After beating Barcelona 3-0 in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals, Juventus have gone over 400 minutes without conceding a goal in the competition. November was the last time they gave up a goal in Europe, and they've outscored their next four opponents 8-0 since. Considering the domestic trophies won by Antonio Conte at Juventus, the Champions League was the one way Max Allegri could distinguish himself from his predecessor. Although success takes on its own life. If reaching the 2015 final against Barcelona was a welcome surprise, anything less than that would be a disappointment just two years later.
Allegri's mastery of Europe stems from a fluidity depending on what each phase of a match requires. Marchisio noted how the manager isn't married to a formation, but utilizes the squad to "change identities" during a game. Allegri documented how he envisions the structure of a three player midfield in his 2004 thesis to receive his final coaching certificate, and we can see how these ideas translate over a decade later. It is also important to note that he was managing a squad with tight resources at SPAL at the time of his presentation, giving his thesis a pragmatic lens. He writes how he was "forced into necessity" to build a midfield in a specific manner due to taking over the side a day before preseason training with little knowledge of his player's quality. That element of immediacy seems a common trait amongst influential soccer developments.
He begins with an appreciation for the defensive structure of a 4-4-2 before defining the qualities he envisions in specific midfield roles with the #4 (deep lying playmaker), #8 (box to box midfielder), and #10 (attacking midfielder). For example, his deep lying playmaker must have the charisma and intelligence to command his two midfielders and three attackers to return to their proper positions when defending.
Running and tactical positioning are vital for the two midfielders in front of the deep playing playmaker. Allegri envisions his attacking midfielder to play in traditional ways we associate with the creative role, and the box to box midfielder must give the midfield balance through the subtle but essential skill of proper positioning. He demands his sides be able to play with either a lone midfielder conducting play in a 4-3-3, or in a 4-2-3-1 with the box to box midfielder dropping back to add defensive security depending on the situation. Most importantly, he defines the rotations needed to stop opposition counterattacks: the #8 rotates wide, the #4 covers his position in the center, and the #10 takes up a position in front of the back four. More than just tactics or psychology, Allegri also emphasizes the physical balance between roles: the box to box #8 must be more athletically dynamic than his #4 counterpart.
As simple as it is charted on a diagram, we can see the interplay of Allegri's midfield play out during his time at Juventus. This season's midfield three features Pjanic as the deep lying playmaker, Khedira as the box to box, and Dybala as the playmaker. In analyzing what he requires in an attacking midfielder – a dribbler who always loses his mark and can shoot from distance, but is also cognizant of his defensive duties – especially fits Dybala. As Gab Marcotti points out, it's this blue collar approach to work rate that separates the Argentine from other attacking midfielders. There were questions of where Pjanic would play after his transfer from Roma last summer, but his passing ability in the build up phase is essential next to the tactical running of Khedira. Players, eras, and movements shift, but a physically, psychologically, and tactically balanced midfield is timeless.
Allegri worked his way up the coaching ranks in the years after presenting this thesis: he managed at Grosseto in Serie C, then led Sassuolo to Serie B promotion the following year. He broke out to a wider audience with Cagliari in 2009, leading the limited side to a ninth place finish in Serie A (lining up in a diamond, that midfield featured some of Daniele Conti, Michele Fini, Andrea Lazzari, Davide Biondi, and Andrea Parola in the balancing act). The overachieving year caught the attention of Silvio Berlusconi. Allegri moved to Milan in 2010 and promptly led the club to their first Serie A title since 2004. But then came a move that shifted the balance of power in Serie A, with its impact still relevant today: even in discussing the importance of the deep lying playmaker in his midfield, he had no place for Andrea Pirlo. The then 32-year-old Pirlo moved to Juventus and became the conductor of that side that hasn't relinquished the league title since.
Pirlo compared his lone season under Allegri at Milan to getting evicted from his garden as Massimo Ambrosini and Mark van Bommel took over the deep lying playmaker role. But how Allegri managed to let Pirlo leave is baffling as no midfielder played that role of conductor more consistently or at a higher quality than Pirlo. There was a hint that Gennaro Gattuso and Ambrosini's decline contributed to exposing Pirlo defensively, which makes tuning the midfield balance an important exercise in analyzing a player's decline, or lack thereof. Milan finished second and third in the following two seasons and Allegri was gone by midseason in the fourth. Reunited with Pirlo at Juventus, and praised by the playmaker for his calmness in Europe, the duo were one match away from winning the Champions League in 2015.
The rumors have Allegri once again following Conte's footsteps, this time to the Premier League. Arsenal are today's preferred destination. Whether he can surpass Conte's accomplishments in his inaugural season is an unfair comparison, though the two managers will be inextricably linked. Regardless of where Allegri ends up next season, his blueprint of how to build a midfield with the versatility to handle the various phases of a match, both domestically and in Europe, is clear. How this translates into points, clean sheet records, and trophies takes care of itself, in any league.