When I was a kid, my sister and I always looked forward to a trip to Costco. We were a New York family, and when I was around 10 we ceased to own a car, so these trips were few and far between unless we were renting a vehicle to go somewhere outside the City. Apart from stocking up on the bulk essentials, it invariably meant that Sis and I would end up with a couple of treats.
(Those trips became far less rare once they managed to squeeze a Costco into a space on 117th Street right up against the East River. Even after I moved out I would go with my mom to serve as manual labor and get a nice little haul for my trouble. Now that I’m in Jersey City I can actually get to a Costco in Bayonne via public transportation, and after the baby came my wife and I went Next Level Adult with our own membership.)
For a while, one such treat was a massive bucket of Bazooka gum. You remember, the ones that used to have the little comics wrapped around them? Sadly, the adventures of Bazooka Joe and the Gang were discontinued in 2012, but there’s one of the innumerable little strips wrapped around those tooth-rotting sugar bombs that has always stuck in my memory. It was part of a series called “Tao of Mort” — Mort being one of Joe’s friends, with crazy blonde hair and a turtleneck he wore up to the bottom of his nose. In it, Mort laments to another character “I’m trying to find myself!” Without looking up from his book, his friend quips “Well, if I find you I’ll let you know.”
I’ve recalled that little comic more than once in the last few weeks as I’ve tried to puzzle together in my head how Juventus was going to look this season. After successive campaigns that, by the standards of the dominance that came before it, have been significantly below par, the Old Lady must get themselves back on track this year. To do that, one of the critical things they need to do is forge an identity.
That’s an aspect that has been critically lacking at Juve for quite some time. Really, the last time this team had a concrete identity was when Antonio Conte was coaching. Maurizio Sarri clearly had an idea of what he wanted his team to become, but never had the time or players to get there. Andrea Pirlo’s team always seemed a bit nebulous, and much is made of his using a different starting XI in all 38 games of the 2020-21 season.
There was, however, another man who had managed that feat before him.
Massimiliano Allegri has always been a living, breathing tactical flux. This is, after all, a man famous for once describing his formation as “4-3-and then we’ll see.” His reputation has been made on his breaking out crazy tactical wrinkles tailor-made to getting the result he needed out of a situation. The second leg of the 2015-16 Champions League Round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich saw him take a badly depleted team and line it up in a way that, for about 70 minutes (before he blew it with his in-game decisions), had Bayern Munich on the ropes in its own stadium. His unique setup at the same point in the 2018-19 tournament resulted in the famous turnaround against Atletico Madrid.
But for all those marvelous tactical brain waves, his teams have generally lacked a true identity. Tactical adaptability is always well and good, but, in my opinion, it’s counterproductive if that’s the only way you work. This is perhaps my biggest bugaboo about Allegri as a coach. It is, I believe, far better to have a concrete identity, a solid default that the team knows backward and forward, and to then adjust off of that based on the opponent if needed.
Allegri has never given a Juve team anything close to that in the long term. Only one year out of the five in his first tenure did Juventus play the same formation on the last day of the season that they did on the first. In some cases, that put a serious crimp in the depth of a team that had originally been built to do something else. The closest the team came to having a true identity under him was when he broke out the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” midway through the 2016-17 season, but by the quarter pole of the next season he had already abandoned that setup for something else.
All of this shifting has left the team aimless and without an objective on the field other than “keep the ball out and figure out how to score a goal somehow.” One of the club’s biggest weaknesses last season was an inability to impose themselves on games, especially when they were ahead, but when there isn’t an anchor to give your play an objective, how can you impose anything? Without a true identity, a team becomes almost entirely reactive. That’s how Juve played for the vast majority of last season, and we all saw how it turned out: goals conceded, games drawn and lost that should have been won, and defending for their lives on their own field against the likes of Venezia.
They looked their best last the few times Allegri adjusted his standard “defend-and-hope” strategy and actually gave the team some instructions. The first half of the home match against Inter may have been the best showing all year. Juve pressed hard, retrieving the ball early, and pressing home their attacks. They were playing with a purpose.
Without knowing what they are, that purpose is nigh-on impossible to develop, and if if doesn’t, we’ll be in for another season of utterly uninspiring football. Allegri may be a stubborn old coot, but he simply has to change his approach in this regard, otherwise his position could be under examination, and sooner than he may think. It’s imperative that the coach develop a true identity for this squad, If he doesn’t, we’re in for another year stagnant at best and fighting for a Champions League place.