In what was easily Juventus’ biggest game of the season, Massimiliano Allegri placed trust in some of his most seldom-used and inexperienced players to provide a spark in a game in which his team needed a near-perfect performance.
The headlines all point to Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick and Federico Bernardeschi’s creativity and grit — and rightfully so. But one fatal miscue would’ve forced Juventus to score four. With pressure from the Italian media as high as it’s ever been under Allegri, much was at stake for him and Juventus. What ensued was a masterclass performance by Allegri and his team, in a resounding 3-0 win that would not have been possible without a few difficult decisions.
Leonardo Spinazzola, who had played in all of two matches this season (with one substitute appearance) prior to Tuesday night was given the start, and he terrorized Santiago Arias on the left flank. In the absence of Alex Sandro through suspension and Douglas Costa through injury, Allegri needed someone who could run tirelessly and put pressure on Atlético Madrid out wide, and Spinazzola did exactly that. He touched the ball 71 times and led the team in dribbles, occupying the Atletico defense along with Ronaldo on the left side.
In the absence of Sandro and Mattia De Sciglio, Allegri could’ve very easily relied on the 31-year-old Martín Cáceres, a seasoned defender with Champions League experience and versatility across the backline. By starting Spinazzola, he stuck to his game plan and attacked Atlético out wide.
In the first leg, 30 percent of Juve’s attacks came through the middle, with 32 percent coming from the left side, and 38 percent from the right, according to WhoScored.com. As we know, Juve’s offense in that match was practically non-existent. In the return leg, only 22 percent of Juve’s attack came through the middle, with 40 percent coming from the left side, and an identical 38 percent from the right. This change in attacking philosophy, spearheaded by Spinazzola, was a major reason why Juve are now advancing to the quarterfinals.
Another major reason is the play of Emre Can, whose career so far at Juve has been plagued with injuries and erratic play. But, in the biggest game of the season, Allegri gave Can the start and he turned in what was easily his best performance for La Vecchia Signora. Not only that, but he played him as a makeshift centre back alongside Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, connecting the defense and midfield. This was an unusual and risky decision by Allegri, but one that paid off in a big way. Can showed poise on the ball and was a steady presence in defense, allowing Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi freedom to move forward in attack (and of course Bonucci, who on occasion fancies himself as a striker). Can touched the ball 91 times, second only to Pjanic, and lost possession only once. He provided the Bianconeri with an alternative to Daniele Rugani and Caceres in the back, displaying athleticism, energy and aerial prowess — he led Juve in aerial duels — that frustrated Atlético.
Due in part to his stellar performance, Juventus took the attack to Atlético without impunity, and faced very little danger from Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata. Had Allegri chosen Cáceres or Rugani in a traditional back three, this match may have had a much different result inviting Atlético to get more comfortable in the Juventus zone. Instead, by starting Can, Allegri showed his preference to take the game to Atlético, something he continued to show with his choices in substitutions.
With the scoreline 2-0, and tied on aggregate, Allegri elected to bring on Paulo Dybala, and then the 19-year old Moise Kean for an ineffective Mario Mandžukić, showing the Juventus faithful that he was going for the win in 90.
Fresh off his first start of the season in a two-goal performance against Udinese, Kean ultimately had minimal impact on this match, outside of a heart-stopping breakaway opportunity that could have been the game-winner but went just wide minutes after his introduction. The important takeaway here is that Allegri brought Kean on when extra time was a real possibility. He was willing to rely on a 19-year-old forward for the most important minutes of the season. It was a move that showed Allegri’s commitment to continue pressuring Atlético and not taking the foot off the gas.
After being out-managed by Diego Simeone in the first leg and being much too conservative, Allegri showed his tactical prowess and used the players available to him who could carry out his game plan. It was a decision that could’ve easily backfired. If Morata gets his 46th minute header on net, we would all be singing a different tune and lamenting another lost Champions League campaign. Give credit to Pjanic, Ronaldo, Bernardeschi, Matuidi, Chiellini, Joao Cancelo, and Bonucci. They all put in magnificent performances and deserve praise, but the decisions Allegri made in trusting his seldom-used and inexperienced players went a long way as well. He had his team ready to play and they rewarded him with the best performance of the season.
With a little less than a month to go until the quarterfinals, and three Serie A matches on the schedule before the first leg, I hope to see Allegri carry this momentum and give us a heavy dose of Kean, Spinazzola, and the like while tinkering with potential lineup changes. Player rotation and tactical versatility will keep this team fresh and unpredictable as Juventus chases its first Champions League title in more than 23 years.