clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Max Allegri needs to show flexibility to keep his team fresh

Allegri’s changes have made the team better, but the squad may not have the depth to stay in top form all year.

Juventus FC v US Citta di Palermo - Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Massimiliano Allegri’s mid-January tactical change to a 4-2-3-1 formation has been hailed as a turning point in Juventus’ season. The bianconeri were collecting points, but the wins tended to be drab, and they were prone to the odd breakdown, like in November’s 3-1 loss at Genoa or the 2-1 reverse fixture at Fiorentina that precipitated the tactical switch.

The “Five Star” system — so called because it gets offensive stars Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado, Mario Mandzukic, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala on the field at the same time — was considered extraordinarily risky when it was first deployed on Jan. 22 against Lazio. It looked incredibly unbalanced, and Mandzukic in particular looked thrown in on the left wing. But it has turned into a revelation. Mandzukic and Cuadrado, particularly the former, have contributed enough defensively that the team has stayed solid, and Pjanic has turned in some of his better performances since joining the team.

Since implementing the new system Juventus has won nine and drawn one in 10 league games, outscoring their opponents 19-3. They beat AC Milan 2-1 in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal and then took a 3-1 first-leg lead over Napoli in the semis. To top it off, they eliminated Porto in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 by a 3-0 aggregate scoreline that was not even that close.

It’s been almost non-stop success. But in the last few weeks there has been one cause for concern about the 4-2-3-1. The last three league games have been a drab 1-1 draw at Udinese, a last-minute 2-1 win against Milan that came in controversial fashion, and a 1-0 win at Sampdoria that turned into a deep struggle after halftime. Each time the team has looked sluggish and tired.

It looks like another early worry about the system might well be coming to roost. It may be getting the best out of the players, but the squad may not be deep enough to keep everyone rested enough to be in top shape at the end of the season. With the business end of the Champions League and the home stretch to the Scudetto looming, Allegri may have to get flexible in order to ensure that everyone is fresh.

Juventus FC v AS Roma - Serie A
Juventus don’t lack options when it comes to rotating players in defense.
Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

In defense and midfield, there is no problem. Juve has three of the very best center-backs in the game at their disposal in the BBC, along with one of its most exciting prospects in Daniele Rugani. (There’s also Medhi Benatia, but the less he plays the better). The fullback spots are similarly well-manned, and the midfield boasts Pjanic, Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio and a host of others. The issues are up front.

At full strength, Juventus only has five forwards on the roster: Dybala, Higuain, Mandzukic, Cuadrado and Marko Pjaca. That number can increase to six on days that 17-year-old primavera prospect Moise Kean is included in the squad. With four of them playing at any given time, it leaves Allegri very little room to rotate.

Some have put the responsibility for this lack of depth squarely at the team’s front office. While Giuseppe Marotta and his lieutenants do bear some of the burden for this, it’s irrational to blame them 100 percent. While it’s impossible to say this for certain without having been in the room, I’d wager they were expecting the team to be working off a combination of 3-5-2 and 4-3-1-2, with a strike pair. In this equation, Cuadrado would have been thought of as a wing-back with the rest considered strikers. They were probably working to fill a very different framework this summer than we are looking at now.

That being said, they still left the team light at forward even when working with two rather than four. When Dybala and Pjaca were both out with injuries from mid-October until Dybala’s return in mid-December, Allegri was left with few options beyond using two men up top who were more suited to the prima punta role. Another option would have made a world of difference.

Those problems have only been magnified with so many forwards on the field. With so little wiggle room, some of the most important players on the team are working themselves to death.

Particularly worrisome is Higuain. The Argentinian has played in all but two of Juve’s competitive games this season, and it’s starting to show. Since registering a goal and an assist against Palermo on Feb. 17 he’s scored just once in seven matches. In his last few he’s looked completely exhausted. Chances that he usually buries have gone begging. Against Sampdoria he had a cross practically spilled onto his boot and he couldn’t get the ball into the net.

Equally out of sorts is Mandzukic The Croatian has been criticized for his play recently, but he’s only been given two games off since the switch — one enforced because of a yellow card suspension — as has Cuadrado. Dybala hasn’t rested much, either, and the mercifully minor thigh strain that forced him off the field at the Marassi should be taken as a warning sign.

Juventus FC v Pescara Calcio - Serie A
Could Moise Kean see more time with the first team once Juventus wrap up the Scudetto?
Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Given the lack of options, it begs wondering if some more thought should have been given to keeping Simone Zaza after his loan move at West Ham fell apart. He was sent to Valencia a few days before Allergi’s switch to the Five Star lineup, but it’s an option that should’ve been considered even if he had stayed with a pair up top for the entire season. Regardless of the formation, the team simply didn’t have enough forwards.

But Allegri has what he has — five forwards plus the occasional cameo by Kean. So how does he rotate enough to keep the rest of the team fresh?

If he keeps the 4-2-3-1 in place, to give Higuain some much-needed rest, Mandzukic will likely have to move up to take his place. That would mean that the left wing would need filling—and that is now of major concern.

Pjaca is a natural left-winger and would be the obvious choice — but he may no longer be an option. During Croatia’s friendly loss to Estonia on Tuesday Pjaca’s knee buckled with no contact. He had to be stretchered off the field, and there are serious concerns that he’s blown out his knee. Remember a few moments ago when I said “at full strength?” It’s looking incredibly likely that Juve will go through the rest of the season short of that.

Where does that leave the state of the left wing beyond Mandzukic? If Allegri wants to rotate that position while keeping the formation he’ll have to get creative.

He has used players out of position at both wings when the starters weren’t available. Stefano Sturaro has spelled Mandzukic on the left before, and his fellow midfielder Mario Lemina looked like a straight swap for Cuadrado on the right when he came on against Sampdoria.

But the solution may actually be on the back line. Dani Alves has been moved up from right-back to take the right wing spot for Cuadrado, a move that actually suits him and is more than viable going forward so long as Stephan Lichtsteiner is available to play on the back line. Allegri could use a similar ploy on the left by moving Alex Sandro forward and having Kwadwo Asamoah deputize for him at left-back. Sandro is a dynamic attacker already from the full-back spot, and if he were freed of some of his defensive responsibilities he could be a major threat on the wing.

Then there’s Kean. Entrusting a 17-year-old with a major role is a huge risk, but if Pjaca’s injury is worst-case scenario he becomes the only other straight forward on the roster. He would only be able to play domestically after being removed from the Champions League list in favor of Lichtsteiner, but he’s naturally a wide player and can spell both Mandzukic or Cuadrado. Against truly inferior teams like Crotone or Pescara, it may not hurt to give him a bigger taste of first-team football.

As for the trequartista position, the solution would likely have been Pjanic. The Bosnian was probably signed for just that role in a 4-3-1-2, and had played well there before Christmas. With only two midfielders on the field at a given time there’s a ridiculous amount of depth at the position, so Marchisio, Sturaro, Lemina or Tomas Rincon can all partner with Khedira, or each other if the German gets rested himself.

All of those solutions work, but there’s still a lot of jerry-rigging involved, especially if Pjaca ends up done for the year. A simpler solution does present itself: change formation in games against lesser opposition. A 4-3-1-2 would let two of the forwards kick up their heels while utilizing the team’s midfield depth. Even a return to the 3-5-2 could help the forwards conserve some energy as the season reaches its end.

UC Sampdoria v Juventus FC - Serie A
Max Allegri was not all that happy with his team’s performance against Sampdoria going into the international break.
Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images

The key here will be Allegri’s willingness to flex. There’s a reasonable fear of the team getting out of joint if the formation starts changing regularly, especially given how new the 4-2-3-1 is. But switching formations is the only way to give his forwards enough rest while ensuring that everyone is in a natural position.

Juve’s next two games will be at the Stadio San Paolo, first on Sunday in the league and then on Wednesday for the second leg of the Coppa semifinal. The first game will certainly require the team in its best system. The second may well see Allegri go to the 3-5-2 for all or part of the match as he seeks to kill off the tie.

After that, of Juve’s remaining league schedule there are only two games, on paper anyway, that could pose a significant threat. The first is the Derby against Torino on May 7, the second a week later at Roma — after which there will only be two more matches to go. By the time Juve reaches the Olimpico, it’s possible they will already have the title sewn up, or at least will be so close to it that the result of that game would be immaterial.

In other words, the next month and a half or so is a perfect time to shift things around, rotate the squad and keep important players like Higuain and Dybala fresh and healthy for the Champions League quarterfinal with Barcelona — and hopefully beyond.

One thing is certain: Allegri cannot keep whipping his top players to death simply to keep this new formation on the field. If he does, they will be unable to cope when the Champions League campaign reaches its critical moment.

Allegri’s predecessor, Antonio Conte, was often criticized for his unwillingness to change his formation. That particular argument is best left for another time, but Allegri needs to make sure he doesn’t become vulnerable to a similar debate. He needs to rotate his squad, and the best way to do that is to put the players who do go out on the field in their natural positions by shifting formation.