A fourth consecutive Scudetto; a Coppa Italia success to achieve a league and cup double for the first time in 20 years; a Champions League final. Massimiliano Allegri packed a lot into his first season at the Juventus helm. Still, football is fickle and just weeks into the 2015/16 season he was being questioned not only by those on the outside of the club looking in, but by those in the stands who had been in delirium not so long ago.
Juventus were 1-0 down at home to Chievo. Marco Guida had blown for half-time and whistles rang out in the stadium as the Bianconeri teetered on the verge of a remarkable third consecutive league defeat. Gianluigi Buffon went over to the most visibly unhappy section of supporters and remonstrated: “Abbiamo bisogno di voi!” (We need you!).
It was glaringly evident that this was to be a transitional year for Juventus, but no-one foresaw such a disastrous opening to the campaign. Home clashes with the likes of Udinese and Chievo are traditionally innocuous affairs; the underdogs turn up, roll over and go home with their tails firmly between their legs. This time, however, Juventus were dropping points. The machine-like quality that Antonio Conte had bestowed upon the team and which Allegri had refined was missing. They seemed vulnerable.
Last season, Allegri retained Conte’s 3-5-2 system while – over time – implementing his own 4-3-1-2, where he sacrificed one central defender in place of an additional midfielder. This highlighted Allegri’s canniness not only as a tactician, but as a man manager. Instead of throwing out the old ways in an egotistical attempt at re-philosophising the entire club, he maintained them while slowly sprinkling in something new. It required nous and sometimes courage, such as in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid in a cauldron-like Santiago Bernabeu. In that match, Allegri boldly stuck by his 4-3-1-2, eschewing the belief that Juventus needed as many numbers as possible in their defensive line to hold out. They drew 1-1 to make the final with a 3-2 aggregate victory.
Over the summer the club’s playing personnel changed irrevocably. Experience went in the form of pass-master Andrea Pirlo and scoring supremo Carlos Tevez. Then the indefatigable Arturo Vidal had his head turned by Bayern Munich, and young Kingsley Coman followed the Chilean’s lead. The departures of Pirlo, Tevez and Vidal in particular were huge and arguably underestimated at the time. All three had been regular starters and crucial components in Allegri’s successful first season. Without them the team lacked a playmaker, a ball-winner and a goal-getter. Without these three world-class specialists, tactical change was inevitable.
Juventus made up for the missing quality by adding quantity. They invested heavily in Palermo striking sensation Paulo Dybala (€32 million plus add-ons) and Porto’s flying Brazilian left-back Alex Sandro (€26 million) while adding German international midfielder Sami Khedira on a free transfer. Other arrivals, such as Neto, Hernanes, Mario Lemina, Mario Mandzukic and Simone Zaza fleshed out the squad. But the most intriguing addition was without doubt Juan Cuadrado.
The jinking Colombian winger had struggled following a £23.3 million move to Chelsea from Fiorentina in January, failing to establish himself in the Premier League. Despite being a bit-part player for the English champions, Cuadrado remained a respected force in Italian football; hence Juventus’ signing of him on a season-long loan deal was viewed as a respectable capture. However the one question his transfer to Turin immediately raised was: where would he play?
A versatile individual, Cuadrado has found himself in various different positions over the course of his career so far, including wing-back, winger and behind a lone striker. He has always thrived in a wider role however, something which – given Allegri’s aforementioned predilection for 4-3-1-2 – seemed may be a bit of an issue upon his signing for Juventus.
Indeed, finding space for Cuadrado has often seemed a lot like fitting a square peg into a round hole, only adding to Allegri’s confusion as he fumbles from one system to another in the hope of salvaging a sinking ship. Away to Manchester City in the Champions League, he utilised a rough 4-5-1 formation with Cuadrado on the right and Alvaro Morata cutting back from a second striker role to a left wing position in the defensive phase. Juventus packed the midfield and walked away with a valuable 2-1 win.
By then, congestion was the key word for Allegri as he looked to fend off a terrible start to the season by first ensuring defensive stability. The 4-5-1 formation was a manifestation of his desire to get the basics right and he used it successfully again in a 2-0 away victory over Genoa immediately following the win in Manchester. However a 1-1 home draw to newly promoted minnows Frosinone saw Allegri dispense with the system, and Cuadrado, in favour of a return to 4-3-1-2 for a tricky trip to face Napoli.
Not aided by the absence of key players such as Claudio Marchisio, Khedira and Stephan Lichtsteiner through injury, Juventus were gradually beaten down by Maurizio Sarri’s men en route to a 2-1 loss.
In the aftermath to a third league defeat in six games Allegri then implemented a 4-4-2 shape. Here, Cuadrado returned on the right wing seemingly as an old-fashioned tornante, or ‘returner’; a role that was particularly popular when calcio was in the throes of catenaccio. While nominally a 4-4-2, in reality this system could become an asymmetric 3-5-2 with full-back Alex Sandro providing width on the left and Paul Pogba tucking into a more central area to attack inwardly.
Ultimately the numbers and shapes are mere reference points, but the sheer amount of modifications made by Allegri at this early juncture in the campaign are a clear indication of something not quite working. The other curiosity is that, despite calling on a variety of shapes, he appears reluctant to bring back the 3-5-2 that has worked so well for Juventus in recent years.
Doing so would bring benefits. At times in their recent 0-0 draw with Inter Milan, Juventus’ shape closely resembled the 3-5-2, and it worked for them. Pogba was allowed to come inside and help create numerical overloads in the centre. Not only did this neuter the impact of Inter’s Stevan Jovetic, who was dropping deep to play between the lines of attack and midfield, but it also created extra potential for a qualitative overload down the right, where Cuadrado could use the increased space afforded him by Juventus’ midfield trio sucking in Inter’s flat midfield four. Meanwhile, the back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini gave Inter’s front two short shrift.
Perhaps ignoring the 3-5-2 is Allegri’s way of finally stamping his mark on the team. He did after all earn the right to experiment with an incredible first season in charge. However the 3-5-2 could get the best out of the current Juventus crop, offering the chance to form a world-class midfield trio of Pogba, Marchisio and Khedira in front of an elite defensive three. Khedira and Marchisio could even drop slightly deeper to give greater coverage to the wing-backs and afford them more freedom. Not only would this suit Cuadrado, but it would also be a positive for Alex Sandro, who has the stamina and skill to play a raiding left-sided role to perfection.
The 3-5-2 also avoids issues seen when Juventus have used other systems this season. For instance, while Cuadrado has been one of the team’s most effective players of late, he simply doesn’t fit into the 4-3-1-2. He does fit the 4-5-1, though that formation also requires a strong left-sided attacking presence, something that Morata may be able to offer temporarily but is not a genuine option in the long term. Meanwhile, the 4-4-2 offers space between the lines, as Inter and Jovetic found out last weekend.
Allegri may see utilising the 3-5-2 system to be a step backwards; a return to principles laid down by his predecessor. In this sense, it is possible his unwillingness to commit to it could be a matter of personal pride. Unfortunately, at times like these, pride comes second to results and Allegri can’t afford too many more draws or defeats. The 3-5-2 suits his Juventus squad and could even maximise the performance of certain key players like Cuadrado. In short, it makes sense.