If you haven’t heard the name “Moise Kean” in the last month, you’ve probably been living under a rock.
The Juventus starlet has made global headlines for becoming the second-youngest player in Azzurri history to score a competitive goal, for bagging seven goals for club and country, for standing in the face of racism in Sardinia, and for — in just his latest exploit — sinking AC Milan over the weekend in Turin.
What you’ve probably heard about is Kean’s “power,” his “strength,” his “athleticism,” and his “speed.” Maybe his raw or innate abilities. Definitely his potential.
What you may have not heard about is Kean’s patience through an arduous autumn and his positional intelligence as an attacker.
In 5 months, Kean logged 14 minutes
In five months in the fall with Juventus, Moise Kean saw all of 14 competitive minutes in two games. His 12-minute stint against Swiss club BSC Young Boys was his longest the entire fall, and the only other competitive action he saw for Juventus in 2018 came against Fiorentina in a 3-0 romp: two minutes of playing time, well after Cristiano Ronaldo’s 79th-minute penalty that put Juve out of reach for La Viola.
Wanting a last-minute entrance from Kean became a refrain for Juventus fans. The Old Lady was absolutely obliterating the schedule in front of her. The first game Juventus didn’t win came on Oct. 20 against Genoa. The first game Juventus lost was a strange, flukey game against Manchester United on Nov. 7. There were ample opportunities to get Kean more playing time, and not just as a substitute. Matchups against SPAL, Bologna, Cagliari, and Empoli came well after the Black and White had built up a sizable Serie A lead, and also at a time when it was clearer and clearer that stalwarts Mario Mandzukic and Ronaldo needed occasional rest. After all, Kean is the only legitimate backup to the Croat for the No. 9 role.
And yet, Max Allegri kept Kean on the bench. Time after time. In the Champions League and in Serie A.
Then he got his chance.
Kean is more than speed and power, but not less
To say that Kean is a powerful, skilled, speedy player, of course, wouldn’t be wrong. So many of his recent goals have been the products of a last-minute explosion to reach a cross before a defender. His goal against Cagliari is a perfect example:
You can see the exact moment at which the Cagliari defender turns around and notices Kean rushing for the goal. But it doesn’t matter. Before Rodrigo Bentancur even gets the ball, Kean is darting for the six-yard box. His Uruguayan teammate then slots a perfect cross to No. 18 — in between two outstretched defenders and the goalkeeper — and Kean hits turbo on his Xbox controller for a simple tap-in.
He’s scored goals in bunches over the last few weeks, and he’s scored them in all kinds of ways: as a poacher, making long runs with the ball, making long runs without the ball, receiving crosses from wingers. He’s done it all. And once he does get the ball at his feet, he has more than the requisite skill to move past defenders. Just ask Mateo Musacchio:
You’ve got to think that his hunger for goals and energy are at all-time highs just about now. His lack of competitive minutes and injury-free year — he last missed significant time in spring of last year, on loan with Hellas Verona — coupled with his age and innate physical gifts mean that he’s a bundle of energy waiting to be unleashed. He scored a brace against Udinese (and for inexplicable reasons didn’t get a chance to complete the hat trick when Juve earned a penalty), and just kept on scoring from there.
Learning & creating the art of No. 9
What really convinced me, though, about Kean’s current talent — he could and should regularly start on almost any Serie A team, Juventus included depending on the tactical matchup — and his future potential — nothing short of the world’s best striker — is his intelligence under pressure, his resilient intelligence. He doesn’t only pounce on the finish, he doesn’t only wield the touch to not lose possession in key situations in the box, but he knows exactly where to be and exactly when to start his run. These aren’t innate abilities — these are learned. Through film study and repetition and received instruction, Kean has started to sharpen his movement on the pitch, and he’s done it in different roles, too.
Roberto Mancini deployed Kean as a left winger twice, and the youngster applied great pressure in that position by sending a couple of beautiful crosses into the box. Against Lichtenstein, Kean played as the left winger in a 4-3-3 beside Fabio Quagliarella and in front of Verratti. Against Finland the game before, Kean played the same position in a 4-2-3-1, and his movement on his national team debut was perfect in the goal, first cutting — somewhat counterintuitively — directly in front of his teammate and through a corridor of four defenders:
Moise Kean scored on his senior debut !— Juvefc.com (@juvefcdotcom) March 23, 2019
For Juventus, Kean hasn’t played yet as a winger and has either been the lone striker or one of two strikers. Against Cagliari, in particular, he was phenomenal. That was, for me, the game I feel like I witnessed the arrival of a star — and the arrival came long before Kean bagged himself a goal. In the 84 minutes before he scored, Kean did everything you’d want a No. 9 to do and more: He held up play, he helped distribute, and despite some iffy touches he didn’t lose possession but twice.
What’s more, the lineup surrounding him in Sardinia was not exactly conducive to offensive production. The only other starter for Juventus who is remotely close to a complete offensive player was Federico Bernardeschi — a player not exactly in his best run of form — and besides that there was very little offensive firepower. There were no wingers (Ronaldo, Douglas Costa), no other forwards (Dybala, Mandzukic), and not even the offensively-minded fullbacks Leonardo Spinazzola or Joao Cancelo saw time.
Kean was on an island, and not just the island of Sardinia. He lived on an island and he conquered it in every way imaginable.
Allegri used Kean alongside Mario Mandzukic against AC Milan in a two-striker formation, and the two did some effective switching, which we’ve seen before as evidenced by this play against Empoli:
His game-winner in Turin again showcased a soft drift to create space for himself, making Ricardo Rodriguez look silly:
Kean GOL pic.twitter.com/3rsDFfvnXZ— Juvefc.com (@juvefcdotcom) April 6, 2019
There are the goals that Kean has scored, and the goals that Kean hasn’t scored, too, which surface not as evidence of lack but as evidence of potential. In other words, Kean could’ve scored three or four more in the last six weeks. One thinks immediately of his chance against Atletico Madrid, just a whisker away from pummeling the back of the net. He seems always to be in the right place at the right time, and that is the mark of a marksman who is studied, wise in his art.
Kean is not the perfect player. He’s 19 years old. But he’s putting the pieces together, and in Mandzukic and Ronaldo he arguably has the best one-two mentor partnership you could ask for a young striker. In the Croat, he'll learn unfettered grinta, a perpetual motor, and the ability to piss off everyone on the other team. In Ronaldo he’ll learn skill, dedication, and — more than anything — the hunger to keep attacking after missed opportunities.
Like Mandzukic, Kean has shown to Allegri and Mancini that he’s too good not to play, and that he’s smart enough to play multiple positions in multiple formations with multiple lineups. Like Ronaldo, Kean has followed up vital misses — like the squandered chance versus Atletico Madrid — with phenomenal, game-stopping, game-winning goals.