There was a big influx of forwards during last summer’s mercato.
That was to be expected. The team had initially expected to go through the season using a strike pair, and only carried five true forwards on the roster. When Massimiliano Allegri made the mid-season switch to the so-called “Five Star” 4-2-3-1 system that turned the 2016-17 season on its head, that ended up being not enough. That was especially the case when Marko Pjaca tore his ACL playing on a bumpy pitch in Estonia on international duty. It left Allegri with only four healthy forwards, and rather than change formation once in a while to give players some rest he simply charged ahead with four up top in the season’s final two months, using Stefano Sturaro, Mario Lemina, and Dani Alves as emergency wingers.
The result was predictable: by the end of the season a lot of the forwards were gassed, and looked it.
Steps were taken to fix this problem in the offseason. Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi were brought in to fortify the depth chart out wide.
As the season progressed, Allegri ended up dealing not only with the occasional selection crunch due to injuries but also from the opposite problem: too many hands on deck. A recovered Pjaca was sent on a dry loan to Schalke in the winter transfer window to round into shape, and Allegri struggled to find the right system to get Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala hot at the same time.
Regardless of the tumult in terms of team selection, Juve’s forwards enjoyed a generally successful season. How successful? Today, we go through them one by one to find out.
A few notes before we begin. First, in keeping with my own personal preference, players will be listed in alphabetical order. Second, Alex Sandro, who was used as an emergency winger on several occasions, is not going to be considered here. If you want some information on him, check out Chuks’ piece rating the fullbacks. Now, on to the fun!
Federico Bernardeschi — 6.5
There is so much to love about Bernardeschi. He’s young. He’s Italian. He has fantastic hair.
Oh, and he’s really good at football.
Young forwards have tended to need a few months to finally find their feet under Allegri, and Bernardeschi was no exception. He registered his first assist as a substitute three games into the season, but it took until October for him to score his first Juventus goal against Atalanta. (He had an assist in that game as well.)
But Berna was often sitting on the bench behind Juan Cuadrado on the right wing. That started to change around New Years, when Cuadrado was sidelined with a sports hernia. He took the extra playing time and made the most of it. In seven games from Jan. 6 to Feb. 18, he scored twice — including a gorgeous free kick that opened the scoring against his old team, Fiorentina — and registered four assists. He also played well in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 against Tottenham, gaining the penalty that gave Juve a 2-0 lead and putting a pair of shots on target, one that required a superhuman save from Hugo Lloris.
That weekend he came on to replace an injured Higuain in the Derby della Mole and assisted on the game’s only goal, but got crushed by Tomas Rincon in stoppage time, resulting in a sprained knee that kept him out for two months. He only played a bit part in the season’s last month as he worked his way back to match fitness.
Given the form he was in when he had his encounter with Rincon (off topic: I knew I never liked Rincon) it’s tantalizing to think what might have been had he not been sidelined. He was finally showing the talent that made Giuseppe Marotta shell out €40 million for him over the summer.
In the years to come, the number next to his name in this piece is going to be a lot higher. He’ll be a key piece of this team’s future.
Douglas Costa — 9
Douglas Costa is the kind of player that hasn’t come through Juventus in a long time.
There have been players with technique. There have been players with pace. But a player who combines the two the way Costa does is rare.
When he’s on form, there are few defenses in Europe, let alone Serie A, that can handle him. Like Bernardeschi, it took him a month or so to get going. But when he did, boy howdy.
He was dangerous whenever he was on the field, and the counting stats would come in spurts. One came from the middle of October to the middle of November, another just after the new year.
But when the biggest games of the season arrived, Costa brought his biggest performances. He didn’t have the counting stats to show for it, but his effort against Real Madrid in the epic second leg in Spain was enormous. That weekend he came on for an injured Miralem Pjanic and registered three assists in 47 minutes, the first of which came two minutes after he checked in. Another assist the next week against Crotone was wasted by a blah team performance, but with a one-point lead on the line against Inter he scored the first goal, then added two more assists against Bologna to consolidate the title a week later.
Overall, he registered 12 assists in Serie A — the most for a Juve player since Andrea Pirlo racked up 13 in his first season with the team in 2011-12. He added one in the Champions League, and scored six goals between the league and the Coppa Italia, including one in the final.
For my money, Costa was Juventus’ clear MVP this season. Activating the buy-option that makes his loan permanent will be academic.
Juan Cuadrado — 7
You never know what you’re going to get with Juan. He could be the best player on the field, or he could have one of those bumbling games that makes obscenities pour from your mouth to the television screen. (Hence the affectionate nickname “F#@%^n’ Juan” bestowed upon him by my supporters club here in New York.)
This year he started off mostly as the former. He had a goal and three assists in his first five games before evening off a bit. He still came up in big moments, supplying the assist for an equalizer in the away leg against Sporting in the Champions League and scoring the winner against Benevento that weekend. In the group stage finale he was the man of the match against Olympiacos, helping ensure passage to the knockout stages.
He played little part in the knockout round, however. He developed a sports hernia just before Christmas and spent the next three months on the shelf after surgery to repair it. He scored the game-winning goal against AC Milan on his return and played 15 minutes in the disastrous first leg against Real Madrid, but stayed on the bench as the minutes ticked by in the second leg. Allegri’s plan was obviously to use him in extra time to slice through an exhausted Real back line, but Michael Oliver put paid to that plan and he went unused.
His use as an emergency right back at the end of the season was successful in some ways but unsuccessful in others. He certainly was excellent going forward, assisting Costa on the opening goal against Inter and then forcing the own goal from Milan Skriniar that tied the game late and allowed for Higuain’s winner. But he also was beaten on the dribble far too easily and caught out of position in defense.
I know everyone has talked about Cuadrado being the second coming of Dani Alves as an attacking fullback for a while now, but from my seat he needs to stay up front. That kind of full-back is all the rage in the modern game, but they’re defenders for a reason. If the likes of Ivan Perisic can get by him as easily as he sometimes did last month, the elite wingers of the Champions League will eat him alive.
As a supersub on the wing, though, he would be a potentially lethal option going forward.
Paulo Dybala — 8
It’s been hard to judge Dybala this year. There was so much good and so much bad. The bad was pretty bad, but the good was simply exceptional.
At the end of the day, I’ve decided to give more weight to the good — and how good it was.
Dybala finished the season with 26 goals and five assists in all competitions. He scored three hat tricks. He provided one of the most iconic moments of the season in March. In the last seconds of stoppage time against Lazio — who had already beaten Juve twice that season — he showed tremendous strength to hold off Marco Parolo in the box, then swung his leg at the ball as he fell down to flip it over Thomas Strakosha and into the net, pulling Juventus closer to then-leaders Napoli and clearly doing some psychological damage to the Partenopei, who fell 4-2 to Roma the next day.
His Champions League campaign left things to be desired, but his single goal in that competition came when all the chips were down, beating Hugo Lloris 1-on-1 to score the goal that clinched the round of 16 tie against Tottenham.
Admittedly, when it was bad, it was pretty darn bad. After his torrid start — 12 of his goals came in his first eight competitive games — he went nearly three months without scoring, and was benched for much of December, including critical games against Napoli and Inter. He also lost six weeks at the beginning of 2018 after suffering a thigh injury, after which point Allegri had largely settled into a 4-3-3 formation that Dybala didn’t have an obvious place in.
Going forward the question is going to be how to play him. He likely won’t enjoy playing wide in a 4-3-3. The best way to utilize him with the current lineup is probably in a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree.” After the transfer window is over...who knows?
What we do know is that a departure after this season isn’t as likely as most people thought it would be going into the season. Dybala has shown that he can be the driver of this team and it looks like Juve has chosen him to build around. As he continues to mature and move past some of the off-field baggage that he had to deal with this winter, he could finally take that last step into the world’s elite players — but even this level of production would be something I’d take year-in-year out, so long as he spread a little more of it into the Champions League.
Gonzalo Higuain — 7.5
Higuain comes in just below Dybala.
This season was a drop off from Pipita’s first year with the team. His goal output in the league dropped by 25 percent from last year, and had some uncharacteristically long goal droughts, enough to be dropped for a few games early in the year to give him a mental health day.
Still, that drop-off doesn’t ding him completely. Often maligned as a mental lightweight, he showed some real grinta at times this year. Initially expected to miss a week or two after having surgery on a broken finger in late November, Higuain instead played with a cast the very next week against his former team at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples and scored the game’s only goal. He showed a little bit of big-game performance against Tottenham in the Champions League, scoring three goals in the two games and assisting Dybala’s decider in the second leg — although he did miss a penalty in the first leg that would have taken a lot of the drama out of the return.
Unfortunately, he got lost again in the quarterfinals against Real Madrid, and from St. Patrick’s Day on he only registered one goal and one assist.
The main cause of his late-season fade was almost certainly fatigue. He played 3,877 minutes this season over all competitions—easily the most on the team. One of the biggest flaws in the team’s roster building is that he has no direct backup — Mario Mandzukic is the only other guy who can play as a center-forward on the roster and he is often needed on the wing.
As he approaches his 31st birthday, his minutes are going to have to be managed with more care — if he stays with the team, that is.
Mario Mandzukic — 6.5
I loveMandzukic. I wish he could be cloned and played at every position on the pitch. He is a true warrior, a grinta guy of the highest order. It’s no wonder he’s become one of the team’s most popular players.
That said, this season was a bit of a step back for the big Croatian. He scored only 11 goals in all competitions this year and continued to play most of his time on the left side of the attack.
There are those that decry his continued inclusion at that position. He doesn’t have the pace or technique necessary to be a prototypical winger — which would be a valid argument if he tried to play like one.
But from the day Allegri played him out wide in the “Five Star,” Mandzukic has played his unorthodox role on the left to perfection. He creates a huge physical mismatch with the full-backs who are tasked with marking him, making him a tempting target for crosses from the right-hand side. That was exactly the plan in the second leg of the Champions League quarters against Real Madrid, when he led the doomed comeback attempt from the left side of a 4-3-3 and abused Dani Carvajal, scoring twice in the first half as Juve came tantalizingly close to overhauling their 3-0 first-leg deficit.
Mandzukic also displayed his typical work rate defensively, often dropping deep to win the ball. But at the end of the day, Mandzukic’s production did drop off for long stretches. He came up big in some big moments, but on the balance of the season he wasn’t as good as the rest of the team’s forwards.