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Give Max Allegri the credit he’s due

The much-beleaguered coach has put Juventus in a great position 14 games into the Serie A campaign.

AC Monza v Juventus - Serie A TIM Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

As Juventus flirt with the top of the table and enjoy a healthy cushion over fifth place, Max Allegri must be enjoying his dessert a little more these days knowing that, for the time being at least, he has answered every doubter, every critic, every skeptical fan in the simplest manner possible: by winning.

Despite calls to change his approach, to change his formation, and to change his attitude, Allegri has succeeded by stubbornly refusing to change, and that consistency has been the key to this season’s turnaround.

These results, dismaying as they apparently still are to some, are not a flash in the pan. Through 14 matches, the Old Lady is playing incredibly tough defense, sits comfortably in a Champions League position, and, more than any of that, feels like a different squad this year. Tougher, meaner, more lethal. If you didn’t note something palpably different in the team celebration of Federico Gatti’s goal against Monza, you must be blind. Last year, fino alla fine rang a little hollow; this year, it’s lacing the veins.

Sure, there are plenty of qualifying statements to make: Juventus only have Italy to play, unlike her top rivals; even or especially after Monza, the question remains of how sustainable these last-minute victories are; and a heck of a lot can still go wrong in the last two-thirds of the season. One could equally make qualifying statements the other way, though: the injury plague continues, the off-field issues continue, and Juventus are without two players — Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli — who were primed to play important roles in the worst unit on the team; instead, they’re virtually incommunicado.

We must, though, face the facts: Allegri is doing an incredible job with this team, and I don’t think there’s a single Juventus fan who would’ve believed the position on the table this team would’ve achieved given the issues and injuries we’ve seen thus far.

Change is for the weak: the venerable 3-5-2

Despite Juventus climbing to the top of the table and playing consistent football, I think every week someone calls for a change of formation, and every week Juventus line up again in a 3-5-2. The bottom line is that this formation is the best to mask the deficiencies in the midfield, because it turns players like Filip Kostic and Andrea Cambiaso and Weston McKennie into dual defenders/midfielders; if you can’t compete with quality in the midfield — and Juventus can’t — then compete with quantity.

Yes, the 3-5-2 puts some players out of position (e.g. Federico Chiesa). Yes, the 3-5-2 means some players who we’d like to see more almost never play (Samuel Iling-Junior). But the consistency has got to be a breath of fresh air for the players, despite the awkward fit. In the past we’ve seen Allegri bounce between a 4-4-2, a 3-5-2, a 4-2-3-1 back in the day, and many other little wrinkles, but now I, you, the opponent, and the squad know how the team is going to line up.

Allegri’s 3-5-2 at the moment reminds me of Winston Churchill’s comment about democracy: it’s the worst formation there is except for all those other formations.

Riding the shoulders of a strong Brazilian

Here’s another tribute to the consistency of formation and defensive personnel: the defense a year ago was fairly strong, in fact the third-best in the league behind Napoli and Lazio. This year, it’s clearly Juventus and Inter with the strongest two defenses in the league, and it’s not even close.

Gatti has leveled up, Daniele Rugani has answered the call and then some — but more than anything, this is a defense built upon the foundation of Bremer’s very strong shoulders. The Brazilian is everywhere doing everything, an absolute paragon of center backs right now. He ought not just to be discussed as the best center back in Italy, but one of the best in the world. I understand the consternation surrounding all the 1-0 victories and living on knife’s edge, but with Bremer you’re going to end up on the right side of the blade more often than not.

It’s not just the center backs, though. The team has performed better defensively, from the goalposts to the strikers; this is partly why the Monza goal was so shocking: it was one of the very few instances where the players simply lacked focus and intensity at a critical moment. That was all too frequent a year ago.

The locker room

I think perhaps Allegri’s most underrated quality is his ability to hold the locker room. I am certain that last year’s Juventus, coached by a weaker manager, would’ve seen at least one semi-open player mutiny, but that has not been the case under Allegri’s return. It absolutely helps to have a leader like Danilo on the squad, but, still, Allegri is showing he can keep his squad unified and focused even without the club legends who had been around in the twilight years of their career during Max’s first tenure.

Winning, of course, covers many sins, but looking back to a year ago and seeing the feat of holding the locker room together is impressive, and it’s paying dividends for this campaign.

Like Tom Petty said, love is a long road, and so is the Serie A campaign. Out of the next eight league games, only two — next week against Napoli and December 30 against Roma — are against top-five opponents. The Bianconeri face Genoa, Frosinone, Salernitana, Sassuolo, Lecce, and Empolio. That’s six teams in the bottom half of the table: a golden opportunity to extend the grip on a Champions League spot and give the team confidence to strive for even more.

This run started with a corto muso victory against Monza, but if Allegri wants to keep smiling he needs to drive up the lethality over the next two months.