It’s been almost two weeks now since the very public row between Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri and center back Leonardo Bonucci. Now that the emotions have died down, it may be time to take a serious look at a big question: Is this latest incident between Allegri and a player a sign of friction in the Juve locker room?
The profane argument between Allegri and Bonucci was the fourth such incident between the coach and one of his players in the space of three months. The first came in December, when Mario Mandzukic kicked a water bottle and then a wall after being taken off during the Derby della Mole. In late January, Paulo Dybala not only refused to shake his coach’s hand after being substituted but deliberately pulled it away. Stephan Lichtsteiner was the next player with an issue after he was taken off during the Derby d’Italia on Feb. 5.
Each of the first three incidents was played off as a player’s natural frustration with being substituted, or, in Lichtsteiner’s case, a misunderstanding of body language. The explanation for just what precipitated the Bonucci situation hasn’t been made entirely clear. But regardless of the cause, the fact that such public dust-ups are happening with this kind of frequency may be a signal that something deeper is going on in the locker room.
Allegri has never been thought of as a man manager. His claim to fame has been his tactical acumen, which, while subject to the occasional mistake, is formidable. His interpersonal relationships have sometimes been far less successful.
His difficulties with Andrea Pirlo at AC Milan are what pushed the legendary midfielder to Juventus in the first place in 2011. The end of his time with the rossoneri was also punctuated by a heated argument with Filippo Inzaghi, who at the time was Milan’s primavera coach.
Now, there are some worrying signs that a wedge is being driven between Allegri and his players in Turin. The odd on-field argument between a coach and a player is something you expect over the course of a season, but seeing so many public disputes in such a small time frame isn’t normal. If you take the scenario to its worst case, it’s entirely possible that the team has tuned Allegri out to the point that the barriers to such public displays of disrespect have come down.
The on-field arguments aren’t the only thing that look wrong. Early in the season the team looked sluggish and unfocused. Uncharacteristic mental lapses saw league wins against the likes of Udinese and Chievo and Coppa Italia triumphs against Atalanta and Milan harder than they had to be. The first two home games in the UEFA Champions League saw a similar lack of verve that led to dull performances and draws. A tactical change after January’s dull loss to Fiorentina has injected a new energy, but they’ve still had trouble killing games off on occasion.
If Allegri has lost his locker room, what caused the decline? It could simply be that his coaching style has run out of time at Juve, as it does for many coaches at many clubs. It could also be the constant rumors of Allegri’s future — is he going to Barcelona? What about Arsenal? — have caused some players to regard him as a lame duck.
Of course, there is also evidence that this could all be empty worry. The team is seven points up in the league and has solid first-leg leads in both the Champions League round of 16 and the Coppa Italia semifinal. It’s also hard to imagine the team taking to Allegri’s new 4-2-3-1 formation without some level of buy-in from the players in the squad.
The individuals involved in some of the on-field incidents are producing some of their best football of the year. Mandzukic in particular has been big part of Juve’s post-Fiorentina success as an unorthodox left wing, and Dybala has begun adapting to his new role behind Gonzalo Higuain on the outside.
But even with so many good things going, there is an almost-undetectable uneasiness in the squad that has been amplified by the Bonucci saga.
The suspension of the defender for the trip to Porto has the whiff of a coach trying to regain control of an unruly squad — especially so if Tuttosport reports from before that game (h/t Football Italia) that Bonucci had already been fined are true. If another report by La Repubblica (also taken from Football Italia) that Allegri threatened to resign on the spot if Bonucci wasn’t suspended is true, it would add a whole other dimension to the story.
At the end of the day, there can be no way of knowing what’s going on in the locker room at Vinovo on a day-to-day basis. It could be that any worries over Allegri’s relationship with the team are totally baseless. But there is also the slightest hint of a wobble in the clubhouse, and that bears watching as the campaign’s key phase unfolds.
Until the destinies of both the team and Allegri himself are decided at season’s end, no one will know for sure — and even then we may only ever have suspicions and not a full picture. But by June things will certainly be a lot clearer.