Johan Cruyff’s description of Italian football was inevitably tossed around on Twitter following Juventus advancing to the quarterfinals of the Champions League following a 2-1 win over Tottenham in the second leg of their tie. Lacking any solid attribution but appropriate for the moment, his saying goes something to the effect of Italian sides not beating you, but you losing to them instead. Yet in his post-match afterglow, it would be Giorgio Chiellini to deliver the poignant, lasting impression of the night. In a tie that could be described as Juventus only bettering their opponents in 15 minutes of the total 180 with all four goals coming during that span, Chiellini simply said “it’s the history of Tottenham.” He went further in explaining that while Tottenham created their chances, they were always missing that final, decisive touch. Chiellini's Juventus side had the history and aura to push through the last minute nerves.
That emphasis on European history and success take on a new context with the release of the club’s February release of their Netflix documentary First Team: Juventus. The premise is an all-access, behind the scenes look into the makings of the Italian side with global brand aspirations. And while we wouldn’t expect a raw, cultural examination like Last Chance U, the first three released episodes highlight the dominant theme of the show: an obsession with winning the Champions League that runs from the board to the players, to their supporters.
Chiellini’s description of Tottenham wasn’t as existentially damning as it seemed in the transcript. In pointing out Juventus’ attitude in Europe compared to the English side’s lack of experience, he explained how his teammates had to build their spirit little by little, round after round, for four seasons before they had the right to win a match they shouldn’t have won by the traditional eye test. The enduring images of the match weren’t from the Higuain or Dybala goals, but in the way Chiellini and Buffon celebrated a last ditch clearance or how Chiellini punched Buffon as he smothered a cross.
Pochettino disagreed with the assessment that Tottenham lacked a European aura, pointing out their variety of chances that brought out the best of Chiellini’s last ditch tackles leading to an unfair result. But his explanation also proves Chiellini’s point and begs the question of what comes first in Europe: the results or the attitude? Ultimately, there is only the final result - with Juventus winning over two legs - and we walk our logic backwards from victory. We could wonder how that story would shift had Harry Kane’s header taken a different bounce. But according to the logic and world of Chiellini, there are no ifs in Europe, only a predetermined fate forge by previous struggle and experience.
And if those 180 minutes were an aura as much as a match, Juventus manager Max Allegri takes on a dual role as tactician and tea leaf reader. As the documentary touches upon, the question of whether Allegri would return as manager this season wasn’t down to results or expectations, but whether the 50-year-old had the energy to handle the pressures and difficulties that come with the Juventus title. Having made the switch years ago from a three man backline to a practical four defender backline in Europe, Allegri set out his side in their usual back four shape with three center midfielders. But a 36-year-old right back Andrea Barzagli was badly outplayed and outpaced in the first half by Son Heung-min. Down a goal at halftime, with two goals needed to advance, Allegri had no out and out attacker amongst his seven subs consisting of a keeper, four box-to-box midfielders, a center back, and a wingback.
But that is exactly when Allegri’s highest talents kicked in. He’s always received plaudits for being one of the best at reading a game and making changes, and he does mention in the documentary of how a match is made up of several smaller games. Thus, needing a goal and without a striker on his bench, Allegri looked for a goal by replacing midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah for Blaise Matuidi and right back Stephan Lichtsteiner for center back Medhi Benatia. The former moved proved two-fold in moving Barzagli to center back away from Son and adding attacking pace to the wing. Lichtsteiner provided the cross for Higuain’s first goal. Allegri won the match by changing its shape and emphasizing Juve’s width. This, as the Totally Football podcast pointed out, in contrast to Zinedine Zidane subbing on Isco, Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale to see out their match against PSG the night before.
For his part, Son didn’t blame a lack of experience, but a lack of goals for the loss. Yet if goals are the only measure of quality, then Gonzalo Higuain 38 goals in 62 matches at Juventus rates him as one of the most clinical strikers in the world. Yet his perception is colored by 1-on-1 blunders at the highest stage, like this chance against Germany in the 2014 World Cup final followed by this miss in the 2015 Copa America final against Chile. His two goals in the first ten minutes in the first leg against Tottenham was tempered by the penalty miss right before halftime. Yet in addition to scoring, he did set up Dybala’s match winner as well. At 30 years old, the layers continue to unfold.
Dybala’s goal was especially important in relieving the pressure and responsibility of the #10 jersey, which the documentary makes time to note. He’s seen coming off the bench in early episodes, including a match against Inter Milan that lead to Pavel Nedved imploring Dybala to refocus on his game. In addition to burying Tottenham, Dybala created one of the individual moments of the season against Lazio the previous weekend. Receiving the ball at midfield in the 92nd minute of a 0-0 match, he slalomed between three defenders and picked a wide pass, received the ball moments later, then turned into the penalty area, and unleashed a now trademark shot into the upper right corner. Even if the league is on the backburner, they are just a point behind Napoli with a game in hand.
The first half of the documentary season appropriately ends with Juventus preparing for Tottenham. There are three more episodes to come, and the documentary seems straightforward from here: they’ll either achieve their season goal of winning the Champions League, or it’ll be about a group coming to terms with their disappointment as Chiellini does after failing to qualify for the World Cup. It may be Buffon’s last season with the club. Allegri is a perennial target for Premier League sides. From that perspective, this European run is the conclusion of the previous years of heartbreak, and the aura and character that builds from those experiences. Then it’s back to the beginning. Discovering that final touch, that ability for a side to make a result appear when it shouldn’t, doesn’t develop during a run of matches or a season, but over years.