In stark contrast to the transfers of Paul Pogba and Angel Di Maria, whose high-profile acquisitions have been matched by highly disappointing tenures thus far — the Frenchman immediately sidelined by an injury, followed by a confusing decision process regarding surgery leading to a substantially prolonged absence; the Argentine plagued by a short injury himself in addition to erratic play punctuated by a senseless red card and multi-game suspension — the arrival of Arkadiusz Milik combined diminutive terms with diminutive expectations, yet the Polish striker, in just a handful of games, is already proving a bargain for Juventus.
Indeed, not only has Milik already contributed three goals in six matches, but the former Napoli man has shown the ability to be consistently threatening in a system in which, as we know all too well, so often the striker can seem completely disconnected from the rest of the team. Milik is not tallying any great number of touches, yet he is regularly putting himself in positions to score. Were it not for a wrongfully disallowed goal against Salernitana, he’d have four goals in six games; were it not for a point-blank header that unfortunately fired directly at Gianluigi Donnarumma in Paris, he might have another one in Europe.
More than simply scoring goals and adding depth to the striker position, Milik has demonstrated in just a few weeks that his youthful counterpart Dušan Vlahović has much to learn.
The young Serbian is unquestionably talented and already a proven goal-scorer, but if he’s to become one of the best in the world, to become the striker he could become, there are several distinct areas where he can improve. To locate exactly where those areas are, I’ve found some inspiration from a couple other Bianconeri attackers.
Finding the second space | Gonzalo Higuain
There’s probably another column that should be written one day about the overlooked nature of Gonzalo Higuain, but for now let’s just note what a complete striker Pipita was during his prime.
Never the most physically imposing player on the field — insert Higuain summer Italian diet joke showing up to preseason camp with some extra Pipita on the side — he consistently found ways to score goals at an elite level in multiple leagues. Of his many stellar qualities, his most outstanding, to me, was finding the second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) space to put himself in a goal-scoring position.
An initial run through the box may go unnoticed by a teammate, or a long run on a counter-attack, or a quick burst attempting to break an offsides trap. An inexperienced, impatient, or second-rate striker will stop, mope, and essentially give up on an attacking thrust in that situation. Pipita, like all great strikers, pursues the play until the final nail is through the coffin. The analogy in my head is that of a great quarterback, who possesses the ability to go through a second, third, and fourth passing option in his progressions before executing on the appropriate path.
Right now, Vlahović too frequently gives up on a play, or becomes distracted after the initial foray and drifts to useless terrain. If he doesn’t get served on that initial run, he’ll quickly find himself out of position, throwing his hands up in dismay (à la Cristiano Ronaldo) and stomping around in complaint. It takes a degree of mental fortitude to simply move on to the next run and not get mad about a teammate’s inability or unwillingness to make the first pass to you.
Which brings me to the next point.
Attitude of a berserker | Mario Manduzkic
While I absolutely understand things are not daisies and popsicles at the moment in Turin, especially for a player who thrives on bagging goals, or at least having the chance to, if Vlahović is to become the leader I feel like he can become, he needs learn how to move on more quickly — a trait of any great athlete, really, across any sport.
Whether it’s a short-term throw of the hands (not getting that pass from Juan Cuadrado ...) or the more general malaise and defeated demeanor of the young Serbian, this team needs him to pick his shoulders up and, despite his age, lead.
Probably many of us have been thinking back to the team a few years ago, which seemed absolutely loaded with leaders — leaders of different types, too. The 2017-18 version of Juventus, for example, boasted club legends Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini, both paragons of leadership, but also a number of others who could spark the team when a spark was needed.
But in my relatively short tenure as a Bianconero, I have seen no single player who typifies the word grinta the way Mario Mandzukic did. His total dedication to the cause of winning never left a single ounce of energy left in the man. From the first whistle to the last, there was nothing but barely bridled energy in the man’s eyes.
Nobody is asking Vlahović to play left wing, left back, and center back all at once like we asked of the Croat, but he should note Mario’s single-minded fury, so forward-driven to winning and sacrificing anything and everything for his teammates. I tend toward loving overly emotional players like Vlahović, but channeling that motion will be the key to his leadership evolution.
Calculated involvement | Arkadiusz Milik
I’m not going to pretend Milik is the best striker in Europe, or the second coming of Robert Lewandowski, but one of the things I’ve really liked about him so far is his eye for selective involvement in the build-up play. He’s no Paulo Dybala, who for large stretches of his Juventus career would retreat all the way to a fullback position just to get a quick tap on the ball.
Milik, instead, picks and chooses his moments. Despite some seasons shortened by injuries, the Pole has a wealth of experience; he’s played in Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and his native Poland. His hold-up play is better than Vlahović, and in a game like Benfica, Milik gave the feeling that he was much more steadily and significantly involved than his striker counterpart — despite the fact that each player had exactly 26 touches.
Vlahović must improve his hold-up game from a technical perspective, learning when to be strong against a center back vs diving for a foul, collecting and then distributing the ball, but he must also learn when the team needs him to sink back on the pitch to help move the ball forward.
Dušan Vlahović is the present and, I hope, the future of the No. 9 jersey. In less than a full season with the club, the Serbian has already shown an insanely wide range of ways to score goals — the hallmark of a great striker. He’s physical, technical, and hungry. By all accounts he’s an extremely hard worker and completely dedicated to his craft.
Vlahović is, nonetheless, 22 years old, with as much to learn as talent to boast.