above all, he is a tribute to anyone who believes many aspects of the beautiful game can be learned. A reminder that football is often as much science as it is art. A talented footballer, Marchisio’s career has blossomed because of his adaptability and functionality.

Jack of all trades. Prince of Turin.