When Antonio Conte resigned as Juventus manager last July, the rest of Serie A breathed a sigh of relief. After all, Conte had just finished guiding what seemed to be an invincible Old Lady to a third straight title. When Massimiliano Allegri was announced as his successor the next day, those sighs turned to giggles. Mad Max may have lead Milan to the 2010-11 scudetto after one year in charge and, with Cagliari and Sassuolo before that, shown his ability to instill attractive play, but by the time he got to Juventus, Allegri had become a mere punchline. He was the man who’d left the rossoneri unable to qualify Europe, much less challenge for titles.
Less than a year later, Juve fans are having the last laugh. Rather than reducing Conte’s legacy to rubble, Allegri has done what most believed impossible: created an even stronger team, one capable of both attacking fluidity and disciplined defense. While he’ll need a Champions League trophy to be considered among the elite, Allegri has already redeemed himself. He’s about to claim his second Serie A crown, something few would have seen coming this soon after the way he left Milan.
That need for redemption began with Juve’s return to Italy’s summit and peaked nearly three years later, when Allegri left Milan with his reputation in tatters. After winning that initial scudetto, Allegri was expected to deliver a second the following season. Instead, his team finished a respectable second to the “new” kid: an Old Lady emboldened by her new manager, former midfielder Conte. Juventus ended the 2011-12 season unbeaten, securing its first title since returning to Serie A.
Still, it takes a special sort of careful to come away with a title and 15 draws, a record that highlighted Juve’s weaknesses as much as its strengths. The Juventus fans didn’t care, of course, but such a feat only showcased Conte’s cautiousness, as well as highlighting the lack of real challengers for the crown. Coming off a seventh place finish, Juve’s victory had coincided with an absence of European distractions. Most felt it wouldn’t have been so easy if the club was playing in the Champions League.
When Milan failed to take advantage of Juventus’s weaknesses, much of the blame fell on Allegri – the most visible figure of a club expected to challenge for the title year after year. But a new era of frugality was hovering over Milan. Standout defender Thiago Silva and virtuoso forward Zlatan Ibrahimović had been sucked away, while veterans like Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta and Filippo Inzaghi had also left the club. The next season, Milan started with just seven points from its first eight matches. When the team barely squeezed out of its weak Champions League group, scrutiny of Allegri increased.
Milan rebounded to finish third, but few gave Allegri much credit. The coach’s tactical prowess seemed to consist solely of screaming the words “Dai Dai Dai” (come on come on come on) from the touchline. Meanwhile, even though Conte missed half the season after being charged with sporting fraud, Juventus cruised to another title, exhibiting the discipline, health and inspiration Allegri’s sides seemed to lack. Instead of finding a way to keep pace with Italy’s new leaders, Allergi seemed to cower under a mist of his own making, the infamous dai dai dai ceaselessly mocked for all it’d come to symbolize.
Had Allegri make mistakes? Of course. A young coach, looking to make his mark on one of the biggest clubs in the world, was always likely to have a tough time, shifts in Milan’s philosophy notwithstanding. But the behind-the-scenes drama that occurred with the rossoneri – the alienation of Andrea Pirlo; the public declaration that third, rather than the scudetto, would be more than fine – had strengthened perceptions. The results on the field confirmed them. By the mid-point of his fourth year, with Milan languishing in 11th, Allegri was out of a job.
In spite of that downfall, Juventus quickly chose him as Conte’s replacement. Some would say the club took a chance; others would say it had no other options. But a year on, it’s becoming more and more evident that the problems at Milan were the result of that club’s utter disarray rather than solely attributable to the man pacing the sideline. By the end of Allegri’s time there, nearly all of Milan’s old guard had departed, replaced by a slap-dash of players cobbled together based on price and past shine. The one young gem, Stephan El Shaarway, who’d carried the side’s renaissance the season before, had missed nearly the entire season with injury. No one had confidence that Allegri could make the necessary changes to inspire the side.
What a difference a year makes. In his first season in Turin, Allegri has taken Juventus to heights its beloved Conte never managed – namely, the Champions League semifinals. The new coach’s professed eagerness to develop the side tactically – one that was initially met with skepticism – has seen the team evolve from its reliance on Conte’s 3-5-2 formation. Allegri has shown the tactical flexibility that was previously present at Milan (he’d switched his prefered formation from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-2-3-1 before settling on the 4-3-3 that helped Milan rise back up to third in his final full season) yet had been obscured by other failings. Despite fears to the contrary, Allegri has shown himself able to adapt his side.
Juventus’s now-trademark defensive ability remains, although Allegri has shifted the side to a four-man backline. But he’s also gone back to his roots, encouraging an attacking prowess that’s lead to 63 goals in 33 matches (Conte’s side had just 68 total in his first season) and given Carlos Tevez plenty of room to flourish, resulting in 20 league goals in 30 games for the 31-year-old. Allegri knows when to play it safe, reverting to the three-man central defense when necessary, but caution is more a fallback than a modus operandi.
Allegri is no longer a punchline, but he’s also not risen to the level of the elite, yet. Winning in what’s seen as a decaying league won’t alter that perception. Lifting a Champions League trophy, however, would send his stock rising, and considering the nuances that have recently resurfaced in Allegri’s character, such a feat isn’t as mad as it seemed at the start of the season.