After the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid, one thing seemed clear: Massimiliano Allegri’s time at Juventus was surely coming to an end.
In the week or so since the second leg, that picture has become a good deal murkier, and now one must wonder: Does Juve’s historic comeback mean Allegri is here to stay? Or are the questions about his job security still valid?
This season Allegri was given the most talented team he’d ever laid his hands on. He had a stable of dynamic attackers, led by one of world footballs resident aliens in Cristiano Ronaldo, and a defense that, while maybe no longer in its prime, was still one of the best in Europe. The expectation was that Juventus would blow Serie A away as they focused in on the team’s ultimate goal: Juve’s first European title in more than two decades.
But that ended up being only partly the case. While Juve did indeed build a massive lead in Serie A — it stands at 15 points going into the international break — they did so by slogging past almost every team they faced. The team didn’t seem to mesh, relying on individual moments of brilliance rather than team play to decide games. Provincial clubs like Frosinone and Empoli proved difficult to put away, and they were eliminated from the Coppa Italia in dominating fashion by Atalanta, removing the possibility of a treble to match the one Inter fans continually gloat over. Going into the Champions League knockout rounds, they hadn’t really controlled a game, European or domestic, since the first group stage meeting with Manchester United at Old Trafford.
The team reached its nadir in that first leg. After a fairly even first half, Atleti completely dismantled Juve in the second. The Bianconeri left the Wanda Metropolitano in a 2-0 hole. Allegri had fielded a cautious, defensive lineup, and he hadn’t made any changes to it until it was far too late, while Diego Simeone had been the picture of daring, making three offensive-minded substitutions early in the second half. Were it not for some luck and a questionable VAR call, the deficit might have been even worse.
Beyond any tactical issues, the game simply looked like the clearest sign yet that the team had simply stopped responding to Allegri. This wasn’t an indictment on Allegri as a coach — his quality isn’t in question — it simply looked like his cycle at Juventus had come to an end, as it does for every coach at every club around the world at some point.
Then the second leg happened.
Juventus welcomed Atleti to Allianz Stadium and promptly took them to the cleaners. They utterly dominated the game. Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata were defanged up front, and the Spanish side was sealed into their own half for almost the entire game. A Ronaldo hat trick turned the 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 aggregate victory. It was one of the great moments in the team’s history in Europe, up there with the 1996 final, the second leg of the 2002-03 semifinal against Real Madrid, or the first leg of the quarterfinal against Barcelona two seasons ago.
All of a sudden, talk of Allegri’s exit, considered all but imminent before March 12, has ceased. Some of that may have to do with the return of Zinedine Zidane, considered by most to be the club’s top choice to replace him, to Real Madrid on the day before the Atleti game, but the remontada against Simeone’s side was the biggest factor in the cessation of all the speculation.
And so now we come to the big question: In the wake of the epic comeback in the Champions League Round of 16, should all that talk be a thing of the past? Or, should Max’s seat still be considered somewhat warm?
So much of the answer comes down to what you put more weight on. Is digging out a spectacular moment when it was most needed enough to outweigh the fact that, for the most part, Allegri hasn’t seemed able to figure out how to get the best out of a fantastic collection of talent this season?
Juve have never been the flashiest of teams, but watching them this year has seemed downright stultifying at times. They had to come back from a goal down after blowing a lead to win on the opening weekend against a Chievo team that’s been practically relegated since Week 5. An equally dismal Frosinone squad took 81 minutes to finally break down in September. January’s win against Lazio came in spite of the team playing its worst game in years, and the Coppa Italia defeat to Atalanta was even worse. Allegri’s teams always seemed to find that next gear around the turn of the calendar, but there was no sign of any turnaround after the winter break this time around.
Until last week.
It was truly a tactical master class. The way Emre Can was employed to shackle Morata and allow Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini to join the attack was an absolute stroke of genius. The team looked more alive. They ran longer and pressed harder than they had all season. Whether it was desperation, Allegri’s work behind the scenes, the temporary cessation of the season-long protests of the Curva Sud ultras to once again turn Allianz Stadium into a cauldron, or some combination of the three, they looked more motivated than they’ve been in months, and the team played its most complete game since the Barcelona game two years ago.
Allegri definitely deserves huge credit for that. He equally deserves a pass for the team’s flat performance against Genoa five days later — between the emotional capital the team spent midweek and the general difficulty of playing away at the Marassi, a letdown game was always in the cards, and seeing as how the team had an 18-point advantage at the top of the league going into the match it wasn’t a damaging defeat. All Juve needs is five wins in the next 10 to clinch an eighth consecutive scudetto. But now the question is whether they will raise their game back up again after the international break ends.
Barring an independent decision by Allegri to pursue another challenge — it’s no secret that he’d like to work in the English Premier League at some point in his career — the question of his job security will come down to how the team looks the rest of the season, especially in the Champions League. If Juve continue to play the way they did against Atleti in the quarterfinals against Ajax — and potentially beyond — Allegri will be able to stay at Juventus as long as he likes. But if the team comes back from the Amsterdam Arena needing another big comeback, the front office may have to face the fact that the Atleti comeback was merely a temporary reprieve for a coach that, for all his excellence, is simply at the end of a cycle.