Twenty-two days. That’s how long Max Allegri has to transform Juventus — the time remaining between today and a Champions League clash with Atletico Madrid that could define their season. Before then, the coach must bounce back from an embarrassing Coppa Italia exit and discover a formula that can unleash the obvious qualities of his talent-laden squad.
During their cup quarterfinal against Atalanta this week, it quickly became clear that the Bianconeri need such a change, finding themselves thoroughly outplayed by an opponent who faced them without fear. Unlike many other Italian sides who line up against the Turin giants, they instead took the game to the Old Lady, snapping at her heels and playing a relentless, up-tempo style that left her looking decidedly off color.
This was no fluke. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men have been playing this way for most of his tenure, punching way above their weight and continually earning great results. In the current campaign alone, they have beaten Inter and Lazio, arriving for their game against Juve on the back of demolishing Sassuolo 6-2 and Frosinone 5-0 before a stunning comeback to earn a 3-3 draw with A.S. Roma.
Yet while Atalanta deserve immense credit for a 3-0 win on Wednesday evening that once again underlined their quality, this game was equally emblematic of shortcomings in Juventus that have been evident for some time.
Yes, there were undoubtedly mitigating circumstances, foremost among which is a defensive injury crisis that seems to deepen on a daily basis. Leonardo Bonucci limped off during the encounter with Lazio at the weekend, Giorgio Chiellini joining him on the sidelines after just 27 minutes against Atalanta. With Medhi Benatia gone for a new adventure in Qatar, the club had signed Martin Caceres as an emergency stop-gap, but it seems this game was too early to use the Uruguayan, and Allegri instead paired Daniele Rugani with Mattia De Sciglio in central defense.
Unsurprisingly, the duo struggled with the combination of speed, strength, and guile that Duvan Zapata and Papu Gomez provide for Gasperini’s men, but—even if their defensive collapse was excusable—elsewhere in the Juve XI this game was simply a continuation of previously unchecked issues.
A midfield containing Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur should provide the team with a strong spine. But even a duo that impressed greatly during last summer’s World Cup struggle to carry Sami Khedira, a player who is less a shadow of himself and more a crutch upon which Allegri continues to lean.
The coach told reporters at a recent press conference that the German’s return to fitness meant he “will be like a January signing for us,” but the truth is the 31-year-old is a liability in games such as this. Even before kickoff, it was glaringly obvious that he would struggle with the pace and ferocity that have become hallmarks of this Atalanta, and it was no surprise at all to see him flounder and fail to make any impression whatsoever on the game.
In fielding Khedira, Allegri left the midfield disjointed and unable to cope with the opposition, compounding the issue that Paulo Dybala is quickly becoming. As discussed in this previous column, the Argentinian has picked up the infuriating habit of wandering around the field in search of the ball, which works out well for the Bianconeri against subpar opponents like Chievo.
However, when Dybala does the same thing against better, well-drilled teams, the result is what unfolded at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia on Wednesday. Sucked deeper and deeper, but marshaled perfectly wherever he went, the Juve No. 10 found no space to exploit, no gaps to probe and no ability to create for his teammates, instead leaving them a man short in attack on the occasions they did press forward.
Getting the ball over 100 times against a relegation-threatened side is wonderful, but playing the same way led to him making just 48 touches in December’s win over Inter and 36 in September’s meeting with Napoli.
While that is something Dybala personally needs to work on, it is now up to Allegri to help his troops dust themselves off from this stumble and find a way to get them firing on all cylinders. Because make no mistake, while the coach may have claimed “it was just an off day” in the aftermath of the Atalanta defeat, this was a result that had been coming for some time.
Since a 2-2 draw with the same opponent on Dec. 26, Juve have been made to work extremely hard by A.C. Milan, Sampdoria, and Lazio, games that turned on individual moments of brilliance rather than as the result of any coherent strategy or approach. Cristiano Ronaldo has been the ultimate “get out of jail free card” to play in such games, but Federico Bernardeschi, João Cancelo, and Mario Mandžukić have also bailed out Allegri on various occasions, too.
It is a spell that is eerily reminiscent of a run two years ago that culminated in a clash with Fiorentina. That trip to the Stadio Artemio Franchi capped a poor period of form that had also seen them suffer a shock loss to Genoa and need dramatic comebacks to prevent defeats to Atalanta in the Coppa Italia, and French side Lyon in the Champions League Group Stage.
The January 2017 clash with Fiorentina then saw the Old Lady completely outplayed in a game that finished 2-1 to the Viola but could’ve been lost by a much wider margin. Yet just 37 days later, Allegri had found a solution and his team embarked on a superb unbeaten run in the league while eliminating Porto, Barcelona (thanks to a stunning 3-0 rout in Turin) and AS Monaco on their way to the 2017 Champions League Final.
It was a turnaround that owed much to the work of the coach, Allegri finding a 4-2-3-1 formation that allowed him to shoehorn Gonzalo Higuain, Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado and Miralem Pjanic into the side together. Unleashing those five players at once unlocked the vast potential of a team that had previously looked just as labored and uninspired as the current version of the Bianconeri, and once again it is up to him to discover a solution.
This time, it is again difficult to see a framework or an obvious starting XI that would deliver a similar turnaround in a team that—largely due to Allegri’s choices—is looking increasingly devoid of cohesion and creativity. Perhaps this time it will be to bench a star name rather than cram in another one, but overcoming those shortcomings and answering such difficult questions are why the club employs a coach renowned for tactical innovation and ability to make decisive changes.
Juventus have made no secret of their ambition to win the Champions League, but on current form they will struggle to overcome a team as well-organized and robust as Atletico Madrid. The last-16 clash with Diego Simeone’s men is truly shaping up to be a date with destiny for the Bianconeri, and Max Allegri needs to find an answer.
He’s got 22 days.
Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for FourFourTwo, The Independent, and elsewhere. Author of "Juventus: A History In Black & White." Follow Adam on Twitter.