“I preferred to give him a rest.”
That was the reasoning behind Massimiliano Allegri’s decision to bench Gonzalo Higuain for the Derby Della Mole against Torino.
And if one of Europe’s deadliest strikers had a better record than just two goals in eight matches, we might be more inclined to believe him - especially given the significance of the match.
Goals aren’t everything, but anyone who has watched the Argentine play of late will have noticed that all areas of his game have been lacking. Wayward passes, dismal dribbling and overall an inability to influence matches has seen his form called into question.
So, what is wrong with Higuain? Taking Allegri’s comments about fatigue at face value unlock some answers as to why the striker has not been his normal self lately. Higuain played in all but two of Juventus’ matches in all competitions last season, including every Serie A match and all but one of their Champions League games, as they reached the final for the second time in three seasons. It can be exhausting. Mentally and physically.
At the same time, this season is very different from his first with Juve. He doesn’t arrive at the club after exhausting, back-to-back Copa America tournaments (where Argentina reached the final in both years). Nor does he look anywhere near as unfit as he did last year, when he was mocked for his appearance and weight.
Higuain has so far only played two international matches this calendar year, having featured in 13 in 2016. Moreover, he was dropped from Jorge Sampaoli’s recent Argentina squad for crucial World Cup qualifiers in favour of Mauro Icardi, giving him another break from the jading flights to South American and back.
Of course, Higuain’s malaise is accentuated by teammate Paulo Dybala’s crazy run of form in the past few weeks. While Gonzalo toils for his third goal of the campaign, La Joya is already in double figures. While his talent was in little doubt, Dybala seems to have found a goal-scoring touch that could see him post ‘Higuain numbers’ in terms of goals this year. At the same time, Paulo’s resurgence takes a huge weight off the shoulders of his compatriot.
Allegri later added in his post-match interview that Gonzalo “just needs to rediscover the calm of not feeling the need to score all the time.” For the Coach, it won’t matter too who puts the ball in the net at the moment, with Napoli topping the table, Inter breathing down their necks, plus a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Barcelona in their opening Champions League match to bounce back from.
Allegri doesn’t necessarily need Higuain in tip top form now. But he will. How Higuain reacts will be a determining factor in how the rest of his season goes. Rest or not, the Torino match proved Higuain is droppable, especially as Allegri played him every chance he could last year. He may have to fight for his place in the team should the Bianconeri continue to convince in spite of his absence.
At the same time, the physical and mental rest could be just the tonic he needed. Despite being the goal machine he is, no player is immune to a dip in form. Moreover, at a club like Juventus and for a player like Higuain, the bar is higher than most.
Pipita always has a nose for goal, and it will be difficult to see Higuain going too long without another few.