The 15-point deduction announced on Juventus by the Italian Football Federation for financial violations has added a complicated degree of uncertainty to Weston McKennie‘s long-term future with the club.
One of worst-kept secrets in the European game – that the financial intricacies of high-priced transfer deals are often twisted to artificially boost the balance sheets of prominent clubs – has finally bit one of the most egregious abusers in the backside.
The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) announced on Friday night that a federal appeals court opted to impose a 15-point deduction for Juventus in the current season, as well as lengthy bans for several former executives.
Remarkably the court opted for a significantly harsher penalty beyond the nine points that the Turin prosecutor’s office was asking in their appeal, while still upholding the acquittal of all other Italian clubs originally implicated in the shady deals.
The penalty, while paling in comparison to Juve’s forced relegation and loss of a league title in the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, immediately dropped the team from third to tenth in the standings (they have since climbed to ninth), and severely hampers their chances to qualify for next season’s Champions League, much less any European play.
Coming with more than a week left in the January transfer window, the decision has naturally stoked further speculation about the futures of both the USMNT star Weston McKennie as well as other valuable and high-salary star players on the team.
Importantly, the penalty includes no prohibition on European play, apart from the added difficulty imposed to actually qualify through their final league standing.
This naturally raises the questions: how might this impact the short- and long-term transfer prospect of McKennie (and more generally his teammates), and which scenarios might play a role in this?
To give away the punchline, I’ll posit that you shouldn’t expect any drastic changes in the team’s outgoing transfer plans in the current window, although any plans for incoming transfers might be hard to carry out. However, the summer might be a different story, depending on how the next few months play out.
Should Juve miss out on the Champions League, the loss of prestige, and more importantly income will inevitably lead to some departures, both to balance the books (which will undoubtedly be closely watched for the next few years) and to meet the ambitions of some players.
Qualifying for the Europa League might be some help (let’s ignore the Europa Conference League joke), but won’t provide the income or prestige of the Champions League.
McKennie, who it seems has been the subject of transfer rumors since he landed in Turin in 2020, will be one of the prime candidates to leave due to his young age, versatility, high value, and seeming fit of his style and physicality to the demands of the money-laden English game.
On the short term, specifically meaning in the current transfer window, Juve will have no added urgency to sell any players they weren’t already open to to moving on. They have already stated their intent to appeal the ruling of the court, and, as will be discussed below, they still have a believable chance to still qualify for European play in spite of even the current deduction.
Put simply, the chances for a McKennie transfer by close of business of January 31 is no greater than it was before the announcement, which was likely never anywhere as high as the exaggerated or outright fabricated rumors indicate. Sure, a predatory Premier League club could spot an opening and make an above-market offer tomorrow, but I don’t see it.
The facts on the ground are the same as they have been for much of his stay in Turin: McKennie is starting most games when he’s healthy, and is clearly an important part of the Juventus midfield. His recent games out on the wing only show that head coach Massimiliano Allegri values the player enough to find any way possible to put him on the field.
In fact, the chances of outgoing transfers might be even lower in the next few days due to immediate problems with any incoming moves they might have planned, and the real possibility of a partial reconfiguration of the team in the summer.
The long-term picture is much more complex, and will largely hang upon four factors: the outcome of their appeal, a possible Coppa Italia run, their Europa League knockout run and their remaining Serie A performance.
Let’s go through these one by one.
It’s not unlikely that their inevitable appeal will lead to a reduction of the 15 point deduction to something more in line with the nine points that prosecutors were asking. The original points penalties dished out to the clubs involved in the Calciopoli scandal were reduced upon appeal across the board, so it’s certainly a possibility in this case.
It might also be allowed to stand at 15, although if you ask any Italian who follows the workings of Serie A (which I did), a reduction is expected.
Therefore, when taking a look at their chances of outright reaching the fourth Champions League spot through the Serie A standings, we’ll consider both possibilities as boundary cases.
However, beforehand let’s address the the other two much simpler factors – Coppa Italia and Europa League – since those are pretty clear-cut.
Winning the Coppa Italia, where both Serie A leaders Napoli and current second-place team AC Milan have already been knocked out before the quarterfinal, is a strong chance. Inter, Lazio, Atalanta and Roma all still remain so Juve rank as only one of four strong contenders, but they have a particular knack for winning the competition.
This would place them into the group stage of the Europa League, which would somewhat reduce the need to ship out several players. However, even in that case, McKennie would probably be one of the first to go, due to the factors mentioned above. In cynical financial terms, McKennie’s value in the inflated English market would be greater than his on-field value for a Juve team not competing in the Champions League.
Similarly, lifting the Europa League trophy, where they next face French team Nantes over two legs in February, would automatically land them in next season’s Champions League group stage. This, however, will be tough as teams such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Roma and Arsenal (as well as many other quality, albeit less prestigious clubs) are also vying for the title.
They are undoubtedly amongst the short list of favorites, so the possibility shouldn’t be ruled out. A win on May 31 in Budapest would essentially allow them to have a completely normal summer transfer window (albeit one with the backdrop of disastrous financial losses in recent years, and without the ability to cook their books to make it seem a bit less severe to watchful eyes).
For McKennie, there would be no additional pressure for a transfer, aside from the pre-existing finance-driven factors that are constantly at play with an in-debt team that aims to still be active in the marketplace.
Where things become more complicated is if Juve win neither competition, and only have the chance to qualify for European play by way of their reduced points total in Serie A. Here, they are benefitted by the fact that the domestic season only reached its halfway point this weekend, and that behind likely champions Napoli, there are five teams (six if you count Juventus on on their record rather than points) that are relatively on-par in terms of points and quality, keeping the likely threshold for the fourth Champions League spot from climbing too high.
Including Sunday night’s 3-3 draw against Atalanta, Juve record would give them 38 points from their first 19 games, not counting the deduction. Normally, this would put them on pace for approximately 76 points at the end of the season.
Considering both hypothetical deduction possibilites covered above, they would be on pace for ending at a low of 61 points or high 67 points, depending on how a potential appeal goes.
Looking back at the final Serie A standings over the previous five seasons, since UEFA started sending all of the league’s top four directly to the Champions League group stage, the final points total of the fourth-place team has been:
2021-22: 70 points
2020-21: 78 points
2019-20: 78 points
2018-19: 69 points
2017-18: 72 points
It might be tempting to look at the final total of the fifth-place team in those seasons (64, 77, 80, 68 and 72 points respectively) under the theoretical assumption that fourth only needs to be a single point better, or even win only the goalscoring tie-breakers in the case of being even on points. However, in the current season, that more generous assumption is likely not going to be too much help considering the close points-per-game clustering of AC Milan, Inter, Lazio, Atalanta and (pre-deduction) Juventus.
Currently, the second through sixth place teams are only separated by four points, at least until Milan (2) play Lazio (6) on Tuesday night.
Another way to put it is that, based on current trends, this season looks a lot more likely to turn out like the 2018-19 season (69 points for fourth, 68 for fifth) or the year before (72 points for both), and there will be little separation between the Champions League and other, lesser European slots.
The magic number will likely lie somewhere between 70-75 points. Even in the optimistic case of a reduction of their penalty upon appeal, missing the cut is likely, even if it would be somewhat close. But of course, trends at the halfway point of the season are not final, and it’s highly unlikely that the same six teams will maintain such a tight points-per-game grouping over the back half of the schedule.
Atalanta could collapse like last season (although they would have to stop scoring in order to do that), Inter or AC Milan could play up to their potential, or Juve themselves could trend upwards or downwards.
In fact, over the last 3.5 months, the Bianconeri are in the middle of strong run in league play. Looking past their 5-1 loss last weekend against unstoppable league leaders Napoli and Sunday’s wild 3-3 draw against La Dea, they had won every game in Serie A play since early-October.
For the sake of argument, setting a 72-point threshold for qualification would be in line with the current standings (splitting the difference between Roma and Atalanta), and would have been enough in three of the last five years.
What would it take for Juventus to reach this level, even with the hypothetical high and low points deductions?
If the 15-point ruling stands after the team’s inevitable appeal to the courts, the team would need to achieve 49 points from their final 19 games. This is, in fact, one point less than Napoli has achieved with their remarkable 16-2-1 record through their first 19.
This means that it is a possibility, particularly considering the team’s form prior to the Napoli loss, however this leaves very little room for error. The full points deduction will likely mean that McKennie and his teammates need to maintain near-historical, league-winning form in order reach the top four.
Should they see a reduction in their penalty through appeal, and end up with (a best case scenario) of only nine points dropped, the ask drops to 43 points from their final 19.
This still requires them to maintain a better overall record than they did in the first half of their season, which did include the eight-game winning streak prior to the Napoli loss. This is by no means out of the question since they did start off rather coldly, however needs both a high standard in their own play with limited room for any let-downs, and for both a judge’s decision as well as trends from their direct league competition to fall favorably in their direction.
Let’s not forget, in the 2020-21 season, the halfway point saw fourth-place Atalanta with just 36 points, whereas the final standings Juventus snuck into the top four with a remarkable 78 points. A similar second-half surge by the three teams behind Napoli this season would all but doom their chances.
In terms of McKennie’s situation at the club, such a remarkable qualification through league standing would have very little difference from doing the same via a win in the Europa League, apart from the possibility that the American could be a key player in a tear through the league, rather than a run that ends with lifting a European trophy. Market forces and the club’s transfer policy would still ultimately decide his fate in the summer.
In the end, even in the case of a reduction of the penalty, McKennie and his teammates still face a major uphill battle to reach the top four, and Europe’s grown-up table. There are several possible paths, but the odds are slim. It’s difficult to see Juventus resisting the English siren’s call of eight digits over market value for the American if they are missing out on what could amount to more than €50 million of European revenues, which would come with even a substandard qualification to the Round of 16.
While it’s a shame that the financial malfeasance of executives might play a larger role in McKennie’s future than his on-field play, one can take comfort that he’s done well enough since arriving in Turin to ensure that he’s likely guaranteed a high level of competition in whichever situation he ends up.