We’re nearly halfway through the season and entering the knockout stages of the Champions League which means teams should be finding their rhythm; title challengers should be building a run of victories and relegation fodder will be nervously counting the points.
However Juventus’ performances still feel a little way behind their best despite only dropping ten points in the league so far. Juve are traditionally slow starters, but there is a valid argument for Max Allegri’s patient approach to new signings and the season in general. He prefers to allow the team to settle into a new season rather than trying to force new players into a new team and new style. This season is no different but we are starting to see Juve blend into the team who have swept all before them over the last six years.
In the six games since Juve lost to Sampdoria they haven’t conceded a goal; a great return considering the defence had been as leaky as an 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, showing all of the qualities which were prominent during his time at Bayern Munich (and inconsistently while at Juve).
He had seemingly lost his way at Juve but has been playing with confidence and consistency, to the point where Daniele Rugani’s disappearance from the starting line up has almost gone unnoticed. 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.
There are a few other players who have also caught the eye recently, and not necessarily players we thought may do earlier in the season. Allegri has 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.
His arrival in the team on a regular basis has mostly been at the expense of Mario Mandzukic, 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 can be argued this is down to Allegri’s patience that we have seen a more confident and determined Costa over the last month and one can see why Allegri has taken his time, there are playing and lifestyle adjustments to be made. Not only has Costa gelled with the team and adjusted to the style of the league he has also been consistent when asked to defend. It was his tackle, run and through ball to Paulo Dybala which helped produce Juve’s winner in Naples recently.
Another player who has also settled in well is the often criticised, Mattia De Sciglio, who has quietly put in some mature and composed performances since his return to the team in mid-November. The subject of some unwarranted criticism since his summer signing from AC Milan he has arguably found a manager, playing style and most importantly a positive team atmosphere where he can develop to his potential. His recent starts included a beautiful strike against Crotone for his first career goal.
His encouraging performances included a fine display against Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne where his youth was favoured over Andrea Barzagli’s or Stephan Lichtsteiner’s experience; a bold move from Mister Allegri. He may 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. He certainly isn’t a Dani Alves or Alex Sandro, or at least pre-2017 Sandro, as his qualities lie defensively, but if he maintains this progression he will definitely be a fixture in the Juve squad for years to come.
Gonzalo Higuain also deserves an honourable mention here; his willingness to run, hold up play and chase lost causes for the team has been excellent and this has been more and more evident since he was rested at the end of September. Since then his goalscoring record has been impressive (nine in 14 games, including winning goals in Naples and Milan), but in my opinion it is his work rate which stands out. 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, when Gonzalo is playing with this determination and coolness he is dangerous against 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. With help from Dybala and Miralem Pjanic, Higuain is able to run at defences with great effect, this pulls the opposition centre halves out of position and creates space for others.
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. 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 and there have been a few players who have continued to play poorly.
His apparent reluctance to play Federico Bernardeschi is still troubling, especially as Juan Caudrado’s brief return to form has abated somewhat. Bernardeschi is no longer a star on a team of above average players and Allegri has very slowly integrated him into the starting eleven, but when Juve have been average at times, the fans’ frustration of keeping him on the bench is understandable. He is certainly a great talent and he finally got a start, away to Sampdoria, last month. Unfortunately he was one of a number of players during a disastrous display to play very poorly.
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, would be a good replacement as he brings a certain intelligence, calmness and determination to Juve’s midfield. It seems everyone plays better when Claudio is in the team.
Juve fans will probably cringe at the mention of 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. On this occasion it can be argued Allegri, who made several changes, underestimated a resilient Sampdoria side who have made a good start to the season.
This performance was probably the most lifeless and depressingly bland we have seen under Allegri and was the pinnacle of a mountain of frustration which had been building for around a month. Juve were dreadful, beyond embarrassing, but this is the type of performance Allegri risks when he makes so many changes.
Just a few days later Juve faced Barcelona at home in the Champions League. Lionel Messi started on the bench for the visitors and even though the home side had chances the minute Pjanic was substituted for Rodrigo Bentancur (the 66th minute to be precise) it was obvious Juve 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, however a win would’ve guaranteed qualification and it can be argued Juve didn’t show enough desire to go forward and challenge a team they knocked out so comprehensively last season.
Allegri, yet again, is a step ahead of us. He saw Juve had a game remaining to seal qualification. You may remember their defeat to Roma towards the end of last season when Monaco lay ahead in the Champions League semi final a few days later. Allegri’s quite public theory being Juve had enough games to spare to secure the title when the immediate focus was on Champions League success. It worked, as it usually does. The draw with Barca was a viewed as one point gained against the group winners and set Juve up nicely to visit already eliminated Olympiakos and complete the first goal of the season.
During September and October only the fantastic performance away to AC 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, but it did that night to devastating effect.
Bringing things up to date, the two games, versus Napoli and Inter Milan have been perhaps the two most important of the campaign so far. Both versus real title challengers and both against teams who were ahead of Juve in the table. Allegri excelled himself tactically in Naples as Juve set up in a 4-3-3 formation but allowed Pjanic and Dybala to drop deeper in order to cancel out the threat of Jorginho.
He also allowed Napoli to dominate the wide areas safe in the knowledge most crosses into the penalty area could be comfortably dealt with by Benatia and co. When Juve attacked, Blaise Matuidi filled in as a left winger to give some balance on the 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. Napoli are a great team to watch but it must be said they lack any real alternative tactical options and this could hamper them as the season progresses.
Real Madrid and Barcelona have shown a team can win in style, but Allegri chooses to be functional and very much in that Juve mould of winning over style. 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 AC 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 but this needs to be the rule rather than the exception if Juve are to fulfil their potential this season.
Against Inter, we saw a slight reprisal of the tactics deployed against Barcelona as Allegri set Juve up not to lose. He benched Dybala and Costa, which meant Cuadrado was the sole natural winger with Kwadwo Asamoah and Matuidi, filling in on the left wing. It begs the question, 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 as 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. Allegri substituted Pjanic with just less than 20 minutes left and the game petered out. It was a poor end to a frustrating evening for Allegri and Juve. Like the game against Barca, Allegri lacked the desire to really go after the win from the start and many view this as two points dropped, rather than one gained and it reminds to be seen, like the defeat to Roma last season, whether it’ll be looked back on as a tactical masterstroke.
As mentioned above, the games against Napoli and AC Milan were, at different times of the season, our biggest tests. Both were passed with relative ease due to 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 Juve are about. Winning. Not intricate passing triangles or beating the league’s lesser teams 6-0 every week. Allegri is a winner, plain and simple, and Juventus fans cannot be frustrated by that.