Juan Iturbe couldn't help Roma win Serie A but he can help Bournemouth
Juan Iturbe was supposed to be the difference between winning a title and losing one. How else could we explain Roma's determination to sign him in the summer of 2014? He was on the verge of joining Juventus, with talks so far advanced that Iturbe had already been booked onto a flight to Turin. But Roma swept in to steal him from under their rivals' noses -- they seized on the confusion caused by Antonio Conte's resignation and persuaded him to hop on a plane to the capital instead.
There was no such competition for Iturbe's signature this January. Far from being the top target of two teams chasing a title, he became a bargain buy for one that is attempting to stave off relegation. Bournemouth, 16th in the Premier League, paid a reported €1.2 million to take him on loan until the end of the season, with agreements in place for further bonus payments, and potentially an obligation to make the deal permanent, if certain performance targets are met.
Even then, the final sum would still be less than the €23.6 million Roma coughed up to acquire him from Verona in July 2014. That, in itself, might not sound a lot by the inflated standards of the Premier League, but it was comfortably the largest figure that any Serie A team paid for an individual player that summer -- notably, it was more than Juve spent on Alvaro Morata. It was enough to make Iturbe the fourth-most expensive signing in Roma's club history.
Hundreds of fans turned out to greet him as he arrived at the gates of their Trigoria training complex for the first time. Iturbe was given the No.7 shirt previously worn by club icon Bruno Conti. A bewitching dribbler blessed with scintillating pace, he was hoped to be the missing piece that would allow Roma to overhaul Juventus at the top of the table and for a few glorious weeks, it looked like he might live up to those expectations.
Iturbe's speed and directness on the right of attack, paired with those of Gervinho on the opposite flank in Roma's 4-3-3, gave opponents fits. With both players in the line-up, the Giallorossi swept Fiorentina aside in the league and then crushed CSKA Moscow 5-1 in their first Champions League match for four years. Then came a fractious but fantastically entertaining match against Juve in Turin.
Roma attacked with verve and conviction and it was Iturbe who grabbed the goal that put them 2-1 up on the cusp of half-time. But Juventus, who had already scored from one contentious penalty, got another moments later. Carlos Tevez converted, and the Bianconeri went on to win 3-2.
It was the sort of match from which the defeated team could still draw encouragement. But maybe Roma took too much. Garcia declared that he had seen enough to believe his team would win Serie A. Two weeks later, Roma adopted the same optimistic, attacking approach in a Champions League group game at home to Bayern Munich and were humiliated 7-1. After that, they never looked the same again.
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Iturbe found himself drifting in and out of the team as Garcia strived to achieve greater balance. But when the forward did play he was erratic, a shadow of the player who had dribbled past opponents three times per game on average at Verona in the previous season -- and who had run half the length of the pitch en route to an iconic goal against Bologna. The player whose style was defined by Italy's Sportweek magazine as "an anthem to joy."
Those words capture the spirit of Iturbe, a player who at his best is effervescent. In Verona, his team-mates dubbed him an "honorary Neapolitan" on account of his cheeky sense of humour. He executed so many practical jokes in the changing room that even he struggled to remember them all.
He had celebrated his 20th birthday shortly before joining Verona the summer of 2013 but in many ways, he was still just a big kid. Interviewed about his first months at the club, Iturbe confessed that his biggest struggle had been learning "to not eat pizza and pasta in the same meal." He told the same reporter that he went to bed each night "imagining a goodnight kiss from my mum."
There was an innocence to Iturbe that manifested itself in the way he played the game. "Certain touches come to me naturally," he said. "I've always done them and I don't think about them before I put them into action. I play in an instinctive way, some people might even call it primitive but that's my strength."
In Rome, something changed. Iturbe almost seemed to be trying too hard to prove he had grown up. One of the biggest criticisms of his game at Verona was that he could be too selfish but now the opposite was true. Garcia praised him endlessly for his selflessness and work ethic but somewhere along the way he had lost that spark of invention, the mischievous glint in his eye.
It was a truth that Roma eventually recognised. The decision to let Iturbe join Bournemouth this January was not taken lightly. There seems to have been a genuine desire to see the player get his career back on track.
"He has always given everything for Roma," said Garcia. "I was always satisfied with his attitude and I wish him all the good things he deserves. He is someone who never gives up and will give Bournemouth his best. He's still young and whatever happened here will serve him in the future."
Roma's sporting director, Walter Sabatini, put things in more dramatic terms, saying that Roma had sold Iturbe to "save his life" and to "free him from the refrigerator that we have trapped him in -- you [the Italian media] and I."
Bournemouth should not expect miracles. It is a long time now since fans have likened Iturbe to the next Leo Messi -- not that he ever courted such talk in the first place. Nor can he be relied upon to address the goal-scoring void the Cherries have struggled to fill since Callum Wilson went down injured. Iturbe will always be loved by Roma fans for the goal he scored in the derby against Lazio last season, but he departs having found the net just five times in 56 appearances (more than half of those off the bench, admittedly) for the Giallorossi.
What we can say, though, is that the raw potential remains for Iturbe to become much greater than he is today. At 22, he remains as quick as he ever was and as capable of bamboozling a defender before striking the ball with force off his left boot. His technique is sound and his touch soft; he is a useful free-kick taker, too. Comfortable cutting in from the right wing, he might yet have even more to offer from a central position behind the attack.
In other words, he still retains all the fundamental characteristics of a player that Italy's top two clubs were fighting over a year-and-a-half ago. Iturbe never did help Roma win a title but if Bournemouth can help him to recapture the mirth and the mischief that made him special, he could certainly serve them well in a relegation scrap.
Paolo Bandini is a writer and broadcaster who contributes to ESPN FC, The Guardian and The Score, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Paolo_Bandini.