Drop the money. Drop the gamble. Drop the marketing schemes.
Let’s talk about tactics.
At first glance, Cristiano Ronaldo and Max Allegri may seem like water and oil — one a flashy attacking nuclear missile, the other a curmudgeonly skipper who almost literally requires every player to perform the defensive duties of a center back; CR7 is brand and image at every turn, and Mad Max’s most photogenic moments come when he rips his jacket off to bark at his players.
But the ethos, in fact, is shared.
There is only one objective, no matter the cost or the path, and that is to win. The shared pragmatism of Ronaldo and Allegri is what will make this partnership work, not even considering the stellar assets Juventus already boasts on its roster. Ronaldo’s record speaks for itself, as does Allegri’s, but don’t forget that Juve’s manager is the same guy who turned Mario Mandzukic into a left winger to astonishing (and continued) success, the same guy who found a way to make the Paulo Dybala conundrum work, and the same guy who, along with the more general Juventus culture, has worked magic in the late stages of the careers of so many players.
This is a hilarious match, sure. But it’s a hilarious match made in heaven. Tactically speaking, it’s fascinating with Juve’s current pieces. Ronaldo gives Allegri a piece on the field that wields an omnipresent pressure on a defense like nobody else on the roster. When Dybala is playing well he’s certainly a maelstrom, Gonzalo Higuain’s positioning and awareness are almost always on, but neither strikes perpetual fear in the opposition the way Ronaldo does.
What follows is four specific lineups in which Allegri could deploy Ronaldo. These are my specific constructions and, as I say, some of these players — because of Allegri’s slow integration — might not regularly start until later in the season.
The lineups assume a few things: 1) Higuain will be sold; 2) Juventus is keeping Paulo Dybala; 3) That Marko Pjaca will be sold.
1. The Storm-The-Castle Approach: 4-2-3-1
Front line: I’m guessing we see a 4-2-3-1 rather quickly into the season with Mandzukic as the center forward, Ronaldo as the left winger, Dybala slotted in as the No. 10, and Juan Cuadrado playing on the right. Cuadrado and Mandzukic appear, at least to me, near-perfect complements to Dybala and Ronaldo. The Colombian and Croatian work their butts off defensively and sacrifice for every ball. They’re both physical players who attack and press and run until they don’t have any gas left in the tank; that’ll open up space, and Dybala and Ronaldo — I can’t get over typing that, by the way — will know what to do.
Midfield: Who are we kidding? Sami Khedira is going to start the season next to Miralem Pjanic, but this is my article so it’s not happening on my watch. I think how well (or not well) Emre Can pairs with Pjanic, and how well the new German plays in general, is really going to influence the course of the season — at least in terms of formation. In my ideal world, Can becomes a Casemiro-esque physical force just ahead of the center backs who wins the ball, creates defensive stability, distributes quickly, and allows Pjanic to move a bit higher up the pitch. Even if Can doesn’t fit that bill perfectly, imagining a successful double pivot with him and Pjanic isn’t difficult to imagine. The opposite roles will end up working, too: Can as box-to-box, Pjanic back to regista.
With the midfielders currently on roster, there’s a ludicrous amount of double pivot options.
Defense: Let’s face it, Medhi Benatia-Giorgio Chiellini is going to be the go-to starting center back pairing unless one of them gets hurt or someone named Mattia Caldara proves better. And once again, I’m not thinking Allegri is going to start Joao Cancelo so early in the season, but eventually he’ll be the most dynamic option. For this specific lineup, I’ve chosen a Cancelo-Cuadrado right flank, which I think would be incredibly balanced both offensively and defensively.
Bench: DC, Bernardeschi, Bentancur, Caldara, MDS, Matuidi, Khedira, and others
How it comes together: At the behest of Dybala (basically), Allegri really trotted out this 4-2-3-1 in earnest about 18 months ago, and the formation has stuck — with a more gradual integration of a 4-3-3 and, every now and again, a Christmas tree. To this point, Dybala hasn’t shown the capability of playing as a false nine, though I do wonder now, with the addition of Ronaldo, whether that’s a subject worth revisiting.
The attacking potency here is off the charts, as both flanks would be absolutely loaded and Dybala — who, it ought to be said, scored 24 goals last year! — floating around the box as well. Sandro is a superb defender most of the time, and while he may take some time to gel with Ronaldo he’ll certainly be good enough from Day 1 of the CR7 era to hold down the fort behind Juve’s new Portuguese talisman.
When this formation goes defensive, I could see Mandzukic tracking back and helping hold the line, as he does for Croatia right now even in the center forward spot and as we’ve grown quite accustomed to seeing when he plays on the wing.
Speaking of Croatia: Mr. No Good may be getting some very helpful practice reps at the moment, as the World Cup finalists have been using him as the center forward on top of their 4-2-3-1 (most of the time). He’s shown what we all know he still has the ability to do, even at 32 years old. He poached a goal in extra time to send his side to the final, and he also has consistently created havoc. What’s more, with Ivan Perisic playing beside him, Mandzukic is re-learning how to create the space for the winger to play into.
In my hypothetical scenario, there’s some easy positional switching between Ronaldo and Mario, as Ronaldo could stay up top and be the outlet once Juve regains possession.
This formation would be asking a lot of Mandzukic who, although an absolute shredder, doesn’t have 99 stamina anymore. Assuming Juventus puts a goal (or 12) up in the first half or 60 minutes, there are options on the bench. In fact, there are options on the bench even if Juventus doesn’t score. There are options if Dybala is playing poorly, if Mandzukic gets tired, if Ronaldo hurts his ankle.
There are options!
2. Max’s Coaching Thesis With Sir Ronaldo: 4-3-3
Front line: This is a pretty basic front line here, but with these three players and the forrays of the midfielders you can expect a defense under a lot of pressure.
Midfield: A midfield with Pjanic, Can, and Matuidi sounds extremely fun (for Juve — not for the opposition), and it would allow each player to move forward without too much worry. This depends slightly on how good Can is in a Juventus kit, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a midfield in the world against which I would feel completely helpless with these three, plus the work rate you’d get from Cuadrado and Mario.
Defense: Obviously I’m running this back four in most of these scenarios. I’m very, very intrigued by the Cuadrado-Cancelo partnership, and I think a 4-3-3 would allow the fullbacks, just as it does the midfielders, to move forward with confidence.
Bench: Dybala, Bentancur, DC, Bernardeschi, Khedira, MDS, Caldara, and others
How it comes together: This lineup is the ultimate defensive basher that, at the same time, fields Ronaldo. This is possibly the most stable of any formation Juventus could offer. Each unit has players who contribute offensively and defensively. Both flanks have attacking options but defensive and possessive solidity. The one thing, though, that really strikes me as not too great about this lineup is that it leaves both Dybala and Flash on the bench — that’s no fun! But a substitute could, of course, immediately remedy that situation and switch the formation.
Possible alteration: Dybala in for Mandzukic with La Joya playing as a false nine. Allegri didn’t try this more than a couple times last season, and there’s probably a reason for that, but once again I do wonder how it might look with Ronaldo on the wing; so much hinges on the Ronaldo-Dybala partnership in my view. I don’t think this will be an early-season experiment for Allegri, but getting Dybala on the field remains an important thing.
There are other iterations of this lineup, too. Starting Bernardeschi on the right wing would be pretty interesting and maybe add a little creativity to the pitch. If you did want to start Dybala, this could easily morph into a Christmas tree with Dybala and Ronaldo squeezing in a little bit and Mandzukic just clobbering bodies up top.
3. The One Where Dybala And CR7 Fall In Love: 4-4-2
Front line: Neither Dybala nor Ronaldo is a true No. 9, so why not put them both up top and let them play off each other? This scenario is obviously predicated on a quickly developed understanding between the two, but a 4-4-2 can work wonders when the two strikers up top know how to play together. This formation, really regardless of the left and right midfielders, would provide attacking width, central and defensive solidity, all in the hope that the partnership up top would terrorize enemies to death.
Midfield: Matuidi on the left would look as he does right now with France — a little more room to roam. His touch obviously isn’t perfect, but he makes good runs and makes things hellish for an opponent trying to play from the back. I think the midfield would provide width and pressing ability, and would, as with the 4-3-3, allow players to move forward through space knowing that they’re covered from behind.
Defense: Same story here.
Bench: DC, Khedira, Mandzukic, Caldara, MDS, Bentancur, Cuadrado, and others
How it comes together: At first one might fear this formation would be a bit too rigid, but it’s not hard to imagine it sliding to a 4-3-3 or even a 4-2-3-1. Strange (and old) as Juve’s roster is, one of the more admirable components of its composition is its flexibility. The World Cup has shown as much, with the final featuring two Juventus players playing non-normal positions (obviously only recently for Mandzukic has center forward not been his customary place). But France deploying Matuidi up almost as a left winger has been absolutely lovely for them. What he certainly lacks in technical and finishing ability he provides in absolute hounding drive. His stamina probably is 99, to be honest.
So as this formation is currently constructed, you’ve got two midfield pairings with one more technical player (Bernardeschi and Pjanic) and one more defensive-focused player (Can and Matuidi) still quite capable of moving forward. This kind of formation also caters to someone like Khedira — I can’t believe I just wrote that! — who looked at his absolute best last year when he was making forward runs.
It’s not perfect: I’d be concerned with my right flank getting attacked. Bernardeschi and Cancelo doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence, but at least with Can over there you’ve got some solidity — switching Bernardeschi for Cuadrado would perhaps be prudent in many cases. That left side, though, has pretty much everything you want: creativity, scoring power, pressing ability.
Again, how well or not well this works out is going to depend on Ronaldo and Dybala understanding each other.
4. The Freaky Frankenstein Experiment: 3-4-3
Front line: The simplicity of the front line belies the strangeness of the rest of the formation; the only fear I have here, really, is lacking width on the right side. I did try to mitigate that by using Cancelo on the right flank, who’s certainly going to get forward, which would allow Dybala to slip into that Christmas tree space he seems rather to favor.
Midfield: This is essentially a Can-Pjanic double pivot supported loosely by Cancelo and Douglas Costa, but the main thing something like this would have in its favor is speed on the flanks. Costa and Ronaldo on the same wing probably does not have many realistic chances, and this is one of the slightly realistic ways in which it could maybe work. I mainly just want this to happen so we can watch some poor right fullback capitulate.
Defense: Hooray, Caldara!
Benatia has been expelled in this scenario in favor of a defense-focused Alex Sandro — thinking about Gareth Southgate’s mostly-successful England side which used Kyle Walker as a part of a back three — which, in Juve’s case here, would allow this 3-4-3 to retreat very easily into a back four with Cancelo taking back to Caldara’s side. It’d end up a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
One probably does wonder about the right flank being attacked, as Dybala doesn’t offer really anything in defense and Cancelo, fullback though he is, doesn’t exactly enter the team with a Chiellini-like record.
Bench: Bernardeschi, Benatia, Bentancur, Cuadrado, Khedira, MDS
How it comes together: This formation manages to provide a ton of width in attack with whatever havoc a Dybala / Mario / CR7 front line can provide, and then a deep-lying double-pivot ahead of three center backs (including the converted Alex Sandro). The left side of this formation as constructed is poor defensively, but if things were too bad you could throw in Matuidi for DC and see what happens. Or you could leave the little Brazilian in there and just score 11 goals per game.
Conclusions: Hot damn, this is going to be fun
I think we should all probably take a big patience pill before the season starts, because great as Ronaldo is this might take some time to develop. Even if the goals are coming, Allegri will experiment to see what proves the shrewdest combination of players both defensively and offensively. I can’t wait until Juventus draws Cagliari 1-1 or something in September and people start freaking out about the whole outfit.
Another point: no matter which starting 11 Allegri chooses, he’s going to have reserves on hand to replenish any positional group. As many have noted and as I’ve said in the past, Douglas Costa is a very, very lethal player to bring on as a super sub; Bernardeschi surely isn’t going to be starting too frequently, and he’ll be able to replace Dybala or sink a little further back; Bentancur likewise may not be starting too frequently, but his minutes should rise; Mattia De Sciglio gives you a utility defender; and none of this is even yet to mention Claudio Marchisio, Khedira, Caldara, and Andrea Barzagli. There’s always going to be a change of speed, one way or another.
Needless to say, in the end this team probably is going to work out. And I think the answers to a few questions will make very large alterations to formation: How good is Emre Can under Allegri, and how exactly does he fit into the Juventus midfield? How well do Ronaldo and Dybala play together? How well do Ronaldo and Costa play together?
I’m supremely confident in Ronaldo and Mandzukic, age notwithstanding for both, but Juve’s two best offensive weapons last season were arguably Dybala, who led Juve in goals, and Costa, whose influence in the final two months can’t be overstated. In a best-case scenario, two of Dybala, Costa, and Ronaldo are on the pitch at the same time, and they all three understand each other. If this happens, we’re going to be in for a fun season.