When you spend a substantial amount of money on a backup goalkeeper, you obviously have something in mind beyond simply having quality cover for a season or two. So when Juventus sent €12.2 million to Arsenal to have Wojciech Szczesny make his way over from London to Turin, it was not perceived as some short-term fix to find Gigi Buffon a new backup.
It was to give Szczesny the first shot at becoming the guy who will succeed Buffon.
That’s obviously no easy task — and that’s putting it lightly.
Yet, with all the pressure that comes with being the guy who replaces Buffon on a full-time basis, Max Allegri hasn’t been shy when describing Szczesny as San Gigi’s successor when he does end up retiring. “Szczesny is Buffon’s heir, I’ve already said that and I repeat it,” Allegri said before Juve’s Coppa Italia quarterfinal tie against Torino earlier this month. “Juventus did good business in getting such a good player and bringing him in a year before Gigi stops at Juventus. ... (Gianluigi) Donnarumma is a young lad who has to grow, he’s at Milan and he’s forging his path. But Juventus have Buffon’s replacement.”
All signs point to that massive changing of the guard — or is it Puma gloves to Nike gloves? I don’t know... — happening this summer when Buffon’s career is expected to come to a close.
That’s not a surprise based on the fact that Buffon has been consistent in saying the 2017-18 season would be his last. (Although, I don’t think anybody envisioned Italy missing the World Cup and Buffon not getting an international send-off in Russia.)
With Buffon injuring his calf during the course of Juve’s 1-0 win over Napoli on the first night of December, Szczesny has been able to get what Storari rarely got during his tenure with Juventus — an extended run of consecutive starts.
And in those games, he’s proven why Juve can say they have two of the best keepers in the world on their roster.
Whether it’s been the last-minute save on Patrik Schick or a pair of world-class saves from point-blank range in the first half of Juventus’ win over Cagliari, Szczesny’s impact is being felt just about every time he’s on the field. Over a six-week span since their 3-2 loss against Sampdoria, Juventus have allowed just one goal — an absolute cracker off the right foot of former Juve defender Martin Caceres — with Szczesny starting between the sticks.
So if you thought that Juve’s defense might struggle with their captain on the sidelines and dealing with his first extended injury absence in years, you might want to reconsider that first and initial notion.
Instead, as Szczesny has gotten more starts under his belt, Juventus’ defense has only found its footing even more.
That isn’t meant to be any kind of shot at Buffon, obviously. But it speaks to the ability of Szczesny to step right in and basically make it seem like there isn’t much of a gap between one goalkeeper to another. And for a backup keeper like Szczesny technically is this season, that’s so incredibly important to have happen.
As we always used to say when Marco Storari was Buffon’s understudy, he was no ordinary backup goalkeeper — both by skill level and how he played when he did get a start. He’d be probably starting for just about any other team in the league if he weren’t playing behind Buffon. And the same can be said for Szczesny, who was arguably the top goalkeeper in all of Serie A last season while he was spending the past two seasons on loan with Roma.
Of course, the difference in Storari’s situation was that, outside of when he first joined the club, his role was definitive and he could go an entire season with playing in just a handful of league games at most outside of the Coppa Italia.
With Szczesny, it’s clear as crystal: He’s Buffon’s backup this season, and then it’s his turn to run the show when Juve’s current No. 1 retires (most likely after the season).
Sure, Juve could have waited a season and tried to sign one of the best young goalkeepers in the game — cough cough Donnarumma cough cough — and attempt to fill Buffon’s shoes with somebody who could be the club’s starter in goal for the next decade or so. But with that comes the pressure upon somebody in their early- or mid-20s knowing that they’re going to replace the best that has ever played the position and the expectations to try and live up to what Buffon has meant to the club. (Even though I think we can all agree that would probably be impossible no matter who would have been signed.)
Juventus went with Szczesny, the more proven commodity kind of route.
And it’s proven to be the correct route.
Considering his age — Szczesny won’t be 28 years old until the middle of April — and the price that Juventus paid for him, he’s proving to be quite the quality signing.
Or maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised by what kind of impact Szczesny has made based on what he said at his introductory press conference...
The guy does have jokes.
But with the way he’s played so far this season, you might have thought he was dead serious instead of deadpanning after a question from an Italian journalist that could have rubbed him the wrong way. (In case you’re wondering what the question was, the Italian media member asked Szczesny about his perceived weak point at Roma being his ability to come out and gather crosses.)
Life after Buffon is not going to be easy simply because of what he has meant to this club as goalkeeper, captain and pillar of Juventus for close to two decades. But if Szczesny can continue to be the man he has been between the sticks as of late, then there’s going to be a little less stress about who Buffon’s on-field successor is.