No matter what happens with the remainder of the coronavirus-shortened 2019-20 Serie A season, one thing is certain: When Juventus begin next season’s campaign, whenever that occurs, they’ll be doing so with Dejan Kulusevski on the roster.
The soon-to-be 20-year-old arrived for his medical in Turin over the January transfer window in somewhat surprising fashion. His move to the Bianconeri wasn’t a protracted story that the tabloids told over and over again for weeks on end. Instead, one day toward the end of the year there was word that Juve and Atalanta were talking about a deal; a few days later Kulusevski was at J-Medical. The end result was the second-most expensive transfer over that window, behind only Bruno Fernandes to Manchester United.
Immediately many of the more cynical Juventus fans reacted this way: Does a teenager who hasn’t even played half a year of top-flight football warrant a move this expensive to a club this big?
His coach’s answer: yes.
Many experts’ answers: yes.
My answer: yes.
At least two of those three ought to mean something.
‘Kulusevski is ready for Juventus’
Parma boss Roberto D’Aversa spoke with Tuttosport this past week and had a lot of good things to say about Kulusevski. Not only did the coach say the youngster is “ready” for Juventus, but he also compared him to Pavel Nedvěd for his ability to run, assist, and score; he spoke highly of Kulusevski’s attitude on the pitch; and he also talked about — this is what gets me most excited — the full package that the Swede brings to the table: a dangerous combination of technical ability, size, strength, and speed.
Kulusevski reminds D’Aversa of Nedvěd, but he ought to be thinking more along the lines of Josip Iličić, according to the coach.
“He’s a winger/midfielder who runs 13 km per game and combines quantity with quality, as seen by his five goals and seven assists,” D’Aversa said. “He could’ve done more with a bit more composure in the box. Together with his heading, it’s the part of his game where Dejan has to improve most. I always tell him to watch how calm Ilicic is when he enters the box.”
It’s this last point that, in a way, excites me the most. In just a few months of play at Parma — a side arguably overachieving with 35 points in ninth place — he’s been a lethal presence, and he still has room for improvement. The raw talent is obviously there. The more he plays and the more he learns to grow in his mental faculties on the pitch, the better he’s going to be.
A player who can ‘wreak havoc’
I caught up with Zach Lowy to talk about Juve’s newest signing as well. Zach is a football writer, analyst, and co-creator of Breaking The Lines. His specialty, though, is scouting and being intensely educated on young players. He only had great things to say about Kulusevski.
“There’s a lot to like about Kulusevski and a lot of reasons to suggest that he’ll do well under (Maurizio) Sarri,” Lowy said. “He’s really strong physically. He can press intensely, which Sarri likes. He has a good end product. He can win back possession and wreak havoc on the counter.”
All of those are indeed components of a player the club would love to have on the front line.
The position question, though, is an interesting one. We know that there are a number of aging players on Sarri’s side (Douglas Costa, Juan Cuadrado, Gonzalo Higuain, to name just a few), but also that the midfield needs significant help.
Where exactly could the Swede line up?
“I think he could potentially play as a midfielder in Sarri’s 4-3-3, perhaps with (Rodrigo) Bentancur in a holding role and (Aaron) Ramsey operating in a box-to-box role. However, I think it’s more likely they sign another midfielder and play Kulusevski up top, playing off of (Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Paulo) Dybala. Then again, it could easily change if Juve buy someone like Mauro Icardi — play those three up top and put (Kulusevski) in an advanced midfield role.”
Surely if there is anything resembling a normal summer transfer window, Juventus will be adding at least a significant piece to the midfield and maybe replacing Higuain to boot.
But the salient point is this: Kulusevski will be able to fit in.
At the end of the day, right now we can’t really say where exactly that’s going to be on the pitch, but knowing he is able to play in an attacking midfield role, as a central forward, as a winger, or possibly as a midfielder too is pretty darn exciting.
I suspect, though, that Sarri is going to use him in attack. Before the season was suspended by the coronavirus, we saw how promising the midfield looked with Bentancur in the holding position. One or two additions there could solve really any issues we thought we had, if indeed Bentancur is able to regularly be that amazing in front of the back four.
The forwards, though, are another issue. Costa is injury-prone and has only sporadically made a significant mark on the game. The last time we saw Federico Bernardeschi do something great was about a year ago in the second leg against Atletico Madrid. Higuain was solid overall, in fact one of Juve’s best players for a small stretch, but neither the consistency nor the production is what it used to be. The rumors have already started about these three and their possible departures, but they’ve been especially loud lately about Bernardeschi.
I think the Iličić comparison (conjectural at this point, obviously) for Kulusevksi is the clearest picture for what we can hope the Swede can achieve. The Atalanta man is absolutely dazzling in his combination of size (6-foot-3!) and dexterity with the ball; he’s got a rocket of a foot and a touch as soft as puppy fur. D’Aversa is already making the comparison, trying to nudge Kulusevksi in that direction.
If Kulusevksi can be a high-energy, high-pressing version of Iličić, you can sure bet he’s going to find a place in the starting lineup sooner rather than later for Juventus.