When you play for Fiorentina you are not only representing Tuscany and Florence, you are also making an unwritten pledge to never play for Juventus. Such is the animosity directed towards Juve that Roberto Baggio’s 1990 transfer from Florence to Turin caused rioting in the streets of the Tuscan capital. Fiorentina fans refer to Juve as i gobbi (the hunchbacks), this isn’t as derogatory as one might think, in Italy hunchbacks are considered to be lucky and the connection to Juve refers to their supposed luck in winning titles and seeing multiple refereeing decisions given in their favour. Players such as Claudio Gentile and Angelo di Livio, who have made the journey from Turin to Florence, have even been, jokingly, ‘de-hunchbacked’ in a mock ceremony. Now consider the case of Federico Bernardeschi, he worked his way up through the age groups at Fiorentina and ultimately represented the first team. For him and the fans that lifelong bond was deep-rooted for life.
Bernardeschi made his first-team debut in September 2014 and over the course of the next two seasons he made 40 league appearances and his two-footed, athletic, strong, lightning fast wing play attracted the attention of Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona. Just days after his league debut he scored his first goal for the club away to French side, Guingamp, in the UEFA Europa League. Fiorentina are not the powerhouse they were in the 1990s and during the summer of 2017 the club’s owners, when being unable to find a suitable buyer Fiorentina, dismantled the team from within. Several of the club’s star players were sold and It was to no one’s surprise that Juventus, seeking their seventh straight Serie A title in 2017/18, paid £40m for Bernardeschi. Juve had been desperate for a playmaker since Andrea Pirlo left two years earlier and Bernardeschi’s ability to be able to play anywhere along the forward line would play into Max Allegri’s hands; Allegri the master tactician would surely have been salivating at the prospect of a talented, but raw, player at his disposal.
Bernardeschi’s transfer caused much discord on the Curva Fiesole; one of their own had crossed the line to the enemy, an unforgivable act. Worse still for the Viola is that Bernardeschi was handed the number 10 shirt at the beginning of his second season in 2015 (maybe they should’ve seen Bernardeschi’s move to Juve coming as previous number 10 incumbents include Roberto Baggio). Shortly after his move a banner in the city angrily read ‘A chi non piacerebbe sputarti in faccia, Bernardeschi gobbo di merda’ (‘who wouldn’t like to spit in your face, Bernardeschi, you shitty hunchback?’). Their outrage was cemented when he scored a free kick on his return to the Stadio Artemio Franchi in February 2018, he even celebrated too.
His first season at Allianz Stadium was one of inconsistency and frustration, and not just for Bernardeschi. He made 22 Serie A starts but rarely took his chance to shine in the first team, while the team, despite collecting another domestic double were accused of playing a negative and pedestrian pace. Off the pitch, Juve fans were desperate for Juve and Allegri to let off the handbrake and play with a little flair, something which barely happened at all, and the inclusion of the technically blessed Bernardeschi, would, in the eyes of Juventini, have helped them accomplish this. However, Allegri is patient to the point of stubborn, and Bernardeschi remained mainly a substitute last season.
While Bernardeschi demonstrated a great ambition when he made his move to Juve, it was clear he wasn’t quite a Juve player just yet. He was noted to be somewhat petulant and argumentative at Fiorentina and this trait followed him north to Turin. His mental focus, particularly when the game wasn’t going his way, drifted on occasion and he could often be accused of not making the best decisions when in possession and thus feeding those negative traits of irritability and belligerence.
However, it wasn’t all bad, his sparkling, exciting time in Florence hadn’t merely been forgotten in just a few months. Bernardeschi showed flashes of his potential on occasion; his agile, swift, attacking runs were a joy to watch at times and his goal against SPAL in October 2017 demonstrated his powerful, accurate shot, especially from long range. This was complemented by a powerful, arrow-like goal, away to Olympiakos in the UEFA Champions League to secure Juve’s place in the Round of 16. His stamina, work rate and strong team ethic also drew praise from many.
It could be said Bernardeschi was at a crossroads at the beginning of the new season. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo had some pondering just where he would fit into the new-look Juve attack, there were even rumours of him leaving for a loan spell. However, it may just be the case that the very reason why he may have ended up on loan in mid-table Serie A, could be the reason why he’s flourishing so far this season. The signing of Ronaldo. The Portuguese has brought all the trickery, pomposity and hype with him but that is only part of the Ronaldo package. He is reaching the end of his career and his desire and charisma will no doubt be of great benefit to the younger players at Juve.
As a result, Ronaldo’s presence has lead to a blossoming partnership between he and Bernardeschi, as if Mario Mandzukic, Juve’s main striker, has become the makeweight for the two wide players. Their partnership is one of opposites, at least in terms of age, but Bernardeschi’s first and second seasons in Turin are quite similar to that of Ronaldo at Manchester United; a young, dynamic, talented player, who showed flashes of brilliance and moments of despair in equal measures. The one thing lacking was a need to focus his energy in the correct way for him to be a success. Bernardeschi has improved his game this season and is certainly channelling that positive force in right ways so far.
Allegri’s 4-3-3 formation is nothing new nor flashy, Ronaldo and Mandzukic interchange between the left and the centre, while Bernardeschi will predominantly play on the right-hand side. Again Allegri’s Juve, while winning every game they have played so far this season, have started in typically slow fashion, but Bernardeschi has been a real shining light. The focus was always going to be on his new £99m teammate but Bernardeschi has quietly become one of Juve’s most important players. On the pitch, he is much more focused and clinical, for now when he receives the ball one has a sense of excitement rather than apprehension.
The Netflix documentary First Team screened over two parts in 2018, showed the behind the scenes goings on at Juve and Bernardeschi was a focus for their attention. We saw a young and excitable man with the world at his feet and plenty of cash in his pocket, one certainly does not begrudge him this but his private life definitely mirrored his persona on the field at that stage of his career. If the Netflix cameras were to revisit now we would see a much more mature player, one who still plays with a smile but there is much more determination to succeed, more drive and more end product. His two goals are only three shy of last season’s grand total and he is much more involved in the team’s positive play. He has certainly taken to the starting role that Allegri has afforded him and with Ronaldo and Douglas Costa suspended (for sendings off at polar opposites of the ‘red card offence’ spectrum), he will be given more responsibility for his side’s attacking fortunes over the coming weeks. The sending off of Ronaldo against Valencia coincided with arguably Bernardeschi’s best performance for Juve as again we were treated to a performance of maturity, composure and dynamism, in the end, he was unfortunate to leave Spain without a goal to his name as his efforts deserved such a reward.
Ultimately, and somewhat surprisingly, the odd man for Juve out has been Paulo Dybala, consigned to the substitutes bench for much of the season, he now faces a winter of discontent which could see him leave Turin in January, with the massive upturn in form of Bernardeschi one could not argue against Juve cashing in on the Argentine international sooner rather than later.
The extra attention Juve have gained from the acquisition of Ronaldo has seen much of the spotlight fall upon him and Bernardeschi has flown under the radar a little this season. His newfound decisiveness is still going unnoticed, particularly among those leagues who still deride the standard of Italian football. Juve remains as strong as ever though, and sooner rather than later, if Bernardeschi continues at this pace, he will explode on to the world scene. Comparisons to Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti have already been made of the Juve man and he is on the right path to emulating their epic careers.