Following Juventus’ emphatic 4-1 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the 2017 Champions League final, manager Massimilano Allegri’s epiphany was revolutionary: “Juve need wingers”.
No, he didn’t just randomly blurt these three words out, the Italian boss believed the Old Lady needed greater quality down the flanks if they were to topple Europe in the coming years.
And so, that summer the Bianconeri splurged around €40m to draft in Fiorentina’s Federico Bernadeschi and secured a loan deal for Bayern Munich’s Douglas Costa, who they’d later sign permanently for the same fee as the Italian.
However, despite the acquisition of two wide men who, when they were brought, had potential to be Juve’s wing pairing for the long-haul alongside the addition of the Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018, the Bianconeri are yet to reach a Champions League semi-final, let alone the main event, since Allegri’s winger plea.
During the final two years of Allegri’s dominant reign in Turin, he often deployed the same system which was used in the 2017 final: 4-2-3-1. A combination of Mario Mandzukic, Juan Cuadrado and the two 2017 summer signings would typically occupy the flanks with Paulo Dybala persistently exploiting space like a seasoned Raumdeuter as the number ten. Gonzalo Higuain, meanwhile, typically led the line in 2017/18.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, could be used as either a lone striker, as part of a strike pairing when Allegri shifted to a 4-4-2 or as a left winger.
And while they continued to monopolise the Italian top flight, they came unstuck on the European stage.
In 2018, Los Blancos proved to be the Bianconeri’s nemesis once more as Zinedine Zidane matched Juve in a 4-4-2 and dominated the one on one battles down the flanks in a 3-0 first leg victory. Wingers Costa and Mandzukic were majestic in the second leg at the Bernabeu, but Allegri’s conservatism after his side had levelled things up on aggregate with 30 minutes remaining ultimately cost them.
The following year, a campaign in which Dybala was often thrust out wide as a result of Costa’s injury woes, it was Erik ten Hag’s exuberant Ajax side who would shock the stern rearguard of the Old Lady.
The first leg in Amsterdam saw the compactness and defensive flexibility of Juve somewhat bemuse a relentless attacking force in a 1-1 draw, before the Dutch outfit overwhelmed the Italians in Turin as they progressed through to the semis.
While Ajax’s spellbinding combination play and positional fluidity made up the bulk of the headlines, Allegri’s disasterclass was overlooked.
The Italian simply ran out of ideas and his side became predictable in attack. There was an obvious attempt to work crossing opportunities from the right via the ‘overload to isolate’ principle, but the centre-back pairing of Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind swiftly wised up to the Bianconeri’s game plan and dealt with the aerial bombardment masterfully.
Allegri had no ‘Plan B’. His insistence of qualitatively bolstering Juve’s wingers put him into a false sense of security and ultimately hindered Juve’s attacking efficiency against ten Hag’s side.
And so, the question arose: “Do you Juventus really need wingers?”
Maurizio Sarri answered: “Hold my pack of 20.”
The arrival of Sarri following Allegri’s departure last summer presented us with what a Juventus side would look like without the inclusion of injury-ridden or inconsistent wide men. The result? Meh.
The former Napoli boss introduced a narrow 4-3-1-2 for much of his debut campaign and although the Bianconeri lost just one Serie A encounter in this setup, their attacking displays were often sub-par.
With full-backs the only natural source of width, Sarri’s side weren’t able to challenge the horizontal compactness of opposing defences and thus, minimal space was afforded for the likes of Dybala to wreak havoc between the lines.
Hansi Flick’s Bayern have proved just how crucial it is to maintain width at all times in attack. The results can be devastating if executed well.
Before the break in this season, however, we saw Sarri switch back to a 4-3-3, the system he started the season with, which led to an upturn in efficiency in almost all phases of play – epitomised in the 2-0 Derby d’Italia victory over Inter. Against the Nerazzurri; a functioning midfield, improved structure in possession and persistent stretching of the pitch all proved key in the win.
So, in response to the whole point of this piece; the simple answer’s yes, wingers are the way to go for Juventus. Sarri’s issues in a compact, narrow shape have been laid bare this term.
Allegri was certainly right back in 2017 when he spoke of the importance of superior options out wide, but those who were immediately drafted in proved to be merely marginal upgrades over what they already had.
However, when fit, there’s little doubting Costa is one of the most devastating wingers on the block. His combination of innovation, craftiness and pure speed make for a deadly trio and if you were to pair him with a fit Ousmane Dembele – who Juve are keen to bring in on loan this summer – then you feel the Bianconeri would’ve found the pairing Allegri desired three years ago.
It’s a real shame, however, that the two would only be good for a third of the season given their respective injury records.
Nevertheless, with Sarri showing signs of a permanent return to a 4-3-3, more quality is certainly necessary. The disillusioned Bernardeschi just isn’t of the required standard to consistently start for a side with Champions League ambitions. He’s an impact sub at best. Juan Cuadrado, meanwhile, is 32, and Dybala has shown in the past he’s half the player when deployed in a wide role.
Depth and a superior option to what they’ve already got – i.e. a healthy Dembele – are undoubtedly needed this summer if Sarri wants to nail his 4-3-3. But overall, it’s for the best that he’s distanced himself from the 4-3-1-2 in favour of his tried and trusty system.
Wingers are needed, but the challenge for Sarri is finding a system which also complements both Ronaldo and Dybala.