Football's fine line between love, hate and sarcasm

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Heading into their fourth season under Antonio Conte, Juventus fans had good reason to be optimistic about the twelve months that lay ahead. The bianconeri had reaffirmed themselves as domestic powerhouses yet again and Conte appeared to have turned his attention to finally making an impression in Europe. These high hopes all came crashing down when Conte abruptly resigned from his post, and CEO Giuseppe Marotta promptly named his replacement to be Massimiliano Allegri, infamous for his role in A.C. Milan’s recent downward spiral. Replacing arguably the best manager in Serie A football with one recently sacked from a rival club that finished eighth was enough to spark the furore of Juventini worldwide.

However, while this fury is not unreasonable, it may in fact be misdirected, as the Allegri hire may be concealing something far worse than the hire of a mediocre manager.Allegri began his tenure at Milan with much promise, capturing the 2010-11 league title in his first season. However, with each subsequent season, the state of Milan deteriorated, eventually culminating in his sacking in January this year, as he left Milan stranded in 11th place. By the end of his three and a half seasons at Milan, Allegri had gone from being named Serie A Coach of the Year in his first season, to being on the receiving end of harsh criticism for almost every facet of his managerial performance.

Much of this criticism was, and still is, warranted, reinforced by extensive evidence, and should cause any Juventus fan to shake in fear. Time and time again, Allegri was caught being reactive in his approach to games, failing to take the initiative of games against small and big clubs alike. Throughout his tenure, Allegri was prone to taking a one-dimensional approach by pinning his hopes on one player for a long stretch of games. This often saw his star players flourish, amongst them Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Stephan el Shaarawy, and Mario Balotelli. However, when Allegri was without his star man, or was required to create ways for his star men to co-exist, as was the case with the latter two, Allegri fell remarkably short. These shortcomings were easily concealed as Allegri worked his way up the ranks at Italy’s smaller clubs, including Cagliari and Sassuolo. Under the spotlights of the San Siro, however, where dominance, not survival, is the goal, these faults were easily pinpointed. One could even argue that these faults will be more evident at Juventus, who rightly will expect no less than a domestic title and a deep European run, given their superior squad and recent success.

Unfortunately for Juventus, Allegri’s faults run deeper than his narrow-minded approach. Frequent training injuries and unacceptable squad fitness quickly became a theme of Allegri’s time at Milan. Almost every week, a new player was struck with a muscular injury at training. Meanwhile, each match, without fail, Milan’s midfield trio would be outmuscled and outpaced by their opposition. The very same fitness personnel who were chiefly responsible for these aberrations have now reunited with Allegri at Juventus. Even more alarming was the absence of desire and motivation exhibited by Allegri’s players, a criticism that has been echoed by many of Allegri’s former players, from Gianluca Zambrotta to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In this respect, Allegri is in many ways Conte’s polar opposite, whose best attributes are arguably his motivation of players and maintenance of peak squad condition.

Yet while this lengthy list of Allegri’s deficiencies has seen Juventini protest their latest managerial hire, it should not be their biggest concern regarding their club’s future. At Milan, Allegri’s gradual demise was accompanied by a deteriorating level of ambition and commitment by club president Silvio Berlusconi. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Andrea Pirlo and Alexandre Pato all left for new pastures. Their replacements, including the likes of Bakaye Traore, Alessandro Matri, Kevin Constant and Djamel Mesbah, scarcely looked recognisable in Milan’s iconic red and black kit. Allegri is often criticised for his role in Milan’s decline, and rightly so, but Berlusconi and co. deserve at least as much of the blame. After all, Allegri did win the Serie A title the one season he was equipped with the league’s best roster, and could have won a second if Sulley Muntari’s infamous ‘ghost goal’ had been correctly awarded against Juventus.

It is this fact, that Allegri has delivered titles when given a quality roster, that many Juventus fans will use to console themselves. Unfortunately for them, that quality roster may not be a fact for much longer. While a definitive explanation will never be known, it seems most plausible that Conte left Juventus when he determined his ambitions and aspirations for the club were not shared by management. When this is considered, the parallels between Juventus and Milan should be enough to make any Juventus fan shake in fear.

At Milan, Allegri became a handsomely paid scapegoat for Berlusconi and Galliani, who effectively drove the club into the ground with an unwillingness to seize opportunities and invest in the team. This summer, Juventus have just stopped short of openly encouraging a bidding war for the two most prized assets, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba. Meanwhile, their acquisitions, including a Patrice Evra on the wrong side of 30, and the relatively unproven duo of Alvaro Morata and Roberto Pereyra, have struggled to inspire even the most optimistic of fans. This points to a disturbing lack of ambition from a club that looked on the precipice of re-establishing itself as a continental giant under Conte.

For this reason, Juventini need to look past the problems that Allegri himself brings to the club, but the problems his presence may be designed to conceal. Every manager has their flaws. These can be overcome. What can’t be overcome, no matter how great the manager, is a lack of direction and purpose from a club’s higher powers. As Berlusconi’s commitment waned, Milan went from being domestic champions to finding themselves out of all European competition in just three brutal seasons. For Juventus, domestic champions for three years running, the fall could be much more severe.

All Juventini can do is hope that Marotta, Agnelli and co. saw Allegri as a manager who could utilise a well-constructed squad, rather than a pawn to absorb criticism while they let slip what could have been a modern dynasty in Turin.

 

       

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