Should a deal go through, it would be tantalizing on a lot of levels. Zaniolo is excessively talented. He’s been on the radar since he was 19, when Inter Milan shipped him to Roma as part of their deal for Radja Nainggolan. He’s still only 23, with a good deal of potential still present as he develops into his prime. He’d be another step toward the creation, much-desired by many fans, of a young, Italian core for the team.
Indeed, I am very much one of those fans, and in other circumstances a move like this would be straight-up catnip for me. But there are some bits and bobs of this transfer that concern me. Zaniolo could well be a fantastic addition to the team, but there are risks — some of which are, in my view, somewhat extreme — that make this transfer far more of a gamble than it looks like on its face.
But first, the positives.
As we’ve already said, Zaniolo is crazy talented. When he’s on point, he’s the kind of creative player Juventus simply doesn’t have on the roster right now. He’s got a knack for eye-popping goals, like his lung-busting coast-to-coast run against Juve in the finale of the 2019-20 restart and the winning goal in this year’s UEFA Conference League final against Feyenoord. He’s also versatile, with the ability to play all over the attacking third of the field. And if you look at his social media history, it’s pretty clear he’s been a Juventino from a young age. If you don’t go beyond here, this would be a no-brainer.
But there are a number of things that, if you want to play devil’s advocate, could register as red flags.
First and foremost is his injury history. Zaniolo has already blown out both knees at his young age. Now, while it’s very difficult (though not impossible) to re-rupture the same ACL after surgery, those injuries can turn into the catalyst for a lot of other issues. Last year, Zaniolo missed 11 games due to injury, all but one of which were muscle-related. He also pulled out of the Italy setup for the summer international slate before any games were even played.
For a team whose reasoning for letting Dybala go was, at least partly, questions about his durability, this is a bit contradictory. Dybala missed a similar amount of time in terms of games last year (16 as opposed to 11) and actually played more minutes (2,074 to 1,985). When you combine that potential for missed games with the fact that the team’s other marquee signing this summer, Paul Pogba, missed 19 games last year, that’s a whole lot of potential missed time and production from two expensive investments.
The second issue for Zaniolo is discipline. The young forward has had numerous missteps in this area, and the sheer mass of it is becoming harder to simply chalk up to the exuberance of youth. Three years ago, the player was suspended (along with Moise Kean) before the crunch group stage finale of the Under-21 Euros for lateness. It was reportedly the latest of several rules infractions the two had committed during the tournament, which begs the question why then-Italy U21 manager Gigi Di Biagio even let it get to that point. Then again, Di Biagio is a garbage manager who somehow managed to last six years in that job despite repeated failures, so the inability to keep his charges disciplined isn’t necessarily a surprise.
Unfortunately, Zaniolo keeps on showing immaturity both on and off the field.
His love life has been an unfortunate distraction. Last summer he was all over the gossip columns when he allegedly ghosted his pregnant ex-girlfriend. There was a fresh kerfuffle in May during the parade celebrating Roma’s Conference League win he appeared to egg on a chant questioning the parenthood of the child of Lazio winger Mattia Zaccagni and his partner Chiara Nasti, who had previously dated the Roma man. The two players met at Coverciano during national team training and smoothed the incident over, but it would’ve been nice to see him show the maturity to nip things in the bud and not make it a controversy at all.
On the field, meanwhile, Zaniolo has a disciplinary record that, for an attacking player, is pretty shocking. He was sent off twice in the league last year, once on a second yellow and once on a straight red. He was booked 10 times (TEN!), enough for two suspensions over the course of the season, despite never playing a position deeper than trequartista. To put that in perspective, all four of Juve’s main center backs received seven yellow cards combined. The closest any Juve player came was Juan Cuadrado with nine. It’s an unacceptable record, to be honest, and something he’s going to have to get under control if he’s to reach the level of his rumored transfer fee.
Then there’s the question of where in the lineup he’d actually fit.
As we’ve said before, Zaniolo is highly versatile, but under Massimiliano Allegri that can be a curse as much as a blessing (see: Bernardeschi, Federico). If Allegri decides to use a 4-3-3 formation next season, Zaniolo will only contribute to the logjam of right-sided wingers on the team — unless of course Allegri decides to start tinkering and drops Zaniolo into the midfield, which may not be a particularly good idea. If a 4-2-3-1 is preferred, he’d be a good fit as the trequartista, meaning Pogba would drop back into the double pivot with Manuel Locatelli. That could be a hell of a lineup if it all works (and everyone is healthy), but would force one or the other midfielder (probably Locatelli) into a more defensive role that would be something of a waste of his talents.
Put all together, a move for Zaniolo looks less and less like a slam dunk. That’s borne out most starkly in the fact that some of the people who follow him the closest don’t think he’s ready for this kind of move yet:
And yes, this picture was chosen intentionally. Not only b/c of the symbolic slap, but because Bernardeschi is the classic "signed with a mega-club too soon" kind a guy...much like Zaniolo— Chiesa di Totti (@chiesaditotti) July 5, 2022
That wasn’t the only recent tweet from our friends at Chiesa di Totti that asserted the belief that Zaniolo isn’t ready for the jump to a big club, so I reached out to their head honcho and friend of the blog Bren to find out exactly why. When asked what his No. 1 reason to approach this deal with caution would be, he said this:
As talented and as explosive as Nicolo Zaniolo can be in spurts, we’re still talking about a 23-year-old kid who has never played more than 1,900 minutes or scored more than six goals in a single Serie A season. Throw in the two catastrophic knee injuries and the intermittent off-the-pitch distractions and Juventus would definitely be taking a gamble here. Considering his potential, it may be a calculated risk, but it’s a risk all the same. He could be the next Kaka just as easily as the next Bernardeschi.
That’s a stark assessment. The comparison to Bernardeschi in particular hits hard, as Bren’s opinion somewhat resembles what another of our sister blogs, Viola Nation, said about him when Danny joined them on the most recent episode of their podcast, Viola Station. Like Bernardeschi, Zaniolo will need to make the transition from the small pond to the big one very quickly. Berna only managed to do so in fits and starts, and even those who have covered Zaniolo for years have their doubts as to whether or not he can do it any better.
The rumors and reports are likely to ramp up as the weeks go by, but if this move does go through, it’s going to be anything but a slam dunk. This will be a boom-or-bust move at a big money level — and after the failure of Bernardeschi, Juve can’t afford to have another of these go against them. They should be approaching any kind of deal for Zaniolo with caution.