Pragmatism In A Changing Serie A: The Legacy Of Max Allegri
Max Allegri predicted how his future would play out with Juventus back in March following their 2-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League matchup. Allegri, commenting on his club’s obsession with winning the Champions League as cemented by a six-part series on Netflix and the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, said that the outside pressure took out the “pleasure and joy” of playing in Europe’s top competition. Though Ronaldo would score a hat trick in their second leg comeback, there remained an underlying sentiment in balancing sporting joy and business pressure. Allegri contemplated whether he could return following another European exit as he did for the past two years. But this time, team president Andrea Agnelli was proactive in confirming that Allegri would not return after five seasons with the club and closing what he described as an “extraordinary cycle.”
Allegri has never lost. He won five league titles in five seasons, and a total of 11 trophies at Juventus. Beyond the results, he is perceived as one of the foremost tacticians in the European game, able to change the momentum of a match with a subtle tweak or substitution. The most interesting aspect of his success is that it came with no defined, built-in style or catchphrase, no tiki-taka or gegenpressing branding or philosophy easily consumed by audiences.
Allegri never cared about “creating tactical legacies.” He is instead a problem solver, sometimes counter-intuitively, like when he subbed on defender Stephan Lichtsteiner while down 1-0 against Tottenham and overturned the deficit into a 2-1 lead within seven minutes in last year’s Champions League round of 16. Then again, they lost in the next round to Real Madrid with Ronaldo tallying three goals over the two legs, including receiving a standing ovation from the Italian crowd after a bicycle goal. Some moments transcend even the most organized tactical approaches.
The domestic trophies weren’t enough to renew Allegri’s position for another season, though the stakes were already set up when Allegri replaced Antonio Conte at the club in 2014. Allegri inherited a club that won the league by 17 points and reached the Champions League semifinals the previous season. Conte had already done the heavy work of regaining respectability for Juventus following back-to-back 7th place league finishes. Allegri’s job was much more nuanced in providing the tactical finishes that could elevate the side in Europe.
Allegri won the league by that same 17-point total, but also reached the Champions League Final that very next season. Though they lost 3-1 to Barcelona, there was a framework of success for an Allegri side in their veteran defense, energetic midfield, and industrious forwards. They would return to the Champions League Final two seasons later, this time losing 4-1 to Real Madrid. If that initial run was a surprise, the 2017 run had an expectation that swapped out wide-eyed charm for a business-like approach. That loss also sparked murmurs as to whether Allegri’s reactive style could win in a European final. Following the match, Allegri wondered if he had taken the squad as far as it could go.
He decided to return two more seasons. And though he exhibited small, match-winning wrinkles, he was never able to fulfill that European obsession that was only exacerbated by Ronaldo’s signing. The underlying message behind Allegri’s dismissal is that sometime from when he took over from Conte until now, winning a league title no longer had the significance it did in the past. Allegri reached the final twice along with winning the league title. Consistency, even at the highest level, can be taken for granted. Even Ronaldo warned the club about the Champions League, saying they “cannot make it an obsession.”
But Juventus find themselves in an ever-increasing existential purgatory that’s infected teams outside of the Premier League, caught between league dominance and semifinals appearances in Europe. There must surely be other ways for clubs to measure success in 2019.
There is a sentiment, however, that Allegri is more highly rated outside of Italy than within those who judge his work week by week. One could see how his pragmatism and cautious approach, despite having the most resources in the league, could frustrate supporters. He is a polarizing figure at Milan, particularly in his second season with in which he had the best roster in Serie A yet still blew the title to Juventus. Thus, Allegri may not have a singular style, but he does work best with a squad filled with functional, versatile players as opposed to artists.
Rumors have linked Maurizio Sarri to replace Allegri at Juventus. And even if Sarri ends up staying with Chelsea, the rumor reveals the type of attacking manager the club are searching for as Allegri’s replacement to fully unlock the squad. There is an overarching logic to this sequence of Juventus managers this decade: Conte could get the most out of a limited squad and was brought in to solidify their league dominance. Conte’s flaw was how his rigid 3-4-3 shape would get exposed in Europe. He left in favor of Allegri the tactician, who could polish Conte’s work through his game management and tactical flexibility. Now, Sarri - or a similar manager - will be expected to build off that base of discipline with a proactive approach, particularly in Europe.
In a circular world, Allegri, who has been linked with various Premier League jobs in past seasons, is rumored to replace Sarri at Chelsea should the former Napoli manager move to Juventus. The Premier League is a logical step, with Allegri the most malleable and flexible out of Conte and Sarri before him. Conte famously answered “you cannot eat at a €100 restaurant with just €10 in your pocket, can you?” when asked about why he would leave Juventus back in 2014. There’s no personal antagonist in the parting between Allegri and Juventus, more of a schism that was brought on by ideologies in a shifting era in the sport. In Conte’s analogy, Juventus now have more money in their pocket for a meal. But the restaurant has shrunk, and the outer world only continues to grow larger.