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Manu’s Grab Bag: Take-A-Palooza

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With no actual game to discuss the stream of consciousness writing was in full form.

AS Roma v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

After the cancellation of Sunday’s clash between Napoli and Juventus, we were left with no match to discuss. I had writing deadline soon approaching, so I panicked.

You see, in order to fulfill the obligations of my multi-million dollar publishing contract with BWRAO, I’m required to have a Grab Bag after every game, regardless if there is an actual game. It’s a cold world like that, but a contract is a contract, so here we go.

The Neapolitan Mess

The Napoli-Juventus game that never came to be was just another instance in which Serie A fails to resemble a functional, professional football league.

This is especially maddening because they had to, had to, know that something like this was going to happen. They were so aware that this was going to happen that they adopted the infamous COVID-19 health protocol, a protocol that every team in the league agreed to.

We can make arguments for days about who is right and who is wrong, if the protocol is the correct one or if it should be altered, but the one thing that you absolutely cannot do is play it right down the middle because that’s how you come up with the already iconic “Awaiting Arrival Of Away Team” graphic, a game suspension/postponement/withdrawal, a probable litigation and an overall mess.

If you actually do feel strongly about the protocol, as the statements they have put out indicate, then there is no argument. Napoli had enough players with negative tests to play, they did not play and they should lose the game.

Because if you’re going to recant in match day 3 and move the goalposts and allow exceptions and the whole three ring circus we are seeing right now, then what’s the point of even having a protocol to begin with.

Or as Chuks mentioned during our latest podcast episode — shameless plug incoming — why even have a season at all?

For what it’s worth, I’d prefer if they postponed the game and played it at a later date. Firstly, because I think playing it safe is probably the right move in this unprecedented global pandemic. Second, because I can’t imagine the absolute scenes there’d be if Juventus won another league title with three points won in the locker room. And finally, because we are the freakin’ defending champs, this is the best team in Italy, they don’t need a freebie.

The Ballad of the Big German

Sami Khedira did nothing wrong.

It’s not his fault that he was given an absurdly large, way-too-long and probably misguided deal by the Juventus board. What is he supposed to say? “No, thanks I will not sign this awesome deal that will give me a last big payday in the twilight of my career.”?

It’s not his fault that his body has continuously failed him in the last couple of seasons as there is no indication he has been anything but a professional regarding his rehabs or the way he’s getting injured.

And lastly, and this might be the most contentious argument, he has every right to want to stay and fight for a place in the team.

It’s probably fair to say that, as is the case with most athletes, Khedira has a big competitive streak in him. In fact, it’s almost a prerequisite to make it to the top of your profession as he has. I guarantee you that, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, he believes 100% in the fact that he still has something to prove and to give the club this season.

Is that feeling misguided? Almost assuredly and this might just be the romantic, maybe even naïve person in me but I’d like to believe that it was this competitiveness that made him want to stay and not leave the club through the backdoor.

Especially because I’ve never bought the whole thing about him being a greedy dude who didn’t want to leave because he wanted to get paid. Let’s face it, he could have easily gotten a sweetheart deal like the one Juve gave Gonzalo Higuain and then go on to double dip with another massive wage deal in MLS or Qatar or something of the sorts if this were exclusively about the money.

(Shoutout Pipita, who is now earning around $7 million with Inter Miami, plus his reported severance from Juve of around €3 million. Having massive wages to feature in MLS and get to live in Miami is not a bad way of winding down a career.)

Do I believe Sami Khedira will have a huge impact on Juventus this season? Not really, but there are worse guys to have as an elder statesman in a club filled with talented young midfielders. Plus, as we have seen time and time again, there is no such thing as too much depth, and once the calendar crunch begins and injuries happen he could be a solid depth player to throw out there against a lower-table team in Serie A.

Betting the House

With the transfer season now officially done, the main thing that jumped out at me when I looked at all the new names in that list was how exactly none of them are a sure thing.

This is a big departure from what Juventus was doing in past transfer seasons, when by and large their big money outlays were reserved for known commodities. Think Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain or Miralem Pjanic — you knew what you were getting with these guys and the odds of them not panning out were rather low. Blaise Matuidi, Aaron Ramsey and Douglas Costa were also veterans, that despite not breaking the bank fit the mold of a team that wanted veteran players ready to contribute right away.

(There’s an argument to be made about the Matthijs de Ligt signing as an unknown, but despite his age you’d be hard pressed to find anybody in the football world that thought that signing was a roll of the dice. That dude was as sure as a sure thing gets.)

While these types of moves by and large strengthened the squad they also left them fielding a pretty old squad in full win the Champions League now mode, which is all fine and well as a strategy as long as you’re actually, you know, winning the Champions League.

(They also put them in a financial bind, as once they let go of these types of players they leave the club with little to no resale value. See the Matuidi and Higuain great Miami migration. And despite the fact he’s so far played great, you’re insane if you think they will recoup anything resembling to the €100 million transfer tag for Ronaldo once he exits the club.)

Maybe it was the diminishing returns in the world’s most prestigious club competition of the last few years, the overall uncertainty of the pandemic, the failure of the Maurizio Sarri era or the appointment of Andrea Pirlo but the previous strategy was swiftly discarded in this transfer season as they focused on younger, higher ceiling players with no exorbitant transfer fees.

Here are the main moves Juventus pulled off to reinforce the current squad:

  • Weston McKennie, 22 years old. Initial loan of €4.5 million with an option to buy of €18.5 million.
  • Federico Chiesa, 22 years old. Two-year loan for €10 million with an obligation to buy for €40 million.
  • Arthur Melo, 24 years old. Traded for Miralem Pjanic and an additional €10 million.
  • Dejan Kulusevski, 20 years old. Acquired for €35 million in January.
  • Alvaro Morata, 27 years old. Initial loan of €10 million with an option for loan renewal in the second year and option to buy for €35 million in the third year.

A few things that stand out ...

All of these guys are in their 20s, with Morata being the only player who could potentially be 30 years old by the time Juventus has the option to fully acquire him.

Mostly due to the financial strain of the current pandemic, all of these deals are on reasonable terms. The largest initial outlay of cash was paid for Kulusevski on a pre-COVID-19 world and the largest outlay overall would be for Morata for €55 million if Juventus vested all their options and for Chiesa who will cost the Bianconeri €50 million.

Regardless of options, loans and future outlays even at their absolute steepest these are eminently reasonable deals especially compared to some of the numbers that got trotted out in previous campaigns. And as previously mentioned, outside of Morata is easy to see a scenario in which these guys actually retain a significant value when/if they depart the club later on in their careers.

Now, here comes the caveat: There is also a very real scenario in which none of these dudes pan out. This is all about future performance, future ability and betting on potential — which is always a tricky thing.

Arthur was easily pried away from Barcelona despite his best efforts to remain, which means they did not think that highly of him. Barcelona, right now, is a thrash fire of an organization, but still, elite midfielders in their early 20s are not as easily acquired as Juventus got Arthur.

Most Juve fans didn’t even know who McKennie was days before his signing, and even his biggest defenders will agree that he’s much more of a project than a finished player.

Kulusevski had a fantastic campaign last season at Parma and was named the best young player in Serie A, an award that luminaries like Francesco Totti, Danielle de Rossi and Pippo Inzaghi also received. Other players who also won that award? Alexandre Pato, Riccardo Montolivo and Giampaolo Pazzini. It’s a nice award to receive, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Chiesa might be one of the most controversial signings in Juventus Land — he is either a young, super-talented player with all the right tools to be an all-timer that could solidify the right wing for Juventus for the next 10 years and a mainstay in the Italian national team or he is also an overvalued, overhyped speed merchant with dribbles for days but horrid decision making that will crash, burn and disappoint with Juventus. It all depends on who you ask.

Juve is betting big on all these young but flawed players panning out, and I sincerely hope they do because the last two big-money swings they took for young, relatively unproven guys — Federico Bernardeschi and Joao Cancelo — were less than spectacular.

(Going through the transfers, you’d have to go all the way back to 2015 and the signing of Paulo Dybala to find a big-money signing for a relatively unproven player that panned out — which ... yikes.)

Spanish Dreaming

I didn’t forget to talk about Alvaro Morata. In fact, I wanted to give him a whole section to his signing and the main reason for that decision is this video right here.

(This video is an eminently enjoyable way of spending close to 7 minutes wasting time at work, I’ll tell you all that much.)

Morata’s first stint for Juve was significantly less productive than I remembered. In fact, going back on his numbers during his two seasons in Turin, he scored all of 27 goals in 94 appearances — which is quite frankly ... not a ton. That’s only three more than what he got at Chelsea where he was widely regarded as a disappointment and four fewer goals than he had at Real Madrid the club that flipped him for profit at the first chance they got.

Then why am I so excited about bringing back a guy who has never scored more than 20 goals in a season? And for potentially €55 million at that?

Well, take a look at this video, because if there was ever an argument for quality over quantity, that’s the whole reason for the excitement about the return of the Spanish international.

The whole notion of a “big game player” is mostly dispelled by statistics, as it turns out an average player does not suddenly become a great player when the moment is the biggest. Great players perform in the “clutch” because they are already great players, not because they have an innate ability to outperform their established level of ability out of nowhere. It’s a flawed term to convey some sort of mythical extra gear to heap praise upon certain players and to discredit others for their perceived accomplishments or failures.

Yet, wasn’t Alvaro Morata a freakin’ big game player for Juventus? Wasn’t he the epitome of clutch?

Yes, the guy didn’t put up big numbers, but who was out there scoring Coppa Italia game-winning goals in extra time? Who almost singlehandedly eliminated the mighty Real Madrid? Look at that run against Bayern Munich, play Morata against the Sampdorias or Udineses of the world and he is a fine serviceable player, play him against the heavyweights in key moments and that dude will deliver.

He’s also coming back to the club he allegedly never wanted to leave, where he played the best football of his career, met his wife, led an iconic run to the Champions League final, and is now being managed by a former teammate.

So, yes, is my entire reasoning for being excited about the Morata deal an easily dismissed, esoteric thinking with some nostalgia sprinkled in for good measure? Perhaps, but count me is as one more sucker who is willing to buy in to the Alvaro Morata spell.

(Also, I freakin’ love that 2015 team. It’s the last Juventus team that came into the Champions League with zero expectations, played their hearts out and made a legitimately compelling Cinderella run to the final. They could sign a 40-year-old Uncle Pat Evra and I’d talk myself into the signing, no problem.)

Most Random Cristiano Ronaldo (and Juventus) Endorsement of the Week

Your favorite segment is back, boys and girls!

Here is the king of the shill once again, this time, with an assist from all your favorite Juventus players!

This is an ad for Italian pasta brand De Cecco and I cannot emphasize enough how funny this thing is. Even if you don’t speak Italian, the premise is pretty simple, every player says what they think is the best number and then the other players all react with shock/bemusement/disbelief only for the player to say that the number relates to a pasta type, not their own shirt number. Then they all have a hearty chuckle about it.

It’s, at best, mildly amusing and it could have been fine if they had done this with like two guys, but it’s five of them! So they repeat the same shtick five times in 30 seconds and they all absolutely suck at acting, it’s 30 seconds of your life you will not be disappointed in, I guarantee it.

Quick story that it’s going to sound like it has nothing to do with this but I swear it does. I had a friend who was really great at football, far and away the best player in our neighborhood. He was a varsity player in his school’s team and in the afternoon’s he would play with the Under-17 for the professional team in my city.

We lost contact for a while, but one day I randomly bumped into him and we got to chatting. I asked how was football going and he told me he got dropped from the team once he turned 17 and couldn’t hack it at the next level. This was insanity to me because he was so effin’ good, but it was a stark reminder of how staggeringly good you have to be a professional footballer at any level, let alone a top 5 European league, let alone a top club like Juventus, these guys are straight up superhuman.

You or I, or any normal average person will never be as good at anything as Paulo Dybala, Adrien Rabiot, Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Bonucci and Rodrigo Bentancur are at football.

However, you or I, or any normal average person will never suck as bad at acting as they do in this ad.

That’s a little thing called leveling the playing field.

See you all after the International break.