EPL

Vlahovic primed to be Serie A's new poster boy as he ignores pull of Premier League for Juventus

By Sports Desk January 28, 2022

It wasn't so long ago that the notion of Juventus hoovering up talent from Serie A rivals would have been seen in a negative light by most Italian football fans.

But while their domination of Italy's top division only really ended last season when Inter brought the Bianconeri's nine-year subjugation of Serie A to a halt, their current situation would make you think it was far longer since they were a challenger.

When the season resumes after this international break, Juve will go into their next fixture at least 11 points off the top, down in fifth. For years their recruitment has been muddled and misguided, with Aaron Ramsey's fringe squad status the perfect embodiment of that.

But Dusan Vlahovic's arrival shows there is life in the Old Lady yet, and given the striker's rise to prominence, this move is also potentially massive for Serie A in general.

Fiorentina hadn't been shy about their desire to cash in on the Serbian, who turned 22 on Friday. They have been very public about how they simply could not afford to lose out on a transfer fee, a situation that was quickly threatening to become a real issue given his contract was due to expire in 2023.

Pretty much all of Europe's biggest clubs were linked with Vlahovic at some point over the past 12 months, and for a while most people's money would have been on him moving to England.

"Oh, another emerging talent scurrying off to chase the big bucks of the Premier League, how predictable," many 'calcio' fans were presumably muttering to themselves as… *checks notes*… Arsenal and Tottenham circled.

As the story reportedly went, Vlahovic's agent didn't seriously consider those two in the end. Whether it might have been a different story for Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United or even Chelsea is unclear, but a coup it remains for Juve.

Vlahovic's impact on Italian football, particularly over the past 18 months, has been significant. Some have suggested he's Serie A's answer to Erling Haaland – perhaps a slight exaggeration, but there's a reason Juve are investing in a guy who in 2021, let's not forget, became only the second player in the past 60 years to net 33 Serie A goals over a single calendar year.

Juve's attraction to him makes absolute sense when you consider a metric as reductive – yet, crucial – as goals. Following Cristiano Ronaldo's exit last year, the Bianconeri were left with a gaping maw in terms of finishing ability. The faith placed in Alvaro Morata to pick up the slack was as optimistic as it was naive, as the Spaniard has five in 22 Serie A games.

Vlahovic should, in theory, provide them with a number nine who is dedicated to goals. As Fiorentina's focal point this term, he has recorded 87 shots (second-most among Serie A players) and scored 15 non-penalty goals across all competitions.

Some might point to the fact those 15 strikes are a considerable increase on his non-penalty xG (expected goals) of 10.2, and there's obviously a chance he won't prove to be quite so clinical for Juve, but it clearly shows they are buying a player brimming with belief.

Similarly, being surrounded by better players in Turin may mean Vlahovic doesn't have to try as many low-xG shots. A quick look at his shot map in Serie A this season shows a significant variation in goal distances, which obviously has an impact on his xG per shot, which is 0.11 (excluding penalties).

That may not mean anything in isolation, but when you compare that to Tammy Abraham's 0.18, there's quite a gulf. The England striker seems to be better at getting into clear-cut goalscoring situations, but if Vlahovic is already proving this deadly from worse positions, imagine what he could do if he improves.

It's worth noting that by no means does Vlahovic only have eyes for goal. In fact, among 'conventional' strikers in Serie A this season, only four – and Paulo Dybala, nominally a creator anyway – have had more involvements in shot-ending sequences without taking the shot (45).

That speaks to Vlahovic's link-up play and his effectiveness at knitting attacks together in the final third, a skill that is not to every striker's liking. Yet he manages to fulfil this function without it being to the detriment of his goals output.

At Juve, assuming he links up in attack with Dybala, there may be less need for him to get as involved and that could potentially be how he improves his record of getting into higher xG situations.

It's fair to assume Juve would see that pay dividends on the goals front, given he already only averages 2.2 touches per shot inside the box – that's only fractionally more than Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo and Haaland (all 2.0), showing how he's more of an instinctive finisher than the likes of Mohamed Salah (3.1) and Kylian Mbappe (3.3), who are more about dribbling and beating defenders.

The fact is, Vlahovic still has elements to his game that could still improve, yet he's already performing at a high level. He may be young, but Juve have signed a player who can go straight into the team, which will presumably start being built around him.

Whether Massimiliano Allegri is the right coach for this new Juventus is another debate, but the acquisition of Vlahovic could be a game-changer.

At the very least, it's a genuine boost for Serie A to keep arguably its finest young player in the league despite the Premier League waving its vast sums in his direction.

With Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku gone, Vlahovic is surely primed to be Serie A's new poster boy.

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    While quarterback-needy teams grappled with the decision over whether to bet on a member of an underwhelming 2022 draft class at the position, those teams who were astute enough to select a signal-caller from the loaded 2021 class spent their offseasons attempting to stack the deck around the player they handpicked as the future of the franchise.

    The 2022 season will be a significant one for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, with questions sure to be asked of the five first-round picks if they do not show signs of vindicating their respective franchises for selecting them last year.

    Jones arguably already proved himself as the most pro-ready QB of the quintet in an impressive rookie campaign, but 2022 may well reveal how high the ceiling is for the least physically gifted of the bunch. The rest are all aiming to prove they have the skill sets to join the league's expanding and increasingly youthful elite at the NFL's most important position. 

    Indeed, the first four quarterbacks off the board in 2021 were all regarded as players with the potential to elevate those around them and take their offenses to new heights. But a quarterback, regardless of his athletic and mental gifts, cannot do it all himself. So who among the 2021 first-rounders has the best supporting cast to help them excel?

    To help us answer that question, we at Stats Perform have gone back to look at our post-free agency positional unit baselines that inform our team rankings.

    The baselines were produced for seven different units: quarterback, pass blocking, run blocking, route runners/pass catchers, pass rush, run defense and pass defense. The units are comprised of projected playing time for players on the roster combined with the player baselines linked to each of those units.

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    The six non-quarterback baselines, plus a look at some of the moves made in the draft by each quarterback's respective team, provide a picture that reveals which of the second-year signal-callers have the talent around them to thrive.

    5. Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

    Even though the numbers are not impressive, there were clear flashes of promise in Fields' rookie season with the Bears.

    While he only finished with a 70.9 well-thrown percentage – seven percentage points below the average for quarterbacks with at least 50 throws – and had a pickable pass rate of 5.36 per cent that was the eighth-worst among that group, Fields did display the upside that led the Bears to trade up for him.

    Only two quarterbacks averaged more air yards per attempt than Fields' 10.02 and his three passing plays of 50 yards or more were the most of all rookie quarterbacks and as many as Josh Allen and Justin Herbert managed all season.

    You would think, therefore, that the Bears' focus this offseason would be on giving Fields the weapons to produce further explosive plays in 2022. Not so, the Bears waited until the third round to add a wide receiver in the draft – 25-year-old return specialist Velus Jones Jr.

    The Bears' reluctance to add to a group of pass-catchers that prior to the draft had the sixth-lowest unit baseline in the NFL hardly suggests at a sophomore surge for Fields in 2022.

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    4. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Simply having an adult in the room with experience of winning at the NFL level should help Lawrence's cause, with Doug Pederson a substantial improvement on Urban Meyer as head coach.

    As is the case with Fields in Chicago, Pederson will hope Lwrence can build on last season's flashes of the talent that led some to label him as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012. Lawrence's well-thrown percentage of 76.3 was significantly better than that of Fields, but his 26 pickable passes were the fourth-most in the league.

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    And while much of the Jags' roster still reeks of mediocrity, an offensive line that ranked fourth in pass-block win rate in 2021 may give him the time to help justify the Jags' belief in Kirk and Lawrence's other new weapons.

    3. Zach Wilson, New York Jets

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    Their roster looks in significantly better shape than it did at the end of the 2021 campaign, but the Jets were working from a pretty low starting point.

    Coming out of free agency, only six teams had a lower unit baseline among their pass-catchers than the Jets, whose offensive line was in the bottom half of the league in pass protection baseline and in the run-blocking baseline.

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    1. Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

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    "Luka Modric, the older he is, the better he is."

     

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    "It's different, but still I think you will hear them a lot tomorrow, our fans, and I think our performances can be good as well, so I think we are ready and we'll play the way we always do and give everything we have to win this game."

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    "He didn't make it so we just extended [the season] for him with the final. He is here and he is ready to play his part."

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