There’s been a lot of flack fired in the direction of Wojciech Szczesny lately. And while some of that was certainly warranted a week and a half ago when he made two big mistakes against Torino, that game seems to have brought season-long whispers to a crescendo.
In all kinds of forums, including our own, people have asserted that Szczesny should perhaps take a backseat to Gianluigi Buffon in big games, that the defense doesn’t perform as well with him directing things from between the sticks, and some even out and out asserting that he isn’t Juventus quality. There’s a growing movement to use him to help get some of the money Juve is going to need to raise over the summer and replace him with another goalkeeper.
All of this, in this writer’s humble opinion, is overblown. All told, Szczesny has been damn good over his nearly three seasons as Juve’s No. 1. A lot of the criticism of him holds him up to a standard that’s effectively impossible for him to meet.
No one was as surprised as I was when Szczesny did succeed. When he was signed in 2017, it was becoming clear that Buffon would be parting ways with the club at the end of the season, and equally clear that Szczesny was being lined up as his successor. I was off my rocker. In my eyes, Szczesny was a washout. Two years before, Arsenal had been so fed up with him that they had loaned him out to Roma and signed Petr Cech to replace him. Now Juve were signing a guy whose club had just seen fit to replace him with a guy seven years older than him to be Buffon’s heir apparent. I thought it was a recipe for disaster.
I have rarely been so happy to be wrong. Buffon had been having his minutes managed for years by that point, so Szczesny was always going to play more than your average backup, but when Gigi suffered a calf strain and missed nearly two months — the most time he’d missed since the back injury he suffered at the 2010 World Cup — Szczesny proved himself. He played extraordinarily well, and when the club brought in Mattia Perin from Genoa to ostensibly compete with him for the No. 1 job the next year, there really wasn’t much in the way of a contest.
Since then, he’s been largely excellent. The league named him the top goalkeeper in Serie A last year, a feat considering Juve gave up the most goals in a title-winning season since the 1960s.. That can largely be put down to Maurizio Sarri’s tactical setup, which was weighted heavily toward the attack at the expense of defense. Indeed, Szczesny was forced into some rather impressive saves over the course of last year as the defense was beaten again and again. He’s been consistently good throughout his time as Juve’s starter, and true howlers like the ones he had against Torino have been relatively few.
And yet the narrative that he isn’t quite good enough continues to trickle through the fandom. At first it was hard for me to fathom, until I realized one critical thing. The goalkeeper position has been a microcosm of something that’s been true for the entire team over the latter stages of Juve’s nine-year reign atop Serie A: we Juventini have become incredibly spoiled.
For 17 years, our standard for goalkeeping has been Gigi Buffon. You know, the greatest goalkeeper ever to live and breathe on this planet. Many of the criticisms of Szczesny — particularly when it comes to Szczesny’s ability to direct the defense in front of him — come from seeing Szczesny’s play through the lens of Buffon’s, who was the best to ever do it and was (and is, as evidenced by what he did last week against Napoli) particularly excellent in that particular area. What people want in a Juventus goalkeeper is another Gigi — but there won’t be another Gigi, at Juventus or anywhere else, for another generation or more. Szczesny took on a titanic task when he set out to take his place. He’s done so about as well as anyone could possibly have done so — but he’ll never live up to that standard because no one can.
While Buffon can certainly still do it on his day — as he proved last week against Napoli — at his age making him the everyday starter isn’t really feasible. As for the long-term, moving on from Szczesny isn’t exactly a viable option. There are really only two options if you were to sell. The first, as has been espoused by Sergio on The Old Lady Speaks once or twice the last few weeks, is going absurdly cheap and installing Perin, who is still a Juve player having spent the last year and a half on loan at Genoa, as the No. 1 after the sale. Perin is still a very capable keeper, as his efforts against his parent club on Sunday proved, but he’s unproven at the highest levels and his health has always been a concern. He was unable to unseat Szczesny the first time around, and unless Perin were to get the job and stand on his head with it it would have to be considered a downgrade.
The second option? Signing Gianluigi Donnarumma on a free transfer. This option isn’t exactly top-notch for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the financial. While there wouldn’t be a transfer fee involved, Donnarumma’s wage would be very high. Recent reports in La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) say that Milan have offered their young keeper €8 million annually to stay at San Siro, but that Donnarumma’s agent, Mino Raiola, has received other offers that could go as high as €12 million. Both figures would be more than what Szczesny makes now, and the latter one would be a significant increase. That’s not even considering what whoever signs the player would end up paying directly into the pocket of Raiola, who is notorious for the immense commissions he receives when his players change teams. For a team that has to address several huge holes in the midst of a dire financial situation, it’s borderline irresponsible to direct that kind of money toward a position that you’re pretty well set at. That money would be far better used on midfielders, strikers, or full-backs.
The other issue with a move for Donnarumma is ... well, he isn’t exactly an upgrade. I covered AC Milan for Bleacher Report when Sinisa Mihajlovic gave him his debut as a 16-year-old and had an up-close look at his rise to stardom in the league. In the six years since, he hasn’t exactly improved. He’s always been a great shot-stopper, but he’s terrible with the ball at his feet (important if we’re really going to be giving this build-from-the-back thing), and if people are complaining about Szczesny’s ability to marshal the defense, I’ve got some news for you: Donnarumma’s not great, either. I know the conventional wisdom is that a keeper’s prime years come slightly later than an outfield player, but for Donnarumma to go six years and 243 club appearances as essentially the same player, it doesn’t inspire confidence that any big steps forward are forthcoming. Donnarumma is certainly good, but not good enough to justify replacing Szczesny with him given the current financial climate, and it’s legitimate to question whether his ceiling is substantially higher than his current level.
When it boils down to it, there’s no need to take a drastic action at the goalkeeper position. Szczesny has been very good, if not downright great, over his time at Juventus, and the lion’s share of the criticism he’s been getting lately is more a product of him not being able to reach an unattainable standard than any true deficiency. There are a lot more areas in this team that have to be addressed before any changes are considered between the sticks.