Few could’ve ever believed that Antonio Conte’s debut season at his beloved Juventus would result in an unbeaten Scudetto. It wasn’t the stuff of dreams- it was pure fantasy, only two sides in calcio history had ever done it, and certainly not in the tumultuous chaos in which Conte arrived.
There will always be a small footnote to that Scudetto victory, one that shouldn’t detract from the immense achievement it was, but worth noting- the fact that Juventus didn’t have any European commitments significantly helped the club’s title challenge. Missing out on the Europa League was perhaps the greatest gift Gigi Delneri could give to the club. Conte’s side was strong enough to compete in the league, but didn’t have the quality depth to compete on two major fronts.
That was one of the key objectives for Giuseppe Marotta in summer 2012- the first XI was already one of the best in the world, with or without the much discussed “top striker”, but the reserves weren’t so great. With Caceres and Padoin not yet arrived, the defensive reserves consisted of Grosso and two natural wingers, Estigarribia and Pepe. In midfield, Marrone, Pazienza, and Giaccherini were the only central midfield alternatives to the MvP show.
Adding quality to the wingback positions while strengthening central midfield was essential, so Giuseppe Marotta hopped over to Udinese, and negotiated a double deal for Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah. Asamoah was a central midfielder who could deputize on the wing, whereas Isla was a fullback who could deputize in the middle, thus providing important coverage. Both were signed in unusual co-ownership situations, a tactic usually used for grooming young players, not talented, experienced younger players making a big step-up in their career.
Awesomoah- A natural switch from reserve central midfielder to starting left wingback
Kwadwo Asamoah was added originally as a central midfielder, but with Estigarribia and Grosso’s departure, there was really no attacking left-back to compete with De Ceglie in the 3-5-2. His barnstorming debut solidified his positional change, alongside the explosion of Paul Pogba in center midfield.
Asamoah’s start could not have been brighter. Played out of position at left wingback due to De Ceglie’s summer injury, he opened the scoring in his first official Juventus match with a stunning left-footed volley from outside of the box. It broke open the Supercoppa tie against Napoli that Juventus finished off in extra time.
His league debut was impressive as well- he provided an assist in the match against Parma, then another in the next game against Udinese, and a week later would score in the 84th minute away to Genoa. In his first four matches, he either scored or assisted in each match. Just a week later, Asabob notched another assist, this time against Chievo. It was an incredible opening to his Juventus career- while not a natural wide player, Asamoah’s energy, tackling, and physicality made him a natural. The Ghanaian was decisive in nearly every other match in the fall, and De Ceglie was permanently benched for Asamoah.
It has changed in the last few months. While Asamoah’s performance have not been poor by any means, they are no longer as spectacular as his start, and thus, he’s not unbenchable anymore. De Ceglie and more recently, Federico Peluso have put in some decent shifts at left wingback, both of them being more orthodox fullbacks. It’s Asamoah’s spot to lose, still, but the duo’s wide play and crossing offer a different weapon to Juventus than Asamoah’s offensive abilities, which are clearly born from history as playing as a central midfielder.
Paul Pogba has the central midfield reserve spot locked down at the moment, but Asamoah should get a few games in his original position. That’s where he made his name at Udinese, and it’d fit him well- there are times where his lack of wide play makes Juve’s left-side attacking a bit too readable, as opposed to the right where Stephan Lichtsteiner’s crossing and overlapping runs trouble the opposition’s defense. It’s become increasingly an issue, and a big reason behind Asamoah’s decline is his predictability- he started as an unconventional wingback, but now Serie A knows exactly how he plays- he doesn’t cross often, make overlapping runs, or attempt to beat his man to the line, preferring to look for a through pass or shot in the middle of the pitch.
Regardless of where he plays, one thing is certain- Asamoah’s future is at Juventus. A player of his quality, age, and professional mentality is well appreciated by Antonio Conte. As his positioning at left wingback shows, a talented player like Asamoah will always find space in the squad.
Mauricio Isla- From Top Wingback in Europe to Worst Performer at Juventus
Mauricio Isla had the complete opposite start to his Juventus career. While Asamoah was making headlines with his energetic play and decisive goals, Isla was sitting on the treatment table in Vinovo. The Chilean even missed several pre-season trips with the Bianconeri to proceed with his recovery from an ACL tear suffered in February in a clash with Milan’s Massimo Ambrosini.
Juventus chose to sign him despite being fully aware of his ACL tear, a show of faith (particularly at the price) in Isla’s abilities and his career’s potential. Despite being injured, Isla’s signing was warmly welcomed by Juventus fans- he was better than Asamoah while they were both at Udinese. Isla had been pursued by clubs like Manchester United, Barcelona, and Inter, who had long targeted him as a replacement for Maicon. Juventus certainly signed Isla partially to prevent Inter from grabbing him.
Isla’s actual playing career at Juventus started out very poorly. He understandably looked very rusty in his first few outings. Mauricio lost possession and rarely beat his man, the chief attribute for which Juventus signed him. His crossing was abysmal, his through passes were poorly weighted. Isla’s miserable start to the season was summed up in his short match against Milan, where he was dominated by Kevin Constant and conceded a penalty (a non-handball called as a handball) that ended up being the decisive goal.
After the Milan horror show back in November, Conte has more or less discarded Isla. He has not started a game since, and his playing time for Juventus consists of subbing on in the 82nd minute vs Udinese in a game well over, on in the 88th minute to waste time in a 2-1 victory over Chievo, and on in the 66th minute in the 2nd leg of the Celtic tie, immediately after Quagliarella made it 5-0 on aggregate. Chile has played only two matches since November (the brief international break in February, and the current one) and Isla’s full 90 minutes against Peru means the former Udinese star has played more minutes for country than club since the Milan match in November. More recently, Isla was subbed on for a handful of minutes against both Bayern Munich and Pescara, again, in situations where the game was already over.
Isla is miles away from the player that Inter wanted for so many years. At present, he has the lowest WhoScored average rating of any player at Juventus who’s started a game. Despite being “recuperated” since September, he’s only started 5 league matches and 2 Champion’s League games all season with three substitute appearances in the Champion’s League and four in Sere A. That means with less than 2 months left in the season, he’s played a grand total of 556 minutes in Bianconero. Given a €9.4m co-ownership transfer fee, ignoring his wages, he’s cost the club just shy of €18,000 a minute this season.
Isla’s situation is rather perplexing. An ACL tear is a very serious injury, perhaps the most serious in football. Unlike a leg break, it’s often a non-contact injury, arising from quick turns or acceleration. It adds a mental aspect to the injury, where players are reluctant to make the same spins or acceleration they used to, out of fear of re-injuring themselves. This is significant for Isla, who’s wingback skills often are beating a player one-on-one, as opposed to sprinting straight up the touchline like Stephan Lichtsteiner.
There have been dramatic improvements in ACL rehabilitation since Del Piero tore his in Udine nearly 15 years ago. The recovery time has been nearly slashed in half, both Quagliarella and Isla took 6 months or so before being named in the match squad, whereas Del Piero was out for nearly a year. But there’s a long process of regaining form. Both Del Piero and Quagliarella took over an entire season of poor performances before they rounded into some kind of form.
Del Piero’s injury strike him in November 1998, and he was out for the full season. Despite being medically fully healthy, his following two seasons were rather poor, and it was 2002-2003 before Ale finally hit double digits again; his goal returns in the previous two seasons were mediocre and boosted by being the club penalty taker. Indeed, his poor form in the Euro 2000 tournament, only 4-5 months shy of 2 years post-injury, was often blamed as one of the main reasons for Italy’s exit.
Fabio Quagliarella, like Isla, tore his ACL in mid-winter. The Neapolitan tore his in January, whereas the Chilean’s injury occurred in February. Both were declared fully fit by the medical staff in September of the following season. While 2011-2012 was a superb season for Juventus, Quagliarella was very much a figure on the periphery, granted only 9 league starts (1 in the Coppa) and only managing 4 goals all season. And yet, despite little acclaim, Quagliarella has been excellent in 2012-2013, scoring decisive goals in the Champions League and in Serie A, despite small time on the pitch.
And thus, we come back to Isla. Juventus should have known when signing him, that like Quagliarella and other players who have suffered ACL injuries, it would take a long time and a lot of poor playing time before we’d see the real Isla again. There were two options, given the club signed him in co-ownership. Buy half his playing rights, but let him get continuity back at his old club Udinese, where he knows the system and can get more playing time, or play him repeatedly at Juventus, no matter how awful he performed.
Unfortunately, the club hasn’t managed the situation well. Isla has played very sparingly at Juventus, and after a few poor performances, has been dropped entirely. It certainly doesn’t help to have a champion like Stephan Lichtsteiner in your way, but the fact that Conte has often selected Simone Padoin ahead of Isla in the lineup is somewhat of a slap in the face to a Chilean national who was desired by much of Europe. Mauricio Isla should’ve gone from little playing time to greater as the season went on, consistent with his recovery from injury, but instead, it’s gone the opposite direction.
Isla’s future is very much in the balance. The media reports that Juventus want to keep him for next season, renewing the co-ownership agreement, but unless there’s some kind of concerted effort to give him playing time, again, regardless of his level of performance, it seems pointless both for the club and player. A return to Udinese might be a step back in terms of Isla’s career, but could go a long way towards re-establishing himself as one of the most technically gifted fullbacks in the world.
A Tale of Two Transfers: From Udinese to Juventus, with Different Results
Asamoah and Isla arrived at Juventus for nearly the same price, both on co-ownership models, but the two have endured very different maiden seasons at the club. Asamoah has staked his claim as a wingback despite his background as a central midfield, but Isla has not been able to get any time as a right wingback. After an explosive start to the season, Asamoah’s performances have calmed down somewhat, whereas for Mauricio Isla, there’s nowhere else to go other than up.
It’ll be a big summer for both as their two parent Bianconeri clubs meet to discuss their futures. Juventus will undoubtedly try and sign Asamoah in full, whereas a renewal of the co-ownership deal for Isla seems the most likely, with neither club particularly interested in buying him outright. The chief question for Juventus should be whether Marotta and Conte intend Isla to be a long-term replacement for Lichtsteiner, or simply a gamble that didn’t work out.