Mario Mandžukić and Dani Alves started as wingers in the Champions League final. That’s literally a thing that happened. A target forward and right back started as wingers (!) in the Champions League final against Real Madrid, a team whose starting wings were Isco and Cristiano Ronaldo, a team whose reserve winger was Gareth Bale.
I repeat: This is literally a thing that happened in real life.
That’s why, a few weeks after the drubbing, Allegri said this: “The idea was to be leading at halftime.”
That’s truly and honestly what the switch to a 4-2-3-1 meant. There was no attacking juice off the bench, especially when Marko Pjaca went down with his ACL injury two months earlier.
Allegri was extremely — probably painfully — aware of what this squad could and, more importantly, could not do in early June. To beat Real, Juventus needed a lead. That’s how it worked against Barcelona. That’s how it worked against Monaco. And that’s how it didn’t work in Cardiff.
Not only was there no attacking juice off the bench, but the attackers on the field bore too much responsibility, and were playing out-of-position to begin with. Virtually all of the creativity on the attacking side was on the shoulders of Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Dani Alves and, to a lesser extent during the regular season, guys like Miralem Pjanic, Mandžukić, Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro coming up the left flank.
Of course, it worked to a certain extent. Juventus won their sixth straight Scudetto. Juventus also won the Coppa Nazionale. Juventus reached their second Champions League final in three years, and for 45 minutes looked pretty damn good.
But when, finally for 45 minutes in Cardiff, it didn’t work — it really didn’t work. The combination of whatever happened in the locker room, a serious regression in pace and creativity in the attacking third, and some winger from Portugal spelled doom for the bianconeri.
That pretty much sums up the 2016-2017 Juventus team: A tremendously disciplined, talented, and experienced defensive team with a couple gems in attack.
It wasn’t enough to win the Champions League, to still feel like the underdog against Real Madrid and, despite the 3-0 win on aggregate, Barcelona.
Enter Douglas Costa.
Douglas Costa is the signal that Juventus are moving in a new direction. Juventus will never lose their defensive identity, but in order to reach the heights this club deserves to there needs to be an evolution in attack.
Think about Costa in a vacuum: He's a creative, pacey, and dynamic attacker who can play either left or right wing. He's excellent at crosses. He's excellent at take-ons. He can shoot from range. He's technically gifted. He's left-footed, but can use his right.
*Cough, cough, Paulo…*
Think about what Juventus needed in the Champions League final: All of those things I just listed above.
If I were to be bold and optimistic about the future of Juventus, I would point to the following evolution in tactics under the direction of Allegri: an extremely defensive 3-5-2 to an attack-minded 4-2-3-1 with defensive-minded players to an attack-minded 4-2-3-1 with proper attackers. Juventus purchased Higuain last summer; Juventus added Costa and potentially others this summer. I think good things are happening.
Then, as I was writing this, something happened: Bonucci went to Milan. The optimism is going to kill me, but I believe that Leo’s departure only reinforces this transformation. A quick word on Bonucci, in three points:
- Let’s not pretend that he wasn’t world-class. He was; he is. He was integral in that Champions League streak of minutes without a goal conceded. He’s been integral to Juve’s back line for some time. He’s a great defender, but he’s phenomenal in distribution from the back. We’re going to miss him.
- But there has also been some sort of rift between Bonucci and Allegri; we can say this pretty confidently. I think we can also with some degree of confidence that there was a growing rift between Bonucci and the squad itself (same for Dani Alves for both of these things). We don’t, won’t, and maybe shouldn’t know the details; but something was there.
- Despite the age of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Medhi Benatia, and all the vulnerability to injuries there, if there’s a position at which Juventus are pretty deep center back is it. Daniele Rugani, Mattia Caldara, and Filippo Romagna are in the flanks, the latter two of course on loan on the moment. Juve may either add a center back in the market or attempt to recall Caldara from Atalanta, but that’s still an extremely solid back line. It helps to have Sandro, arguably the best in the world at his position, on the back line as well. Oh, and a guy named Gigi Buffon minding the net.
Call me overly optimistic — for what it’s worth, I don’t think my friends would describe me this way in 99 percent of circumstances — but I don’t think management would’ve sold Bonucci if Juventus weren’t ready for it. I know the narrative right now is that Bonucci wanted to leave, wanted to stay in Italy, but there were chances of his leaving a year ago and he was convinced to stay. I believe that Allegri felt like the back line (i.e., Rugani) is ready for Leo’s departure. And I think that should instill some confidence in all of us.
Here is a fact: With or without Bonucci, Paulo Dybala is the franchise player. Paulo Dybala is the future, the gem, La Joya, and Paulo Dybala is the one who just signed a contract extension. Like it or not, the little Argentine is the face of the franchise. (Suggestion: You should like it.) You should feel very, very confident that he was sold on a contract extension. You should also feel very, very confident that Alex Sandro is staying in Turin.
You should also feel very, very confident in an attack that will, in a month’s time, look at least something like this: Douglas Costa (LW), Gonzalo Higuain (S), Juan Cuadrado/Federico Bernardeschi (RW), Paulo Dybala (CAM). That leaves Mandžukić and Pjaca and one of Cuadrado/Bernardeschi on the bench, and possibly Kean and Schick.
Goodness gracious! Is that not ridiculous to think about? The goals are coming, my friend.
Bonucci’s departure will hurt. Let’s not pretend otherwise. But the route to transforming this team into one with the attacking prowess to match the best in the world (Barcelona, Real Madrid) is underway with the addition of Douglas Costa. Bonucci’s loss is a fissure that can be filled. The loss of Sandro or Dybala, in this transfer window, would’ve been insurmountable tactically — and devastating metaphorically (i.e., that Juventus can’t keep its best players).
I believe Juventus can and does keep its best players. I believe Juventus was ready for Bonucci to move on, and I think it’s going to be just fine.