When Federico Chiesa entered the game in the opening 10 minutes of the second half Wednesday night against Cremonese, Weston McKennie walked over to our favorite energizer bunny Italian and spoke with him for a few moments, appearing to discuss tactical matters.
I imagine the conversation went something like this:
WESTON: Hey, Fred, super cool to have you on the pitch today. Very excited, to be honest.
FREDDY CHURCH: Ciao! Ciao! Come va? Tutto bene?
WESTON: Very good, thanks for asking. So, coach told you to play as a winger or attacking player, right? And I’ll play the wingback spot on that flank? This has to be what we’re doing, right?
FREDDY CHURCH: [speaking English now] No-uh, Mister told me to play-uh the right-uh wingback.
WESTON: [face-palming his forehead]
FREDDY CHURCH: Andiamo! Andiamo! Andiamo!
Alas, with more than a month and a half between competitive Juventus games, as I snuggled in to watch the Bianconeri, I knew after a quarter of an hour that I had placed my hopes too high. I had imagined, I think, that Max Allegri did some great pondering over the World Cup break; maybe he even read my recent piece postulating that using Chiesa as a wingback is a crime against humanity and should be prosecuted with the force of The Hague. Maybe he decided that, even though playing FIFA can be fun because you can play a different lineup every time and players in goofy spots, that getting guys in their natural position might be sagacious.
Instead, we witnessed a starting lineup with Fabio Miretti in a less-than-ideal position just as he had done before the break, attacking talent Matías Soulé as a wingback, and later saw Chiesa playing, indeed, mostly as a wingback, too.
New Year, same Max.
Discombobulation means a little bit more thought
Allegri’s insistence on trying players over and over in positions for which they’re not entirely suited is, in my opinion, not great, and it puts the players in a constant state of second-guessing on the pitch. Great athletes thrive on being sort of machine-like; I’ll take this theory to my grave. Great athletes spend hours and hours training, both physically and mentally, outside of the competition so that when they get into the competition they’re trusting the work they’ve already completed and their intuition. They don’t have to think much, if at all.
As soon as you move a player out of the position for which he’s been training, though, all that preparation gets shifted, and even if that shift is merely a couple degrees this way or that it’s suddenly a different ballgame. I feel like we’ve seen this manifest in guys like Miretti, who, against Cremonese and in times past, looks more than a little lost behind the striker but dazzles as a mezzala.
It might not be possible every single game, but I firmly believe that playing players where they’re comfortable will pay dividends in the team’s fluidity. Less second-guessing, more of the good ol’ natural intuition dictating the pace.
Offensive offensive output
The stats say that Juventus outdueled Cremonese somewhat handily. The final shot tally was 19-13 in favor of the good guys, but shots on target was a starker contrast at 8-3. Possession was 56-44 for the Old Lady.
As is the case with Juventus so often this campaign, however, the eye test is not as kind. The hosts threatened more often and much earlier in the game, and it wasn’t until the introduction of the aforementioned Chiesa that the Old Lady really did anything of merit — and even that’s a stretch of a claim — outside of a couple long-range efforts from Soulé.
Were it not for a wonderful effort from Arkadiusz Milik, this game would’ve ended 0-0, and the tenor of the beginning of the New Year would be much different. As it stands, Max and Co. will certainly collect the three points and move on, but something will need to change in the attacking third for this run to continue. The next three league opponents field markedly better defenses (not to mention attacks), and I think even Max probably knows that Juve will need a more reliable mechanism than dumb luck to score additional goals.
Chiesa, as we saw immediately against Cremonese, moves this needle palpably, even if he’s deployed as a wingback. But Chiesa can’t conquer the rest of the matchups alone.
The one where we talk about disclaimers
There are, as ever, plenty of disclaimers, loads of fine print, to the charges levied toward Mr. Max, many of them worth listening to.
First and foremost, Max’s men won the game. It wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t something that Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted, but it was three points, and at the end of the season they don’t ask who painted what: if you’ve got enough points to win the league, you win the league. For that matter, Juventus have won seven straight games in Serie A, every single matchup since a 2-0 defeat to Milan in early October. Will that play? Yes, 21 out of 21 points will certainly play.
In addition to, you know, winning, Juventus have been winning with the eternal, infernal procession of injuries proceeding as if there were no international break during which the non-World Cup players might heal. The list of players who weren’t available is too annoyingly long to type! So, yes, Allegri certainly had a very limited selection of tools in his tool kit available to deploy, and I can’t remember a game in which that hasn’t been true.
Even acknowledging the mitigating circumstances — always mitigating! — I can’t help but feel Allegri had enough players to field them in their proper positions, or at least closer to their proper positions, and that that would help allow this squad to think a little less and play a little more.
With three tough Serie A opponents in the next three league games against Udinese, Napoli, and Atalanta, the proof will be in the pudding one way or another.