The man being lauded for Juventus' surprise run to the Champions League final is coach Massimiliano Allegri, but it was only last January that he looked set for a return to one of Serie A's provincial teams after being sacked by AC Milan. In the space of a year, his reputation as a bumbling touchline buffoon has given way to one of tactical mastery, with Allegri having molded a shapeshifting unit capable of both devastating counter-attacks and intricate build-up play.
The question is thus: which is the real Allegri? The man who looked out of his depth in mid-table with Milan, or the man who looks utterly assured in leading Juventus to their first Champions League final in over a decade? In explaining the transformation, we first need to jump back to his sacking which came with Milan languishing in the bottom half of the table last January. They had been on the slide ever since Allegri guided them to the league title in his debut season, and they needed someone to arrest it.
It would have been foolish to pin all of the blame for Milan's underperformance on the coach, with the club's hierarchy having never formulated a long-term plan to replace ageing stars like Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi. The reinforcements were woefully inadequate, with president Silvio Berlusconi looking to keep the club afloat on a shoestring.
Unwilling to make the capital outlay to keep the club competitive in Europe, Milan largely looked to replace ageing stars with more ageing stars, or signed ultimately ineffectual players that had shone among Serie A's mid-table makeweights.
This business plan was domestically sustainable only while no one else in Serie A was improving, but alas, Juve's resurgence was well underway. They'd moved into their new arena in 2011, and had set about assembling a young squad capable of challenging for the title. Arrivals like Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba were signals of intent, and in 2012 they lifted their first scudetto in nine years.
They suddenly had a very capable squad, and buoyed by the revenues from the shiny Juventus Stadium, had money to spend, too. The inadequacy of Milan's strategy was laid bare. Things steadily went from bad to worse, and having overseen their league finishes slip from first to second and third, Allegri was sacked with the club in the bottom half of the table.
Ultimately, expecting Allegri to have been able to change the tide was naïve, and in the end he was doing all he could just to stem it. It was clear that he was effectively a footballing technocrat; a talented and inventive coach who was able to make the most of the dregs left over by a fading golden generation, and one comfortable working with talented youngsters -- Stephan El Shaarawy in particular excelled under his tutelage.
However, he had neither the clout nor the desire to stand up and challenge the decisions of Berlusconi or director Adriano Galliani. In the dressing room, where he could influence things, he seemed to lack the motivational charisma required to snap the Milan squad out of their malaise. By the end of his reign, Allegri had been handed an undoubtedly poor squad, but a more charismatic figure may have improved things -- as Seedorf did briefly in the following months.
But, as has become apparent over the last season, that doesn't mean Juventus' hiring of Allegri was a desperate stopgap decision. It was rather a masterstroke move that has actually seen the side improve on the field since Conte's departure. Juve's infrastructure was excellent and their playing squad comfortably the best in Italy. They didn't need a big name coach, just a smart tactician to help unlock their potential on the continental stage. For that, it's now clear that they could hardly have appointed anyone better.
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In many ways, Allegri is the antithesis to Conte. The latter had enjoyed three very successful years at Juve, commanding his players with a magnetism bolstered by his status as a bianconeri club legend. However, while the titles he swept up have proven crucial in changing the atmosphere and expectations of a club that looked worryingly at risk of going the way of Liverpool, the football they played was predictable. They could overwhelm Chievo and Cagliari with brute force, but Conte lacked the tactical dexterity to compete with the very best.
And so, after his departure they made the decision to transition from a motivator to a tactician. Allegri's intelligence has built upon Conte's visionary leadership to ensure that Juve now have enjoyed the best of both worlds. What Allegri may lack in glamour, he has made up for with a superior reading of the game. It has helped him steadily make his mark on this Juve team: they're now as comfortable playing with a defensive four as in Conte's trademark back three, and as dangerous on the counter-attack as they are in dominating possession.
They've reached a point where it doesn't matter that Allegri may not be the most inspirational leader: Juve's success on the pitch is doing the talking. Young players like Álvaro Morata and Stefano Sturaro are also showing signs of improvement. Like any coach, Allegri has his flaws, but at Juventus he's found a club where his strengths are accentuated rather than his deficiencies. A few months ago, the idea of him becoming a Champions League winner was a punchline. Now, it's just one game against Barcelona away from being a reality.