After Juventus‘ close win over fellow title contenders Napoli on December 1st, there was delight in Turin. Then came the news that the legendary 39 year old Gianluigi Buffon had suffered a muscular injury in training and would be absent for a period of time. Worry began to grow among fans. Was Wojciech Szczesny good enough? Was he ready? He certainly answered those questions.
Szczesny arrived from Arsenal for a €12 million after a successful loan spell in the Italian capital for Roma. While most expected him to play second fiddle to Buffon for at least a season, fans were quietly optimistic. He was a good goalkeeper and would have plenty of time to learn under Buffon’s tutelage.
In the first months of the season he played ocassionally, against the weaker teams of the division such as Benevento and Chievo Verona to give Buffon rest for upcoming mid-week games. As a result, he was rarely tested and it was impossible to judge whether €12 million was well spent.
After Buffon’s injury, Szczesny was thrown straight into the starting line-up in an important Champions League’s game against Olympiakos. Juventus won 2-0. A win and a clean sheet in the Pole’s European debut meant he couldn’t be happier. This match was followed by another clean sheet against top contenders Inter. Juve’s defence conceded only one shot on target, which Szczesny handled without much issue.
2 consecutive clean sheets became 3, which in turn became 4, then 5. The fifth was a key battle against AS Roma. In the 90th minute Juve were ahead by one goal. Patrik Schick raced towards Szczesny’s goal to try and find a late equaliser. The Pole was having none of it, and made a fantastic, headline-making save to seal the victory. This clinching save encapsulated Szczesny’s run of form.
In the last game before the winter break, Szczesny was once again a match-winner. A poor Juve side relied on Szczesny making several wonderful saves to allow his team to eek out a narrow 1-0 lead and maintain pressure on Napoli at the top of the table.
When Buffon returns, what happens?
When the Italian great Gianluigi Buffon returns from injury, many would argue that he immediately retakes his place as first choice goalkeeper. As great as the Italian is, should Szczesny be sent back to the bench? Father Time catches up to us all, and Buffon is visibly slower than even last year, and his reflexes aren’t getting any quicker.
While Buffon is a fantastic goalkeeper, Szczesny is certainly a better footballer. The Pole is more comfortable and able with the ball at his feet, and is extremely adept at spraying passes out to the wide players. This is an extra dimension that he adds that simply isn’t there when Buffon plays. On the otherhand, Buffon’s leadership skills and ability to manage a defence are second to none.
This is the conundrum which will face coach Massimiliano Allegri very soon. He could go with a dynamic approach, with Buffon playing European ties and Szczesny the domestic ones, perhaps. The statistics show that Buffon makes 2.75 saves per goal compared to Szczesny’s 1.67, though prior to Buffon’s injury Juve’s defence was in a miniature crisis, meaning Buffon faced more shots. The Pole’s distribution accuracy is 83% compared to the Italian’s 78%.
Szczesny was brought in to be Buffon’s eventual heir for next season, but maybe his current form has sped up the process.
Regardless of what happens this season, Buffon will need a replacement next season. Over the years, many names have been thrown around. Mattia Perin, Nicola Leali and more recently his namesake Gianluigi Donnarumma are some of the few. Yet no one stands out as a clear cut candidate. Now, Wojciech Szczesny’s name has been thrown in the hat and he’s topped it off with some fantastic performances.
Juventus won’t find it easy to replace the Italian, who’s been a stalwart at the club since signing in 2001, but Szczesny is making his case to become the next Juventus goalkeeper. If he maintains his form, he’s more than able to fill the big boots that will be left behind. It’s one thing filling in when Buffon is injured. It’s a different story being the next in line after he retires.
Szczesny has come on leaps and bounds since moving from Arsenal, first at Roma and now in Turin for Juventus. If he continues his growth he’s definitely capable of becoming one of the world’s best goalkeepers. He’s still only 27, which is not old at all for a ‘keeper. In fact, he may only be hitting his stride now. Juventus fans will certainly hope that’s the case, because if he becomes even half as successful as Buffon was for the club, he’ll be remembered well.