In two moments, the scourge known as Gianluca Mancini both downed Juventus at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and typified the Old Lady’s season.
First, the center back launched a preposterous strike from outside the box; against all reasonable outcomes for such an effort from a defender, the ball managed to stay low despite the high velocity, weave impossibly through four defenders, and find the back corner of the net beyond the outstretched fingertips of Wojciech Szczęsny. Then, to add insult to injury in the final minutes of the game, Mancini goaded Moise Kean into a reaction that ended in red.
On the surface, a 1-0 against Roma with plenty of frustrations is not the kind of thing you like to see in a high-marquee game, especially when the Bianconeri have struggled in such matchups over the last couple of seasons. Nobody likes losing, Max Allegri least of all.
But, as they say, context is king.
Were it not for a miraculous strike from Mancini and the stubborn positioning of the woodwork, this could have easily been three points for the good guys. Given Juventus’ run of form in February, I don’t think a minor setback in the capital should derail the progress made in recent weeks — or the possible quiet evolution of Allegri.
Points & claims
As Allegri has repeated in the last few days, Juventus have 50 points. I don’t think anyone here, or in Turin for that matter, is “happy” with second place, but considering the persisting problems with the club and the absolutely sensational season Napoli are having I don’t think it’s something to be scoffed at; if the position held (setting aside the reduction for the time being) it would be an improvement on last season.
As far as the oft-repeated claims against Allegri, I’m not sure the evidence suggests there’s much veracity to that of which he’s accused. The most common charges levied seem to be: 1) Allegri relies prefers experienced players to inexperienced players, even if the former aren’t as good as the latter; 2) Allegri refuses to adapt or change in general; 3) Allegri fails at developing young players even when he does play them; and 4) Allegri approaches the game too defensively, especially when up a goal.
One would hope the first of those charges has fallen by the wayside. The most recent start of Enzo Barrenechea in the Derby della Mole over Leandro Paredes is probably the best example, given that the inclusion of the youngster was not predicated upon the lack of availability of the more experienced player (and a World Cup winner, to boot). I suppose you could also look at the departure of Weston McKennie as evidence suggesting Allegri’s faith in the kiddos coming up through the ranks.
The most striking thing to me about the month of February is the manner in which Juventus have gotten into the win column; there’s been a little bit of everything — a couple classic Allegri’s Juve wins, the wildest Derby that has maybe ever transpired with six goals and end-to-end action for almost all 90 minutes, and a 3-0 away romp of Nantes in the Europa League. The last of these, rather than the Wild West della Mole, was the most telling in my perspective. There was some talk amongst the fanbase that perhaps Juventus were mentally weak — see their record against the top teams in Serie A, or the Champions League for that matter. And while this isn’t to say Nantes is exactly a titan of football, going to France and winning 3-0 after the demoralizing 1-1 draw in Turin in the first leg was a hell of a statement win.
As far as the development of youngsters, I’m not sure that Allegri, for good reason, is concerned about that. His job is to win games, and, generally, he does a pretty good job at it. This might be a heavily contested point, but from my point of view the onus of a player’s groth is on the player, and I think we’ve seen some of the younger players take their developments into their own hands.
There have certainly been moments when, up just a single goal, Juventus seem retract back into a defensive tortoise shell, but I’m less convinced that that’s Allegri’s explicit instructions; it could be the fairly natural consequence of the opposition, any opposition, wanting to mount a response; it could be a natural consequence of Juve’s own players relaxing for a period of time with the lead secured.
This is going to be a shocking statement to some, but we’re not all going to agree on what we think of Mad Max. I feel like he probably smirks at that truth. But Max, and this is one of the main points here, doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The troubles that have hobbled this squad for the last several campaigns have not gone away, although sometimes it seems as if folks pretend they have. The midfield remains unable to wield meaningful control against almost any opposition, whether it’s a giant like PSG or a mid-table Italian side like Torino. Out of necessity Juventus are regularly deploying a formation with three center backs, and the preferred starting lineup is composed of two fullbacks; the reserves consist of Leonardo Bonucci, injured most of the season and palpably in the twilight of his career when he actually makes the pitch, as well as Daniele Rugani, who has not done anything to merit regular appearances.
Offensively speaking, we know there are weapons like Angel Di Maria, Federico Chiesa, and Dušan Vlahović, but without the services of a quality midfield it has been difficult to get that artillery firing at full potential; even so, Allegri’s Juve are no slouch with 40 goals scored and 20 goals conceded.
Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, such is the frequency of the repetition of the above refrain, but is this context not the case? Are these things not true about Juventus right now? And, if so, should not all this heavily color how we assess Allegri’s current efforts?
All these issues remain, yet this year the players have been saddled with one absurd albatross: the 15-point deduction, which heaps pressure upon the players in every game of every competition. Between the usual suspects (squad construction, injuries) and this aberration of an obstacle, after the reason spell of success in February I’m frankly a little shocked there isn’t more galvanized support for Allegri.
I want to make one thing very clear: I am not running around Idaho with an Allegri jersey waving pom-poms in the air declaring him to be the world’s best manager. I’m not even saying there’s no chance things could get better if Juventus somehow were able to clairvoyantly discern who the right manager would be for this severely incongruous squad, but if I were operating a casino I’d instruct the house to give much greater odds on things staying the same or getting worse, potentially much worse, if the club sacked Allegri and hired someone else.
Don’t forget: without this points reduction, this is a squad in the top four despite the injuries and preexisting faults. In my estimation, that’s an impressive feat. I don’t have a particularly prescriptive answer about what Juventus should or should not do about Allegri or the manager position other than the thing not many people really want to hear: be patient, let’s see what happens.