Through two Scudetto-winning seasons, it was said to be Juventus’s only flaw. For all the evident quality in Antonio Conte’s team, the Bianconeri still lacked a certain something up front – a truly great centre-forward who could unpick a defence on his own.
The club’s general manager, Beppe Marotta, had recognised this need, but did himself no favours by throwing out the phrase “top player” to describe the striker that he sought. The longer he failed to deliver such a talent, the louder the complaints from the club’s supporters became. There was much derision in August 2012 when the club, having failed to land a more exciting name, bought back Sebastian Giovinco from his co-ownership at Parma instead.
Everything changed this summer, with the arrival of Carlos Tevez. The player might have earned himself a reputation as a ne’er-do-well during his time at Manchester City, but not even his most strident critics could question the player’s talent. He had scored 58 goals in 107 Premier League games for City and provided a good many assists, too.
Better yet, Juventus got him on the cheap – paying just €9m up front, plus potential bonuses that have variously been quoted at somewhere between €3m-6m. By also capturing Fernando Llorente on a free transfer, Marotta had managed to completely transform Juve’s attack for less money than he paid for 50% of Giovinco’s rights a year earlier.
Nevertheless, some still asked why he had not gone further. Marotta’s transfer budget had been set at approximately €30m by the club’s board in June. Why not go after a younger player than Tevez – one who could lead the line for years to come? Many fans had been hoping that the club would pursue Gonzalo Higuaín, who instead wound up signing for their title rivals Napoli.
But Conte had never been that keen on the Real Madrid player, believing him to be a little too one-dimensional. He was more enthusiastic about Stevan Jovetic, whose ability to play out wide would have allowed Juventus the option of switching into a 4-3-3 formation, but Fiorentina had no intention of selling the player to such bitter rivals.
Juventus could not really have afforded him in any case. Manchester City would eventually pay €26m for Jovetic, with potential bonuses to follow, more than Marotta had left over after the Tevez deal. In truth, Juve already had another €13m committed to resolving co-ownership deals for Kwadwo Asamoah and Federico Peluso. The team also wanted to improve its cover at centre-back, and would need another lump sum to procure Angelo Ogbonna from Torino.
Instead of making any more immediate additions up front, then, Marotta set his sights on the long-term. Together with Juventus’s sporting director, Fabio Paratici, he began to orchestrate a series of transfers designed to get the next ‘top player’ on his club’s books – without even knowing for certain who that person was just yet.
The process had begun a year earlier, when Juventus bought a 50% share in the 20-year-old Atalanta striker Manolo Gabbiadini. Together with Ciro Immobile, whose rights they already co-owned with Genoa, that gave the Bianconeri an investment in two of the most promising young forwards on the peninsula. Gabbiadini had scored 10 goals in 15 appearances for Italy’s Under-21s; Immobile, at that time still just breaking through into the same national team, had set a new record at Italy’s Viareggio youth tournament two years earlier by finding the net 10 times in seven games.
But football’s history is littered with stories of players who excelled in the academy before failing to replicate such success at the senior level. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, there’s genius everywhere, but until they turn in 15 goals in a top-flight season, it’s like popcorn in the pan. Some pop, some don’t.
For that reason, Marotta was eager to continue spreading his bets. And so, this July, he acquired Simone Zaza from Sampdoria for €3.5m, taking advantage of the fact that the player only had one year left on his contract to land him on the cheap. The 22-year-old had been Serie B’s top scorer last season, finding the net 18 times in 35 games while on loan at Ascoli.
Zaza was still too raw to get a game for Juve, but that was never on Marotta’s short-term agenda. Instead he wanted to use the player as leverage to help him acquire a fourth young striker: Domenico Berardi. The 19-year-old had scored 11 goals for Sassuolo the previous season as they earned promotion to Serie A for the first time in club history.
First Juventus sold Zaza on co-ownership to Sassuolo for €2.5m, making back more than half of what they had paid to buy the player outright, but more importantly establishing a good relationship with the Neroverdi, who had desperately needed another forward. Marotta was then able to persuade them to swap 50% Berardi’s rights for an equivalent share in the Juventus midfielder Luca Marrone. Both would play for Sassuolo this season, along with Zaza.
Nor did the trading end there. In the same transfer window, Juventus acquired the remaining 50% share in Immobile from Genoa, and then gave it to Torino as part of their deal to sign Ogbonna. Similarly, they bought out Atalanta’s half of Gabbiadini before selling it to Sampdoria, a move which helped grease the wheels of their deal to sign Zaza in the first place.
It was enough to make even the most seasoned observer’s head spin. Marotta had exploited the benefits of Italy’s co-ownership mechanism to its fullest. Gazzetta dello Sport’s Carlo Laudisa described Juve’s transfer campaign as being, “as complicated as it was long-sighted”.
The champions had walked away from the summer transfer window holding a share of four of the most promising young strikers in Italy. Each of Berardi, Zaza, Immobile and Gabbiadini would now get regular first-team football with a top-flight side, and Juventus could sit back and wait to see which of them would emerge.
So far, Berardi has been the most eye-catching, finding the net seven times in just 10 Serie A appearances for Sassuolo. His goals make up more than 40% of Sassuolo’s entire scoring output this season. Although four of those goals have come from penalties, it is also true that he earned three of them himself.
But the others are not doing too shabbily, either. Immobile has five goals for Torino, and Zaza has the same number for Sassuolo. Gabbiadini only has three for Sampdoria, but that is in part reflective of the club’s all-round struggles so far this season. Just like Immobile and Zaza, he is the second-highest scorer on his team.
Each player, furthermore, brings something slightly different to the table. Berardi has often played out wide in his brief career to date and could be deployed on either side of a front three; Gabbiadini is a tall and powerful player who knows how to hold the ball up; Immobile is a fine dribbler who can shoot with both feet; Zaza is an instinctive poacher with a knack for showing up in the right places at the right time.
Will all of them go on to great and illustrious careers? Almost certainly not. But by taking a share in all of them, Juventus have positioned themselves in such a way as to be able to take their pick.
Co-ownership deals in Italy must be resolved at the end of each season, either with both teams agreeing to continue for another year, or with one team buying the other out – whether that be for an agreed fee or through the process of a silent auction. In theory, it is possible that Sassuolo, Torino or Sampdoria could outbid Juve for one of these players. In practice, none are likely to do so, for the simple reason that they do not share the same financial clout.
And so Marotta can wait for as long as he needs to see these strikers mature, perhaps even swapping them on to other clubs if that suits. One way or another, he has good reason to believe that Juventus’s next ‘top player’ is already on their books – even if right now they are scoring their goals for somebody else.