As Gonzalo Higuain swapped the city of Naples for Turin last summer, it was a move which brought about mixed emotions from both sides. Napoli were reeling after losing their star striker, and with it came doubt regarding their future title contenders status. For the Bianconeri, they were receiving an established Serie A goalscorer and someone who had experience leading the line in Europe as well. But, for a hefty fee of €90 million, Higuain had some way to go to repay such an investment.
Even the most ardent of Juve supporters questioned the valuation. Higuain had been a scoring success pretty much anywhere he had previously been, and had finished the domestic 2015-16 campaign with an astonishing 36 goals in 35 games, equaling the record set by Gino Rossetti almost 90 years ago. Higuain had more than proven his ability in the Italian league, and Juve seemed more than happy to make him one of the most expensive signings of all time. With Alvaro Morata departing and returning to Real Madrid and Simone Zaza heading to England (for what turned out to be just a few months), Juve were in need of a prolific striker, and there were none better than Higuain on the market.
Napoli weren’t ever going to refuse such a large sum for a player who will be 30 at the end of the year. But for Juventus, his experience and knack for being in the right place at the right time was crucial to their immediate ambition of European success. Higuain had scored 15 Champions League goals in three years for Napoli, and if Juve were going to challenge the European giants of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, they needed someone of his talent to help them.
It’s been so far, so good for ‘El Pipita’ in the black and white. But recently, his recent form is a concern.
In his last seven outings, Higuain has found the net only once, and that came in first lef of the Coppa Italia semifinals against his former club. It’s been four league matches and two Champions League contests with Porto that has seen the Argentinian shunned, with his most recent performance against Sampdoria perhaps the most worrying.
But it’s not entirely the forward’s fault.
Juve knew going into the year they were going to play in 50-plus matches, or at least planned to, and the short-sightedness of having just one out-and-out striker has led to their star player’s fatigue. Of course, the board couldn’t have known that Max Allegri was going to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the middle of the year, thus dropping Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala deeper. It meant that all three strikers were going to be playing at the same time, which has led to 17-year-old Moise Kean being the number 1 backup. Though talented, his inexperience makes him an implausible second option.
Prior to those six scoreless games, however, Higuain was beginning to show why Juventus spent the money they did on him. A record of 19 Serie A goals coupled with 3 in the Champions League was how Giuseppe Marotta envisioned his record-signing performing. Though Higuain is adept at dribbling, and links up with his fellow attackers well, it’s his poaching technique which makes him a standout striker. Even in games where he’s not having much of an impact or he’s struggling to convert his chances, he is always a danger to whichever team he’s facing. His likelihood to eventually put the ball in the back of the net doesn’t decrease even if he’s scuffed three or four opportunities throughout the match. It can be frustrating at times, but his goal tally more than makes up for it.
Last weekend against Sampdoria wasn’t pretty for Higuain. He was easily dispossessed, failed to get the ball out from his feet at times and missed a couple of chances to put the game to bed before the half. These are signs of a tired player, and not one who is out of form. The 29-year-old has played at least 70 minutes in 34 matches this year, with his substitution towards the end of last Sunday’s game ending a streak of 12 straight without being taken off before the final whistle. Before then, he was substituted during the 2-0 win over Lazio on Jan. 22, and that was in the 87th minute. These stats don’t even include his appearances for Argentina. For a 22-year-old it would be exhausting, but for a player with a lot of mileage on him, it’s bound to incur even more fatigue.
It is unfair to blame Allegri, either. The change in formation has been a success, with Mandzukic and Dybala playing key roles, especially offensively, in the new system. It has led to Higuain being overused, but until the summer, there’s nothing that can be done. What worries Juve for now is the uncharacteristically poor play of their leading goal scorer. The Champions League quarter-final clash with Barcelona is on the horizon, as is the second leg tie of their Italian Cup meeting with Napoli. Juventus also have some tough fixtures remaining in their quest for a sixth successive Serie A title. There’s a ton of games still to be played as Allegri’s side go in search of a historic treble. Let’s hope Higuain has enough in the tank to help guide them there.