In a transfer window that may well prove to be critical in Juventus’ attempt to re-assert themselves among the continent’s elite, the future of Alvaro Morata was uncertain throughout.
Even before the window opened, Barcelona were keen on exploring a move with Xavi Hernandez an admirer. Morata was happy to add yet another supergiant to his ridiculous CV, but Juve’s inability to find a quick fix at the striker position meant the Spaniard’s departure was unfeasible for a side already short of goals.
Thus, La Blaugrana’s interest waned before they eventually landed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on deadline day as north London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham were linked with a late swoop for Morata.
But nothing materialised with Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri reportedly keen to partner the Spanish forward with the club’s new leading marksman, Dusan Vlahovic. We’ve already speculated how the prolific Serb’s arrival could benefit the mentally fragile Morata and theorised how Allegri could go about using the strike pair in harmony.
Using the pair as a strike duo in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 appear the most plausible possibilities, but Allegri could also bring back one of his great tactical idiosyncracies to potentially facilitate a Morata resurgence.
Massimiliano Allegri, Mario Mandzukic & the ‘wide target man’
In an age where tactical complexities are rarely esoteric, Allegri’s ‘wide target man’ ploy introduced towards the end of his first reign at the club didn’t influence universal thought in a way that, say, Pep Guardiola’s inverted full-backs or Ralf Rangnick’s gegenpressing did.
Nevertheless, I’m sure the wily pragmatist didn’t take offence.
Anyway, the wide target man, eh? What was that all about, then?
Well, the idiosyncrasy was introduced – certainly in the modern-day – by Allegri who opted to use ultimate utility man Mario Mandzukic in the role. It allowed the Croatian, despite his relative lack of speed, to operate effectively in a wide position due to his aerial superiority over opposing full-backs.
More often than not, the almost 6’3 Mandzukic would challenge a typically smaller and less imposing right-back (he played off the left-wing) as opposed to aerially proficient centre-halves. This handed Mandzukic an advantage when attacking the back post, as shown in Juventus’ 3-1 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in 2018, but the primary purpose of the function wasn’t to increase the Croatian’s goalscoring tally. He scored just 44 times for the club in over 160 appearances.
For Allegri, the motive behind Mandzukic’s rather peculiar function was even more practical and simple: It gave Juventus a more reliable ‘out-ball’ in the face of pressure and should the wide target man win the ball in the air, the Bianconeri then had a chance to exploit space in behind defences.
Mandzukic’s versatility and mastery of this uncommon role allowed Gonzalo Higuain (40 Serie A goals between 2016 and 2018) and Cristiano Ronaldo (21 Serie A goals in 2018/19) to thrive as Juve’s #9.
Allegri loved the dynamic of having two target men in the side in 2018/19 and the resulting chaos it caused in the opposition’s box. The Bianconeri boss now has the chance to replicate this relationship three seasons on.
Could Alvaro Morata be Allegri’s next Mandzukic?
While Vlahovic is probably more similar to Mandzukic than Morata, there’s no chance of Allegri shunting his brand spanking new €75m toy out wide. Thus, if the manager was to bring back the ploy, Morata will be his guy.
The Spaniard’s much better in the air than the recent statistics suggest (28th percentile of all forwards from Europe’s top five leagues over the last year for aerial duels won) and he’ll have much more success against full-backs compared to brutish centre-halves.
Moreover, Morata’s profile means his role in a wide position would be a more dynamic one compared to Manduzkic’s. The Spaniard is athletic and a willing runner in behind, meaning he could be the beneficiary of Vlahovic’s aerial ability by chasing and winning the Serbian’s flick-ons. As a result of Morata’s speed, teams won’t be able to deploy higher defensive lines in a bid to mitigate against Juve’s aerial supremacy.
In terms of the potential system that’d allow Morata to perform this updated version of the ‘wide target man’ function, the 4-3-3 seems the most obvious option. Morata would occupy the left with Vlahovic through the centre and Juan Cuadrado, Juventus’ best crosser, delivering balls from the right flank.
Alternatively, to get Paulo Dybala into the side, La Joya could operate from the right and drift infield to more favourable zones with Cuadrado overlapping from right-back. In truth, though, the configuration is pretty trivial. Perpetual interchanges and rotations mean players take up a multitude of positions in any given game which undermine the common notations.
In this case, Allegri merely needs an adept crosser from the right to serve wide target man Morata and #9 Vlahovic.
For Morata, Vlahovic’s arrival has the potential to ignite a resurgence in Turin. The goalscoring burden has now been placed on the 22-year-old’s shoulders with Morata, seven years Vlahovic’s senior, barely regarded as the secondary act. We’ve seen the Spaniard thrive in the past as the supporting actor and Allegri could give him the chance to replicate the function of a player whom he regarded as “special”.
In Alvaro Morata, Mario Mandzukic’s unsung legacy may well live on in Piedmont.