Why Diego Was Better at Juventus Than Many Fans Remember

Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2016

TURIN, ITALY - AUGUST 23:  Ribas Da Cunha Diego of Juventus in action during the Serie A match between Juventus FC vs AC Chievo Verona at Olimpico Stadium on August 23, 2009 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Last week, this writer recalled the time Amauri spent at Juventus, discussing his career in Turin throughout this previous post as he celebrated his move to NASL side Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

In promoting the post on Twitter, Amauri was dubbed “perhaps the worst signing in Juventus history,” to which many supporters of the Bianconeri shared a common response; what about Diego?

Ah yes, Diego Ribas da Cunha. A name synonymous with the failed teams who ran out in Bianconero during the 2009/10 campaign, a year that supporters of the Old Lady would like to pretend never happened.

Before that season, manager Claudio Ranieri had steered the club to second- and third-place finishes, his final campaign also including home and away UEFA Champions League wins against Real Madrid.

Juventus were only just back in Serie A following the Calciopoli scandal and the current Leicester City boss had done remarkably well in those circumstances, but the club deemed his results to be not good enough.

Ranieri was sacked, and while fans of the Turin giants may not like the comparison, what followed was no different to what AC Milan have done in recent years. Juve turned to an iconic former player, one with little coaching experience and put him in charge of the first team.

Just as Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi did at the San Siro, Ciro Ferrara struggled. Just like those Rossoneri greats, he was not properly supported in the transfer market but would still shoulder the blame for the club’s failings.

But back to Diego. Where Ranieri favoured the same 4-4-2 he now uses in the Premier League to great effect, Ferrara was adamant his Juventus would use a trequartista, ideally within his preferred 4-3-1-2 formation.

The club obliged in some style, their official website revealing they had agreed to pay Werder Bremen €24.5 million for the Brazil native, with a potential further €2.5 million in performance-related bonuses.

"After an experience in Portugal and in the Bundesliga, I will be able to prove my worth at a high level but difficult competition," Diego told a press conference after the deal was announced. "It is the right time for me to take this important step and I am convinced that at Juventus I will be able to achieve great results."

That belief was rooted in a career which had been superb until that point. He broke into the team at Santos while only 16 years old, helping them win the Campeonato Brasileiro alongside famous team-mates Robinho, Elano and defender Alex.

He would initially struggle to settle at FC Porto, but a move to Werder Bremen in the summer of 2006 would prove to be perfect for him, as former Germany international Thomas Hitzlsperger explained to Bleacher Report.

"I’ve been a fan Diego’s since that move as not only did he give a lot of assists, but he scored plenty of goals, too," he said. "He was part of very good team. he will certainly be remembered for an amazing goal against Alemannia Aachen when he scored from 70 yards out.

"Following in Johan Micoud's footsteps wasn’t easy, but he managed it really well. He became player of the month in the Bundesliga in his very first month at Bremen, so he didn’t take long to settle in."

His tally of 54 goals in 132 appearances for Werder did not do justice to his brilliance in the green and white. As Hitzlsperger intimated, Diego was simply sensational at the Weserstadion, helping coach Thomas Schaaf’s side to consecutive third-place finishes and a place in the 2009 UEFA Cup final.

He was suspended for that clash, however, unable to help Werder avoid defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk, but his final game for the club saw him set up Mesut Ozil's match-winning goal against Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB-Pokal final.

That convinced the Turin club to move for the 5’8” (1.73m) star, much to the delight of many Serie A observers. Former Juve striker Pietro Anastasi told Tuttosport (h/t Goal) that Diego “reminds me of [Zinedine] Zidane with a mix between [Roberto] Baggio and [Michel] Platini."

High praise indeed, but Luca Vialli would go even further. "Diego is worth [the same as] Messi and Ronaldo," he told Tuttosport (h/t Goal). "He is one of the top three best players in the world."

It seemed such belief was well-founded in the early days of that ill-fated 2009/10 campaign, Diego scoring against Chievo before delivering a sensational performance against AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

As can be seen in the video above, he destroyed the Giallorossi almost single-handedly, breaking the game open with a sensational solo strike before bagging a second in the 3-1 win.

Yet from there the team would begin to struggle, its deficiencies exploited by tactically astute coaches across the peninsula. While the Bianconeri had invested heavily in Diego, the rest of the side was not constructed well enough to make Ferrara’s 4-3-1-2 formation work.

Desperately poor full-backs meant the team had no width, while the likes of Felipe Melo and Christian Poulsen offered little attacking threat in midfield. That allowed opponents to collapse in on Diego, denying him the space and time in which to operate and severely limiting his impact.

However, he was still far better than many believe. He recorded five goals and seven assists in the league, with WhoScored.com statistics showing that only David Pizarro (3.2) and Wesley Sneijder (3.0) created more chances than Diego’s average of 2.5 per game.

As can be seen in the video above, his involvement in Juve’s goals was evident, while Who Scored also highlighted how he was targeted by opposition defenders. Their figures show that he was fouled 3.1 times per game, more than any of his team-mates and—for reference—more than double the times Sneijder was impeded.

The Dutchman was touted as a potential Ballon d’Or winner that season, eventually finishing fourth in the voting yet he scored less goals (4) and made less assists (6) than Diego in Serie A.

Of course Sneijder would help Inter Milan to win an unprecedented treble that year, and Diego’s overall contribution pales in comparison, but the fact remains the Brazilian was simply not the only one who should be blamed.

Like Ferrara—who was fired in January 2010—sporting director Alessio Secco would be relieved of his duties, axed that following summer as a revolution swept through Turin. A new president would arrive, yet even Andrea Agnelli’s highly regarded management team would take a year to undo the damage caused by the previous regime.  

ANTONIO CALANNI/Associated Press

Diego would also be sold on, moving to Wolfsburg as the Bianconeri cut their losses. He has since spent time with Atletico Madrid, Fenerbahce and Flamengo, but—as Hitzlsperger told Bleacher Report—he was never really the same.

"It was difficult as the club went through some changes," the former Germany international said. "They appointed Steve McClaren as manager after Felix Magath left for Schalke. Although Diego played in most games, he was taken off a lot, too.

"He wasn’t able to reproduce the fine performances from the Bremen days. On the last day of the season, he left the team camp when he found out he wouldn’t be playing."

That is the story of Diego Ribas da Cunha, one of unfulfilled potential and ultimately disappointment. In a November 2014 interview with Tuttosport (link in Italian), the man himself perhaps summed up the situation better than anyone.

He told the Turin-based newspaper that he paid for the mistakes of everyone at the club during that period, and he is probably right. Diego wasn’t as bad as many people remember, and he was truly a scapegoat for Juve’s disastrous 2009/10 campaign.