When Juventus signed Federico Bernardeschi in the summer of 2017 from Fiorentina for 40 million euros, a lot was expected out of him. In his last season at La Viola, he scored 11 times in 32 league games and assisted four times. He was one of the best young players in European football.
Fast forward to now, his career seems to be stagnating and languishing in Turin. He is now 25 and well behind Paulo Dybala, Douglas Costa, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain in the pecking order. He has made only three starts this season. They came largely because Douglas and Aaron Ramsey have been struggling with fitness.
When Ramsey was fit in games against Brescia, SPAL, and Hellas Verona, Bernardeschi either came on from the bench or he didn’t play. That isn’t a good sign for a player who would do good with regular football.
Bernardeschi recently scored for the Italian national team in the country’s UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers against Greece and Liechtenstein. This was the first time he has scored in consecutive matches for the Azzurri.
Indeed, goals have been a huge problem for the Italian. One big proof behind his lack of development since joining Juve is his contribution. In two seasons (ever since joining), he has scored only six times and has assisted nine times. In his last season at Fiorentina, he was involved in 15 goals alone (via Whoscored).
At Fiorentina, there was a real freedom in the way he went about playing. His wavy hair signified that, as he went about scoring and assisting at will. He had the license to roam. He was the star of the side, not one of the stars- like it is now at Juventus.
The stats prove this: in the 2016-17 season, Bernardeschi completed 1.9 dribbles per game. Under Paulo Sousa in the 2015-16 campaign, he made 2.1 dribbles per game. At Juve, the highest number of dribbles per game he has ever made in a season is 1 – in the 2017-18 campaign (via Whoscored).
That, in itself, says a lot. At Fiorentina, Bernardeschi played in all sorts of positions in the front four. While his main position was always the right wing, the youngster would also often play as a second-striker, right wing-back or as the number ten in a 3-4-2-1 shape. That is a formation that suits a fluid brand of football and not a structured one.
Quite the same happened in the 2016-17 season, and Bernardeschi was often a pleasure to watch on his day.
At Juve, Bernardeschi came in to play in a more structured system. Massimiliano Allegri is a brilliant manager. But that was a season in which Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain were often scoring for fun. La Joya scored 22 times, while Il Pipita scored 16 times.
The rigid system also emphasised on the workrates of Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic in wide areas. Douglas Costa also assisted 12 times. His searing pace tore defences to shreds. As a result, Bernardeschi could start only seven games and appeared 15 times from the bench.
Last season, the system became even more rickety as Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival had a role to play. As per Whoscored, Juve did have 16 shots on target per game last season, but they scored only 70 times. In the 2017-18 season, they scored 86 goals despite having only 14 shots on target per game. There was a drop in possession last season: from 56%, it came down to 54%.
Having less of the ball never helped Bernadeschi as he made only 14 starts. He became just another one of the players – he wasn’t special like he was at Fiorentina.
In a Champions League game against Young Boys, Allegri was highly critical of Bernardeschi. And it typifies everything that was wrong for him under Allegri. He said:
“It’s a pass, we need to score goals. Now I am going to replace him, we are not at Fiorentina here.”
It became a case of playing in a side with a system that was ill-suited to his style. There was no freedom. There was an emphasis on other players’ development. That is why there is a chance Bernardeschi recovers his old form under Sarri.
The former Chelsea and Napoli boss has focused on playing a diamond 4-3-1-2 shape. Bernardeschi has played behind the two strikers in a narrow shape – like Isco did at Real Madrid behind Karim Benzema and Ronaldo. A narrow shape has allowed Bernardeschi room to move out wide and have the freedom to do his stuff. He has begun to have as much possession as he likes too.
But he is still very much down the pecking order. Once Ramsey and Costa return, he will essentially be a 3rd or 4th choice in the attacking midfield spot. And Federico doesn’t have enough time on his hands. It is time to move on. There are managers out there whose systems would give him miles more freedom.