Think back to the halcyon days of January 2022.
Juventus was wrapping up a severely disappointing first half in domestic play and the Max Allegri comeback hype train was suffering its first few derailments. While there had been some highlights — the surprising victory over Chelsea in Turin last September first among them — it was clear that the club had a number of areas of improvement. To make the general mood even lower, the team had just lost their best player, Federico Chiesa, for the rest of the season due to injury.
With hopes for a turnaround pretty much being banked on Allegri working some second-half magic and not much else the Bianconeri leadership did something completely unforeseen.
They shipped out underperforming stalwarts of the previous regime in Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur to fund a major shakeup of the squad in the January transfer window, something decidedly uncommon for a team that had a record of making low key moves — if any — during the winter break.
(They also sent out Aaron Ramsey on a loan move to Rangers in Scotland. His departure was deeply felt, I’m sure.)
Dusan Vlahovic got all the spotlight. With good reason, too, he was the third most expensive winter transfer ever and his signing came with the added drama of Juventus flexing their muscle in Italy once again while poaching one of the brightest talents in the country from one of their most hated rivals.
It was also a signing that addressed a direct need, as Alvaro Morata, Moise Kean and Paulo Dybala had struggled to produce consistent offensive firepower. It was a slam dunk of a signing — the type of signing that any club with the financial might would and should have done.
Still, one big-name striker wasn’t going to save this team alone and the other new player in the building had all the potential to solve a huge piece of the puzzle.
Denis Zakaria was universally hailed as an impressive savvy move by the new regime led by Maurizio Arrivabene. The Swiss International came to Juventus in an eminently reasonable transfer as he was about to be out of a contract with Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach.
Not only was Zakaria affordable in an increasingly bloated transfer market, but by all intents and purposes he seemed to solve a glaring need in the squad as a pure, natural center midfielder that can sit in front of the defense.
Many people — including myself — made the argument that he could be the more impactful of the two signings as his fit in the squad could liberate other players to play in their preferred position.
If Vlahovic was the slam dunk, Zakaria was the sensible, sure-handed layup. One was significantly flashier than the other, sure, but they could both prove pivotal in a potential second half comeback.
The first game of said second half of the season couldn’t have possibly gone better, as both Vlahovic and Zakaria got on the scoresheet and gave Juventus faithful a legitimate reason to get excited about their team.
This was, without a doubt, the peak of Zakaria’s black and white career.
Oh, the title, right. I feel like I owe you an explanation.
I’ve mentioned a few times before that I lived in Switzerland back in the day. It’s a lovely little country that manages to fit four languages and an innumerable amount of dialects into 41.285 squared kilometers.
(It’s a fun experience to hop on a train speaking German and get down only a couple hours afterwards in a place that looks and feels completely different and also speaks a different language while you are still in the same country. It’s like a mini Euro tour.)
I mentioned dialects above and that’s not a small thing. While Switzerland officially speaks four languages — German, French, Italian and Romansh — they really speak variants of said languages. So, if you happen to be in Luzern in the German part of the country, residents speak Swiss German with a Luzern affliction and wording. Which is different but still understandable from the Swiss German spoken in Zurich or Bern for example.
All of this makes Swiss German — and Swiss French and Italian — almost entirely different languages. For example, German nationals that speak Hoch Deutsch — or High German loosely translated — do not understand Swiss German and their opinion of the dialect is of snobby distaste and general annoyance.
In this hodgepodge of languages and dialects, it is only natural that weird words exclusive to the region emerge. One of the more famous ones is the above mentioned “Chuchichästli,” which technically means kitchen cabinet or cupboard, but is now used as an example of the uniqueness of Swiss linguistics and is usually introduced to foreigners as a tongue twister more than anything else.
Zakaria is Swiss, Chuchichästli is a uniquely Swiss word, I came up with a clever title for this piece and now you, dear reader, know some random trivia of a Central Europe country. Everyone is a winner as far as I’m concerned.
Within six months of that dream debut, Zakaria was being shipped out to England as a last-minute reinforcement for Chelsea in a loan deal with an option to buy.
His remarkably quick dismissal from the club that acquired him last January was shocking only because of how fast it was, not because of his performances of the field which gradually became worse and worse.
Zakaria is not the first — but with some luck the last? — midfielder to fail to make good on his potential for Juventus. He joins storied names as Bentancur, Ramsey, Arthur and Emre Can as guys that were pegged to solve the weakest part of the team but ended up being disappointments.
What is unique about Zakaria is how he perfectly fit on paper, something that cannot be said for a lot of the names of the list above. Bentancur and Can were box-to-box maulers that were consistently asked to do everything but that. Ramsey had a contract that he was never going to live up to even in the best of scenarios and it was also unfortunate his body was made of the most delicate glass known to man. Arthur Henrique Ramos de Oliveira Melo is Portuguese for book cooking.
Yet, Zakaria still failed — why?
We all know the straightforward answer. He was played out of position by Allegri, then he got hurt — as every Juve player is contractually obligated to do — which led to him falling down the pecking order and subsequently shipped out.
However, looking at it more closely there are some things that we probably missed on that first reading. Allegri needed a central midfielder, that’s true, but Zakaria was never the profile of player he likes in that position. From the last days of Andrea Pirlo, to Claudio Marchisio, to Miralem Pjanic, Allegri always preferred a player in the middle who could distribute from the back, with the touch and vision to mange and control the game.
This remained in his second stint as he took Manuel Locatelli out of his preferred position up the field to try and do a Pjanic 2.0 forcing him to be a midfield commander in the same vein as the Bosnian.
So, why was Zakaria even signed in the first place? Allegri clearly had no intention of playing him down the middle and was obviously not enamored with him as a player as he fell out of favor with the Italian coach in fewer than 15 appearances. Was the board just eager to do something — anything — and took a shot in the market at an undervalued player? Did Allegri think Zakaria could be a great box to box midfielder and grew disenchanted to the idea with such a small sample size? Did the board bring in a player without the coaches input and told him to figure it out?
Whatever the case may be, new signees being deemed as surplus in less than six months is something that you usually don’t see in well run organizations. And Juventus has not been a well run organization as of late.
Out of all the transfers made in the summer transfer window, three of them — Arek Milik, Angel Di Maria and Filip Kostic — are out-and-out offensive players. Why go on a shopping spree for firepower with a coach seemingly set on being as defensive and conservative as possible?
If you are a defensive coach, how do you reconcile rolling into the season with a backline that is either frail, old or inexperienced ? Wouldn’t those funds be better allocated in completely retooling that part of the team if that’s going to be the identity of the club?
There’s sign after sign after sign of the organization as a whole being poorly run. Juventus has problems, a lot of them. Some are attributable to the coach, some to the players and some to the board who has consistently failed to build a squad that makes sense for years now.
Whatever way this season ends up, it looks more and more likely that what is needed in Torino is not just another change of manager or not just another flashy signing — and for sure not more goddamned cheerleaders on the touchlines and laser shows at the Allianz Stadium — but a total reboot.
Plenty of people should be playing for their job in the next few months and that is not exclusively limited to the people on the actual field.