Before kick-off at Allianz Stadium, Alessio Dionisi posed for photographs with Massimiliano Allegri. There was a faint awkwardness to the scene, something contrived in the media narrative that sought to present the Sassuolo and Juventus managers as peas from the same pod. Both are Tuscan, both supported the Bianconeri as kids, and both have now coached the Neroverdi. But they are at starkly different moments in their careers.
Allegri is a six-time Serie A champion and two-time Champions League finalist: a “guarantee”, in the language of Italian football, reappointed this summer for the certainty that he could get Juventus back on track after they missed out on the title under Andrea Pirlo. Dionisi is a young manager with everything still to prove, working for the first time in Serie A. As recently as 2018, he had not coached above the fourth tier.
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He expressed admiration for Allegri in the past, telling Gazzetta dello Sport: “I have always said that he intrigues me.” Yet he sought to downplay that angle this week, stating at his pre-game press conference that Allegri is “a manager I admire a lot, but not the only one”.
Dionisi preferred to talk about his team, about their approach to a match that “on paper, we have little chance to win”. Sassuolo, joint-11th in the table, were missing a pair of key starters, the No 10 Filip Djuricic and winger Jérémie Boga. They would need to be opportunistic, he said, taking advantage of situations where their opponents lost the ball.
His players were listening. The game was decided in the 95th-minute, when a cross from Juan Cuadrado missed its targets in the middle of the Sassuolo box. Matheus Henrique recovered the ball and fed it forward to Domenico Berardi.
With the scores level at 1-1, many might have expected the Italy international to play for time. Hoofing the ball clear would likely have sufficed to seal a point. But Berardi looked up before the ball arrived and saw Maxime Lopez on the opposite flank. There was only one Juventus player, Weston McKennie, back to defend that entire side of the pitch.
Berardi got the trajectory of his pass just right, sending it over the American’s head and hitting his teammate in stride. Lopez, likewise, chose well with his shot selection, chipping Mattia Perin.
Just like that, Sassuolo had sealed their first-ever win away to Juventus. Well, OK, maybe we’re oversimplifying things a smidge. Dionisi’s team had navigated most of the preceding 94 minutes well, too, taking a lead through Davide Frattesi on the stroke of half-time and defending it for half an hour into the second before McKennie headed in an equaliser from a free-kick.
Juventus did start the game brightly but the predictability of their attacks in the second half is a continuation of a troublesome theme. Allegri bowed to popular opinion by starting Paulo Dybala and Federico Chiesa after both were left out of the starting XI for Sunday’s draw against Inter, but their combined presence was still not enough.
Six years ago, a defeat to Sassuolo marked a turning point for Juventus. They were off to a terrible start in 2015-16 but bounced from a 1-0 defeat to these same opponents by taking 73 points from the next 75 available. Along the way, Gianluigi Buffon set a Serie A record by not conceding for 974 consecutive minutes.
Allegri was the manager back then, too. It was not the only time he turned a slow start into a strong finish. His first Serie A job was at Cagliari, in 2008, where he began with five consecutive defeats. The Sardinians stopped the rot with a draw against Milan and then went on to finish ninth, way ahead of their preseason targets.
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Still, the task before him now feels daunting. This season is only 10 games old, but Juventus already sit 13 points behind the league leaders, Milan. No club in Serie A history has ever come back to win the title from so far behind. Nor do they have Buffon to lean on. Allegri’s team have conceded 13 goals in Serie A, their highest number at this stage of a season since 1988.
“There’s no sense in talk about objectives at this moment,” said the manager afterwards. “We should not be looking at the table. Our only objective needs to be to manage games better.”
Juventus signed a midfielder from Sassuolo this summer, Manuel Locatelli, to help them do just that. He was outshone here by Lopez and Davide Frattesi, who made his Serie A debut at the start of this campaign.
Those two have previously been deployed by Dionisi as the midfield pair in a 4-2-3-1 but, nudged by the absences of Boga and Djuricic, the manager adapted here to a 4-3-3. “When we were playing with two in the middle I ask [Frattesi] not to make those runs forward,” said the manager when asked about the first goal – though he could just as easily have been speaking about Lopez. “Now we have a three he can, and he must.”
Dionisi’s first season as a Serie A manager did not start quite as poorly as Allegri’s at Cagliari, but certainly it was not all plain sailing for Sassuolo as they began this campaign with four points from the five games. He earned his spot in the top flight, steering Empoli to first place in Serie B last term, but his choice to jump ship after doing so was starting at that point to look like a questionable one.
Now, though, Sassuolo are up into the top half, and the future is starting to look bright. “We were missing a win like this,” said Lopez on Wednesday. “Dionisi is young, but he knows how to make the team play well. We took a bit of time to understand what he wanted but now we are well set.”
Dionisi beat a manager he looks up to on Wednesday. Within Italian football, his own list of admirers continues to grow.Internet Explorer Channel Network