Massimiliano Allegri has a deserved reputation as a great tactical manager. Both on the macro level of whole seasons and the micro level of individual games, he’s shown moments of brilliance.
The one caveat is that he rarely strikes those chords at the beginning of the season. Given the roster turnover that Allegri has been presented with over the course of his time at Juve — which from season to season has ranged from “a good deal” to “Who the hell are these people?” — the coach has often been forced to take the first months of the season experimented with formations and selections in order to figure out what system works best.
In his first season, in 2014-15, he started the season in the 3-5-2 that he inherited from his predecessor, Antonio Conte, after the latter’s abrupt departure. That lessened the shock of the loss of Conte, and while the pragmatic brought some success, Allegri doesn’t come close to the mastery of that system that Conte possesses, and it lacked dynamism—which really hurt in the Champions League. After a pair of 1-0 losses had Juve facing the humiliating prospect of being dumped to the Europa League for a second consecutive year. Ahead of a must-win home game against Olympiakos, Allegri shifted gear: he put the team out in a 4-3-1-2, and 90 wild minutes later Juventus had pulled out a 3-2 win to put themselves back in control of their own destiny. That formation became the default the rest of that season, with the 3-5-2 being used as a late-game tactical shift to hold leads.
Of course, the most famous example of Allegri’s ingenuity came two seasons ago, when a 2-1 loss at Fiorentina inspired Max’s “mad experiment”: the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” formation, which put all five of Allegri’s biggest stars at the time — Gonzalo Higuain, Miralem Pjanic, Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic, and Juan Cuadrado — on the field at the same time. Mandzukic was an unorthodox left wing, and injuries hampered the depth of a team originally built for using a pair of strikers, but the formation allowed the team to run roughshod over Serie A and ride a wave to the Champions League final.
Allegri faces a similar challenge this year. The acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo has given him a quandary. How does he fit the superstar in with the other attacking talent he’s got at his disposal? In particular, how does he get the combination of Ronaldo and Dybala to work?
The problem with that bit is that Dybala isn’t the most versatile player in the world. He has never shown the ability to flex out as a winger. Really, his best position is and always has been as a seconda punta. He sort of reinterpreted the trequartista position in the 4-2-3-1 into a seconda punta as he’s settled into that position, but combining that with Ronaldo could be tricky. Ronaldo has shown that he still performs best coming off the left wing, despite not being the speed freak he was when he first went from Manchester United to Real Madrid. In the last two games of the year — games where Dybala was benched — Ronaldo and Mandzukic played alongside Federico Bernardeschi at the top of a 4-3-3 and swapped places between the left and the center.
But unless he plays as a false nine, Dybala doesn’t really fit into a 4-3-3. So how does Allegri get his two most talented players on the field together?
Remember that 4-3-1-2 I talked about earlier?
It’s my humble opinion that Allegri should revisit the formation that took him to the first Champions League final of his tenure. Here’s how it’ll work.
Ronaldo and Dybala will play as the strikers in this scenario. This will allow Dybala to play as a true seconda punta while Ronaldo plays as a hybrid version of a prima punta, with the freedom to roam the attacking third but still able to use his aerial prowess to his advantage in the middle.
The man behind the two of them? Miralem Pjanic.
Pjanic has been playing as either a regista or part of a double pivot for so long that it’s easy to forget that when he was signed from Roma he was meant to be the treq that Allegri had been begging Beppe Marotta for for the better part of two years. He was very much a CAM at Roma under Luciano Spalletti, and to this day he’s most effective when his defensive responsibilities are limited. Playing in the hole will allow Pjanic to dictate play from higher up the field without having to worry as much about regaining possession.
The formation maintains the three-man midfield that has proven to provide far more defensive solidity than the double pivot of the “Five Star.” With Pjanic upfield, it leaves the No. 6 role to Emere Can, who can protect the defense well and has enough dynamism in his offensive game to keep Pjanic in the game. Flanking him would be Blaise Matuidi on one side and either Sami Khedira or Rodrigo Bentancur. I really would love it if it was Bentancur, but when Khedira is on his game he’s a highly effective channel runner that could do very well in a position like this. The question then becomes how often he’ll be on his game.
Now, I know that this setup has one major drawback: it has no place for the excellent wingers on the roster. Douglas Costa would likely be the most affected, as there really isn’t an alternative position he could play in it. Bernardeschi would have it better — we’ve seen him play as part of a strike pair on Italy’s Under-21 team, and Fiorentina played him in the hole as well during his time there. Cuadrado could also be in for playing time here if he were to be deployed at right back.
Still, the lack of a place for those players — in particular Costa, who was the team’s best player last year and so far through three games has continued to be an electrifying presence in wide areas—is a serious weakness for this formation, which is why I’m not necessarily contending that it should be an option rather than a default. Indeed, there may not even be a “default” setup this year. Allegri may end up continuing to mix and match his lineups and formations depending on the opponent. He certainly has the roster depth to do so, and if one system isn’t working at the start of the game, the manager has shown that he can turn the match on his head with his in-game moves.
Allegri will be playing chess with his setups all year long. Consider this suggestion another gambit he can employ as he looks for the weaknesses from his opponent across the board.