Juventus’ worst fears were realised on Monday morning as the extent of Federico Chiesa’s knee injury was revealed.
The seemingly cursed Stadio Olimpico has claimed yet another ACL. Over the years, we’ve seen the great Ronaldo’s knee explode in the Italian capital and in 2020, we saw both Merih Demiral and Nicolo Zaniolo sustain devastating ACL injuries in the same game! Now, Chiesa has succumbed to the Olimpico turf and he’s expected to miss the rest of the season as a result.
It’s a huge blow for Juventus, with Chiesa enjoying a bright start to 2022 after he missed the last month of 2021 with a thigh injury. The Italian scored amid an electric display against Napoli and he teed up Paulo Dybala for the Argentine’s trademark finish before he was forced off in the first-half against AS Roma.
Juventus coped without Federico Chiesa in December but this situation is completely different
The Bianconeri had coped without him last time around as they won five of their remaining six games of the calendar year, but their fixture list was distinctly kind. Each of these encounters were contests Juve were expected to win, no matter how vulnerable they are this term. In those run of games, Massimiliano Allegri’s side played the current bottom four teams in Serie A.
Having Chiesa sidelined for the entirety of the second half of the season is a different kettle of fish for Allegri. It’s a daunting challenge, especially when you take into account the fragility of their other attacking superstar, Dybala. Juve are expected to fight on three fronts in the coming months. Securing a top-four spot in the league is imperative, while Villarreal and Sampdoria await in the Champions League and Coppa Italia respectively. They also take on Inter Milan in the Supercoppa Italiana on Wednesday night.
Thus, Allegri must eek every ounce of potential out of his depth chart with several players, in particular, required to fill the boots of the effervescent Chiesa. Federico Bernardeschi did last time out and the Italian’s December was arguably his best month of football since he joined the club. He seems to enjoy the added responsibility that Chiesa’s absence thrusts upon him.
Elsewhere, Dejan Kulusevski has been given a new lease of life in Turin thanks to Chiesa’s injury. Juventus will surely not be silly enough to let the young Swede leave the club this January considering how thin they are in wide areas. Can Allegri get a tune out of Kulusevski this time around? It’s last chance saloon time for the 21-year-old at Juventus, and there’s hope that his equalising goal in Juve’s thrilling comeback in the capital at the weekend will finally ignite a resurgence. Any bright moments this term have been mere false dawns but that can’t be the case this time around. Although, he’ll be aided by the increased minutes that he’ll surely receive as a result of Chiesa’s absence.
Chiesa’s injury should force Massimiliano Allegri into a different tactical approach
However, while fringe players must step up to fill the Italian’s superstar void, the onus is also on the manager to switch things up from a tactical perspective.
We’ve discussed Allegri’s tactics plenty this term, and Chiesa was a big reason why some fans had put up with them. The boss is desperate to re-instil the grinta that laid the foundations for the club’s recent decade-long reign of domestic dominance in Italy. It’s something they lost after Cristiano Ronaldo was brought to the club and while Allegri’s attempt to bring back everything great about his and Antonio Conte’s Juventus is understandable, it’s certainly come at a cost.
The game has evolved rapidly since Allegri was last in management and the early signs suggest the manager is a few years behind his contemporaries. His default ploy of blocking space and counter-attacking is atypical of a modern European supergiant and the approach thus far has unsurprisingly proved unsustainable (and tough viewing).
Allegri trusts his defence to hold firm in the face of pressure, frustrate opponents and force them into committing more bodies forward before hitting them on the counter. It worked a treat at times in the first half of the season – against Lazio and most notably Chelsea, where Chiesa was magnificent, for example. But, more often than not, Juve have churned out lifeless and turgid performances with the ball.
The injured Italian was crucial to the manager’s default game plan. Given the turn of pace he possesses and how unstoppable he is when attacking space, Chiesa is Juve’s primary transition threat. The 24-year-old alone is capable of turning defence into attack in an instant. He gets Juventus up the field, offering the defence some respite.
His absence means the Old Lady are devoid of elite transition threats. Alvaro Morata can be on his day, as can Kulusevski, but neither are reliable. Dybala isn’t a proficient counter-attacking player, either.
So, for Allegri to continue with his default approach, even against superior opposition, would be suicide. Without Chiesa, they’d struggle to get up the pitch meaning succumbing to sustained periods of opposition pressure would be a matter of inevitability. And no matter how stern your defensive block is and even if Giorgio Chiellini is donning his invincible headband, you’re always liable to concede when you face wave after wave of attacks.
This Juventus outfit, despite Allegri’s best efforts, simply don’t boast the mental fortitude to execute 1993/94 AC Milan levels of defensive play regularly and the approach doesn’t give the Bianconeri the best chance of winning games week in, week out.
We’ve seen a more progressive and dynamic Juventus at times this season
So, Allegri must change tack. We’ve seen plenty of variation from the master pragmatist already this season and at the start of 2022, he’s opted to deploy a 4-3-3. Although, the 4-4-2 out of possession structure remains, with pressing sporadic.
What I’d love to see is a more frequent iteration of the Juventus we saw against Salernitana and Genoa at the start of December, when Chiesa was out. Sure, these are two of the worst teams Serie A has to offer but the principles on display were entirely different to Allegri’s dull default. On those occasions, there was variation in the build-up structure, the full-backs were constantly high upfield, playmakers were occupying pockets between the lines and an effective press allowed them to sustain pressure themselves.
Juve were much more progressive in those victories, and those contests should serve as a blueprint for the remainder of the 2021/22 campaign. Of course, game-states are crucial and I’m not asking Allegri to adopt a Marcelo Bielsa-like stubbornness to any new approach. The wily Italian’s pragmatism will still be crucial as the season wears on.
In the comeback against Roma, we caught another glimpse of the potential of this Juventus side when they have the freedom to play. Arthur Melo’s introduction as a regista with Manuel Locatelli stationed higher upfield could prove a season-altering switch and if the 4-3-3 is retained, we’ll likely see Dybala drifting in off the right, Bernardeschi deployed on the left with Morata up top.
However, optimal personnel is irrelevant if the overriding principles don’t change. Juventus must start sustaining pressure on both sides of the ball and that begins with a higher line of engagement out of possession. That’s the catalyst for seeing a more dynamic Bianconeri in the second half of the season.
In summation, while the injury of superstar Chiesa is devastating in almost every sense of the word, there may be a silver lining ready to manifest should Allegri be bold enough to change his approach.