In the closing moments of the Juventus-Napoli game in the ordinarily friendly confines of Allianz Stadium in Turin, Kalidou Koulibaly rose above Medhi Benatia and the rest of the home defense and powered a header past Gigi Buffon into the back of the net, giving the visitors vengeance for their home defeat to the Old Lady, a rare win in Turin, and, most of all, palpable hope in the Scudetto race. At this juncture of the year, there was a very real possibility that Juventus may end their campaign without a single trophy. The Champions League had already fallen by the wayside, an in-form AC Milan lay ahead in the Coppa Nazionale final, and now, with Napoli’s last-gasp victory, the league crown was in serious jeopardy.
This game was arguably the lowest point of the season.
With an opportunity at home to go seven points clear, with a chance to assert sheer dominance and power, Massimiliano Allegri instead decided to blatantly, heavy-handedly pull his troops back. The fullbacks didn’t venture into the attack; the wingers played very little in the final third; counter-attacks saw no support. The instructions and the tactics were clear. At home, Juventus managed just four shots — zero of which were on target. At home, Juventus possessed the ball just 40 percent of the time.
Eleven days before that game, the same Juventus team under the same skipper waltzed into Madrid and, for 92 1⁄2 minutes, absolutely thrashed the now-three-time defending Champions League winners. Within two minutes the visitors announced their intentions with a goal from Mario Mandzukic header, and for much of the rest of the game
Allegri knew he needed goals, but he still approached the game with the same restraint, and, statistically speaking, Juventus weren’t the dominant team. Real Madrid led in shots 18 to 11 (though each side tallied six on target), and they possessed the ball 62 percent of the time. The home team more than doubled Juve’s corner, and the second half of the second half, in particular, saw wave after wave of Madrid offense as Allegri chose — wrongly in hindsight — to retreat to the interior of the castle and bolt up the doors, not using his final substitution.
This game, the last few minutes aside, was arguably the highest point of the season.
In a hostile environment, against nearly impossible odds, and in a precarious tactical situation, Juve’s players decided not to quite, but instead to throttle. The Old Lady stepped up to the throne of Europe’s best and attacked with fury.
These highs and lows are what you get with Allegri’s brand of football. The style in which Juventus has been steeped for the past two years especially has often and consistently felt and looked disjointed, sluggish, and out of whack. The strangeness of the situation is partly due to the fact that, while many of those modifiers are true of Juventus this and last year, it’s not as if Allegri deploys a purely counter-attacking football in the vein of Atletico Madrid, a side that managed just 58 goals in their La Liga campaign; 13th-place finisher Celta Vigo scored more than that. Juventus, by contrast, notched the second-most goals of the year with 86, just a few behind Lazio’s 89 and well above Napoli’s 77.
All of these sometimes-contradicting things, somehow, remain true: Juventus often looked disjointed, disinterested in attack, yet they scored a ridiculous amount of goals. Juventus often appeared to be at the mercy of mediocre opponents, yet in league play won 30 games, drew five, and only lost three.
There’s some comic element about the fact that Allegri — who, personally, is so even-keeled in his responses to big losses and in the dressing room — and his style of play — not conducive to regular periods of beautiful football — could induce such high highs and low lows. But that’s where we are. And the reactions from Juventus fans is equally polarized; it is quite frequently a love-hate relationship, especially in the wake of major losses (or wins).
Whether one loves or hates Allegri usually depends on how one reacts to the following statement:
No. 1 — Four domestic doubles and two Champions League runner-up finishes in four years is all evidence of overwhelming, unquestionable success.
No. 2 — Allegri gets the best out of the players on his roster, and he knows where and how to position them.
No. 3 — What sometimes appears to be ugly, disjointed football is actually just a consistent tactical approach to each opponent.
That is the litmus test for Juventus fans.
The first statement appears to be the one with the simplest yes or no answer, while the second and third statements certainly possess ample room for debate.
As an example of a hypothetical back-and-forth with statement two, there is, most obviously the reinvention of Mandzukic on the left wing. This move has unquestionably been a success, and although there have been moments (end of last year, beginning of this year) when Allegri seemed to be relying too much on the tactical option, once Douglas Costa emerged as the star he truly is then Allegri was able to use the Croatian at left wing more when he felt it fit the opponent — a la Real Madrid. And boy did that work out well.
The most obvious counterpoint to statement two would perhaps be Miralem Pjanic as regista, which has not really seemed to work in any capacity. Certainly the midfield, of the three positional groups, struggled the most this year and is now the necessary focal point of transfer activity (in addition to the fullbacks, though that’s more of just a personnel question rather than a place that needs fixing).
The counterpoint to the counterpoint here is that, OK, even if one says that Pjanic at regista makes no sense, who else could there be? Claudio Marchisio is everyone’s first cry here, but health has been a concern as well as Principino’s ability to defend properly at this point in his career. So the counterpoint to the counterpoint would say that, sure, Pjanic hasn’t worked out — but there’s no other current option no the team, and this stopgap solution has more than worked out.
The most difficult part of assessing Allegri is allowing room for nuance; nuance is often the great difficulty in the world of sports, in the world of being a fan, and in the world of analyzing sports. In this case, in particular, with the polar opposite moments and failures and successes of the last three years, nuance is even more difficult to locate.
Here’s my really dumb, ultimate confession-slash-takeaway: the longer I think about statements two and three, the more confused I am. The more I watch Juventus, the more confused I am. Rather than slowly increasing my understanding of what works and what hasn’t worked, continued exposure to the Bianconeri has really just perplexed me. There are certain things I really thought I know — like when I knew for a fact that Sami Khedira was done with being a good midfielder — and then, with one slight tweak, Allegri dashes what I thought I knew — allowing the German just a bit more leeway moving forward seemed to instantaneously turn his year around, and he finished by, yeah, maybe being Juve’s best midfielder not named Stefano Sturaro.
At the end of the day, I’m not mad about the confusion I feel, because the profound unknowing brings me back to what can be quantified, what can be known and understood immediately without having to conjecture endlessly about things to which I may never find the answer. And what we can indeed know is this: for four years in a row under Allegri, Juventus have won the domestic double. In four years of Champions League play, Juventus have twice made the final game.