Don’t mock Max: Juventus still the team to beat in Italy

by Greg Lea

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 12.30.29It was supposed to be business as usual. The date was Tuesday 15th July, and Juventus’ planning for the 2014/15 season was well underway. Transfer targets had been identified and pre-season training planned as the club sought to win their fourth scudetto in as many years.

Strategies were also devised on how the Bianconeri could improve on their disappointing recent showings in Europe – a potential switch to 4-3-3 was mooted – and talks within the club about the futures of highly coveted midfield stars Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal were afoot. Everything was under control. Then the news broke.

Exactly seven days after Germany’s astonishing 7-1 demolition of Brazil in Belo Horizonte, the football world was stunned once more: Antonio Conte had resigned as Juventus manager. The man who played over 400 times for the Old Lady and won three consecutive league titles as coach was gone, worn out by the unique pressures of Juventus, a club where, according to legendary striker Giampiero Boniperti “winning is not everything [but] the only thing that counts”. Just six weeks before Serie A was due to restart, the league’s leading light had lost its most vital component.

Andrea Agnelli, the club’s president, moved quickly, and Massimiliano Allegri was unveiled as Conte’s successor the next day. Derision abounded. This was, according to many, to be the end of Juventus’ dominance, a terrible appointment that would ensure the title would be heading elsewhere for the first time since 2011. After all, Allegri had just been sacked by Milan after overseeing their catastrophic decline into lower mid-table, the final straw a 4-3 January defeat to the minnows Sassuolo that left the Rossoneri floundering in eleventh place, thirty points off top spot and just six ahead of the bottom three.

There would be problems too, it was opined, with Andrea Pirlo, Juventus’ uniquely talented regista who sets the team’s tone and builds play from deep in midfield. Pirlo had arrived at Juventus three summers ago only because Allegri’s Milan refused to offer him the three-year deal he craved, and his final season at the San Siro was perhaps the most disappointing of his career: Pirlo appeared in less than half of the club’s league games and, when Allegri did select him, he was shunted out to the left to make room for more physical players such as Gennaro Gattuso, Mark van Bommel and Massimo Ambrosini in the centre. Allegri had presided over the marginalisation and departure of Pirlo at Milan and, while the same thing would not necessarily happen at Juventus, Agnelli’s appointment was likely to leave the Bianconeris star man less than enamoured.

Yet, despite all that, it would be foolish to write Juventus off before a ball has been kicked. Conte, the new manager of the Italian national side, is indubitably a big loss, but he has left behind a talented squad with a winning mentality and an excellent team spirit. Juventus amassed a record-breaking 102 points in winning the league last term – seventeen more than their closest challengers Roma – and dropped points in just five games all campaign, none of which were at home.

The Old Lady were, domestically at least, the complete team: a reinvigorated Gianluigi Buffon marshalled a well-drilled back three to ensure Juventus conceded just 23 times in 38 league times, while the energy, flair and power provided by Vidal, Pirlo and Pogba gave Conte’s side a fantastic balance in the centre of the park, helping to both protect the backline and supply the fruitful partnership of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente up front. With the speedy and athletic wing-backs Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner patrolling the flanks, Juventus were a side seemingly without weaknesses and, since none of these players have departed at the time of writing, there is no real reason why Juventus should be dismissed so conclusively from the title reckoning.

As well as hitherto retaining all of their key players, the squad has been replenished with some astute summer additions that should give Juventus more options and greater depth. Alvaro Morata, the young Spanish striker signed from Real Madrid for £16 million, is the most exciting new arrival, a quick and powerful forward equally adept in the air as on the deck. Patrice Evra brings top-level experience and, along with newly acquired right back Marco Motta, the possibility of Juventus reverting to a back four, while Romulo, the energetic all-rounder, and Robert Pereyra, who has played right across the midfield for Udinese, add versatility to the ranks.

The recent targeting of Kostas Manolas and Luisao signals Juventus’ intention to capture another centre-back to challenge for a place in the starting eleven; the departures of Fabio Quaglierella, Mirko Vucinic and Mauricio Isla, meanwhile, relieves the team of some unwanted deadwood and clears vital space in the wage and transfer budgets. Providing Pogba and Vidal are retained going into September, Juventus appear to possess enough strength in depth to mount a two-pronged assault on Serie A and the Champions League and, on paper at least, this is the strongest Bianconeri squad since 2006.

The criticism of Allegri, moreover, has been harsh, and the ridicule unfair. His final season at Milan was certainly disastrous and plenty of mistakes were made, but Milan’s fans have tended to blame owner Silvio Berlusconi and director Adriano Galliani for the club’s recent underachievement, and the 47-year-old remains well-thought of within the game. Indeed, Allegri was top of Roma’s shortlist last summer but opted to stay at Milan, and would probably be the Italy manager had he not filled the unexpectedly vacant Juventus post last month.

Allegri’s first notable achievement in management was with Sassuolo, whom he led into Serie B in 2008, beginning the club’s impressive rise through the divisions under ambitious owner Giorgio Squinzi. Cagliari were suitably impressed and quickly identified Allegri as the man to continue their progression in Italy’s top-flight; in his first season in Sardinia in 2008-09, Allegri beat title-winning Jose Mourinho to the Panchina d’Oro award for best Serie A coach, and won many plaudits for his side’s adventurous football and ninth-place finish.

It was his splendid work with Cagliari that landed Allegri the job at Milan and, again, the former midfielder delivered in his debut campaign, returning the scudetto to the Rossoneri’s trophy cabinet in 2011 following a seven-year absence. After finishing as runners-up a year later, the achievements of 2012-13 were perhaps the most commendable of Allegri’s premiership: a boardroom decision to trim the club’s expenditure led to the pre-season departures of Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano, Clarence Seedorf , Alessandro Nesta, Pippo Inzaghi, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso, yet Allegri still guided Milan into the Champions League places.

Even the Pirlo affair and Allegri’s role in it has been somewhat misrepresented. The playmaker’s low number of appearances that campaign was partly down to constant injuries and a loss of form, and Allegri’s reasoning behind fielding Pirlo from the left was that this would allow him to escape the stifling man-marking jobs that he was habitually encountering in the centre and allow him more time on the ball. The decision not to offer Pirlo the three-year deal he asked for was in line with Milan’s wider cost-cutting agenda of the time and, while Allegri could perhaps have pushed for an exception to the board’s rule of single-year contracts for those over 30, there were few signs at the time that Pirlo would return to the world-class levels of performance that he has since demonstrated on an almost weekly basis in Turin. The relationship between coach and player has certainly never been the closest, but Allegri will not be foolish enough to tinker with a winning Juventus formula by upsetting their most influential man.

This upcoming Serie A season – which kicks off with Juventus’ trip to Chievo on 30th August – promises to be the most competitive in years, and it is unlikely that the Old Lady will match last term’s freakish points total. With Roma’s Rudi Garcia and Napoli’s Rafa Benitez now settled into their jobs after promising first seasons on the peninsula, and Inter’s smart close-season business seeing them touted by many as potential dark horses, the 2014-15 title race looks set to be much closer than the previous two editions, when Conte’s Juventus never looked like being caught.

Losing their esteemed manager so late in the day was a huge blow, but Max Allegri is not the disastrous replacement he has cruelly been painted to be by some sections of the Italian public, and last Friday’s Gazzetta dello Sport even suggested that the players have welcomed a fresh face with new ideas after three years of working under Conte’s intense approach. Juventus will certainly be there or thereabouts at the sharp end of the season. Fans of Italy’s most successful club are hoping for business as usual.

1 Response

  1. Sheffield Ram says:

    Fantastic article, I think the key for Allegri will be getting off to a good start, if key players like you mentioned (Pogba and/or Vidal) leave before the window ends then it could be tough for him if the fans start getting on his back.

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