Even as he presided over Juventus’s worst start to a season for 60 anni, Massimiliano Allegri still felt able to joke around. “If we look at the league table,” he quipped at a press conference before the Bianconeri faced Spezia on Wednesday night, “This is a relegation showdown.”
He was joking, giusto? It was hard to tell, when neither he nor anybody else in the room laughed. Poor results are rarely met in good humour at a club that lives by the manta of its former president, Giampiero Boniperti: “winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that counts”. Only three times before in Juventus’ history had they started a Serie A season as poorly as this – without a victory in four games.
Allegri was trying to deflect questions about whether his team could still compete for the Scudetto, stressing that this was a moment to focus on the next game and nothing more. Yet this also felt like a deliberate attempt to restore some lightness in his own approach.
The manager had raged at the end of Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Milan, swearing as he headed for the tunnel and damning his players with the question: “These guys want to play for Juve?” Those words were echoed in his comments on the performance of Federico Chiesa. “He needs to grow,” said Allegri of the Italy forward. “He needs to gain the awareness that we are at Juventus.”
Di mercoledì, it was Chiesa who dragged his team back from the brink in their supposed six-pointer with Spezia. Despite taking the lead through Moise Kean, Juventus had contrived to fall behind after the interval against opponents playing just their second-ever season in Serie A. Then Chiesa got his team level with an act of furious determination.
Primo, he chased Daniele Verde down to the left-hand corner flag as the Spezia player ran to stop the ball going out for a corner. After winning possession, Chiesa beat two players on his way back inside and threaded a pass to Álvaro Morata inside the penalty area. The Spaniard was crowded out as he attempted to turn and shoot. Chiesa, anche se, had kept on running behind him. Somehow, he emerged with the ball, forcing it beyond the keeper for an equaliser.
Who knows where this match might have ended up without that moment of inspiration? Juventus were dominant in all the obvious statistical categories – they had 60% possession and took 26 shots to their opponents’ 10 – yet had almost fallen further behind a minute before Chiesa struck, Manuel Locatelli clearing off the line when Janis Antiste miscued his shot from the edge of the six-yard box.
Allegri’s team had already endured the humiliation of seeing Spezia striker Emmanuel Gyasi celebrate his first-half goal by imitating Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘Siuuu!’ gesture, pirouetting through the air and swinging his arms out to the sides as he came back to earth. The striker would describe it as a spontaneous homage, but it cut through as a visual reminder of Juventus’s diminished status.
It would be far too simplistic to suggest that Ronaldo’s departure precipitated a collapse in their results. The Portuguese forward would not have stopped Juventus from being undone by a simple long ball, as they were for Spezia’s second goal on Wednesday. He played a full part last season as the Old Lady surrendered her Serie A crown for the first time in a decade.
His goals are certainly missed, and the questions about whether Juventus might have won these games with him are inevitable. Allo stesso tempo, there is a bigger picture that the club cannot hide from, which shows them drifting further and further away from their goal of conquering Europe since they signed Ronaldo for €100m with that target in mind.
For Allegri, the more important concerns are the immediate ones. Juventus desperately needed a win to launch this Serie A season and it arrived, at last, di mercoledì, after centre-back Matthijs De Ligt drove the ball home at a corner, completing their comeback to defeat Spezia 3-2.
Here was another player, together with Chiesa, who had been singled out for discussion in recent days. Allegri’s decision to leave De Ligt out of his starting XI for matches against Napoli and Milan already this season had provoked questions about whether he lacked faith in a defender that Juventus signed for €85m two summers ago.
After winning five Serie A titles in as many seasons during his previous stint at Juventus, the manager has earned the benefit of the doubt. Ancora, his handling of both De Ligt and Chiesa – who had started only once before Wednesday due to a lingering injury – will continue to be scrutinised going forward.
Juve’s poor results through the opening part of this season can be explained through many causes – Ronaldo’s exit, goalkeeping blunders, a sprinkling of bad luck – but the most uncomfortable thought for the club is that their talent is simply not that good. The midfield remains a muddle, with too many players who have underperformed in a Juventus shirt and too few who seem capable of constructing play.
There is weakness at the full-back position too, with Alex Sandro a shadow of the player he was three years ago and scarce forward thrust outside of the 33-year-old Juan Cuadrado. Paulo Dybala has been cast as the player to build around up front, yet his brilliance remains intermittent.
In that context, it is easy to see why fans and journalists would fixate on Chiesa, a European champion at 23 and the talent in this squad with the highest ceiling. Likewise, the need for Juventus to draw out the full value of De Ligt only feels more pressing at a time when the pandemic has hit their finances hard.
The worry is that Allegri is too wedded to the ideas that worked for him during his previous stint: a hybrid 4-4-2/3-5-2 that does not leave a natural role for a winger like Chiesa, and a deep defensive line that suits the familiar partnership of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. De Ligt thrives as an aggressor, moving up the pitch.
Perhaps these are just the classic premature concerns of a club that cannot stand to stop winning even for a moment. After his visible fury during the draw with Milan, Allegri cut a much more serene figure on the sideline on Wednesday, even when Juventus were losing.
At full-time, Allegri expressed his satisfaction that Juventus had “won a match suffering. That’s no bad thing because otherwise we might have started to think that we had become good.”
There seems little risk, for now, of anyone drawing that conclusion. But at least if he looks at the table this morning, Allegri will see that Juventus are no longer in the relegation zone.