Mario Mandzukic proving worth to Juventus and Max Allegri yet again
La Repubblica recently revealed that when Juventus decided to splash the cash on Gonzalo Higuain, a certain striker began to contemplate a future away from Turin and Juventus. Mario Mandzukic is a forward who never much enjoyed competing for a starring role. Some have suggested his poor attitude in part led him to overestimate his own quality, others feel it's because he genuinely believes that with continuity, he can live up to potential and be the star a big club need to challenge for trophies.
In recent weeks, one would have to agree with the latter assessment. Massimiliano Allegri understood the player's contemplations and desires to leave Juventus over the summer and chose to appeal to the ambitious boy within. A big club will always require a big squad and good players will always have the chance to play. Mandzukic was presented with a choice. He could go to a club that would guarantee him first-team action every week, but would be unlikely to be targeting the treble, or he could stay and help The Old Lady fulfil their dreams of winning it all.
The Croatian striker chose to stay and due to the team's injury crisis -- including a knock to Argentine striker Paulo Dybala -- has been handed the opportunity to play with continuity. Bullish, determined and remarkably generous, Mandzukic has been in tremendous form for the club, playing with panache and acting like a leader on the pitch. While many have been accused of playing to the beat of their own drum for the Bianconeri this season, the Croat has been one of the few who has prioritised the team above individual glory. Scoring goals, creating space, tracking back defensively and making astonishing tackles, Mandzukic has been the warrior Juve have lacked ever since Arturo Vidal departed for Bayern Munich.
His performances have shone so brightly that pundits and fans alike are no longer discussing Higuain but instead praising the intense determination of a striker that Juve have truly always loved, even if he didn't always feature. Mandzukic has not only proved efficient in front of the goal, scoring another against Atalanta, but he's quite possibly Juve's best defender at the moment. Over the weekend, no Bianconero produced as many tackles or blocked as many shots as the striker. Always capable of winning his duels, Mandzukic will never be the world's best passer of the ball, lacking the technical brilliance of teammates Dybala and Higuain, but there's no forward more determined to help his side and produce an all-round performance than the former Bayern Munich star.
Playing with continuity has helped Mandzukic progress and express his talents within the tactics. His thrilling form will obviously cause Allegri a few headaches as he does not deserve to be benched when Dybala returns to action. However, with Mandzukic's presence hindering Higuain's efficiency, Allegri has obviously contemplated the option of playing all three in a trident. Dybala could unleash Higuain, Mandzukic will unleash Juve.
This tactical solution could result in a lot of goals but would there be a place for Miralem Pjanic or even Marko Pjaca? The Bosnian playmaker was outstanding in the game against Atalanta largely due to the fact he enjoyed his high position on the field. Allowed to concentrate on his attacking play, the midfielder roamed, assisted and initiated beautiful offensive patterns of play. Asked to play further back and it seemed Pjanic strugglee to inspire. The 4-3-1-2 formation was made for the playmaker.
Fitting in all Juve's best player into a balanced formation will prove almost impossible, yet as Allegri proved on Saturday, with the benefit of time he can produce excellence. However, it's unlikely that the chosen shape going forward will be the 3-5-2 formation.
In a recent survey conducted by Tuttosport, 69 percent of readers voted for a switch to a fou- man back-line presumably in hopes that would help produce more effective offensive displays. Yet their wish won't be granted for now as against Dinamo Zagreb, Allegri has no genuine right-back, so he is likely to return to the tried and tested 3-5-2 shape. With Stephan Lichtsteiner not included in the Champions League squad and Dani Alves out with injury, it's thought the coach will deploy Alex Sandro-Patrice Evra and Juan Cuadrado as wing-backs and Mandzukic alongside Higuain up top.
Based on the performance of the Croatian team against Juventus in the first leg, it's fair to presume they will not provide the required level of competition. However, it is in these matches that Juve tend to suffer the most so it's vital the Bianconeri play with intensity and intelligence to seal the win and maintain their winning momentum going forward.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.