When Juventus completed the signing of then-teenager Dejan Kulusevski in January 2020, it was heralded as a masterstroke from former director Fabio Paratici.
Juve, who for so long had neglected youth during their tyrannical reign of Calcio in the 2010s, were finally starting to grasp the significance of an abstract concept known to many of us as ‘the future’.
Following his €35m arrival from Atalanta midway through the 2019/20 campaign, Kulusevski returned to Parma for the remainder of the season. The creative teen then embarked on a magical epilogue to the campaign as Roberto D’Aversa’s side finished 12th with the Serie A Young Player of the Year leading the way.
So, how did it get to this?
How did it get to the point where Paratici, now Tottenham director, is being lauded by Juventini once more. Only this time, he’s taking Kulusevski away from Turin.
The answer to the aforementioned question is tough. Kulusevski’s talent remains distinct, but the majesty we saw frequently at Parma merely manifested in glimpses at Juventus. Overall, the fact that the vast majority of Juventini are content to see the Swede depart despite losing Federico Chiesa for seven months is indicative of his Piedmontese struggles.
Massimiliano Allegri struggled to get the very best out of Dejan Kulusevski
While Kulusevski struggled to earn a sustained run in Andrea Pirlo’s starting XI during his debut season, the playmaker flickered his potential just enough to keep Juventini onside. He operated primarily off the right flank or as a second striker and he notched 14 goal contributions in 47 appearances, six of which came in Juve’s successful Coppa Italia journey.
Many believed the Swede’s sumptuous strike in the Coppa Italia final against Atalanta would ignite the start of something special for the playmaker in Turin, but the dismissal of Pirlo and the subsequent arrival of Massimiliano Allegri proved detrimental for the 21-year-old. While Allegri appreciates Kulusevski’s talent, he’s failed to find the optimal function for him this term.
The Swedish international has looked at his brightest when operating from the right half-space with a full-back overlapping, but Paulo Dybala’s tendency to occupy that zone means Kulusevski’s often forced to hold the width down his flank, which doesn’t suit him at all. Thus, while he’s been handed ample opportunities by the manager, Kulusevski’s failed to take them and any promising moments this term have proved mere false dawns.
For example, after he came on and headed home a crucial late winner against Zenit on Matchday 3 of Juve’s Champions League group stage campaign, Kulusevski then went six games without a goal contribution.
For quite some time, the naturally languid Swede has appeared bereft of confidence and it’s apparent that Allegri is not the right manager to harbour and foster his development. He needed to get out, and he’ll now enter the demanding arms of Antonio Conte in north London.
Tottenham may have struck gold with Kulusevski
Perhaps it’s the hands-on approach of Conte that Kulusevski needs for reinvigoration. The former Inter boss wanted the young Swede to bolster his juggernaut at San Siro, but Juventus pipped them to the post. Now, he has his chance with the fading 21-year-old.
Conte will undoubtedly appreciate what Kulusevski supplies. He’s a willing runner in and out of possession, a secure technician and efficient in transition. The best football he’s played in his young career thus far came in a heavy counter-attacking system under D’Aversa at Parma in which he registered 19 Serie A goal contributions during the 2019/20 season.
For Kulusevski to shine, he must operate between the lines which means he’ll be a good fit in an inside forward role off the right in Conte’s 3-4-3. From there, he’ll be able to occupy the right half-space and benefit from having a persistently overlapping wing-back on the outside. This is where he can wreak havoc as a creator, but we rarely saw him occupy such zones at Juventus due to the tendencies of Dybala.
In full-flight, the 21-year-old is an elegant, languid and wonderfully effective playmaker boasting tremendous balance and poise. His lack of pace may concern some, but this was exacerbated during his time at Juventus when he was often forced to beat players one-vs-one in wide positions.
Moreover, in games where Conte adopts a 3-5-2, Kulusevski could be used as a #10 playing off formidable tandem Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. When Christian Eriksen arrived at Inter in January 2020, Conte shifted his previously ubiquitous 3-5-2 into a 3-4-1-2 to facilitate the Dane before he converted him into a workhorse box-to-box midfielder during the Nerazzurri’s Scudetto winning 2020/21 season. The Tottenham boss may view Kulusevski’s future in a mezzala function with the Lilywhites currently short-staffed in midfield following the exits of Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Dele Alli.
Nevertheless, Lucas Moura’s production since Conte’s arrival means Kulusevski won’t be an immediate starter in N17. He’ll have to play his way into the side with Steven Bergwijn also competing, but if his signing was advocated by the Tottenham boss, then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the young Swede swiftly integrated.
Paratici has negotiated a financially amicable deal for the Lilywhites and their supporters should be excited by the 21-year-old’s arrival. However, on the other side, Juventus fans are understandably content with Kulusevski’s exit. It simply didn’t work out for the talented Swede in Turin, but Spurs and the Premier League could be a brilliant move for him.
Not only will he get to work under a master player developer in Conte, but he’ll also have full backing from the father he never knew he had in Paratici. Overall, this is a deal that works for everyone involved.