Up a single goal against Inter Milan in the 58th minute, Danilo, unharried, moved across midfield with the ball and threaded a pass through defensive lines to Dušan Vlahović, who took one immaculate first touch before facing the goal. As the defenders converged on the center forward, the Serbian had three options: one good, one bad, and one very good.
On his left, Matías Soulé made a nicely angled run and could’ve been played in with a sight to goal; that was a good option. Ahead, several yards outside of the penalty box and crowded by two defenders approaching, DV9 theoretically had the option to shoot; this was a bad option. On his right, Nicolò Fagioli had benefited from a ball-watching, hapless defense to go completely unmarked running into the box. The pass from Vlahović to the young Italian would’ve been as simple as a warmup pass; there was no need for trickery, no need for the perfect angle or weight. This was the very good option, and you know what transpired from here.
At this moment, things are not going too well for Vlahović. The instance above, to some, typifies Vlahović right now. Not only is he not scoring goals at a high rate, but he’s allowing his frustrations to force him into bad — arguably terrible — decisions. In a game of slim margins, mistakes like the non-assist to Fagioli are the difference between three points and one.
Here’s what I think: there’s nothing alarming going on here. Vlahović remains very good, Vlahović remains one of the best strikers in the world in his age group, and despite the stars misaligning to conspire against him, Vlahović remains an extremely desirable building block — whether for Juventus or somebody else.
The ‘this is not Manchester City’ section, and injuries
Sometimes I think about Erling Haaland in Manchester City and wonder whether Vlahović gets very, very jealous at the situation. City not only have probably the most attacking-minded and -expert coach on the planet, they have so many playmakers flanking the Norwegian as well as in the midfield it seems like a roster that was constructed with no constraints by a seventh grader on FIFA 23. Needless to say, the Old Lady does not have the passing pizazz, the dynamic distribution, the cutting creativity that the English club do. Outside of Angel Di Maria, who’s in the pre-retirement stage of his career and legitimately can’t play every game, and Federico Chiesa, who’s been struggling with injuries, there’s not a lot of out-of-nothing creative players to concoct chances for Vlahović.
Here’s another difficult thing for Vlahović: as many judge him based on the number of goals he’s scoring, the standard by which a certain Norwegian player certainly finds his assessment, what Max Allegri is looking for is a complete forward rather than just a goal-scoring striker. Hold-up play is important. Getting into defensive shape is important. Distribution is important. Spacing is important.
On top of the roster differences and the different KPIs, Vlahović missed a big chunk of the middle of the season because of an injury; we also must not forget this is his first full season with a marquee club. And that first full season has been marred by the points penalty, casting an aberrational pall on the proceedings. In other words, there are, in my opinion, a lot of mitigating circumstances to what is going on with Vlahović.
Despite Haaland’s goal-scoring success and DV9’s lack of it, I do think we’ve seen Vlahović taking steps to becoming a more well-rounded attacker. His hold-up play has markedly improved since his tenure in Turin began, and so has his vision and awareness.
Even in the poor decision against Inter, it wasn’t that Vlahović didn’t see Fagioli, it was just that Vlahović was so hungry for a goal he forced a shot; he got a little bit greedy. But if you rewind the tape and look at the build-up, you see the Serbian take a little glance in that direction before turning with the ball. Immediately after the shot, Vlahović knew he’d made a mistake, and he apologized for it.
The mental strain of metrics, and the mental strain of the future
Vlahović, amazingly, turned 23 years old just two months ago. Age-wise, he’s wedged in between Kylian Mbappé, his senior, and Haaland, his junior, but in terms of experience the Juventus man is well behind both. In his first full season with a European power in Serie A, Vlahović is very much still cutting his teeth on the top stage. Mbappé, of course, was a prodigy at a ridiculously young age, and is already, incomprehensibly, in his sixth year at PSG. Haaland, meanwhile, had two and a half years at the youth development powerhouse and second-best team in Germany Borussia Dortmund.
I think it’s easy to forget this. Rightly or wrongly, Vlahović hears his name thrown around with the likes of these two, and each of those players is succeeding or has succeeded at a higher level and with more consistency than him.
With the points penalty and the general murkiness of Juve’s future, one has to wonder whether there’s also a mental strain of wondering what’s next. Regardless of the form in which Vlahović finishes the season, there will almost certainly be suitors once the summer transfer window opens. Chelsea, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich all immediately come to mind in terms of teams with cash who have some sort of need at striker. They might also sense that, with Juve’s Champions League hopes somewhat of a longshot, and with the general financial state of affairs in Turin, that there could be some sort of reduced price tag.
Although I firmly believe that Vlahović remains a very good player who could become a great player, I don’t pretend to know what Juventus should or shouldn’t do with him, let alone what they will or won’t do. And I certainly don’t pretend to know what’s going on in the player’s mind, which might be the most important few inches of space in this whole conundrum. But these are the facts I do know: Vlahović is good, it’s been a tough year for him, but even despite that fact there will be no lack of interest in his extremely dynamic abilities come June.