Firstly, I apologise for the delay since my last article, it isn’t down to simple laziness I can assure you of that. If we’re pointing the bony finger of blame it should be in the direction of Juventus and Max Allegri as I have deliberately held off writing this article to see how we fared in during our most important stretch of games this season. The problem is where do I draw the line, do I wait until Christmas? Easter?! Because the question is when does an ‘important stretch’ begin and end? For Mister Allegri it is never, Juve are a constant work in progress for him and his staff.
I have previously written about Juve’s traditional slow starts to the season and although we’re nearly halfway through the season our performances still have a feel of ‘2016 Juventus’ in that we haven’t reached our potential yet. I would attribute this to Allegri’s patient approach to new signings and the season in general; preferring to allow the team to settle into a new season rather than trying to force new players into a new team and new style and ending up with bad results. In the five games since Juve lost to Sampdoria we haven’t conceded a goal; a great return considering our defence had been as leaky as a knackered old bath earlier in the season. This is partly down to a very welcome and slightly surprising increase in Medhi Benatia’s form. He has looked a different player since coming back into the starting line up for the Barcelona game. He’s shown all of the qualities which were prominent during his time at Bayern Munich (and inconsistently while at Juve), he’s been strong and quick, two attributes I never thought I would see in Medhi again having seemingly lost his way at Juve. Most importantly over the last few games he has been playing with confidence and consistency, to the point where Daniele Rugani’s disappearance from the starting line up has almost gone unnoticed. Although his early season run in the first team will have mostly impressed Juve fans it still seems Allegri has his doubts over Daniele. Benatia’s form has coincided with a greater stability in defence which had been severely lacking thus far, one hopes it can continue and grow as the season progresses.
Allegri has also integrated Douglas Costa into the starting line up, with great success. Having only made fleeting appearances early on in the season he has been a revelation over recent weeks with a full array of quick feet, quick mind, devastating pace and crossing ability. In fairness we should have seen this coming, after all this is the reason why we’ve lined up a full signing after his season-long loan finishes. October’s Champions League home game with Sporting provided a wonderful fan-made video of him coming on as substitute; the video followed him as he jogged on to the pitch, made his way down the wing before receiving the ball and crossing with great accuracy to the waiting Mario Mandzukic who headed home the winner. 15 seconds of gratifying, cinematic gold! His arrival in the team has mostly been at the expense of the aforementioned Croatian, partly due to injury and suspension and partly due to tactical changes, but while Juve fans would agree Mandzukic brings a lot of physicality, determination and goal scoring instinct to the team, Costa would be chosen over him nine times out of ten, especially on current form. It is down to Allegri’s patience that we have seen a more determined and mentally aware Costa over the last month. Again, while some of Juve’s performances have been below par most fans have been itching to see Costa start more regularly, one can see why Allegri has taken his time; Serie A and Juve’s style of play differ from the Bundesliga and Bayern, maybe Allegri has learned from playing egotistical compatriot, Dani Alves, too often early in his brief Juve career last season; Alves took several months to fully adjust and had already delivered a couple of dozen inconsistent performances before reaching his peak towards the end of the season. Not only has he gelled with the team and adjusted to the style of the league he has also been consistent when asked to defend, against Napoli last Friday he successfully tracked back on numerous occasions to help extinguish their attacking threat, it was his tackle, run and ball to Dybala which helped produce Juve’s winner. It is a testament to Costa’s work rate and desire and to Allegri’s patience and man-management skills that have helped Costa to settle in and produce consistent team performances.
The often criticised, Mattia De Sciglio, has quietly put in some quality, mature and composed performances since his return to the team in mid-November. The subject of debate since his summer signing from AC Milan he has maybe found a manager, playing style and most importantly a positive team atmosphere where he can develop to his potential. I’m not sure where the criticism comes from though, he’s been a regular at international level and been playing in a top (albeit dysfunctional) team for most of his career. He as maybe been a little inconsistent, but the scathing attacks on him upon his transfer from Milan were cringeworthy and childish. His recent starts included a beautiful strike against Crotone for his first career goal (rather adorably he said after the game he genuinely didn’t know what to do when he scored!). Again he has steadily produced some mature and composed performances recently, not least against Lorenzo Insigne on the Napoli left wing where his youth was favoured over Barzagli’s or Lichtsteiner’s experience; a bold move from Mister Allegri. In doing so he may well have solved the right back issue at Juve, clearly the aforementioned right backs are reaching the twilight of their careers and Mattia should surely be favourite to fill the position permanently. I for one have always liked him, he certainly isn’t a Dani Alves or Alex Sandro (or at least a pre-2017 Sandro), but his qualities lie defensively, if he maintains this progression he will definitely be a fixture in the Juve squad for years to come.
I have mentioned previously Gonzalo Higuain’s willingness to run, hold up play and chase lost causes for the team. This has been more and more evident since his ‘tactical rest’ at the end of September. Since then his goalscoring record has been impressive (nine in 14, including winning goals in Naples and Milan), however I want to mention his work rate again, Gigi Buffon said after the win over Udinese;
“What I really loved was the attitude of Higuain, whose performance was worthy of praise. The Coach should make the others watch videos of Higuain and how he played today to motivate players.”
Gonzalo’s attitude and determination are exemplary and very much underrated by people who only judge him on goals alone. Even in the face of extreme hostility in Naples he looked confident and relaxed ahead of the game, a Gonzalo playing with this determination and coolness is dangerous to any team. Tactically he has been asked to track back and drop into midfield only to then break forward and attack when the midfield is in possession. Higuain, for such a big guy (I mean well built, before anyone complains!), is very fast and physical when at full speed and his anticipation and off the ball movement are key to many of his goals (have a look for the videos of his goals versus Milan, Olympiakos and Atalanta for examples of his deadliness in attack). With help from Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic, Higuain is able to run at defences with great effect, he also pulls the centre halves out of position and creates space for others. His benefit to the team in general cannot be understated. I believe his rest for the Turin derby and most of the Olympiakos games have really helped him take a step back and rest a little. I won’t say he’s been a different player since then but we are now seeing a more complete forward now. Once again Allegri should take some credit for the calculated risk of dropping his most natural goalscorer.
Of course it isn’t all good news and back slapping, this is Allegri’s Juventus, after all. As I’ve mentioned, Allegri, like a demanding trophy-wife, can seemingly induce both joy and immense frustration with every squad announcement. His rotation may keep most players happy because of the minutes on the pitch and actually being involved in the action, however it doesn’t apply to everyone. His apparent reluctance to play Federico Bernardeschi is still troubling, especially as Juan Caudrado’s brief return to form has abated somewhat. One can see why this is happening as there are more risks and more at stake at Juve than there was at Fiorentina and his sparse use so far is understandable. He is certainly a great talent, and a great goalscorer (his two most recent goals, versus SPAL and Olympiakos, deserve to be watched again and again). He finally got a start, away to Sampdoria, last month, unfortunately he was one of a number of players (in fact I can’t think of one who covered himself in glory that afternoon). During that disastrous display he was wasteful in possession, his determination was lacking and he started to display those petulant, argumentative traits which have been evident since his days in Florence. It certainly didn’t do his campaign to start any good at all.
Since his successive penalty misses we seem to have been talking less about Paulo Dybala’s goals and more about a lack of them, Allegri’s change of formation to 4-3-3 has meant Paulo has been dropping deeper to receive the ball, almost playing as an extra midfielder at times. It cannot be good for his confidence to have to repeatedly influence the game from the midfield rather than the penalty area which we would all like to see him do more often. Dybala’s deeper role has meant Gonzalo Higuain has been more isolated up front. A player who thrives, almost lives off, service from his attacking partner and he cuts a lonely figure when he is forced to create something out of nothing with no help.
Sami Khedira remains in the side despite some very inept performances, apart from his hatrick in the bizarre win against Udinese, he has looked tired and lost on occasions. There seems to be little hope for his future with Juve but while Allegri insists on wringing every ounce out of him he will remain a starter. Claudio Marchisio, who incidentally has performed well during his appearances this season, should be starting in Khedira’s stead. Marchisio isn’t at the pre-knee injury form, but he brings a certain intelligence, calmness and determination to Juve’s midfield. Everyone seems to play better when Claudio is in the team.
Now, I’m sorry but I have to mention the nausea-inducing defeat away to Sampdoria not more than a month ago. This came after an uninspiring away draw to Sporting in the Champions League and a very frustrating home win versus loveable, circus act, Benevento. As I mentioned earlier, Bernardeschi started over Dybala. In addition, Buffon was rested and Sandro’s poor form had finally caught up with him with Asamoah replacing him. On this occasion it can be argued Allegri underestimated a resilient Sampdoria side who have made a good start to the season. This performance was probably the most lifeless and depressingly bland I have seen under Allegri and was the pinnacle of a mountain of despair which had been building for around a month. Even the two goals scored after Blaise Matuidi came on as a late substitute didn’t bring any respectability to the score. Juve were dreadful, beyond embarrasing, but this is the type of performance we risk when Allegri makes several changes to the team.
During this period only the fantastic performance, away to Milan, offered a glimmer of what we can achieve when everyone is settled and playing as a cohesive unit. Allegri named a very familiar line up however we saw Pjanic drop deeper to help flood the midfield, when he does this Dybala needs to be on form to fill in the link between midfield and attack. In Milan it was no coincidence Juve scored two with the help of those two players, Dybala in particular sacrificed a lot of his attacking prowess to drop back, this doesn’t always work as I mentioned earlier, but it did that night to devastating effect. This game still stands out for me. Pantomime villain, Leonardo Bonucci, was suspended, but this was Juve’s biggest test of a fairly new season, the perennial title-winners versus the money-bloated Milan. Looking at this period as a whole, unfortunately, this performance was the exception rather than the rule and we could almost start to believe some of the negative comments and analysis coming from the media.
At home to Barcelona in the Champions League, the game after the Sampdoria debacle, Allegri started Benatia and Costa, it was this game which started their respective recent good form. However despite Lionel Messi starting on the bench and even though both sides had chances, the minute Pjanic was substituted for Rodrigo Bentancur (the 66th minute to be precise) it was obvious we were playing for a draw. Now a point against a much improved Barca side isn’t to be shunned and pushed to the side like a slightly wizened sprout on your Christmas dinner plate, but I felt we didn’t show enough desire to go forward and challenge a team we knocked out so comprehensively last season. Allegri, yet again, is a step ahead of us. He saw we had a game remaining in the Champions League to seal qualification. You’ll remember the team mailing in a defeat to Roma towards the end of last year when we had Monaco in the Champions League semi final a few days later. The theory being that we had enough games to spare to secure the Scudetto and the immediate focus was on Champions League success. It worked, as it usually does. The draw with Barca was a viewed as a point gained against the group winners and set us up nicely to visit already eliminated Olympiakos and complete our first goal of the season.
On Saturday night we saw this worrying trait in evidence again as Allegri dropped Dybala and Costa ahead of our clash with league leaders, Inter. We were left with a bizarre formation and lacking in balance with only Cuadrado as a natural winger and Asamoah and Matuidi (again), filling in on the left wing. If you are going to play two strikers as part of a three man attack surely it makes sense to have two natural wingers? Nonetheless Juve created more than enough chances to win and Inter were non-existent all game. When it became apparent Inter were only playing for a draw, Dybala or Costa, or both, should’ve been brought on. The cherry on top of the defensive-minded cake came when Pjanic was brought off with just under 20 minutes left. A poor end to a frustrating evening for Mister Allegri and Juve. Like Barca at home, Allegri lacked the desire to really go after the win from the start and it’s surely a case of two points dropped, rather than one gained. Allegri pointed to the fact that his players are tired, fair enough, we have been playing at a very high level for a couple of weeks, but in a game against our nearest and most hated rivals and where three points were on a plate for us it isn’t acceptable to play the tiredness card. I am sure both Costa and Dybala, plus Pjanic too, would gladly have played despite any tiredness issues, remember we don’t have a midweek game next week and our next game is against mid-table, Bologna. If tiredness really was an issue then why play Dybala for over an hour versus Olympiakos a few days earlier? Remember we only had to avoid defeat there to be assured of a last 16 Champions League place.
I mentioned in my Champions League preview earlier in the season we would need to be at our best over this week as the draw had cruelly placed our final Champions League game in the middle of Napoli, away and Inter, at home. I have to say Allegri excelled himself tactically in Naples as we set up in a 4-3-3 which changed to a 4-4-1-1 as Pjanic and Dybala played slightly different roles to cancel out the threat of Jorginho. Both dropped deeper in order to almost create a 4-5-1 formation when Napoli had the ball. He allowed Napoli to dominate the wide areas safe in the knowledge most crosses into our penalty area could be comfortably dealt with by Benatia and co. When Juve attacked, Blaise Matuidi filled in as a left winger to give us some balance on both flanks, his endless energy reserves meant this was an easy, if slightly unorthodox, transition for him.
This was Allegri’s plan D in a whole alphabet of tactical adjustments, quite simply he is gifted in the art of playing to stifle the opposition and once again the players played their part in executing his plan. His opposite number, Maurizio Sarri, was left to bemoan the colour of both teams kits (both teams played in their away kits, apparently for marketing purposes) and bizarrely suggested football players don’t tire when questioned about his resistance to rotate his team and give his star players a rest now and again. Don’t get me wrong here, Napoli are a great team to watch but Sarri badly lacks the tactical instinct to be able to ever really compete at the highest level, it showed last season and will continue to rear its head as the season progresses, his plan A simply isn’t enough to win against the best as those managers are able to counter it fairly easily. One can’t help but think the ‘Scudetto pact’ (a collective agreement made by Napoli’s players in pre-season to stick together and make a concerted push towards Scudetto glory) will be used a stick to beat them with when the trophies are handed out later this season.
You obviously can win in style (See Real Madrid and Barcelona in recent seasons) but Allegri chooses to be functional and very much in that Juve mould of winning over style (actually Juve do have a little flair in their arsenal, find the video of the move which started with Buffon and lead up to Matuidi’s second half chance against Napoli, pure, stylish pass and move football). In what should’ve been Napoli’s statement of intent as they beat their nearest rivals, it was Juve who stole the show and ground out a statement victory of their own. Like the Milan game in October it was Juve who outfoxed their opponent with a magnificent, unselfish team victory. During both games, both away, Allegri has allowed the opposition to play their own game, while the team has been instructed to eradicate a particular opponent’s strength. Both worked magnificently and we have to see this more often if Juve are to fulfil their potential this season.
As I mentioned the games against Napoli and Milan were, domestically, our biggest tests of the season and both were passed with relative ease due to Mister Allegri’s tactical planning. While we can all be frustrated with his methods and squad rotation we cannot argue with the results when it matters and that is what we’re about. Winning. Not intricate passing triangles or beating the league’s lesser lights 6-0 every week. Allegri is a winner, simple, and we absolutely cannot be frustrated by that.