In our transfer market roundtable article last month, we were asked which of the three wingers Juventus had been connected to in the early part of the offseason —Douglas Costa, Keita Balde Diao, and Federico Bernardeschi — we thought would come to Juve during the summer transfer window.
While I expressed my preference for Bernardeschi, I stated that view with the following qualifier:
...I find it difficult to believe that Bernardeschi is coming. Fiorentina would rather drown him in the Arno than sell him to Juve. Remember videos of the riots over Roberto Baggio? Yeah, probably multiply that by a factor of 10 and you've got what the fan reaction to that would be. They'd burn Florence to the ground.
Fiorentina will do anything they can to avoid selling him to Juventus, and it looks like alternatives are starting to pop up for them. Inter has been playing hardball with Manchester United over Ivan Perisic's fee and reports from Mediaset Premium have bubbled up saying that Bernardeschi is now on their radar as an backup plan. If Fiorentina has a deep-pocketed alternative to selling him to Juve, they'll take it.
I never hesitate to admit when I’m wrong, and I proved off base here. It took a while, but Fiorentina ended up playing ball, and Juventus ended up with both Bernardeschi and Costa.
In some conversations with fans I’ve heard a surprising amount of derision for this move. Considering his hefty price tag — €40 million rising to a potential €45 million with bonuses — some believe he is not a big enough player to turn Juve’s fortunes and finally bring the Champions League back to Turin.
Those criticisms are largely without basis. Bernardeschi is one of, if not the best of a bumper crop of highly-talented attackers coming through the ranks in Italy. His relatively low numbers over his two full seasons at Fiorentina — 13 goals, eight assists in 65 Serie A games (52 starts), six goals and one assist in 15 Europa League games — were, as now seems clear, likely the result of a sub-par coach in Paulo Sousa. (Were people really talking about him as a future occupant of the Juve bench at one point?)
His real value has shown through when he has played with the Italy Under-21 squad. During the U-21 European Championships this summer, Bernardeschi was one of the tournament’s standouts. He scored a pair of goals, including the pivotal winner against Germany in the final group stage game and an excellent solo equalizer in the semifinal against Spain. His overall play in Poland earned him a spot on the team of the tournament — one of only two players that didn’t play for Germany or Spain to be so honored.
Bernardeschi is one of the most naturally-gifted forwards to come through Italy since Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero started making their names in the early 1990s. For him to reach those heights is not inconceivable, but it is by no means a sure thing. There is a lot for him to do to reach the level of those legends, and whether or not he does will largely depend on his first season or so at Juve.
You see, while Bernardeschi’s signing is certainly a big positive in a transfer market that has played with our emotions quite a bit, his introduction into the side presents a bit of a conundrum, and one of his biggest assets as a player could also be the biggest pitfall he will face on his way to superstardom.
Bernardeschi is ridiculously versatile. He can play on either wing, as a trequartista, even as a striker in a pinch, albeit as a seconda punta or false nine. That gives Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri a lot of flexibility in his lineup, but it also could leave the 23-year-old in limbo. Bernardeschi could well play in three, perhaps four different roles in the coming season — and that could present a problem.
It’s always better for any young player in any sport to establish a position and a role within a team. Versatility is great, sure, but playing a ton of positions without really settling on one could get in the way of a prospect’s development. Such constant shifting could delay or prevent Bernardeschi from reaching his full potential.
I’ll try to illustrate my point with a pair of analogies from Major League Baseball.
In the mid-2000s, the Philadelphia Phillies called up a highly-regarded pitching prospect named Ryan Madson. A starting pitcher for all of his minor league career, he served as a relief pitcher for all of 2004 and 2005 before the Phillies attempted to convert him back to a starter in 2006.
It didn’t go well. Madson struggled, and was yo-yoed from the starting rotation to the bullpen for much of the year. He ended ended up posting the worst statistical season of his career. It wasn’t until midway through the 2007 season, when he was firmly ensconced as a reliever, that he turned the corner. Eventually he turned into one of the game’s finest relief pitchers, a distinction he retains despite missing three full seasons with elbow problems from 2012 to 2014.
Our other example didn’t turn out so well. Another highly-touted prospect, Joba Chamberlain, was called up by the New York Yankees in 2007. A media sensation in New York on his call-up, he was the subject of what were known as the “Joba Rules,” a strict set of guidelines about how much rest he would have between outings out of the bullpen. But an ill-timed attempt to transition him into a starter mid-season in 2008 disrupted his career’s path. The uneven workload led to a shoulder injury, one that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman later admitted had a lasting impact on the pitcher’s career. Chamberlain struggled badly as a starter in 2009, before being made a reliever permanently, but the damage to his career was done. He struggled to start 2010 before finishing strong, but ended up requiring Tommy John surgery on his elbow in mid-2011.
After his return he made several more trips to the disabled list before leaving New York for a stint in Detroit that lasted just under two years. Since being released by the Tigers in mid-season 2015 he has only appeared in 26 major league games.
The early-career shuffling of roles for both players clearly had detrimental effects on their development. Madson managed to overcome those problems and ended up fulfilling his potential as a pitcher. Chamberlain’s career, on the other hand, eventually ended up coming off the tracks, and at this point he’s out of baseball.
Bernardeschi runs the risk of having to deal with a similar situation. He’s going to have to force his way into Juve’s front four. Gonzalo Higuain will certainly play as the No. 9. Paulo Dybala has evolved into the trequartista of the 4-2-3-1. Mario Mandzukic’s performances last year as an unorthodox left wing make it far from certain that he will be benched for a more conventional wide player. Juan Cuadrado will be motivated to regain the spot on the right that he lost in the end stages of last season. Douglas Costa will compete for time on both flanks.
The easiest way to use Bernardeschi, at least as it seems right now, is as a Swiss Army knife, plugging in wherever needed to give a player rest or to change a game as needed.
But that kind of aimlessness could end up being counterproductive. Look at Cuadrado, who spent half a season without a clear role at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. He’s brought his career back on track, but he’s still never quite looked the same player he was at Fiorentina. If his role is similarly unclear, Bernardeschi could end up becoming a jack of all trades but a master of none, never reaching his full potential and depriving both Italy and Juventus of the full range of his powers in the long run.
The best thing for Bernardeschi to realize his potential is to put him at one position and develop him there. Given his abilities and the way the team is currently structured, the best place for that is the right wing, where he would be a major upgrade over the occasionally scatterbrained Cuadrado as an inverted winger. That would likely mean sacrificing the unique qualities of Mandzukic’s wing play to accommodate Costa, but that’s an acceptable price to ensuring that one of Italy’s brightest young stars develops properly.
Make no mistake about it, Bernardeschi is a jewel. But he still needs to be cut and polished. With a better coach in Max Allegri and far more talent around him than he ever had in Florence, he could be brilliant when all was said and done. In order for that to happen, he needs the consistency and clarity of role that are so vital to the development of young players. If he doesn’t get it, he could never reach the level he is capable of — and Juve could waste a major signing.