There is something relentless about Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus team that evokes surprise that anyone ever questioned his appointment. On further consideration, anyone is generous; perhaps everyone would be a closer approximation of the consensus at that time.
As his team fought to a hard-earned 2-1 extra time victory over Lazio on Wednesday night, winning the Bianconeri’s tenth Coppa Italia, it’s easy to forget the doubts that so many were racked with upon Allegri’s arrival as coach. Acceptance comes post-haste when something becomes so obvious so quickly, though, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that Allegri and Juventus are on to something special.
With a double sealed and a shot at the treble coming soon in the form of a Champions League final with Barcelona, the tears of mourning Juventus fans shed in Antonio Conte’s departure are all but dried. Astonishingly, within the year, the club is already moving on and Allegri; that wiry, Mr. Bean-like character with the goofy smile, has led them adeptly through the grieving process.
In praise of one, another can be disregarded, but it’s not so easy to ignore Stefano Pioli, who deserves specific praise for the manner in which he set up his Lazio team for a match that, going on recent history, they were not expected to win.
The last time Lazio met Juventus they did so on the back of a ten-game undefeated run, in which they collected nine wins. In the space of a few months the club ascended to new territory, becoming genuine contenders for a Champions League place next season. Nonetheless, they were mere flies around an elephant given the manner in which they were swatted aside at Juventus Stadium in April.
That evening, Juventus went 2-0 up within half an hour and rarely experienced trouble in defending that lead. Lazio were firmly put back in their place, but the experience didn’t diminish Pioli’s fortitude. By the time of the Coppa Italia final he had worked on a plan that would be more effective.
In the build up, rumour had spread that Lazio would line up in a 3-4-2-1 system. The notion was a strange one. Lazio tend to operate within the framework of a 4-5-1 structure, with the midfield five divided in varying forms. Generally, the expectation for the Coppa final was that Pioli would choose a 4-1-4-1 of sorts, with one defensive midfielder, two slightly more offensive central midfielders and two wingers. Instead, Pioli took a leaf out of Brendan Rodgers’ book.
The 3-4-2-1 is what Liverpool used as their form took an upturn during the middle portion of this Premier League season, indeed it was the primary reason for that change in form, but the likelihood is that Pioli’s use of it was a one-off.
Using this system meant that Lazio almost lined up man for man against Juventus’ midfield. Dusan Basta and Senad Lulic met with Juve’s wing-backs; Patrice Evra and Stephan Lichtsteiner respectively, while Danilo Cataldi and Marco Parolo were contiguous to Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba. The formations were not asymmetric, however. While Allegri, as ever, utilised a regista in Andrea Pirlo, Pioli chose to play with two trequartistas in Felipe Anderson and Antonio Candreva.
Once the two sides had exchanged early goals from set pieces; Stefan Radu headed Lazio into the lead after four minutes before Giorgio Chiellini volleyed home an equaliser six minutes later, certain patterns began to develop as a result of Pioli’s tactics. One was that Juventus were continuously confined to their own half, with few options for their defensive trio to pass out from the back.
Anderson and Candreva essentially pulled back the Juventus midfield, forcing the likes of Pogba and Vidal to drop slightly deeper. Added to that, Juve’s lack of an attacking midfielder to knit their midfield and attack together was detrimental to their ability to manage possession as they normally do. Their attacking play was generally disjointed as Lazio’s offensive lineup led to a continuous series of turnovers as the match started at an intense tempo.
It was a brave choice of formation by Pioli, one that paid off by allowing his team to compete with Juventus on even terms, something they hadn’t done in their other two meetings this season. If anything, it was Lazio that had the better of the early going, with Cataldi hitting a tame shot after a driving Anderson-led counterattack and a warning shot from Parolo that flashed just wide following a giveaway by Pogba.
Due to the lack of passing options, Chiellini decided to raid forward from his left-sided central defensive position in order to try and start attacks. For a brief moment, Pirlo ventured further up the pitch, temporarily switching roles with Pogba in an attempt to gain control of the match. Ultimately, these small adaptations were signs of Juventus’ unease. Pioli and his 3-4-2-1 system forced them out of their comfort zone.
Although their performance was hardly stellar, it must be said that at no point were Juventus overawed by Lazio’s surprising choice of formation. They responded with zeal to going behind and never looked like being overrun by a high pressing Lazio side.
While Leonardo Bonucci looked uncharacteristically flustered, Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli were defensive pillars alongside him. In front of them Pirlo began to get more time on the ball as the match wore on and Lazio tired. The wing-backs, Lichtsteiner and Evra, once again showcased their famed endurance, working the flanks in a give-and-take battle with their opposites in light blue. Up front, Carlos Tevez was full of moxy and willingness to provide outlets for his at-times frustrated teammates.
The cohesion with which Juventus often dismantle their domestic inferiors was not in evidence but once again they displayed immense resilience in their stout refusal to abate in the face of a true test.
The second half provided no goals and less drama than the first as the match became a tight, congested affair with an air of nervousness infiltrating the Stadio Olimpico as time passed. With extra time approaching neither team wanted to lose, and a note of caution infested each passing move.
With six minutes left in normal time Juventus brought on Alessandro Matri for the disappointing Fernando Llorente. Matri had a goal disallowed for a tight offside call but, eventually, he would prove a match-winner.
Seven minutes into extra time, Pirlo floated a delicate ball into the Lazio penalty area. Tevez brought it down but the ball broke to Matri, who steered home the winning goal. The strike wasn’t the tidiest or most aesthetic of goals, but that befits the scorer, who has become a silently important squad member since his January arrival on loan from AC Milan.
Matri’s finish came just three minutes after Lazio’s Serbian striker Filip Djordjevic hit the woodwork twice with one shot. His beautifully placed, curling strike from outside the box rebounded off of both posts, the ball set against going in. Djordjevic had begun wheeling away in delight before a miserable realisation came over him. Instead of caressing the net the ball confounded him, bouncing out to safety to be cleared.
For such fine margins to come between Lazio, Juventus and the Coppa felt something like fate. It wouldn’t be the first time such a topic has come up in conversation of Juventus’ season.
“Football is made of incidents”, said Allegri post-match. This is certainly true in Juventus’ case; their entire campaign has been made up of them. A series of unique occurrences has put them in this unique position, on the verge of a treble.
In his first ever Coppa Italia final appearance, Pirlo played vital aerial balls for both of Juventus’ goals. The Coppa final itself had to be re-arranged after the Italian Football Federation originally scheduled it for the day after the Champions League final which, against expectations, Juventus also reached. They did so by defeating Real Madrid on aggregate thanks to an away goal scored by Alvaro Morata; a Real Madrid youth product.
In the final of Europe’s most prestigious club competition Chiellini and Evra will be up against a common enemy in Luis Suarez who, in the past, bit and racially abused them respectively. To cap it all off, the final will take place at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, scene of Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph, of which Gianluigi Buffon, Barzagli and Pirlo were all a part.
Allegri’s reputation as a tactician has, deservedly, come a long way in the last ten months or so. He may not be the coach Juventini wanted initially but, as each unfolding incident makes more apparent, he is the one they were destined to have.