Why signing Aleksandr Golovin makes sense for Juventus

Will the versatile Russian star make the switch to Turin?

Aleksandr Golovin teared on to the world stage with a masterful display in Russia’s crushing FIFA World Cup win over Saudi Arabia. The handful of assists and the delightful free kick showed his growing collection of admirers exactly what he’s about, but this wouldn’t have come as a surprise to many clubs who have been tracking him, including Dortmund, Arsenal and Juventus.

Juve have been monitoring Golovin for some time and reportedly have an agreement in place to sign the Russian after the World Cup. Recently, CEO, Giuseppe Marotta teasingly suggested signing Golovin is “more than just a possibility”, it’s fair to say when Marotta speaks in such certain terms things usually happen.

The signing of Golovin would be a dream scenario for both player, country and club. From a purely commercial point of view he will help expand the Juve (and by extension, Italian) brand in Russia, which on population alone is a huge financial triumph for Juve. High-profile Russian players don’t often play in Italy and to have one of the best talents of the current Russian generation would mean a massive commercial windfall for Juve and generate Russian interest in Golovin’s career in Turin.

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If he were to come to Juve, it is apparent one or two players would have to make way, as is Juve’s style with transfers. Marko Pjaca will apparently be used as bait to grease the wheels for a deal with Lazio for Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Given Pjaca’s lack of time at Juve, which is certainly no fault of his own given the dreadful injury he sustained on international duty in 2017, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him leave, whether he goes to Rome or elsewhere is debatable. Mario Mandzukic is also likely to be to be leaving after the World Cup and Max Allegri has said he would be moving into a central striking role even if he does stay. Those two, plus Stefano Sturaro, would probably be in line for the Juve exit door should Golovin’s move come to fruition.

The reported arrival of Anthony Martial from Manchester United would immediately plug the left sided role and this would negate the need for Golovin to play in there, however we saw Golovin take up a few positions against Saudi Arabia in a free attacking midfield role, the starting positions he takes for each of his roles in Russia’s goals shows this perfectly; his first assist came courtesy of a lovely floated left wing cross to the far post, the second Russian goal was all down to Golovin’s magnificent speed and awareness; starting in a right sided attacking midfield position he chased down a through ball and neatly squared for Roman Zobin to assist Denis Cheryshev’s sumptuous first goal. His second assist again came from a floated cross, this time on the right hand side, for brick-shithouse target man, Artem Dzyuba, to head home. His own contribution to the score line was a last-minute free kick; a perfect placed shot to the goalkeeper’s left. His long shots and dead ball abilities are another string to Golovin’s bow as Arsenal fans will know from the UEFA Europa League encounter earlier this year. All being said, this was almost perfect game from Golovin, limited opposition and yellow card notwithstanding, and it will have piqued the interest of many of Europe’s top clubs.

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On the pitch, Juve would gain a very versatile midfielder, blessed with great technical ability and determination. Juve have a need at both the attacking left and central midfield and Golovin can play both very well. Not only is Golovin an adept attacking player, he is also capable of playing a deeper role in central midfield, this is something we have seen during CSKA Moscow’s run to the UEFA Europa League Quarter Final last season. He is a robust tackler, has great balance and has enormous levels of stamina. Although small in stature, he is a physical midfielder and coupled with his passing abilities (80% pass accuracy during the last Russian Premier League season) he would fit into Juve’s midfield with great ease. In fact it is difficult to imagine a scenario where Golovin wouldn’t flourish, especially with the likes of Pjanic, Khedira and Matuidi around him, and he would certainly fill the need for someone to provide cover for Pjanic on a more permanent basis. One only has to look at the Champions League Quarter Final first leg against Real Madrid to see how badly Pjanic was missed, imagine the impact Golovin would have made in that game, especially in the period between Real Madrid’s first goal and half time where Juve were the better team.

Golovin would give Allegri so many tactical options; he could switch to a two-man attack of Mandzukic and Higuain (provided both stay in Turin), with Golovin playing in the Pjanic/Dybala role. He can play in an anchor or slightly less defensive midfield role to allow Pjanic and company further room to attack, with the possibility of switching to a 4-1-2-2-1 formation. Golovin can also play as part of the trusted 3-man central midfield, possibly on the left of the three, to allow him to attack from the left if Allegri persists in playing the lop-sided formation with Costa the only true wide player. Juve’s midfield may be somewhat lacking at the minute but Rodigo Bentancur’s progression, Emre Can’s probable arrival, and hopefully Golovin joining Can in giving the cheesy thumbs up photo during his medical, it certainly gives the Bianconeri plenty of hope for the future.

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Given the way in which Golovin ran the game for Russia last week he is now likely to command an even bigger transfer deal to bring him to Italy, even so, it should be well within Juve’s reach, and if they wanted to, without the need to sell anyone first. However, I would expect a midfielder, certainly Sturaro and possibly one other, or one of the strikers to make way to facilitate Golovin’s move.

All in all, Golovin is a player of immense versatility and his arrival would certainly fill a lot of gaps in the starting line-up, not only is he young and dynamic, he also has a creative spark about him which could light up the Juve midfield for years to come. Credit must go to Juve’s scouting team for highlighting Golovin before the majority of their European rivals, the task for Juve now is to get the deal over the line as soon as possible.

The Rise of the Foot Soldier…

Giving some love to the under appreciated at Juve.

The Serie A season ends next week and a seventh successive title is heading to Turin, courtesy of a consistent and determined title defence. Huge credit must go to Max Allegri, his coaching staff and the squad for keeping Juve on the right path over the nine-month slugfest. Many can argue the lack of competition in Serie A has meant Juve simply have to turn up and they’ll be champions, however this has been the closest title race since 2002 and those arguments about a lack of competition are often knee jerk, uneducated and myopic. Napoli deserve credit for their determination and keeping the race close, despite not being close to Juve in terms of squad depth or finance. We can criticise Maurizio Sarri, his rotational policy and lack of transfer activity when it was needed most, but that aside, they have made the final couple of months of the season compelling viewing. Outside of the top two, the increase in quality at Milan, Inter, Lazio and Roma (despite the Milanese inconsistent seasons) means there are a handful of genuine challengers for the crown next year. Whether the challengers go all out for a Napoli-style Serie A title assault at the expense of the other competitions they’re in, remains to be seen.

For Juve, European success next season is a must along with keeping hold of their better players during the summer. Their star players have in the main performed to a high standard, injuries, suspensions and a dip in the quality of their performances notwithstanding, and a lot of the glory will rightly be showered upon them. But what about the fringe players? The ones usually on the edges of the photo as the team celebrate with a trophy. The unsung heroes? The players asked to play out of position in an emergency? Without them Juve could never have competed with Napoli and the rest for the whole season. It is that squad depth which sets Juve apart from the chasing pack.

Allegri has shown he is adept at squad management and rotation by being able to adjust the formation and personnel to suit the situation; a tactical chameleon, if you will. Looking at those fringe players in more detail one has to decide at which point they become fully fledged members on the first team. If we use a 20 game start limit to separate them we’re left with a very interesting pool of reserves who can admirably fill in for their colleagues. Players with 20 or less starts are;

Gigi Buffon

Wojciech Szczesny

Kwadwo Asamoah

Mattia De Sciglio

Andrea Barzagli

Daniele Rugani

Benedikt Howedes

Mehdi Benatia

Rodrigo Bentancur

Claudio Marchisio

Stefano Sturaro

Douglas Costa

Juan Cuadrado

Federico Bernardeschi

 

Of those players Buffon, Benatia, Rugani and Costa stand out as regular first team players and they are on the cusp of that 20 start limit. Many of the players have been hampered by injury; Howedes is the name which immediately springs to mind, having made just three starts in his season-long loan from Schalke, however De Sciglio, Cuadrado, Bernardeschi and Marchisio have missed significant time this season. The other point which is easily noticeable is the sheer quality of those players, it’s a difficult case to argue this side wouldn’t challenge for the title on its own and the majority would easily command a place in starting line ups across Serie A. Again, massive credit should be given to Allegri and his staff, not to mention CEO, Giuseppe Marotta, and the board, for moulding such a talented squad which is a healthy blend of youth and experience.

The challenge for the club going into next season and the season after is keeping that level of quality in depth as high as it is now. Looking at the list it is fair to say Buffon, Barzagli and Howedes will not be playing in Turin, or in the case of the first two, at all, within the next couple of years.

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Szczesny has been a very impressive, almost under the radar signing. Either side of the winter break he deputised well for the injured Buffon and should be confident of making the sacred number one jersey his own next season.

Mattia Caldara’s return from a loan with Atalanta will mean Rugani is still likely to be the squad player in central defence, however Rugani may well feel he needs a move away to fulfil his potential and Allegri’s puzzling lack of faith in him may well make up his mind. Even if Rugani does stay in Turin Barzagli’s age may open up the possibility of another central defender joining in the summer. Given the factors that are seemingly pointing towards an exit fairly soon, Rugani has still had a decent season, but it has only been a decent season, nothing special, and given he should have stepped up in Bonucci’s absence his season could be viewed as a disappointment. Many fans are prepared to die on the ‘young Italian player’ hill and this blinds some people’s opinion of him.

Medhi Benatia, as we will see with Costa, has been in imperious form since the winter break, quite the opposite of the clumsy and timid player he had become over the previous few months. His man of the match performance in last week’s Coppa Italia Final drubbing of Milan capped off a superb six months for him.

Stephan Lichtsteiner is also another player on who is a borderline first team regular and is gracefully bowing out of action in Turin after seven years of service to the Bianconeri, he has given the best years of his career to Juve and his efforts are gratefully appreciated. Along with Kwadwo Asamoah, he’s steadily performed when asked to. He was part of the game changing tactical move by Allegri in the away win at Tottenham Hotspur and he also provided two assists for Mandzukic to spark Juve’s revival in Madrid.

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De Sciglio has divided opinion between Juve fans and seems to still be under the ‘solid but unspectacular’ cloud he has been under since his Milan days. He isn’t a Dani Alves in terms of attacking threat but he is certainly very reliable and can comfortably claim to have had a good first season in Turin, despite a raft of injuries. It will be interesting to see how often Allegri uses Cuadrado at right back next season given it’s not his natural position.

Lichtsteiner’s departure and Asamoah’s impending move to Inter could mean be a case of re-building in both full back areas. There are already plans to do just that as Leonardo Spinazzola returns from loan and there is a high possibility of adding Manchester United full back, Matteo Darmian, in the mercato.

Of the trio of central midfielders (Marchisio, Sturaro and Bentancur) only Bentancur can claim to have had a good season and he of those is the only one who can realistically expect to be still in Turin for more than a couple of seasons. All three have made fleeting appearances, the reasons behind their average squad status are debatable, although Bentancur’s age and experience, Sturaro’s ability and Marchisio’s fitness and being favoured over Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi, would all be valid reasons.

Bentancur has shown some ability and maturity this season, particularly against Real Madrid in the absence of Miralem Pjanic. Sturaro and to a lesser extent, Marchisio, are no longer of the ability and standard required to play for Juve. I’m not as down on Sturaro as most of my fellow Juventini, but he is limited at the highest level. Marchisio suffers from the same problem as Rugani whereby Juve fans are besotted with a player, no matter his ability, who has been at the club since his teens. While I’m not completely heartless it is obvious he is nowhere near the form of a few years ago. Sturaro would be on most people’s list to leave in the summer and although Marchisio can still perform in the Juve midfield, a move away for either wouldn’t be a complete surprise, especially as the arrival of Emre Can from Liverpool could be imminent.

At the beginning of the season it was expected that either Bernardeschi or Costa would oust Cuadrado from the right wing. Both haven’t started as much as they would’ve liked and while it is frustrating for Juve fans both have been carefully integrated into the starting line-up. The fruits of Allegri’s labour have produced some match winning displays from Costa, he’s arguably been Juve’s best player over the second half of the season and it’s fair to say Juve’s eventual canter to the title would not have happened had Costa not been on form.

Injury has stifled Bernardeschi’s progress somewhat but he is young enough to be able to break into the first 11 on a regular basis next season. His brief first team involvement has shown him to be a very capable player and like Lichtsteiner has made a big impact in the games he’s started. He scored a crucial goal against Olympiakos to secure Juve’s passage into the Champions League Knockout Round and also scored on his first return to his former home in Florence.

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Cuadrado’s early season performances were typical of the player; frustrating and inconsistent, and he still continues to provide both joy and despair in equal measures. Like Costa, he has provided some vital goals for Juve; the goal in the 3-1 home victory over Milan and the deflected goal against Inter spring to mind. Although he can be extremely inconsistent his presence in the Juve squad should never be underestimated.

Juve will be raising the Serie A trophy aloft on 20 May after the home game with Hellas Verona and while the team will take the plaudits, they wouldn’t have won seven consecutive Scudetti without the help of the squad. So when you see Asamoah’s face in amongst the players with the trophy or De Sciglio taking selfies with his family, remember they’re the foot soldiers, players just out of the limelight. They are often underappreciated and rarely thanked, but they are as much a part of the title win as Higuain’s and Chiellini’s and fully deserve to wear their winners medal with pride at the season’s end.

 

Quantity over Quality – Juventus heading for more trophies but at what cost?

A familiar story is building for Juve but are they sacrificing entertainment along the way?

Last Wednesday’s win away to Tottenham Hotspur saw Juventus progress to another Champions League Quarter Final, their third in four seasons. Their form in Serie A since November has been imperious and they’re matching Napoli stride for stride in the Scudetto race. They have also made their fourth Coppa Italia Final in a row where they’ll face Milan. Given they’re still fighting for trophies on three fronts the actual performances have been less than convincing and some wins have been downright fortunate at times. Any regular viewer of Juve’s games will be very aware of their inability to control games, move out of second gear and kill teams off at the earliest opportunity. Welcome to Juventus 2018, ladies and gentlemen.

Less than inspiring performances and dull 1-0 wins have been the rule rather than the exception since the start of the season, the opening Champions League game group game was away to Barcelona, a team they comprehensively knocked out in last year’s Quarter Final. After a regulation start to the season Juve suffered a 3-0 defeat in Spain. The defeat can be attributed to a lack of confidence when the first goal was conceded, but it was plain to see they didn’t play anywhere near their potential. Defeat to Barca meant the other games then turned into must not lose scenarios and not losing five games in a difficult group certainly wasn’t an easy task as Juve continued to grind out undeserved wins with average performances. The return fixture against Barcelona came a game after a nightmare inducing defeat, away to Sampdoria, in which Juve were outplayed. The Barca game followed the same pattern as the first where the team seemed almost too scared to attack. Max Allegri had set up his team not to lose, given the defeat earlier in the season this was understandable, however this was the penultimate group game and a win would have secured qualification. This made the lack of ambition by not pressing for the winning goal unbelievably frustrating and the outcry from fans was justified as the team had the perfect chance to progress. Qualification was secured with a win away against Olympiakos in the final game and it felt as if this was Allegri’s plan from the start; to use the maximum number of games to spread out the effort in the group stage. Juve were through but far from convincing.

The aggregate victory over Spurs is still fresh in the memory and for long periods of the tie Juve were outplayed, no one can argue with that. Whether this was by design or not Allegri must take the blame for lining up with a two man midfield for the home leg, especially when one of those midfielders was the woefully poor, Sami Khedira. He must also take some blame for the defensive style which was incorporated after Juve raced into a 2-0 lead, it can be said the players may have played this tactic too well and Spurs’ domination snowballed from there. Indeed such was the shock on both sides when Juve went two up that had they gone for more goals (and they were unlucky not to add to their total in fairness) the tie would’ve been over before the second leg in London. As it was, Spurs came away feeling as though they had the advantage after their dominance turned into goals and Juve had been made to look very ordinary in front of a worldwide audience.

The second leg had a very similar feel to it although Juve were able to deploy Blaise Matuidi and Paulo Dybala after they didn’t feature in the first leg due to injury. Spurs though were the better team again and had they won the tie not many would’ve complained as Juve allowed themselves to be dominated for the majority of the game. This poses its own questions; was the first leg in the players’ minds? were they just desperate not to concede? or were they suffering from an inferiority complex? Whatever the reasons, the first hour of the second leg saw Juve look a shadow of the side who had reached two of the last three Champions League Finals. Allegri though must be credited for his substitutions and Juve didn’t look back after the side appeared more balanced in the second half. Given the general atmosphere surrounding the win it can be argued Allegri has dodged a bullet with this result, he will ultimately be judged on the team’s Champions League performances and they’ll will need to play much better in the Quarter Final or they could be on the end of an embarrassing exit.

The Spurs tie has really highlighted the fact Juve have been playing beneath their ability for a long while. Looking back, one can barely remember the last time they dominated a team and played to the best of their ability. Even those Juve fans with memories akin to an elephant would only be able to remember two or three games this season, the exceptions being Milan, away, and home games against Torino and Sassuolo. Those games apart it is be nearly a whole season since Juve dismantled both Barca and Monaco in successive rounds of the Champions League, On those occasions Juve showed what they’re capable of when the confidence is sky high. Unfortunately it hasn’t happened often enough for a team of their calibre.

More recently in Serie A Juve have won 13 of 14 games and have yet to concede a goal in 2018. While these fantastic statistics show the spirit and determination of the current squad the majority of the performances have been similar to those in the Champions League. To go into each game in detail would induce sleep in most people, suffice to say the away win against Lazio a fortnight ago captured Juve’s season perfectly; borderline dreadful performance where one or two players are hardly worthy of being paid for turning up and ultimately rescued by a moment of brilliance from one of their stars to secure victory. This has become normal viewing for Juventini this season, as these creativity deficiencies are more apparent when they’re continuously grinding out poor performances.

Allegri’s preferred choice to partner Miralem Pjanic is Sami Khedira, again I am in no position to question his decisions but his insistence of choosing a player well past his best over Claudio Marchisio cannot be conducive to good team performances. It is plain to see Marchisio isn’t, and probably never will be, at his pre-injury form, however it is fairly obvious he is still a more competent player than Khedira. His introduction to the starting line up against Udinese highlighted his abilities as Juve’s general shape and midfield coherence was much improved from that of the last month or two. Other than the Marchisio/Khedira question the squad is quite balanced and deep though it is unfortunate that injuries have decimated the attacking players recently. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi are both out indefinitely, Mario Mandzukic has also missed significant time too. This has meant a narrow formation has been deployed recently and again Allegri’s options have been limited in terms of formation and style.

We can dispute player selection and tactics all day but one valid question remains, one which isn’t mentioned too often while Juve are winning; given the repeated dour performances and narrow wins we have to ask is this the limit with Allegri? Should we expect his Juve teams to perform like this season after season? He is well known to be a fan of squad rotation and building his team for a big trophy push after Christmas. Given recent viewing it can be said this still hasn’t happened as we haven’t seen Juve start to dominate teams in a way which is expected of them. But on the other hand, it most definitely has started as they’re still fighting for three trophies in mid-March. Let’s remember Juve won the domestic double and made a Champions League Final last season by playing this way; In second gear most of the season and producing the odd emphatic win to appease supporters for a few weeks?

If this is the hallmark of Allegri’s playing style and season management then Juve fans should accept it and support his methods. He will always use two legs of a cup tie to win rather than one. He will use the whole 90 minutes to win a game rather than 60. He will look ahead and rotate his squad to give the team a better chance of success. His methods may be disagreeable to some but remember he has delivered the title every year, two Coppa Italia wins and two Champions League Finals since his arrival in 2014.

Those fans hoping Allegri will be sacked should be careful what they wish for. Juve have a very competent, trusted manager and those wanting his resignation should ask themselves who would replace him? If he changed his style overnight and risked more by turning Juve into a gung-ho, attacking unit it might result in a few more comprehensive victories but would surely compromise their rock solid defence and would also reduce the opportunity to rotate the squad and prevent fatigue and injury. Juve would do well to stick with Allegri rather than venture into the land of console gaming in search of entertainment and goals.

The uproar over a lack of entertainment could all be ridiculed as hyperbole, a simple trophy-spoiled fan reaction to below-par performances. However as Juve are looking to rub shoulders with Real Madrid and company on regular basis their lack of consistent, high quality performances is a cause for concern and right now it appears the team hasn’t built on last year’s success of reaching the Champions League Final. Obviously success in its definite form would mean only returning from Kiev with the trophy would be considered to be success. In more realistic terms success can be defined as improved performances and gliding past teams with minimum effort, this at least would’ve been an improvement on last year. So have Juve been a success this year? That is the big question. Are they sacrificing quality over quantity? The recent Netflix series has shown, if any proof were needed, that Juve is obsessed with winning the Champions League. However given current performances it’s going to be a while before the trophy is in the Bianconeri cabinet again. Although it just may be the moribund style is part of Allegri’s plan to make Juve into a squad of grizzled, seasoned veterans who will eventually be capable of making the trophy their own.

Vive la revoluce! – Zdeněk Zeman, Foggia and the Serie A tactical rebellion.

“If you score 90 goals then it shouldn’t really worry you how many are conceded.”

Zdeněk Zeman

 

Italy’s Serie A in the early 1990’s was dominated by defences, a time of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi and Jurgen Kohler. 1991/92 and 1992/93 champions, Milan, scored 74 and 65 goals during the 34 game campaign, their third successive title win in 1993/94 produced an astonishingly low 36 goals, however they only conceded 15 that year as defences tightened their grip on the best league in the world.

Meanwhile, in Apulia, southern Italy, something was starting which would forever change the way modern managers thought about attacking football. Foggia, were starting their rise up into Serie A and were about to threaten the established order at the top of the league as they became one of the 1990s cult teams. Their stay in the top division would only last four seasons but their aggressive attacking style earned them and in particular, their manager, Zdeněk Zeman, many admirers. Lead by the tactical maverick they finished as Serie B champions by six points in 1991/92 and went on to finish ninth, twice, 12th and 16th in Serie A.

Czech-born, Zeman, came from a sporting background, including volleyball and handball, although he never played football and is the nephew of Cestmir Vycpalek, a coach who lead Juventus to two championships in 1971/72 and 1972/73. In 1975 Zeman completed a degree in Sports Science; something which would heavily influence his future training methods and began coaching with the Palermo youth team. He joined Foggia in 1989.

Heralded as an innovator during his time at Foggia, his tactics are straight from a game of Football Manager and have their origins in the Dutch-born ‘total football’. He used a 4-3-3 formation which allowed the full backs and wingers to join the central striker to form a swarm of attacking players and resulted, more often than not, in goals. On the flip side his teams always played a very high defensive line, pressed the opposition midfield and as a result of the attacking full backs being caught out of position the team was very susceptible to the counter attack. In their Serie B championship season they conceded the most of the top six teams and the following season in Serie A, Foggia conceded the second most goals but also scored the second most too, this would become a very familiar statistic for Zeman’s teams. This tactical style of high pressing and overlapping full backs is widespread today however in the ultra-conservative Serie A in the early nineties it was a radical approach, much like ‘total football’ and ‘catenaccio’ before it.

Zeman’s training regimes were notoriously tough and centred around fitness and physical condition as he demanded his players fully buy in to his tactical revolution. Upon being questioned about the rigidity of his training methods he once replied sternly “no one has ever died from them.”

He never found major success with Foggia, their biggest achievements were just missing out on a UEFA Cup place by three, five and seven points in successive seasons as they continuously punched above their weight. His cavalier attacking approach was ultimately his downfall though as his defence was painfully exposed on occasions. During their first season in Serie A, Foggia drew 4-4, 3-3 (twice) and were defeated 5-2 and 8-2. The 8-2 defeat was after leading at half time, 2-1, away to eventual champions, Milan.

Zeman’s time at Foggia had reached a peak after just four seasons and although they continued to excite crowds across Italy the squad was in decline. The previously unknown players were now stars of the Italian game and were snapped up by bigger clubs. Giuseppe Signori, Francesco Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi all moved elsewhere in 1992. Future famous faces of European football such as Dan Petrescu, Igor Shalimov, Jose Antonio Chamot and Luigi Di Biagio all came and went during Zemen’s reign and as a result the team floundered and he left the club for Lazio in 1994. Foggia were relegated at the end of the 1994/95 season and have never returned to the top division since.

Lazio were undoubtedly a step up in his career and he is credited with allowing a young Alessandro Nesta to flourish in the first team as his elegant, ball playing abilities suited Zeman’s style and allowed the defence to turn into the attack at a moment’s notice. He experienced more trophy-less heartache though as they finished second and third in his two seasons managing the Biancocelesti. He stuck with his tactical philosophy and his first season included huge home victories over his old club, Foggia, and Fiorentina, 7-1 and 8-2, respectively. Zeman’s second season was mostly successful as their third place finish guaranteed UEFA Cup football again and his tactic of playing to outscore the opposition, no matter how many they conceded was highlighted with successive wins over Sampdoria and Atalanta by a combined score of 11-4.

He was replaced by Dino Zoff in January 1997 after he was fired as a result of Lazio’s poor start to the season. It wasn’t until the season after that we saw him on the touchline again as he moved to the other end of the Olimpico and took charge of rivals, Roma. He guided them to fourth in 1997/98 as they scored 67 goals, a tally only matched by champions, Juventus. As we know that isn’t the full story with Zeman as the team conceded 42 goals (Atalanta, who were relegated, only conceded six more). The following season brought a fifth place finish and the team scored the most goals in Serie A. However, like being stuck on the set of a Bill Murray movie, this was all beginning to look a little familiar; lots of entertaining, high-scoring games, but no trophies. He was replaced by Fabio Capello at the end of the season as Zeman’s career and novelty value attraction had levelled out somewhat. One positive note which Roma fans can thank Zemen for is giving future Roma legend, Francesco Totti, his chance in the first team. Under his guidance he matured immeasurably and was awarded the captaincy in October 1998, he went on to score 27 goals in two seasons with Zeman as manager.

Zeman, despite his revolutionary style, is still virtually unknown outside of Italy, but his style of football has been replicated, to a greater or lesser extent, by modern coaches such as Maurizio Sarri, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp and if Zeman had have been starting his managerial career today he would undoubtedly have been held in similar high regard across the world as his modern peers.

Today he would have been referred to as a type of hipster coach; passing triangles, sports medicine and high pressing. It can be argued if football in the 1990s was the global behemoth it is today Zeman would surely have had a chance to manage one of the top European clubs. As it is he was something of a 1990s version of today’s hipster; an under the radar, sharp dressing, chain-smoking revolutionary who changed the face of attacking football and didn’t mind ruffling a few of the bigger clubs’ feathers.

While at Roma in 1998 he accused the mid-nineties Juventus team of using performance enhancing drugs. His accusations which involved a number of then Juve players led to a long trial in which club doctor, Riccardo Agricola, was given a suspended sentence for administering banned substances to players between 1994 and 1998, his sentence was overturned on appeal in 2005. Needless to say Zeman wouldn’t be getting a call from Turin asking him to manage the team anytime soon and his unwillingness to alter his tactics to stem the tide of goals conceded will certainly have tarnished his reputation with the bigger Italian and European clubs.

A lot of football is about timing and this era in Serie A of strong, impenetrable defences was waiting for an attacking revolution. Zeman had filled his Foggia team with unknown, young players and moulded them in his style to become a neutral’s favourite as they hugely overachieved in his managerial reign. This preference of younger players benefited his whole ethos as he was able to instil his own playing style on them rather than trying to change the ways of older, experienced players. This also attributed to his lack of genuine success on both sides of Rome as he took over squads full of expectant and trophy-hungry experienced professionals, not to mention directors with limited patience who didn’t have time for Zemen to bring in the players he wanted in order to continue his trophy quest.

The major trophies never found their way into his possession; just two Serie B titles and one Serie C2 title to show for over 40 years on the touchline. One cannot help but think if he had focused his efforts on improving the defence his teams may have won a trophy or two. However knowing Zeman’s stubborn insistence for entertainment over wins, changing his ways would’ve boarded on the blasphemous and would’ve detracted from the verve and flair with which his teams attacked. Nicknamed The Bohemian, Zeman is now 70 and was recently sacked from Serie B, Pescara. To see such an empty mantelpiece in the Zeman household is a tragedy for one of Italian football’s most influential and controversial characters.

How Deep is Your Squad? – Injuries Stretch Juve to the Limit…

The limping trail of pain towards the Vinovo treatment room has been growing since the start of the season and those with good memories will remember Benedikt Howedes playing for us?!

Although it isn’t quite the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan it seems a game doesn’t go by without Juve reporting a new injury. It certainly has demonstrated the importance of a quality squad as Juve continue to seek the treble.

The latest injury added to the list was Andrea Barzagli who was injured in the warm up before the game against Sassuolo, he was replaced by Daniele Rugani in the starting line up. Rugani, along with Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi, were substituted before the crowd had returned to their seats for the second half. Max Allegri confirmed later that Rugani, Khedira and Barzagli were okay, however Matuidi would miss significant time and thus is added to the growing list of absentees.

 The limping trail of pain towards the Vinovo treatment room has been growing for a while, since the start of the season actually. Those with good memories will remember Benedikt Howedes, the home game against Crotone in November is his only appearance, maybe it was an initiative to play someone from the crowd in an attempt to try and even up the teams a little, who knows?! Joking aside, while he’s been absent for all but one game he’s hardly been missed due the return to form of Medhi Benatia, but the 25 game clause where his loan move becomes permanent is already looking to be unbelievably optimistic at best. Fellow defender, Mattia de Sciglio, missed five games during December after impressing during his limited playing time previously, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Barzagli were able to fill in for him although neither were an ideal replacement in terms of ability or consistency.

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Juve’s wingers haven’t escaped the curse either. Last season, after Marko Pjaca tore his cruciate ligament, Juve had one natural attacking wide player, Juan Cuadrado. Despite inconsistent form Cuadrado has been a regular starter this season but has missed all of January and will miss all of February too after undergoing an operation on a sports hernia. The summer saw Juve focus on improving the quality of their attacking, flair players. The arrivals of Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi greatly enhanced Allegri’s attacking options, but have both struggled with injury recently. Bernardeschi only just managed to recover from injury and play a huge part of Juve’s pounding of Sassuolo the week before last. Costa was recently injured during the Coppa Italia win over Atalanta and has missed the last two games. According to reports he should be fully fit for the Champions League game against Tottenham Hotspur. The injuries to attacking players hasn’t really been noticed such is the array of attacking talent at Juve’s disposal and the creative spark has been coming from others during this spate of injuries.

The focus of the most recent serious injury news has been in midfield; Blaise Matuidi will miss a month with a thigh injury sustained against Sassuolo. Matuidi has quietly become a vital part of the midfield since his summer arrival; protecting the back line with an infectious energy he has proved to be a very shrewd signing. There is a case to be argued that his loss, for at least the first leg of the Tottenham tie, will be felt more than the absence of Paulo Dybala. Claudio Marchisio, a man who has also missed time either side of New Year, would be an ideal replacement. His energy reserves might not be comparable to that of Matuidi, but he is a very capable midfielder who, like the Frenchman, quietly goes about his job and allows Miralem Pjanic, Costa, Bernardeschi (or whoever isn’t injured!) to provide the attacking flair.

The majority of the English media are not known for their quality investigative journalism (although I suppose that goes for most of the world’s media, but I digress) and the injury to Matuidi has given rise to some hysterical reports of an injury crisis, moreover some have also claimed his injury is a boost to Tottenham’s chances of emerging victorious. That is open to debate and if I’m being honest probably not that far from the truth, but I’m happy to allow them to fill their readers’ heads with false hope that a few injuries have all but guaranteed their passage to the Quarter Final, this while I’m safe in the knowledge that our squad is more than equipped to cope with Matuidi’s absence.

 

As briefly mentioned above, Paulo Dybala is currently close to returning to the side. He left the pitch in Cagliari in tears after injuring his thigh, this, ironically, during the first game after the winter break which was supposed to allow players to rest and relax for two weeks. The injury has kept him out for a month which has meant a race against time for him to be fit for the Tottenham game (cue more joyful outbursts from the English media). When his injury first occurred it was feared Juve’s form would dip without him as Gonzalo Higuain was going through a dry spell in front of goal at the time, however as mentioned before there are a lot of potential goal scorers in Juve’s ranks and there are others who are more than capable to chip in with goals. Mario Mandzukic has seven, Sami Khedira, six and Bernardeschi and Pjanic, have five.

 

Gigi Buffon made a return away to Atalanta in the Coppa Italia recently, he gave a real man of the match performance as he saved a penalty and kept Juve’s slender lead intact with a couple of fine second half stops. This is after being out for nine games and just days after turning 40. His injury thrust Wojciech Szczeny into the spotlight; bought as a potential replacement from Serie A rivals, Roma, he has firmly grasped the opportunity and has produced some confident displays recently. In fact it can be argued he has been the signing of the season and for a bargain price of £10 million, he has more than played his part in maintaining Juve’s recent imperious form.

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Juve’s current run of 14 wins and two draws in the last 16 games, coupled with a magnificent defensive record of one goal conceded during that run is only possible because of the depth of the squad and rotating tired legs where possible. Most games Juve’s bench can boast players like Bernardeschi, Marchisio and Rugani; players who would easily get into the majority of other Sere A team’s starting line ups. The signings made in the summer to bolster the squad depth have, in such a short space of time, proven to be worth a huge amount to Juve’s domestic and European challenges. Imagine for a minute having to play Tomas Rincon and Stefano Sturaro in midfield to replace Pjanic and Matuidi? This is exactly the kind of scenario Juve faced last season and while the summer signings were not on the scale of Neymar joining Paris Saint Germain, they have increased Juve’s chances of success immeasurably by giving extra options all over the pitch.

If we look at Inter Milan, their squad, not their starting eleven I hasten to add, is painfully short on genuine quality. In December, before their trip to Turin to play Juve, they were in amongst the pace setters for the title. Since then they’ve failed to win a game in nine attempts before the weekend win against Bologna. It can be argued with a greater quality among their squad they would be able to rotate more effectively and relieve some of the burden from Ivan Perisic, Mauro Icardi and company.

Last season’s Scudetto runners up, Roma, had only won one game in eight before last weekend’s win away to Hellas Verona. It’s fair to say they’re experiencing similar problems to Inter, where an over-reliance on oft-reprimanded, Radja Nainggolan, Stephan El Shaarawy, Edin Dzeko and youngster, Patrik Schick, among others, has seen them struggle recently. Without much substance in their squad they appear to be running out of steam in the Champions League chase. The very fact Schick is mentioned in the same sentence as his more experienced peers highlights the lack of depth in the Giallorossi squad. It’s hard to imagine Bernardeschi, a similar player in terms of squad status, being given such an extended run in the Juve first team if it wasn’t for injuries.

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 With spring in sight Juve’s recent form hasn’t shown any signs of ending and we must credit Allegri and his staff for boosting the squad and making Juve a very well balanced outfit, especially when compared to their domestic rivals. The treble is still within reach and the squad as a whole will play a huge part in the fight between now and May, injuries notwithstanding.

The New Ministry of Defence….

Juve’s defence rises from the ashes of the Bonucci bombshell

On 14th July last year the football world stood open mouthed as Leonardo Bonucci stood in front of a huge Champions League trophy with various AC Milan suits close by, for him he had completed a move to Milan after an apparent deterioration of relations between him and management in Turin. For Juventus it meant a re-build of sorts, the famous BBC trio of Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini was finished and nervous glances were made towards the upcoming season, simply put, how do you replace arguably the world’s best defender? Juve didn’t do anything, while not many outside of the club’s Vinovo training ground thought the current crop of defenders could live up to last season’s exceptional defence, the coaching staff at Juve clearly did. Either way it was an uneasy defensive group which started the season and it was clear to see they were not on the same wavelength. Despite this good early season team form hid the defensive frailties but they were exposed during defeats to Barcelona in September and away to Sampdoria, later in November. The Sampdoria game was arguably the latest turning point during the 2017/2018 season.

Juve stumbled and limped towards that game by turning out below par performances which were masked by wins over Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League and Fiorentina, Udinese and Benevento in Serie A. It is common knowledge Max Allegri’s Juve teams start slowly and peaks around Christmas, but they looked tired and unorganised at times. All this while Napoli, Inter Milan and to a lesser extent, Roma and Lazio were all effortlessly striding through the season. Allegri made a number of changes to the starting line up for the Sampdoria game which in the end really came back to haunt him as Juve were outclassed; the 3-2 score doesn’t reflect how pathetic Juve were on that autumnal afternoon. Since then Juve have played, amongst others, Barcelona, Napoli, Inter and Roma. They have also encountered tricky games away to Bologna, Hellas Verona and Cagliari, not forgetting a home a Derby della Mole cup tie against Torino. During that time Lionel Messi, Dries Mertens, Mauro Icardi and Eden Dzeko have all failed to score against Juve as they stretched an impressive clean sheet run to eight games.

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Considering the uncertainty after Bonucci left, the below par performances and early defeats to Barcelona, Lazio (twice) and Sampdoria, it is refreshing and extremely satisfying to see such a commanding defence week after week. There is an air of inevitability to Juve’s recent play, their rivals have experienced indifferent form to a greater or lesser extent and it’s as if all the early misgivings have been part of Allegri’s plan and we’re now seeing the real, confident Juve. Should an expected return to the top of the league materialise before too long, their rivals’ confidence will sink further.

Obviously eight successive clean sheets would certainly point to a much improved defence, to cement this fact, if you compare before and after the Sampdoria game, the first 18 games Juve conceded 19 goals, whereas the last 11 have only found the opposition celebrate once.

There is a case to be argued that had the defence still included Leo Bonucci and a healthy Buffon, it would’ve been given much more credit than it has and it seems as though Juve’s recent defensive improvements have gone under the radar somewhat.

Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli have been as dependable as ever, while Mattia de Sciglio and Wojciech Szczesny have both slotted in to the first team very well, the former has been affected by injury recently but has proven to be very reliable in a problem position. Once the injury problems fade he should feature regularly. The latter has turned out to arguably be the signing of the season for Juve. He has gelled well with the four in front of him; this hasn’t been a settled defensive group by any means, partly due to rotation and partly due to injury, and it’s very obvious his performances have lead to an increased confidence for him and those directly in front of him. In fact it can be said if it wasn’t for his saves against Roma and in particular, Cagliari, Juve would’ve dropped points in those games and not maintained their recent impressive run. On current form Juve definitely have a great replacement for Buffon.

Kwadwo Asamoah continues to deputise for the inconsistent, Alex Sandro. The Ghanian is very much a polarizing player but he is one of those vital cogs in the machine; a squad player of limited ability but great desire, he has done everything which has been asked of him and Juve could do a lot worse than to keep hold of him, as interest from abroad continues to periodically rear its head. He could certainly be needed as there has been some speculation about Sandro’s relationship with management at Juve. If he leaves in January we could see Leonardo Spinazzola return from loan at Atalanta sooner than expected to help Asamoah at left back.

The biggest improvement is from Medhi Benatia, since his full time re-introduction to the side he looks a different player and has been rejuvenated by an increased stability and confidence. The differences between the player we saw looking intimidated against Barcelona in September to the one who put in a commanding performance and scored the winner against his former employers from Rome in December are vast. Casting an eye to the future, if Benatia continues this upward trend it now seems Daniele Rugani is the odd one out, with Mattia Caldara returning in the summer it remains to be seen whether we’ve seen the last of Rugani in a Juve shirt.

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Again Juve have proven to be very able to grind out wins, the recent away games against Cagliari and Hellas Verona prove their ability to win while not at their best, indeed both teams played above their level and both pushed Juve hard in the second half, but the Bianconceri do what they do best, win. It may not be pretty at times, but the statistics tell all we need to know of Juve’s recent form. Since the 18 November defeat to Sampdoria there have been 11 games in all competitions, nine victories, two draws and just one goal conceded. Italian football, the birthplace of the catenaccio style of defending, historically loves a good defence and this Juventus back line is shaping up for a memorable season.

Born of Frustration – Allegri’s Adjustment Revolution…

This was Allegri’s plan D in a whole alphabet of tactical adjustments, quite simply he is gifted in the art of playing to stifle the opposition and once again the players played their part in executing his plan.

Firstly, I apologise for the delay since my last article, it isn’t down to simple laziness I can assure you of that. If we’re pointing the bony finger of blame it should be in the direction of Juventus and Max Allegri as I have deliberately held off writing this article to see how we fared in during our most important stretch of games this season. The problem is where do I draw the line, do I wait until Christmas? Easter?! Because the question is when does an ‘important stretch’ begin and end? For Mister Allegri it is never, Juve are a constant work in progress for him and his staff.

I have previously written about Juve’s traditional slow starts to the season and although we’re nearly halfway through the season our performances still have a feel of ‘2016 Juventus’ in that we haven’t reached our potential yet. I would attribute this to Allegri’s patient approach to new signings and the season in general; preferring to allow the team to settle into a new season rather than trying to force new players into a new team and new style and ending up with bad results. In the five games since Juve lost to Sampdoria we haven’t conceded a goal; a great return considering our defence had been as leaky as a knackered old bath earlier in the season. This is partly down to a very welcome and slightly surprising increase in Medhi Benatia’s form. He has looked a different player since coming back into the starting line up for the Barcelona game. He’s shown all of the qualities which were prominent during his time at Bayern Munich (and inconsistently while at Juve), he’s been strong and quick, two attributes I never thought I would see in Medhi again having seemingly lost his way at Juve. Most importantly over the last few games he has been playing with confidence and consistency, to the point where Daniele Rugani’s disappearance from the starting line up has almost gone unnoticed. Although his early season run in the first team will have mostly impressed Juve fans it still seems Allegri has his doubts over Daniele. Benatia’s form has coincided with a greater stability in defence which had been severely lacking thus far, one hopes it can continue and grow as the season progresses.

Allegri has also integrated Douglas Costa into the starting line up, with great success. Having only made fleeting appearances early on in the season he has been a revelation over recent weeks with a full array of quick feet, quick mind, devastating pace and crossing ability. In fairness we should have seen this coming, after all this is the reason why we’ve lined up a full signing after his season-long loan finishes. October’s Champions League home game with Sporting provided a wonderful fan-made video of him coming on as substitute; the video followed him as he jogged on to the pitch, made his way down the wing before receiving the ball and crossing with great accuracy to the waiting Mario Mandzukic who headed home the winner. 15 seconds of gratifying, cinematic gold! His arrival in the team has mostly been at the expense of the aforementioned Croatian, partly due to injury and suspension and partly due to tactical changes, but while Juve fans would agree Mandzukic brings a lot of physicality, determination and goal scoring instinct to the team, Costa would be chosen over him nine times out of ten, especially on current form. It is down to Allegri’s patience that we have seen a more determined and mentally aware Costa over the last month. Again, while some of Juve’s performances have been below par most fans have been itching to see Costa start more regularly, one can see why Allegri has taken his time; Serie A and Juve’s style of play differ from the Bundesliga and Bayern, maybe Allegri has learned from playing egotistical compatriot, Dani Alves, too often early in his brief Juve career last season; Alves took several months to fully adjust and had already delivered a couple of dozen inconsistent performances before reaching his peak towards the end of the season. Not only has he gelled with the team and adjusted to the style of the league he has also been consistent when asked to defend, against Napoli last Friday he successfully tracked back on numerous occasions to help extinguish their attacking threat, it was his tackle, run and ball to Dybala which helped produce Juve’s winner. It is a testament to Costa’s work rate and desire and to Allegri’s patience and man-management skills that have helped Costa to settle in and produce consistent team performances.

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The often criticised, Mattia De Sciglio, has quietly put in some quality, mature and composed performances since his return to the team in mid-November. The subject of debate since his summer signing from AC Milan he has maybe found a manager, playing style and most importantly a positive team atmosphere where he can develop to his potential. I’m not sure where the criticism comes from though, he’s been a regular at international level and been playing in a top (albeit dysfunctional) team for most of his career. He as maybe been a little inconsistent, but the scathing attacks on him upon his transfer from Milan were cringeworthy and childish. His recent starts included a beautiful strike against Crotone for his first career goal (rather adorably he said after the game he genuinely didn’t know what to do when he scored!). Again he has steadily produced some mature and composed performances recently, not least against Lorenzo Insigne on the Napoli left wing where his youth was favoured over Barzagli’s or Lichtsteiner’s experience; a bold move from Mister Allegri. In doing so he may well have solved the right back issue at Juve, clearly the aforementioned right backs are reaching the twilight of their careers and Mattia should surely be favourite to fill the position permanently. I for one have always liked him, he certainly isn’t a Dani Alves or Alex Sandro (or at least a pre-2017 Sandro), but his qualities lie defensively, if he maintains this progression he will definitely be a fixture in the Juve squad for years to come.

I have mentioned previously Gonzalo Higuain’s willingness to run, hold up play and chase lost causes for the team. This has been more and more evident since his ‘tactical rest’ at the end of September. Since then his goalscoring record has been impressive (nine in 14, including winning goals in Naples and Milan), however I want to mention his work rate again, Gigi Buffon said after the win over Udinese;

“What I really loved was the attitude of Higuain, whose performance was worthy of praise. The Coach should make the others watch videos of Higuain and how he played today to motivate players.”

Gonzalo’s attitude and determination are exemplary and very much underrated by people who only judge him on goals alone. Even in the face of extreme hostility in Naples he looked confident and relaxed ahead of the game, a Gonzalo playing with this determination and coolness is dangerous to any team. Tactically he has been asked to track back and drop into midfield only to then break forward and attack when the midfield is in possession. Higuain, for such a big guy (I mean well built, before anyone complains!), is very fast and physical when at full speed and his anticipation and off the ball movement are key to many of his goals (have a look for the videos of his goals versus Milan, Olympiakos and Atalanta for examples of his deadliness in attack). With help from Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic, Higuain is able to run at defences with great effect, he also pulls the centre halves out of position and creates space for others. His benefit to the team in general cannot be understated. I believe his rest for the Turin derby and most of the Olympiakos games have really helped him take a step back and rest a little. I won’t say he’s been a different player since then but we are now seeing a more complete forward now. Once again Allegri should take some credit for the calculated risk of dropping his most natural goalscorer.

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Of course it isn’t all good news and back slapping, this is Allegri’s Juventus, after all. As I’ve mentioned, Allegri, like a demanding trophy-wife, can seemingly induce both joy and immense frustration with every squad announcement. His rotation may keep most players happy because of the minutes on the pitch and actually being involved in the action, however it doesn’t apply to everyone. His apparent reluctance to play Federico Bernardeschi is still troubling, especially as Juan Caudrado’s brief return to form has abated somewhat. One can see why this is happening as there are more risks and more at stake at Juve than there was at Fiorentina and his sparse use so far is understandable. He is certainly a great talent, and a great goalscorer (his two most recent goals, versus SPAL and Olympiakos, deserve to be watched again and again). He finally got a start, away to Sampdoria, last month, unfortunately he was one of a number of players (in fact I can’t think of one who covered himself in glory that afternoon). During that disastrous display he was wasteful in possession, his determination was lacking and he started to display those petulant, argumentative traits which have been evident since his days in Florence. It certainly didn’t do his campaign to start any good at all.

Since his successive penalty misses we seem to have been talking less about Paulo Dybala’s goals and more about a lack of them, Allegri’s change of formation to 4-3-3 has meant Paulo has been dropping deeper to receive the ball, almost playing as an extra midfielder at times. It cannot be good for his confidence to have to repeatedly influence the game from the midfield rather than the penalty area which we would all like to see him do more often. Dybala’s deeper role has meant Gonzalo Higuain has been more isolated up front. A player who thrives, almost lives off, service from his attacking partner and he cuts a lonely figure when he is forced to create something out of nothing with no help.

Sami Khedira remains in the side despite some very inept performances, apart from his hatrick in the bizarre win against Udinese, he has looked tired and lost on occasions. There seems to be little hope for his future with Juve but while Allegri insists on wringing every ounce out of him he will remain a starter. Claudio Marchisio, who incidentally has performed well during his appearances this season, should be starting in Khedira’s stead. Marchisio isn’t at the pre-knee injury form, but he brings a certain intelligence, calmness and determination to Juve’s midfield. Everyone seems to play better when Claudio is in the team.

Now, I’m sorry but I have to mention the nausea-inducing defeat away to Sampdoria not more than a month ago. This came after an uninspiring away draw to Sporting in the Champions League and a very frustrating home win versus loveable, circus act, Benevento. As I mentioned earlier, Bernardeschi started over Dybala. In addition, Buffon was rested and Sandro’s poor form had finally caught up with him with Asamoah replacing him. On this occasion it can be argued Allegri underestimated a resilient Sampdoria side who have made a good start to the season. This performance was probably the most lifeless and depressingly bland I have seen under Allegri and was the pinnacle of a mountain of despair which had been building for around a month. Even the two goals scored after Blaise Matuidi came on as a late substitute didn’t bring any respectability to the score. Juve were dreadful, beyond embarrasing, but this is the type of performance we risk when Allegri makes several changes to the team.

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During this period only the fantastic performance, away to Milan, offered a glimmer of what we can achieve when everyone is settled and playing as a cohesive unit. Allegri named a very familiar line up however we saw Pjanic drop deeper to help flood the midfield, when he does this Dybala needs to be on form to fill in the link between midfield and attack. In Milan it was no coincidence Juve scored two with the help of those two players, Dybala in particular sacrificed a lot of his attacking prowess to drop back, this doesn’t always work as I mentioned earlier, but it did that night to devastating effect. This game still stands out for me. Pantomime villain, Leonardo Bonucci, was suspended, but this was Juve’s biggest test of a fairly new season, the perennial title-winners versus the money-bloated Milan. Looking at this period as a whole, unfortunately, this performance was the exception rather than the rule and we could almost start to believe some of the negative comments and analysis coming from the media.

At home to Barcelona in the Champions League, the game after the Sampdoria debacle, Allegri started Benatia and Costa, it was this game which started their respective recent good form. However despite Lionel Messi starting on the bench and even though both sides had chances, the minute Pjanic was substituted for Rodrigo Bentancur (the 66th minute to be precise) it was obvious we were playing for a draw. Now a point against a much improved Barca side isn’t to be shunned and pushed to the side like a slightly wizened sprout on your Christmas dinner plate, but I felt we didn’t show enough desire to go forward and challenge a team we knocked out so comprehensively last season. Allegri, yet again, is a step ahead of us. He saw we had a game remaining in the Champions League to seal qualification. You’ll remember the team mailing in a defeat to Roma towards the end of last year when we had Monaco in the Champions League semi final a few days later. The theory being that we had enough games to spare to secure the Scudetto and the immediate focus was on Champions League success. It worked, as it usually does. The draw with Barca was a viewed as a point gained against the group winners and set us up nicely to visit already eliminated Olympiakos and complete our first goal of the season.

On Saturday night we saw this worrying trait in evidence again as Allegri dropped Dybala and Costa ahead of our clash with league leaders, Inter. We were left with a bizarre formation and lacking in balance with only Cuadrado as a natural winger and Asamoah and Matuidi (again), filling in on the left wing. If you are going to play two strikers as part of a three man attack surely it makes sense to have two natural wingers? Nonetheless Juve created more than enough chances to win and Inter were non-existent all game. When it became apparent Inter were only playing for a draw, Dybala or Costa, or both, should’ve been brought on. The cherry on top of the defensive-minded cake came when Pjanic was brought off with just under 20 minutes left. A poor end to a frustrating evening for Mister Allegri and Juve. Like Barca at home, Allegri lacked the desire to really go after the win from the start and it’s surely a case of two points dropped, rather than one gained. Allegri pointed to the fact that his players are tired, fair enough, we have been playing at a very high level for a couple of weeks, but in a game against our nearest and most hated rivals and where three points were on a plate for us it isn’t acceptable to play the tiredness card. I am sure both Costa and Dybala, plus Pjanic too, would gladly have played despite any tiredness issues, remember we don’t have a midweek game next week and our next game is against mid-table, Bologna. If tiredness really was an issue then why play Dybala for over an hour versus Olympiakos a few days earlier? Remember we only had to avoid defeat there to be assured of a last 16 Champions League place.

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I mentioned in my Champions League preview earlier in the season we would need to be at our best over this week as the draw had cruelly placed our final Champions League game in the middle of Napoli, away and Inter, at home. I have to say Allegri excelled himself tactically in Naples as we set up in a 4-3-3 which changed to a 4-4-1-1 as Pjanic and Dybala played slightly different roles to cancel out the threat of Jorginho. Both dropped deeper in order to almost create a 4-5-1 formation when Napoli had the ball. He allowed Napoli to dominate the wide areas safe in the knowledge most crosses into our penalty area could be comfortably dealt with by Benatia and co. When Juve attacked, Blaise Matuidi filled in as a left winger to give us some balance on both flanks, his endless energy reserves meant this was an easy, if slightly unorthodox, transition for him.

This was Allegri’s plan D in a whole alphabet of tactical adjustments, quite simply he is gifted in the art of playing to stifle the opposition and once again the players played their part in executing his plan. His opposite number, Maurizio Sarri, was left to bemoan the colour of both teams kits (both teams played in their away kits, apparently for marketing purposes) and bizarrely suggested football players don’t tire when questioned about his resistance to rotate his team and give his star players a rest now and again. Don’t get me wrong here, Napoli are a great team to watch but Sarri badly lacks the tactical instinct to be able to ever really compete at the highest level, it showed last season and will continue to rear its head as the season progresses, his plan A simply isn’t enough to win against the best as those managers are able to counter it fairly easily. One can’t help but think the ‘Scudetto pact’ (a collective agreement made by Napoli’s players in pre-season to stick together and make a concerted push towards Scudetto glory) will be used a stick to beat them with when the trophies are handed out later this season.

You obviously can win in style (See Real Madrid and Barcelona in recent seasons) but Allegri chooses to be functional and very much in that Juve mould of winning over style (actually Juve do have a little flair in their arsenal, find the video of the move which started with Buffon and lead up to Matuidi’s second half chance against Napoli, pure, stylish pass and move football). In what should’ve been Napoli’s statement of intent as they beat their nearest rivals, it was Juve who stole the show and ground out a statement victory of their own. Like the Milan game in October it was Juve who outfoxed their opponent with a magnificent, unselfish team victory. During both games, both away, Allegri has allowed the opposition to play their own game, while the team has been instructed to eradicate a particular opponent’s strength. Both worked magnificently and we have to see this more often if Juve are to fulfill their potential this season.

As I mentioned the games against Napoli and Milan were, domestically, our biggest tests of the season and both were passed with relative ease due to Mister Allegri’s tactical planning. While we can all be frustrated with his methods and squad rotation we cannot argue with the results when it matters and that is what we’re about. Winning. Not intricate passing triangles or beating the league’s lesser lights 6-0 every week. Allegri is a winner, simple, and we absolutely cannot be frustrated by that.