ne of the things I find most fascinating about how American sports operate are the annual player drafts.
For some of our American readership, this practice might seem common since it’s the backbone of a number of their professional sports leagues. But for some of us who didn’t grow up on the system, the whole practice and ritual of the draft is pretty bizarre one.
So, you’re telling me that professional teams get to pick (and then sign) the brightest and best prospects around from a collegiate level feeder system that they do not own, make no investment in and have no direct relationship with? And that those prospects have no real choice or inherence as to where they will actually play once they “turn pro”?
Not only that, but the order in which these young athletes get selected is in reverse order in which the pro teams end their seasons. Therefore giving the worst team in the league the chance to select the best players overall. It is a system that quite literally gives the biggest reward to the teams that least deserve it but technically need it the most.
(This also implies that when young athletes dream of getting drafted first overall the implication in that childhood dream is that their biggest goal is to play for the crappiest team in any given year they decide to turn pro. Really funny and dumb when you think about it.)
The Raison d’être of this system is the pursuit of parity. Logically, giving the worst teams the first crack at the pool of incoming talent should give them the higher quality prospects which should theoretically improve their fortunes in the future. Similarly, the best teams getting the worse prospects would make them slowly but surely a lesser team and not the reigning powerhouse. Therefore, on the surface, achieving a competitive parity in the league that would make it more appealing to the viewing public.
So, is the NFL, for example — the league that arguably depends the most on the collegiate drafts to survive — an extremely equal league? Yes and no, while every team can point to at least one period of time in which they were somewhat successful, of the 32 franchises twelve have never won a Super Bowl and four have never even reached the final game. The four winningest teams — the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys — account for 40% of the total number of championships.
So why is it that this coveted and engineered parity doesn’t happen? Well, because humans were in charge of it and humans tend to be dumb and mistake prone. Coaches, general managers and talent evaluators mess up their scouting, pick the wrong players for their system, give expensive contracts to old players who don’t perform at the level they were expected to, young dudes sometimes don’t develop and everyone in general does a bad job at figuring out how to build up their rosters.
Draft mistakes are legendary in the NFL. We are talking about a sport in which arguably the best player of all time was famously taken with the 199th overall pick in his draft class. Looking at the record books, it’s staggering how often teams fail to recognize the players that end up being the best ones in their draft class.
Some of those mistakes are egregious the moment they are made, some of them are only seen as mistakes later on. Some of them made sense at the time — like when a team really needed a player in a certain position and reached for a guy to fill that hole when a clearly better prospect was still available — others might have panned out were circumstances different. Sometimes it’s just bad luck, what are you supposed to do when a guy who’s clearly talented and has no evident red flags just doesn’t perform? Or gets injured?
Of course, hindsight is the best talent evaluator and now you can find an infinite amount of content highlighting the worst draft picks or contracts ever doled out for every single team, sport and league. Any random dude can be a top general manager on hindsight, give me a chance to redraft the 2016 NFL draft right now and I’d win the Executive of the Year award.
So, with that theory in mind and now that our beloved Juventus saw their Scudetto streak come to an end, I have decided to see exactly how it all went wrong. But not on hindsight, of course. We all know now this team is currently a flawed one, but could we have known that at the time? Was this something that was avoidable or just luck and variance finally catching up to the Bianconeri?
In order to reach our verdict, I will analyze the most “controversial” transfers of the last five years. The final grade will be assessed on a 0 to 10 point system in the Hernanes-to-Matthijs de Ligt scale.
What is the Hernanes-to-Matthijs de Ligt scale, you might wonder? Glad you asked — it’s the proprietary, highly scientific method we have developed here at BWRAO to determine whether or not the move we are grading was good, average or bad at the moment, not on hindsight. We have taken those player names because they are perfect examples of signings on the opposite sides of the spectrum.
As a refresher, Hernanes was brought in 2015 to try and bring more depth to what was already considered a subpar midfield. From the moment the signing was announced, it was widely panned and considered as a lacking answer to an already existing problem. Hernanes did little to prove those initial concerns wrong and after an expected, disappointing lone season as a Juventus player he was transferred out to a nice farm in China where he could run around and have tons of fun with other past their primer footballers.
(Hernanes was a Beppe Marotta signing, for what it’s worth. Marotta was great, but since he’s left Juve people tend to look at his time running the team as completely flawless which it very much was not. Nostalgia, grass always looks greener, you know the rest.)
De Ligt, on the other hand, was considered a slam dunk when it was announced and as time passes it’s only considered as an even greater hit. So, Hernanes is a zero, de Ligt is a 10 on the scale.
As a last reminder, this is all done without taking into account what we know now. We are grading only on whether the moves that were made at the time made sense considering the team at the time, players available, formation and manager. The key question here is: Was this move logically sound when it was made considering the context and information available?
Lastly, and I hate that I have to bring this up again whenever I write an opinion piece, but here is the usual disclaimer. This is completely subjective, it’s my opinion and everyone is entitled to their own, so if you disagree that’s fine. But like I’ve said before, if you do so, then logically you are wrong and I’m right and thems the breaks. I’m contractually obligated to let you know that.
Signing Gonzalo Higuain for €90 million (2016)
There’s not an insignificant percentage of Juve fans that believe that this was actually the transfer where everything started going to hell.
It’s not a meritless argument. With Paul Pogba gone and Claudio Marchisio on the mend for the first portion of that season, the midfield was a relative point of weakness for the team coming into the year. The argument goes that the money spent on the blockbuster move for Higuain would have been better served upgrading the vacant spot left by the transfer of the French midfielder.
That argument decides to ignore the fact that Juventus did indeed sign a midfielder that season in Miralem Pjanic. However, even with that signing you, could make the case the midfield was still not all that great. Without Marchisio the team was reliant on Pjanic, Sami Khedira, Stefano Sturaro and Mario Lemina for the first six months of the season, a period in which the team was not horrible, but was far from reaching its full potential.
Banking on the development of Sturaro and Lemina while hoping that Marchisio would make a full recovery and come back at 100% fitness was not a completely insane proposition, but probably a bit of a reach all things considered. Especially considering Il Principino was coming back from an ACL problem, a notoriously tricky injury to quickly return to form after suffering it.
So, was the Higuain signing a mistake then? Not really. With Alvaro Morata going back to Real Madrid, you still had to bring in another striker to complement the duo of Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala. Plus, Higuain was excellent that season, bagging 32 goals and being a key part of the domestic double and that year’s Champions League run.
Overall, I think more could have been done to strengthen the midfield, but the Pjanic signing was undoubtedly a good one and Higuain had a supremely productive season. Obviously now that we know that this ended up being Higuain’s best season as a Juve player there is more criticism of the signing, but I still think it wasn’t a bad one in general and he was key to that season’s success.
Final Grade: 6.5 out of 10
Signing Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa for a combined €86 million (2017)
I think these two transfers might be the ones that gets most unfairly maligned on hindsight than any other. Bear in mind that, coming into this season, Allegri was hell bent on refining and retooling his Five Star system, a formation that grew out of necessity the previous campaign and that, despite ending in a disappointing Champions League final blowout, was thought to be the main formation going forward.
(And, well, actually brought them to that final in the first place as well as the aforementioned domestic double.)
Despite Mandzukic’s heroic efforts as a makeshift left winger, the general opinion was that the team needed wide players to really unleash the full potential of the tactical setup.
Given that idea, it didn’t get any better than Bernardeschi and Costa at the time. The Costa signing specially was seen as a good move given the favorable transfer terms — initial loan for €6 million and an option to buy for €40 million — and Bernardeschi was the most coveted Italian player in the league. At the time, both moves were seen as huge wins.
Obviously, once the season started, the double pivot with Pjanic and Khedira was significantly less effective than it was the previous season, and with new signing Blaise Matuidi on the roster, Allegri pivoted once again and abandoned the Five Star system.
I love Allegri and I’m excited about his return, but his ability to change on the fly and adapt to the circumstances of the season — while effective — was, at times, a legit problem when trying to build a coherent squad. The initial plan was to have a lot of wingers, then you change it to not need as many wide players and, in the blink of an eye, your squad makes no sense again and your resources ended up being misallocated. But, since we are grading considering the needs and plan at the time, I can’t help but to give it a pretty high grade.
(There’s an argument to be made that Costa’s option to buy should have never been triggered, but the guy was coming off a league-leading 12 assists in Serie A and was as good as he had ever been in his career. Can’t blame the brass for pulling the trigger on that one after what they had seen on Costa’s loan season.)
Final Grade: 8 out of 10
Signing Cristiano Ronaldo for ALL OF THE MONEY (2018)
This was the big one.
This was either the beginning of the end or one of the best moves ever depending on who you ask.
I’m of the mind that if you can bring in one of the best players on the planet, you do it and figure out the rest later. Ronaldo was such a unique transfer because he is such a unique player. Yes, the transfer was expensive and, yes, his wages would make him far and away the most expensive player in the league. But he is Cristiano Ronaldo, and if you can get Cristiano Ronaldo, you freakin’ get Cristiano Ronaldo.
Would it have been better if they had managed to unload Higuaín before the Ronaldo announcement and not lose their entire bargaining power? Sure. Would that money be better used elsewhere? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t have gotten you Cristiano Ronaldo, and that was a massive, massive coup.
The big argument, even at the time, was if Ronaldo was really the final move for a deep Champions League run. Was the team good enough to challenge for the title before and was Ronaldo the final piece needed to finally break through?
It’s not entirely unreasonable to suggest so. Juventus did get close to pulling off a massive comeback against eventual champs Real Madrid and won the domestic double yet again. It’s a leap to think the team was one Ronaldo away from lifting the big eared trophy, but it’s not as massive as you would think.
Three years after the fact, The Ronaldo Era Discourse is a debate that merits its own piece, but there was not a one Bianconeri faithful that was not pumped for the signing when it was announced.
Final Grade: 7.5 out of 10
All of the Free Midfielders (2018 – 2019)
The midfield has been Juventus’ main area of concern for what feels like half a decade. After the vaunted MVPP midfield dispersed after the Berlin final, the team has never quite managed to put the right pieces together to form a coherent unit that can compete with the European elite. With that being said, the one thing you cannot blame them for is a lack of trying.
Emre Can, Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey were the three midfielders the team acquired on “free” transfers during this period and while they all underwhelmed, it bears mentioning that not all of them did to the same degree.
Can and Rabiot are to me in the same boat. Both were young, talented and coming from top-tier teams in Europe. They also came in with significant wages and agent fees while also not being complete players by any stretch of the imagination. You can sort of squint and hope that they could have been the solution to our midfield woes — as many of us did when the signings were announced — but they were big money bets more than anything else.
(The Can bet for sure did not pan out and we are still waiting on Rabiot, who I will steadfastly defend as the one guy who can still make good on his promise for Juventus.)
Ramsey is for my money the worst free signing of the decade for the club. You were banking on him to return to his best playing level and somehow overcome his consistent injury issues while making him one of the highest earners on the team? That’s the definition of fool’s gold. Prime Ramsey wasn’t fixing your midfield issue and the odds of prime Ramsey showing up were rather slim.
Final Score: 3 out of 10
So, what have we learned from this experiment?
At the very least, I think there are some broad takeaways we can glean from the success or lack thereof of these transfers.
First off, a clear plan when it comes to squad building is imperative. Midseason changes in tactics and/or formations can completely wreck a team’s structure and compound mistakes moving forward. Would Can have become a productive player for Juventus if he had played another season under Allegri instead of Maurizio Sarri? Would have Bernardeschi made good on his potential if he had been managed better? Who knows, but a lack of structure to put them in the best position to succeed sure didn’t help.
Second, big bets are fine, but don’t overdo them. Giving such stratospheric wages to unproven players or paying huge fees for guys that are not sure things can come back to bite you if you mess up one too many of them.
(Another guy that kind of fits that profile is Joao Cancelo, who I thought of writing about as well but this piece is about to run for 3000 words and Danny might kill me if I keep going for much longer.)
Third, paying for past performance can be dangerous. As is the case for Higuain, who had his best season one year before transferring to Juve and it was diminishing returns every year after that and to an extent Ronaldo who hasn’t seen as big a decline numbers wise as Pipita, but is right on the verge of becoming an unmovable asset for the team given his age and wage demands.
Then again … if Allegri is not as tactically flexible as he was during those years, the team probably doesn’t perform to the level they did. Paulo Dybala was an unproven youngster at the time Juve shelled out €40 million for his services and that has worked out pretty well. And, sure, Juventus paid for past performances for Ronaldo and Higuain but they were still key players on their respective squads.
You know what? I changed my mind. There really is only one main takeaway from this whole thing. Running a football club is freaking hard.
People, don’t forget that The BWRAO Mailbag is open again and back for the summer of 2021! Leave your questions for the Mailbag in the comments below and we’ll do out best to answer as many as we can.