As preseason friendlies loom in the weeks ahead, there are still a number of uncertainties about Juventus. What formation will we see? What purchases or sales might still transpire during the course of the summer window?
Another big question is one that, in one form or another, has long been a given: Who will take the direct free kicks and penalties this year?
Once was a time, not so long ago, that giving away a free kick in a shooting area against Juventus was a really bad idea. There were, of course, the days of Andrea Pirlo, but the danger didn’t end when Il Maestro left for Major League Soccer.
From 2015-18, Juve boasted one of the most dangerous free kick tandems in Europe in Miralem Pjanic and Paulo Dybala. A ranking published by FourFourTwo in January 2018 ranked the pair as the 12th (11-for-76, 14.47 percent) and second (8-for-38, 21.05 percent) most accurate direct free kick takers in Europe (minimum 20 attempts) since the start of the 2013-14 campaign. Whether from the right foot of Pjanic or the left of Dybala, a direct free kick was always a serious goal-scoring opportunity for the Bianconeri.
Then came the 2018 acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo, and everything went downhill.
Ronaldo — who, for the period covered by the FourFourTwo list, had an abysmal 6.25 percent conversion rate — quickly displaced the Pjanic/Dybala tandem as the team’s primary free kick taker. The reasons for this likely had little to do with soccer and everything to do with 1) Ronaldo’s ego and 2) Ronaldo-based Instagram action. For the next three years, the vast majority of direct free kicks for Juve involved Ronaldo measuring his long run-up, hiking up his shorts to show off his absurdly sculpted thighs, and then proceeding to treat us all to the latest episode of Wall Time. Ronaldo only scored one free kick in a Juve shirt, during the 2020 restart against Torino at an empty Allianz Stadium. Far more often we were regaled with CR7’s continuing attempts to prove he could score a goal through a solid human being, all while relegating two of the continent’s best free kick takers to watchers.
Ronaldo also displaced Dybala as the team’s primary penalty taker, although that was a far less objectionable takeover than his free kicks. Ronaldo’s abilities from the spot have never been a question, and he converted 23 of 27 penalties in his three years at Juve.
When Ronaldo left at the start of last season, Dybala re-took both duties. But now that he’s gone, both roles are open, and there’s a bit of a question mark as to who is going to fill them. That’s because there are a couple of plausible candidates, but no one who stands out as a stone-cold lock.
So, who will be the dead-ball men for Juventus in the coming season — and can they make things any better than the last few years have been? Let’s see who the candidates are.
Of the candidates for taking penalties, three candidates immediately spring to mind: Leonardo Bonucci, Paul Pogba and Dusan Vlahovic.
Bonucci is an outside candidate, but a candidate nonetheless.
That’s not something I expected to say at the beginning of his career. I remember well watching him step up in the seventh round of the marathon shootout against Spain in the semifinal of the 2013 Confederations Cup, looking like he was about to soil himself. He predictably launched his attempt over the bar, allowing the Spaniards to seal the match with the next kick.
But that miss seems to have been a catalyst for change in Bonucci, because he’s been nails from the spot ever since. He’s scored in two of the three shootouts he’s been involved in since then, and the one he missed, in the quarterfinal of Euro 2016 against Germany, may have been affected by the fact that Manuel Neuer got a chance to see him during normal time when he converted a clutch penalty for an equalizer with 12 minutes left.
Bonucci had never taken a penalty for Juventus until this past season, when he went 3-for-3. His turnaround in this area of the game is admirable, but he’s likely to be a secondary or tertiary option, but it’s nice to know that there is a reliable taker in that spot on the list.
Pogba has been a primary penalty taker in the past, but only for one season. In the 2018-19 season, he took 10 kicks for Manchester United, making seven. Overall in his career (and these are just league numbers) he’s 8-for-13. At Juve, however, he was usually behind the likes of Dybala, Carlos Tevez, and Arturo Vidal in the hierarchy, and he was taken off pens at Manchester United after 2019.
Vlahovic, on the other hand, spent his last season-and-a-half at Fiorentina as their primary penalty taker, with great success. In his career he’s 12 for 13 from the spot, and as the new face of the team and primary striker, he seems the most likely candidate to take the team’s spot kicks when he’s on the field.
It’s been more than two years since Juventus scored off a direct free kick.
(Juan Cuadrado technically did in the Coppa Italia against Sampdoria this year, but that deflected off the wall and wrong-footed the goalkeeper, which Danny and I have both decreed doesn’t count.)
Who will be counted on to change that is anyone’s guess, because there is no Pirlo/Pjanic/Dybala type on the roster who feels like he’s automatic when he stands over a free kick.
Pogba and Vlahovic remain in the mix, the former especially so in situations where a right-footed player could be preferred. But he’s only scored three times from a direct free kick in his career, and in league play since the beginning of 2014-15 he’s only 1-for-35. Vlahovic didn’t get a lot of volume at Fiorentina given the presence of dead-ball artist Christian Biraghi. He scored one last year, but is only 1-for-13 in his career.
A candidate with a much more successful track record is Ángel Di Maria. The winger has a conversion rate similar to the one Pjanic had during FourFourTwo’s sample period, scoring at a 14.28 percent clip (7-for-49) and adding another two in non-league play — one in the Trophée des Champions and one in the Champions League.
There are other fringe candidates. Manuel Locatelli took the odd free kick at Sassuolo when Domenico Berardi wasn’t on the field. Cuadrado has taken a few whacks over the last few years when no other dead ball specialists are on the field and he scored against Peru in World Cup qualifying this cycle, but his game is more suited to sending balls into the box as opposed to firing on goal himself.
Unlike the penalties, where there are multiple candidates but one who is probably a favorite, this spot is going to be far more fluid. Unless someone stakes a clear claim to the job in pre-season training, it’s entirely possible we see a by-committee approach here, at least at the beginning of the season. Whether anyone can change the team’s fortunes and start taking advantage of the chances that DFKs provide is anyone’s guess.