The January window started with a bang in Serie A with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan and Juventus closing the deal for Dejan Kulusevski. The players arrive to their new teams with very different priorities- Ibrahimovic will hopefully be an immediate shot in the arm to help get the rossoneri off the canvas, while Kulusevski is by definition an addition for the long term since he isn’t expected to be part of Juventus’ squad this season.
Interestingly Ibrahimovic is going to essentially replace a player who this time last year was viewed in a very similar fashion to the way we perceive Kulusevski today. Piatek took Serie A by storm in the first half of last season, he was linked to clubs in the Premier League before Milan won the race to sign him by offering Genoa 35 million payable in one installment (the same amount Juventus is paying but over five years with addition bonuses of up to 9 million).
But while there is risk with paying substantially for a player who has a small sample size of great performances at the professional level and Juventus has a more immediate need for an established midfielder, there are many reasons why Juventus fans should be very pleased with this acquisition.
While PIatek is a one dimensional player who relies on service for his teammates to excel, Kulusevski has shown great speed, durability, dribbling ability and ability to elevate his performances on the biggest stages and against the top teams. While in recent years, quite a few clubs have regretted doing business with Atalanta, at least Kulusevski didn’t become a household name playing in Gasperini’s system which has made quite a few players look better than they were.
A lot has been made about Juventus spending so much on a player that doesn’t address an immediate need, but that could be seen as a flawed argument when you take into account that Kulusevski came up as a central midfielder before playing as an offensive winger at Parma. Interestingly Juventus referred to him as a midfielder twice in the opening paragraphs of the press release to announce his arrival and there are scouts who believe Kulusvski could develop into the next De Bruyne.
As previously mentioned, 35 million plus 9 million in bonuses is certainly a gamble and if we go by transfer fee alone, Kulusevski is the most expensive midfielder Juventus ever acquired. But that is a flawed way to look at cost when you account for fact his wages (a reported 2 million net of taxes in the first few years) which are considerably lower than the likes of Ramsey, Rabiot and Can whose annual cost is individually superior to Kulusevski’s despite coming in as Bosman signing with no transfer fee to amortize.
A more rightful concern than cost, is however Juventus’ track record with young talents. In recent years we’ve seen many of them acquired only to be used as financial tools down the road- the sales of Audero, Mandragora and Orsolini helped finance the Ronaldo acquisition while we’ve seen the likes of Leali, Caldara and Gabbiadini never contribute to the bianconeri on the pitch after being sent out on loan.
However, if you look closely at the track record of other young players on Juventus in recent years there are also reasons for optimism that at bare minimum Kulusevski will get a fair chance to establish himself. Paulo Dybala had become a starter under Allegri by the middle of his first season in Turin despite being in his early 20s, and while he was almost sold last summer, he’s now once again a key player at the club. Rodrigo Bentancur went from being a throw in the Tevez deal to a full time starter under Sarri and arguably part of Juventus’ long term core alongside De Ligt and now Kulusevski.
Even though both Daniele Rugani and Federico Bernardeschi have flopped at Juventus, they were both given ample opportunities to become starters at the club. Rugani got first crack at replacing Bonucci a few years ago, while Bernardeschi played regularly under Allegri and has often found himself in the starting lineup this season.
Regardless of which position you envision Kulusevki playing in Turin, there are plenty of opportunities for his skill sets to make an impact since Juventus lacks fresh legs who bring pace and game changing moments. As a winger or trequartista, he’s more reliable that the often injured Douglas Costa and Ramsey and he’s been way more productive than Bernardeschi this season. Kulusevski also has the tools to be an option as a mezzala alongside Bentancur and Pjanic.
The acquisition would also likely be seen in a different light had Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici not had such a difficult stretch. Ramsey, Rabiot and Danilo have flopped, two players he tried to sell in Higuain and Dybala had strong first halves of the season while De Ligt has had his fair of struggles- the final straw was the way Mandzukic was handled in recent months, so it’s easy to understand why Paratici currently doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt from the fan base- but Kulusevski is a gamble worth taking.