Wojciech Szczesny is a better signing than he looks for Juventus
- The Arsenal man has completed his move to Turin as Gigi Buffon approaches the end.
Certain players have an aura about them, more because of longevity and overall impact than just trophies and success. So many cases of this are clear in Serie A particularly, because Italian football is soaked in culture and nostalgia; it always has been.
Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini and Gabriel Batistuta are just four examples, iconic figures who, it seems, are impossible to replace. But in each of their careers, regression and decline have been handled gradually and with grace.
Totti, a Roman legend, watched on from the sidelines as the Giallorossi moved on as a team, playing less and less as the years went by, similar to Maldini; Del Piero left to play out his career in Australia and then India, while Batistuta, who enjoyed so many great years in Italy with Fiorentina and Roma, headed for Qatar.
When it comes to Gianluigi Buffon, though, there has been no preparation for the end. The Juventus goalkeeper is almost 40 and has been at the top level for 22 of his years. Often, if a player breaks onto the scene aged 17, they begin to decline earlier too, but not Buffon. Still going strong between the sticks for the Bianconeri, he is planning for a remarkable sixth World Cup in Russia next summer with Italy and possibly beyond.
There is a generation of football fans with no recollection of the game without Buffon so, understandably, Juventus are expected to put an impressive contingency plan in place for when he eventually winds down. On the face of it, their choice will underwhelm many fans and neutrals. Gianluigi Donnarumma, AC Milan’s precocious young goalkeeper, has been hailed as the heir to Buffon’s throne, and not just because they share the same name. Their career trajectories are following a similar pattern, and many believed Donnarumma would one day move to Turin. That could still happen, but it is a lot less likely now the 18-year-old has signed a new contract at the San Siro.
Juve have instead signed Wojciech Szczesny from Arsenal for around £14million. In the modern day, when there are rumours of Neymar costing almost 15x that amount, that is a good deal. The Pole does not have the reputation of Buffon, but he is far from the erratic source of frustration who forced Arsene Wenger to buy Petr Cech in 2015 either. Two years on and Szczesny is as ready as he’ll ever be after enhancing his reputation tenfold during a loan spell at Roma, helping them launch two Serie A title challenges, which Juve held off with relative ease.
Signing Szczesny does point to an odd crossroads for the Old Lady. Perhaps they have achieved all they can in this particularly remarkable cycle. After the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in 2015, there was more to come, the story hadn’t been written. Last month’s loss to Real Madrid, though, felt more damning; there were rumours boss Max Allegri might leave, and although he signed a new contract, the rise of Chinese consortium-backed Milan, plus the sale of Leonardo Bonucci to the Rossoneri, means the end may be in sight.
Buffon is not the only ageing star, with Sami Khedira and Giorgio Chiellini also getting on in years.
Truthfully, the only thing to stop Juve in recent history was the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, which stripped them of two titles and relegated them with a 17-point deduction and meant they were forced to rebuild. They kept Buffon, arguably in his prime, which helped their recovery run smoother, but the day he does retire, or even begins to waver, will bring a lot of challenges for the club.
When these icons are replaced, rarely, the men who step up are mega-money signings. Szczesny played behind Serie A’s second best defence last season, with Roma conceding just 38 goals all season. His main criticism at Arsenal was he couldn’t command his area and made costly mistakes at key times; whether he will be able to step up in Turin remains to be seen, but he certainly appeared to curb those issues during his stint in Rome.
From his point of view, too, Szczesny is making the move at the right time. His future at Arsenal was non-existent, despite calls for him to stay and fight at the Emirates Stadium late on. That he had support in the battle against Cech after everything that had gone before says a lot about his development over the last couple of years. Buffon is not, as of yet, going anywhere, opening up a healthy battle for number one at Juve and the best mentor around for Szczesny ahead of the day he takes the shirt for himself, if and when it comes.
Despite all that has gone on this summer, with Dani Alves also leaving and Alex Sandro said to be following him, Juve are still kings of Italy. It will take years of development to knock a side who has won six straight Scudettos and three Coppa Italias off their perch. But the time is coming, and they have pre-empted quite possibly the biggest loss in the side by acting to bring in one of Italian football’s finest goalkeepers as the possible replacement for the greatest in modern history.
Icons are impossible to replace, and Gianluigi Buffon may be the hardest of them all.
Wojciech Szczesny may not be a world-beater, but he is the perfect man to carry out the initial contingency phase in Turin.Published 20 Jul 2017, 19:52 IST