The fairest way, perhaps, is simply to recount the story as Massimiliano Allegri told it, stripped of all interpretation and emphasis. It is not a long one. Earlier this month, a few minutes after Benfica had beaten his Juventus team in the Champions League, Allegri ran into Rui Costa — the Portuguese team’s president — in the corridors of the Allianz Stadium in Turin.
They stopped, briefly, to exchange pleasantries, old foes from their days playing in Serie A: Allegri as a (by his own admission) limited midfielder for a succession of makeweights, Costa as a playmaker of subtle elegance and devastating effect. The conversation, though, soon drifted into deeper matters.
“He told me that today, soccer is upside down,” Allegri said. “If a player makes a good pass, he is already a phenomenon. If he makes a 40-meter pass, double phenomenon.” Later, Allegri would assert that modern players, his and Costa’s successors, “do not think, do not interpret, they obey.” He would rail, too, against the game’s tendency to “mistake the rule for the exception.”
At this point, it is worth introducing some context. Costa is 50. His hair remains jet black. He wears a suit, now, but it is impossible to imagine that he does not, under impeccably tailored trousers, have his socks rolled raffishly to his ankles. Allegri, 55, is a little older, but he is hardly entering his salad days.
And yet, as Allegri recounted his meeting with Costa, it was difficult not to picture the two of them as a pair of wizened old-timers, sitting on some sun-drenched porch, bemoaning the state of the world, assailing the youth of today for killing off fabric softener and guest rooms and presenteeism and, now, disobeying their coach’s orders.
That, in truth, is probably not a depiction that Allegri would resent. He has long cast himself as a sort of vessel for soccer’s ancient wisdom, an ambassador for the game’s lost virtues. In particular, he chafes at the orthodoxy that all managers must have a philosophy, some overarching vision of how the game should be played. That idea, in Allegri’s eyes, falls somewhere on the thread between wrongheaded pretension and pernicious fraud.
“The quality always lies in the players, not in the tactics,” as a typical Allegri aphorism, this time delivered to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, runs. “A good coach has to think about the players first. I don’t have pre-established tactics. I adapt the game to their qualities.” That, to Allegri, is the essence of management; pragmatism is the central tenet of his belief system.
There are no shortage of ways in which that approach — it’s probably best to not call it a philosophy — is admirable. It is a hearteningly selfless creed, one almost wholly devoid of ego, casting soccer as a contest between players and their talent, rather than between managers and their ideas. As Allegri is rapidly discovering, though, it comes with one severe, significant limitation.
Allegri’s return to Juventus, a little more than a year into his second stint, has not been a happy one. His first season ended in an intensely disappointing elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Villarreal and, by Juventus’s standards, a faintly humiliating fourth-place finish in Serie A.
If anything, though, his second season is going worse: The defeat to Benfica meant that Juventus faces a struggle to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League — it has lost both of its opening two games. Its last domestic match was a 1-0 loss to Monza, a newly promoted team that had not won a game in the top flight this season — or, in fact, ever.
In Allegri’s defense, there are mitigating circumstances. Juventus endured a summer of considerable change, losing not only Matthijs de Ligt and Paulo Dybala but Giorgio Chiellini, too, a player who had come to embody — through long service and grizzled inclination — many of the club’s cardinal virtues.
Injuries, meanwhile, have ensured that Allegri has not been able to call on his most dynamic attacking player, Federico Chiesa, or the club’s marquee summer signing, Paul Pogba, thus far this season. Another addition, Ángel Di María, has played only fitfully. The injury problems afflicting the Juventus squad have been so bad, at points, that Allegri has taken to describing his team as a “virtual” one.
It is precisely in those moments of struggle, though, when a philosophy — however convenient, elusive and ethereal the idea might be — is of most use to a manager. Having a clear vision of what a team might come to be helps players, executives and fans alike find glimmering shards of hope even in a picture suffused with gloom. It is a way of infusing the performance, rather than merely the result, with meaning. It offers a framework to judge a team on its progress, not just its product.
Allegri, though, has none of that. He is, and always has been, entirely dependent on the vicissitudes of the scoreboard and the league table. No philosophy is legitimate, in his eyes, other than the pursuit of victory.
In that, he could not hope for a more perfect place of employment than Juventus, an institution that is just as short of broader vision and deeper purpose. There is precious little evidence of a long-term strategy at Juventus, no sense that this is a club that knows where it wants to go and how it wants to get there.
Allegri’s return, in and of itself, provided ample illustration of the lack of imagination, the failure of creativity, among the club’s static and satisfied hierarchy. He had succeeded before — winning five straight Serie A titles and reaching two Champions League finals — and, though the club had fired him in pursuit of something more exciting, something more lasting, it turned to him again when that future did not immediately actualize. Juventus did not, it turned out, know what else to do.
The recruitment strategy is the same. Juventus has posted a loss in each of the last five seasons, and no Italian club has ever lost more money than Juventus did last year. That, in part, convinced the team’s hierarchy that it could not afford to renew Dybala’s contract, for example.
And yet its response has not been to invest in youth, to try to kick-start a new cycle, to find a coach with a clear style and a defined approach to build a team around. Instead, it threw money at Pogba, 29, and Dí María, 34, hoping that they might provide instant relief. No wonder that when de Ligt left the club for Bayern Munich this summer, he announced that he had done so because he wanted to play for a team that was trying to win the Champions League.
That is, of course, precisely how Juventus sees itself: as the equal of the continent’s true giants, a club that should be competing for not only domestic titles but international ones, too. Increasingly, though, those days feel as if they are in the past. Through complacency and neglect, the club has been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, condemned to complain about a world that has left it behind, a prematurely old man shouting at the clouds.
Erling Haaland: Myth Buster
There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy about the Premier League’s long-heralded primacy. England’s top-flight league has spent the better part of three decades telling everyone and anyone that it is the best domestic soccer tournament in the world, even when that claim was dubious, at best, and even when the precise definition of “best” kept shifting.
The idea that England is different, though — the sense that whatever a player, manager or team achieves elsewhere can only be considered provisional until the results have been verified in the Premier League — is not only central to the league’s brand identity, but to something more personal. It has become part of its self-identity, too.
All of which makes Erling Haaland a little bit of a problem. Haaland, the Norwegian striker, has been a Premier League player for two months. He has played seven domestic games for Manchester City. In that time, he has scored 11 goals. (He has added another three in the Champions League, for good measure.) He scored hat tricks in consecutive games. At one point, he was scoring at a rate of one goal for every 13 touches. He is on course not just to break the record for the number of goals scored in a single season but to obliterate it.
It is not just that Haaland is making playing in the Premier League — or, at least, playing in the Premier League for Manchester City — look easy. It is that he is making it look an awful lot like playing in the Bundesliga. He scored seven goals in his first three games there, and ended his time at Borussia Dortmund with a remarkable 62 goals in 67 games.
There was a tendency, then, to place just a faint asterisk next to those achievements: Impressive, yes, but how much do goals against teams with names like 1. FC Köln and Bayern Munich really count? Not for the first time, England’s exceptionalism has proved a little misplaced.
The Premier League, now, is undoubtedly the world’s finest domestic competition. The league has managed to manifest its own reality. It’s just that, from the soaring vantage point of a player like Haaland — a great in waiting — all of these leagues kind of look the same.
Scorning the Past
England, at last, is back in that familiar, comforting embrace: a few weeks away from a major tournament, and broadly convinced that the sky is about to fall. Gareth Southgate’s team was supposed to go into the World Cup this November in Qatar as a genuine contender to end the 56-year wait for a major men’s honor that the country, as a whole, does not like to mention.
Instead, England is consumed by self-doubt (which is, as it happens, the country’s natural resting state.) It has been relegated from its Nations League group. It went several hours without scoring from open play. Its stirring comeback against Germany in its final World Cup tuneup was spoiled somewhat by a subsequent stirring comeback by Germany.
Southgate, then, will head to Qatar not as the most successful England coach since the World Cup-winning Alf Ramsey — his tournament record boasts a semifinal and a final — but as the fearful, suffocating presence accused of inhibiting the finest generation of players England has produced in decades.
The problem, as the former England defender Jamie Carragher pointed out, is that the last accusation is not quite true. Carragher suggested this week that only a handful of players available to Southgate would automatically command a place in England’s team of the early 21st century, or even the side that made the semifinal of the European Championship on home soil in 1996.
Carragher, it seemed, touched a nerve. These players, he was told repeatedly, are vastly superior to their predecessors. All of the hope and excitement and ambition that England possessed in the 1990s and 2000s was, we can see with the piercing vision of modernity, a delusion, a whole generation of fool’s gold.
And yet that is, more than a little, to rewrite the past, and to use that false interpretation to castigate Southgate. England has always produced rather more, and rather better, players than it thinks it has. Which players from this team would get into that team is an airy, futile debate, but the central point — that perhaps the 2020s iteration of England is not markedly different than those of the 1990s or 2000s — is a sound one.
That the team of Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and all the rest can be written off so easily is not only because we know, now, that their story ended in disappointment, in anticlimax. Their failure to win a World Cup must mean they were failures as a whole.
It is because, too, soccer wears its goldfish memory with pride, its lionization of the present necessitating a diminution of the past. That not only distorts how we come to regard teams from previous eras — even, or perhaps especially, relatively recent ones. It also affects what we expect from teams in the present. Southgate has an outstanding group of players at his disposal. Expecting them to outstrip all that went before, though, is perhaps setting them up to fail.
I’ll start this week by not really answering a question from Shawn Donnelly. “The World Cup has the best players, but not the world’s best coaches: Most of the national team coaches feel second rate,” he wrote, promoting quite a few of them in a single sentence. “This is weird and incongruent. Is there any way to fix it?”
In a word: no. And the reason for that is not, as is generally the case in soccer, money. National team coaches are absurdly generously paid, both for the amount of work they have to do and the limited impact they have. It’s an issue of time.
International managers have so little time with their teams that I would query whether Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp or whoever could have a significant impact on a national side. Luis Enrique, Hansi Flick and Roberto Mancini all suggest that a better coach can make some difference, but I’m not sure Guardiola, say, could truly impress his ideas on a group of players he sees five times a year.
Most of the correspondence, though, reflected people’s memories of attending World Cup games, and I enjoyed it all enormously. “The first game we saw at Foxborough in 1994 was Bolivia against South Korea,” wrote Don Hoenig, not knowing that I can tell you off the top of my head that Bolivia used a daring free-kick routine during that game and it blew my mind.
“The enthusiasm and passion among the hundreds of fans who had traveled from their respective countries to Massachusetts to root for their team was a real eye-opener for my kids.”
Dan Huckel, as it happens, was also in Foxborough, Mass., around that time: Maybe you ran into each other? “I remember attending games and it was just fans, vendors and the match,” he wrote. “We created the carnival rather than having it forced upon us.”
And I very much enjoyed this email from Charles Kelley, too, though disappointingly he was not — as far as we know — in Massachusetts in 1994. “I caught a game at San Mamés a couple of years ago,” he wrote. “Athletic Club against Barcelona. It has become a magical memory because of the palpable sense of family and community in the stadium.
“Whole families filled it, enjoying one another’s company, interacting on a first-name basis with both staff and Athletic players. The days of that feeling in American stadiums have diminished, as teams cater to high-end patrons and families are effectively priced out. The result is often a stadium filled with a lot of people there not so much to watch the game, as to be seen watching the game.”