Massimiliano Allegri has had a fantastic coaching career to date. Since his first appointment at Aglianese in Italy’s Serie C2 in 2004, Allegri has been on an increasing upwards trajectory which has now placed him as one of Europe’s top coaches. He stands alone as the best Italian coach at the moment courtesy of his stellar record at Juventus so far. In Turin, Allegri has led Juventus to three league and cup doubles in his three seasons in charge as well as also leading them into two Champions League finals. But what is the secret behind his remarkable success? Apart from his obvious leadership qualities, Allegri’s success can largely be attributed to his tactical flexibility which makes him probably the most complete coach in the world.
Allegri had a good playing career where he spent most of his early years in the lower leagues before moving to Pescara. Allegri became a regular in midfield as Pescara won promotion to the top flight and his first year in Serie A proved fantastic on an individual level. Allegri scored 12 goals from midfield and secured a personal stay in the top flight despite Pescara getting relegated. Allegri moved to Cagliari where he spent two years prior to spells with Perugia, Padova, Napoli, Pescara again and Pistoiese before ending his playing career at Aglianese. It was at Aglianese where Allegri would take his first steps in management. After an impressive spell in charge in Serie C2, Allegri took charge of SPAL, which didn’t prove as successful, and Grosseto where he was sacked after just over a season in charge. In the summer of 2007, after spending three seasons at three different clubs, Allegri was appointed as head coach of the ambitious Serie C1 side Sassuolo,
As most of you know, Sassuolo are now an established Serie A side. In 2007/08 though, they were a Serie C1 (Italy’s third league) club with ambitions to progress in the league system. By appointing the still inexperienced Allegri, then 40 years old, owner Giorgio Squinzi took a substantial risk. After all, Sassuolo had just missed out on promotion in the previous season after losing the play-off semi-final. The coach Gian Marco Remondina had left though, joining Piacenza in Serie B, which led to Squinzi trusting Allegri with winning promotion for the Neroverdi. His faith was justified, as Allegri’s Sassuolo stormed to the title and brought Sassuolo into Serie B for the first time in the club’s history. A month after the promotion had been confirmed, Allegri was on the move again though.
This time, Allegri left the region of Emilia-Romagna in the north of Italy to move off the mainland and onto Sardinia where his former club Cagliari gave him his first chance to coach in Serie A. Allegri found a group of players, including Federico Marchetti, Daniele Conti, Davide Biondini, Andrea Lazzari, Robert Acquafresca, Alessandro Matri and the effortless genius playmaker Andrea Cossu, not many fans where excited by, Cossu apart.. In truth, a long season beckoned. Unsurprisingly, the introduction to Serie A football proved difficult for Allegri. Cagliari began the season with five straight defeats, but owner Massimo Cellino trusted in his young coach and this trust eventually bore fruit. Cagliari started winning, and playing really well, as Allegri implemented a 4-3-1-2 formation with Cossu thriving behind two strikers, often two out of Matri, Acquafresca and Jeda. When the last match had been played, Allegri had led Cagliari to ninth in the league, their highest league finish for 15 years, which was heralded as a great triumph for Allegri given the lack of resources, quality players in his squad and the attractive style of Cagliari’s football. Highlights included an away win, 3-2, in Turin against Juventus. When the Panchina d’Oro, the prize to the best coach in the Serie A, was handed out to Allegri at the end of the season, he had beaten Inter’s title-winning coach Jose Mourinho among others to the prize.
In his second season, 2009/10, Allegri continued to excite fans with the football Cagliari played despite Acquafresca, the top scorer in the previous season, having left the club. In April, with the club stable in 12th, Allegri was promptly and surprisingly sacked as Cagliari coach by Cellino. The decision took Italy by surprise because despite poor form, no wins in nine, Allegri had overseen an establishment of Cagliari as a mid-table team. Despite his dismissal, Allegri’s time at Cagliari was instrumental in his development as a coach. It was his first experience in Serie A and he relished the chance to work with professionals at such a high level. Testament to his man-management and individual coaching could be seen by the likes of Marchetti, Biondini and Cossu earning international call-ups for Italy during his time in charge. Allegri wouldn’t have to be out of work for long though, as bigger clubs already circled.
A young Allegri at Cagliari.
In the summer of 2010, Inter had won Serie A five times in succession, four on their own while the first one in that sequence had been awarded to the club after Juventus’ and Milan’s involvement in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. The Scudetto in 2010, when Inter won the treble, had also seen Inter leapfrog Milan with 18 Scudetti to Milan’s 17. Impressed by Allegri’s work at Cagliari, owner Silvio Berlusconi and sporting director Adriano Galliani appointed Allegri as Milan’s new coach. Two months later, Allegri was given a present from the two men; Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Allegri’s first game at the Rossonero bench was a stroll at San Siro as Milan beat Lecce 4-0 to give the new coach a flying start. A 2-0 defeat at Cesena in the second round brought Allegri and Milan down to earth again quickly. Consecutive draws against Catania and Lazio followed to leave Milan in 8th after four games. Now though, Allegri’s 4-3-1-2 started clicking. Of the next twelve games, Milan won ten, drawing one and losing one which saw them end 2010 in top spot, a position they never relinquished. After losing to Roma just before Christmas, Milan then went on another twelve game unbeaten streak and their opponents couldn’t keep up. With a 4-1 win at home to Cagliari, of all clubs, in the penultimate fixture, Milan clinched the title. Allegri had led Milan to the Scudetto in his first year in charge and delivered the club’s first league title since 2004. Importantly for the fans, Milan had also beaten Inter in both derbies without conceding and both Milan giants now had 18 titles each.
Allegri had also proved he could handle big personalities and players at the absolute top of the game, with the likes of Ibrahimovic, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Alexandre Pato, Robinho and Antonio Cassano shining under his leadership. Allegri made one big error though. He didn’t incorporate Andrea Pirlo enough in the eleven as he preferred the defensive balance provided by Massimo Ambrosini or Mark van Bommel, which led to Pirlo leaving Milan on a free transfer in the summer of 2011 to join Juventus and their Antonio Conte-led revolution. The following season saw Milan and Juventus go head to head for the title. The entire season seemed to build up into the clash on 25th February at San Siro between the sides.
Conte’s Juve were still unbeaten in the league but Milan were at home, despite missing Ibrahimovic due to suspension. Milan started best and took the lead through Antonio Nocerino. In the second half, Sulley Muntari thought he had made it 2-0 when his header crossed the line prior to Buffon getting his hands on the ball. The goal wasn’t given though and, with seven minutes remaining, Alessandro Matri, Allegri’s former star at Cagliari, made it 1-1 to keep Juve’s unbeaten streak intact. It would remain so throughout the campaign, and when Milan lost the derby against Inter in the penultimate game of the season, Juventus were crowned champions for the first time since Calciopoli.
The title-loss proved detrimental to Allegri’s time at Milan as Berlusconi quickly started to reduce costs at the club. In the summer of 2012, Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Nesta, Seedorf, Gattuso, Cassano, Filippo Inzaghi and Gianluca Zambrotta left the club. Those players were integral to Allegri, not only for their quality but also their leadership and experience. With a weak squad, Allegri led Milan to 3rd as Juventus and Pirlo won the league again. During the following campaign, 2013/14, it seemed obvious Allegri was set to leave Milan at the end of the season. After a 4-3 loss at Sassuolo in January, Allegri was sacked as Milan coach. Allegri’s time at Milan therefore makes it difficult to really judge him. His first season was a starling success, winning Milan’s first league title in seven years and equaling Inter’s 18 league titles. To this day, neither Milan club has won the Serie A since. The second season, 2011/12, showed Milan to be quite inconsistent which saw them fall four points short, but the goal that wasn’t given against Juventus proved decisive in the way Juve gained even greater belief and confidence with the draw at San Siro and Milan seemed a bit demoralized in the immediate aftermath. The third season didn’t see Allegri given a chance given the dramatic squad changes, to the worse, and the fourth was ended in January after a poor start to the campaign. In the end, Allegri’s time at Milan can be labelled a relative success and important in his personal development as he gained international experience in the Champions League as well as winning his first Scudetto.
In the summer of 2014, Antonio Conte left Juventus after three straight titles and took charge of the national team. To replace him, Juve chose Allegri, much to the surprise of many as Allegri’s stock wasn’t high after his Milan dismissal. It proved a masterstroke from Juventus. In Turin, Allegri was reunited with Pirlo and now chose to build his side around the playmaker. A flexible Juventus, changing between a 3-5-2 and Allegri’s beloved 4-3-1-2 saw Juventus win their fourth straight Scudetto in Allegri’s first season as well as reach the Champions League final in Berlin after beating Real Madrid in the semi-final. Allegri’s Juve pushed a brilliant Barcelona close, but the Catalans eventually won the final 3-1. That Juve side impressed in Allegri’s 4-3-1-2 with a midfield diamond with Pirlo at the base with Paul Pogba to his left and Claudio Marchisio to his left while Arturo Vidal was at the top of the diamond. Up front, Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata created a splendid partnership. In the summer of 2015, the team was chopped up by the departures of Pirlo, Tevez and Vidal, but Allegri led a new-look Juve with super talent Paulo Dybala to a fifth straight Scudetto in 2015/16.
Last season, Allegri again created a new side as Pogba and Morata had departed in the summer of 2016. New signings Miralem Pjanic and Gonzalo Higuain settled in brilliantly, especially after Christmas, as Allegri used a attackingly-balanced 4-2-3-1 for much of the spring but towards the latter stages of the Champions League Allegri also used a 5-4-1 or 3-4-2-1 to take Juve into a second final in three years. In the final, Real Madrid proved too strong. In Italy, Juve won an unprecedented sixth straight Scudetto, Allegri’s third in Turin and fourth in total. Besides the three league titles under Allegri, Juve have also won the Coppa Italia in each of his three seasons. Three league and cup doubles and two Champions League finals in three seasons with rebuilding jobs each summer is a fantastic achievement.
This season, Juventus started without defensive linchpin Leonardo Bonucci and right-back Dani Alves after the pair left in the summer. Allegri then had to rearrange half of his preferred defensive quartet of last year. To replace Alves, Juve brought in Mattia De Sciglio, who got his chance as a youngster at Milan by Allegri, and to replace Bonucci, for so long such a vital member of Juve’s defense, Allegri has lately allowed Mehdi Benatia more trust with the Moroccan now thriving in the heart of Juve’s defense. There has been a shift in the formation too. As of the last few weeks, Allegri has implemented a 4-3-3 formation with Miralem Pjanic shining in a costumed made role as the playmaker of the side. After strong starts of Napoli and Inter it looked likely Juventus’ grip on the Scudetto might be slipping, but Juve are now back within a point of top spot.
The main strength of Allegri’s coaching is his tactical knowledge and tactical flexibility. As I’ve illustrated, Allegri can implement a plethora of different formations based on the game and his available players while gaining results. That’s impressive in it’s own right, but what’s more impressive is the fact Allegri can coach so many different styles. His Juventus has with little doubt been the most tactically flexible side we’ve seen. They can defend deep to soak up pressure and nullify great attacking teams. They can press high to disrupt even the most effective build-up (Napoli or Barcelona for example). They can defend with clear man-orientations where they mark their opponents to disrupt them or defend as a positionally orientated team where they keep a compact shape and move as a unit to dominate the space. They can attack directly with longer balls and crosses. They can attack with well-worked positional play where they build from the backs and exploit spaces in between the lines of the opposition as they dominate possession. They can counter-attack both from deep positions or from quick combination plays high up the pitch when the ball is won there.
As you can imagine, Massimiliano Allegri can coach basically every style imaginable. His teams can adopt all these different styles based on their opposition’s style, the currently available players of his own side and conditions such as weather, atmosphere or pressure from fans or media. Allegri is also absolutely superb when it comes to rotating his players. It’s not a surprise his teams tend to peak towards the latter stages of the campaign. It’s all part of his planning.
Allegri’s teams are so well-prepared that just a simple gesture will see them change their approach.
When we compare Allegri to the other coaching superstars like Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Antonio Conte or Diego Simeone, this total tactical flexibility is where they differ. All those coaches are sublime, they are tactically at the top of the game and some of them have in different ways revolutionized how we perceive football. But Guardiola can’t coach deep defending without ball possession like Mourinho, Conte, Simeone and Allegri can. More importantly he doesn’t want to. Mourinho can’t coach an effective collective attack like Guardiola, Conte or Allegri. Simeone’s teams are superb defensively and in transition but have often struggled when forced to dictate games through possession. Conte is more similar to Allegri in his pragmatic approach and have shown he can coach different styles of play, but not as consistently as Allegri have.
Critics will say Allegri can’t be compared to Guardiola or Mourinho since he hasn’t yet won a Champions League. In truth, not many has, but Allegri has been in two finals and therefore has had a chance. To defend that record, it should be noted that the 2014/15 Barcelona (with the trident Messi, Suarez, Neymar in peak form) and the 2016/17 Real Madrid (the first back-to-back Champions League winners in over 25 years) have been formidable opposition.
Tactically, Allegri is the most complete coach in Europe. Added to his leadership, rotation policy and man-management it’s clear we’re looking at one of the best coaches in the world. He adapts to the situation to try and get a result for his side. He normally gets his way. As we enter 2018 with Juventus changing a seventh straight Scudetto, a fourth in a row for Allegri, it’s also increasingly likely Allegri will leave Turin in the summer. Every club bar Manchester City (given their form and Guardiola’s standing as the best coach in the world) should be interested in the Tuscan’s tactical knowledge. They would be lucky to have him.