The phoenix is a mythical creature that has the ability to rise again from its own ashes after it gorges itself in its own majestic flames. Massimiliano Allegri’s flames were never majestic but his rise from the ashes has doused all of the ghosts from his past and his ongoing blaze of glory with Juventus is a testament to his stubborn determination. Allegri is a coach who divides opinion like none other in Italy even if he commands a high regard in the game itself. Some people genuinely believe in his tactical nous and managerial genius but there are others who claim that Allegri doesn’t have the right attitude towards the beautiful game and therefore isn’t worthy of any praise. This is another endless debate so let’s just focus on the facts and leave the arguments for some other day.
Allegri’s playing career was never stellar. He started his career in the lower leagues as a midfielder. At the age of 24, he signed with Pescara who played in the Serie B at the time. He played an important role in their promotion to the Serie A that season but they finished last in the top flight in the subsequent season, with Allegri scoring 12 goals that season. His performances merited him a move to Cagliari, where he would later return as the manager. The later years of his career were spent as a traveller moving to different clubs and finally hanging the boots at Aglianese, a Serie C2 side.
After ending his playing career at Aglianese, Allegri would begin his career as a manager at that very club itself. His early start in management was great, although it didn’t last very long. Soon after, he moved up a division, going to Serie C1 to take the reins of Grosseto, and this is where his managerial career turned into a roller coaster. His time at Grosseto was short-lived, lasting just 11 games before being sacked due to the inconsistency in results and failure to please the powers that be at the club. Soon after that, he would rejoin his mentor from his playing career, Giovanni Galeone at Udinese, to be a member of his coaching staff.
However, this practice proved to be forbidden by the Italian football laws because he was still contracted with the Tuscan club. Giampaolo Pozzo, the owner of Udinese, tried to cover the whole situation up by naming him as an “optimizer of work”. When that didn’t work, Pozzo then denied the hiring and in the end tried to give Allegri the role of “collaborator of the youth sector”.
A lot of mud was thrown aimed at Allegri’s character and his questionable attitude. Questions were asked of Allegri, even bringing up his match fixing allegation in 2000, when he had to serve a one year ban. Not many modern coaches have had to face this rocky a road on their way to being household names in the footballing world.
But Massimiliano Allegri had the grit to put it all behind him and to start anew as the manager of Serie C1 side Sassuolo, in August 2007, where his mettle wrote history in only his debut season. Even though none of Pozzo’s tricks fooled the Disciplinary in December 2007 and Allegri was sentenced a disqualification for three months in early 2008, his side managed a mathematical championship as early as 27th April 2008. Sassuolo earned 63 points, winning 19 of their 34 games on the way to the first spot. This meant that the Neroverdi had secured a first ever promotion to the Serie B. He earned an award for being the best coach of Lega Pro Prima Divisione for his successful spell as the Sassuolo manager. The club continued on the path shown by Allegri with an upwards trajectory and under Eusebio Di Francesco, now manager of AS Roma, they managed to top Serie B in the 2012-13 season to earn a first ever promotion to the Serie A.
Amidst Sassuolo’s success, Allegri had started to sway eyes on himself from the top flight. A relegation battling Cagliari had placed their faith in Davide Ballardini, hiring him in December to save them. Cagliari improved a lot under the new leadership earning 32 points in 21 weeks to escape relegation come the end of the season. But still, the club management had Allegri in their sights and no extension was offered to Ballardini. Cagliari parted ways with him in May 2008, and Massimiliano Allegri was announced as the head coach just days later.
With Cagliari, Allegri lost all five of his first five matches. Allegri came under a lot of pressure from the fans at the time and the questions which he had left behind started to surface again. But by the end of the season, Allegri had once again managed to quash any doubts about him by finishing higher than Cagliari had done in the last 15 years. He managed to beat Juventus 2-3 in a dramatic away fixture which was the main highlight of Cagliari’s season despite beating Palermo, Udinese and Fiorentina at home and even Lazio in an away game scoring four times. Cagliari finished 9th that year with a points total of 53. This brought Allegri the Panchina d’Oro Award, which is given to the best coach of Serie A of that season, which is decided by all the coaches’ votes on it. Allegri managed to beat even Jose Mourinho, who had won the Scudetto that season with his Inter Milan side.
Allegri received a lot of praise for his football style that season and for good reason. Throughout his managerial career, Allegri has exhibited a certain level of adaptability wherein he can adjust his system to best suit whatever his current crop of players can handle. This has invariably proven that Allegri hasn’t stuck to a certain idea or style and is flexible that way. But he has displayed a certain affinity to some traits which are visible in most of his teams. Allegri always has a neutral approach to his system and has never been heavily attack or defense minded. This makes his teams dynamic in that it makes the approach play unpredictable for opposition players to get a hold of.
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Allegri’s teams have also had a solid aerial presence in the final third be it Matri at Cagliari, Ibra at Milan or Higuain and Mandzukic at Juve. He sets up a compact defense for his teams when they are out of possession and isn’t very aggressive with his pressing play as Allegri acknowledges the risk of gaps opening up that the opposition can exploit. He brought Davide Astori to Cagliari and has one of the world’s best in Chiellini with him at Juventus to fulfill this role. Allegri has played with a three and a four man back line throughout his managerial career and chooses his system keeping in mind his players’ capabilities. But he favours a centre back who can carry the ball out of defense to join the midfield to create an overload in the midfield area which can then disrupt the marking on his double pivot to open up space for them to move in or the marking on his players in the final third which can be exploited. Like Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti and Claudio Ranieri, the ability of Allegri to be dynamic with his system to bring out the best in the players at his disposal is quite an enviable quality to have as a manager.
In his next season, Allegri continued with his flamboyantly attacking Cagliari side even with the loss of a key player in Robert Acquafresca. His Cagliari side managed to catch enough eyes that three of his players received international caps that year. But this time, his side could only manage 44 points in the 16th place but there had nine points between them and the relegation zone. The style of Allegri’s football caught the eye of the big dogs of Italian football, and although this has never been confirmed, Juventus came knocking looking to secure the coach for a summer move to Turin. This created some tension between Allegri and club president Massimo Cellino. Cagliari had managed to get only two points in their last nine outings and Cellino used this as an excuse to axe Allegri. This did raise a lot of eyebrows as Cagliari were nine points ahead of the relegation battle with only five games remaining in the season. But the Max Allegri train had already picked up pace and this sacking didn’t prove enough to slow it down.
The roller coaster that is Max Allegri hit new heights with his next club by winning the Scudetto with AC Milan in his debut season with them also beating arch rivals Inter on both of their meetings. But roller coasters are the definition of ups and downs. Allegri’s relationship with Pirlo was a worry and he was deemed surplus the next season when Juve snagged the maestro and he helped them win the league with a four point margin. That season, Milan were only able to win the Supercoppa Italiana, even missing out on the Coppa Italia by losing to Juve in semis. Controversies have always followed Allegri and this time, Muntari’s goal against Juventus was wrongly disallowed and the match ended 2-2, possibly costing them the Scudetto. Allegri is often given the credit for unearthing gems like Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio who came to his aid in a difficult third season at Milan. Mario Balotelli also had a good season under him. Allegri saw off his contract in Milan which ran out after his fourth season, but his quest for silverware wasn’t over.
After Antonio Conte left Turin for the Italian National Team, Allegri was announced as the manager just the next day. Allegri’s roller coaster went ahead for one final downhill slope as not everyone was onboard that particular decision. It was only when Allegri delivered the fans a Scudetto of his own was he finally accepted into the Juventus brethren. And he has made sure that his roller coaster doesn’t plummet again by continuously winning title after title. At this moment, Allegri at Juventus has won four consecutive Serie A titles, four consecutive Coppa Italia titles and has reached the final of the UEFA Champions League on two occasions with only three players out of the 11 present in both starting lineups.
Allegri’s phoenix graces the sky with its fiery wings leaving a trail of silverware and it looks like it’ll be a while before the time comes for its flaming demise.
ARTWORK BY VARDHAN CHULANI