It’s strange to think that only three years have passed since summer 2016. During that transfer window, Juventus signed striker Gonzalo Higuain for an astonishing €90 million, the third-highest transfer fee of all time at that point.
The Argentine hitman had made the move north from Naples, a place where he had broken the Serie A single-season goal-scoring record with 36 strikes in only 35 matches. Despite his beginnings with Real Madrid and his previous two campaigns at Napoli under Rafa Benitez, this was the very peak of his reputation, and he owed it to one man.
Maurizio Sarri joined the club at the beginning of the 2015-16 season and immediately struck up a rapport with Higuain, a factor that certainly helped him on his way to that huge goal tally.
“I am feeling better than last year,” the striker revealed to Sky Italia back in December 2015. “I am more calm and relaxed, maybe because our results are better than last year. The first time I spoke to Sarri it was shortly after he arrived at the club. He took just a few minutes to convince me to remain at the club. I’ve learned from my mistakes and I want to make history at Napoli. That’s why I am here.”
Of course, the Napoli fans were not at all happy when his performances that year led to interest from their rivals for the Serie A title, but Juve were ruthless in that particular transfer window as sporting director Beppe Marotta also secured the signing of star midfielder Miralem Pjanic from fellow rivals AS Roma.
Now we return to the point from which we started, a peak Pipita about to join Juventus, the team that won the league despite his 36 goals the year before.
Here is a player who has clearly made some high-profile misses in the past, especially at the international level. He has also, at times, struggled with his weight when returning to preseason training. It’s easy to create the narrative of a lazy choker, but upon deeper inspection of his record and performances, there is an alternative version of events.
With the Bianconeri, Higuain was immediately required to improve his fitness and had to make the transition from being the focal point of an entire side to being a star among many. His game had to be adjusted to working as a cog in a well-drilled machine, one that was not going to yield as much personal glory as he had enjoyed the season before.
He finished that season with 29 strikes in all competitions, becoming the first Juve player to score more than 20 goals in a debut season since John Charles and Omar Sivori did so in the 1957-58 campaign. He also fired in a brace in the Champions League semifinal first leg versus Monaco, a lead that would ultimately be a huge part of sending his side to the final that year.
Yet it was during his second season in Turin that Higuain really learned how to become more of a team player, almost doubling his assist tally with seven in all competitions compared to four in the previous campaign. Indeed, he would lay on the winning goal for teammate Paulo Dybala in an extremely hard-fought Round of 16 match versus Tottenham in the Champions League.
One thing you can always be sure of with Juventus is that they make financially sound decisions in the transfer market. When the opportunity arose to re-sign Leonardo Bonucci at the beginning of last season, it served a purpose to make the swap with Higuain and Mattia Caldara, shedding the 30-year-old’s high wages while he still had some value.
This made perfect sense for the club, but it was no surprise that the striker seemed unsure. A look at the Juventus documentary on Netflix revealed that Higuain has a sensitive personality, a need to be loved and to feel confident in his own abilities. Suddenly he was taken from a place where he had settled and found his rhythm to Milan, a club with its own internal issues and huge, immediate expectations for their new star striker.
Novice boss Gennaro Gattuso struggled to alter his system in order to make the most from Higuain, and the more he struggled, the more he became frustrated. That, in turn, made the supporters — who of course had huge expectations from such a high-profile player — become discontented, which of course affected the Argentine’s fragile confidence.
It was no surprise then, that when former mentor Maurizio Sarri came calling, Higuain answered right away. After he scored just six times in the first half of the season for Milan, Juve agreed to cancel the loan and obligation to buy and instead sent Higuain to his former boss at Chelsea.
The problem was that Sarri had other priorities the second time around in terms of dealing with criticism from both fans and media, all while he was adjusting to his first year in England. Higuain’s five goals in 13 Premier League starts meant he almost became a laughing stock as he was sent back to Juve with his tail between his legs.
Now, the player finds himself in another difficult situation. Reports suggest that he wants to stay in Turin with Sarri, who of course has now been appointed at Juve. Yet the club need to offload his wages and see some kind of return on the money they paid for him for Financial Fair Play purposes.
Roma has been mooted as a potential destination, but the striker is said to have refused any potential moves, leaving him in a difficult situation.
On the surface it seems like this is the same old Pipita, a washed-up has-been that is desperately clinging on to the good times of the past. Yet the fairer explanation reveals that this player is simply a victim of unfortunate circumstances, with no end yet in sight to his difficulties.