Denis Zakaria had long been considered as a midfield option for Juventus before the club opted to make a move in the dying embers of the January transfer window.
Yet another midfield reshuffle was thought to be inevitable in Turin. But following three weeks of mercato indolence, it seemed that Massimiliano Allegri would be left with the same group of players for the remainder of the 2021/22 season.
Then the dominoes fell…
It was Juve’s stunning swoop of the seemingly unattainable Dusan Vlahovic that ignited a hectic end to the window. Dejan Kulusevski and Aaron Ramsey departed to Tottenham and Rangers respectively, while Juve swapped Rodrigo Bentancur, who’s also on his way to N17, for Zakaria.
For many Juventino, the window mercato was a masterpiece from the Bianconeri hierarchy and the excitement in Piedmont is palpable. The club’s rebuild is well and truly underway. However, it’s not just Vlahovic that has supporters salivating. Zakaria, too, is garnering plenty of hype in Bianconeri quarters.
But are such expectations warranted and what can we really expect of Juventus’ new #28?
Analysing Juventus’ new midfield signing Denis Zakaria
It wasn’t so long ago when Zakaria was regarded as one of Europe’s hottest midfield properties. But, a long-term knee injury suffered at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 derailed his development somewhat.
Nevertheless, while he’s lost some of the power and athleticism that made him special beforehand, the intangibles that helped him garner a healthy reputation across Europe pre-injury remain intact. Zakaria’s a versatile and physical midfielder who once said he idolised Patrick Vieira and Paul Pogba.
German footballing icon Lothar Matthaus, meanwhile, described the Swiss international as a “pearl” back in 2019 and likened him to Toni Kroos such is the technical proficiency of the new Juve man. Despite Matthaus’ comparisons, though, Juventus have not signed the second coming of maestro Kroos. Let’s make that very clear!
Zakaria is a safe and efficient passer who’s secure technically and will certainly aid the Bianconeri’s build-up from a deep-lying midfield position. The 25-year-old is one of just three Bundesliga players to complete at least 90% of his passes this season. But, the figures also depict a midfielder that isn’t particularly metronomic or progressive. For example, Zakaria has completed a career-high 47.6 passes per 90 minutes this season, but this tally fails to top Arthur Melo (64.5), Manuel Locatelli (53.3) and Rodrigo Bentancur’s (51.7) respective hauls.
From a progressive standpoint, Zakaria’s 4.39 progressive passes per 90 closely resemble the man he’s replacing, Bentancur, who averages 4.38 this season.
Now, I’m not suggesting that this is ‘bad’. Zakaria’s numbers are respectable and I’m merely trying to paint a picture of the type of player Juventus fans should expect.
Anyway, it’s in the defensive phase where the Swiss midfielder excels. In his opening interview as a Bianconeri, Zakaria said that one of his most important attributes is “winning back the ball” and it’s only Bentancur (5.70) among the Juventus players that top Zakaria’s combined 4.19 tackles and interceptions this season.
And while the 25-year-old has lost some of the physical aspects that made him a stand-out defender before his injury, he’s still athletic enough to cover large spaces which makes him an effective defender in transition. Zakaria’s also mightily difficult to beat in one-vs-one situations. His towering 6″3 frame and long legs mean he can still overwhelm opponents physically.
Unlocking Manuel Locatelli
While Zakaria is no regista, he boasts the defensive astuteness and technical security to be Massimiliano Allegri’s holding midfielder in whatever system he deploys.
Thus, Zakaria might be the guy to release the shackles from Locatelli’s elegant ankles. Despite the tidiness of Arthur, the Brazilian’s defensive deficiencies mean he’s yet to fully garner the trust of Allegri and Locatelli has subsequently been forced to perform the deep-lying function in midfield. However, we’ve caught glimpses against AS Roma and Sampdoria of Loca’s majesty in a more advanced role and the plan moving forward will undoubtedly to let the leash off the Italian via the usage of Zakaria behind him.
As a result, it’ll be Locatelli’s responsibility just as much as it is Zakaria’s to match the defensive output of Bentancur.
In contrast to most, I’m sceptical as to whether Zakaria is much of a qualitative upgrade on Bentancur in the short term. But, the new arrival’s profile will nonetheless be invaluable should he successfully acclimatise. His potential to unlock Locatelli is surely a major factor in why Juve opted to move for the 25-year-old before the deadline, while the finances of the deal (€8m) mean the move is a low-risk one with plenty of upside even if the player doesn’t rediscover his pre-injury form.
Overall, this is a transfer that I suspect many of us will look back on in the coming years as a major steal.