MILAN, Italy -- When Massimiliano Allegri was a kid growing up in Livorno, his grandfather used to take him to the races to watch the horses. The Caprilli hippodrome had floodlights, and Allegri used to spend many a summer night in the bleachers. Over the years, his experiences at the track have come in handy. It turns out horses taught him a lot about football.
"Federico Tesio, one of the greatest horse trainers ever, always used to say you need to go and see the horses in the morning and watch how they move their legs. It's the same thing with players," Allegri tells ESPN in Italian. "You go and see the players and you watch how they move their legs. That's how you find out whether they're in good shape or not. Then you go inside [the training facility], you get the stats and see if they confirm what you saw or not."
It's a sunny winter's day in Milan. St. Ambrose's Day, a public holiday, is around the corner, and opening night at La Scala is nearly upon us. Allegri is in a relaxed mood. He doesn't want to be interviewed; he just wants to talk, and by the time we get onto the similarities between horses and footballers, almost two hours have passed since our meeting began.
"If I see a player has run not very far -- let's say 3,000 metres (nearly two miles) -- at a high heart rate, it means he isn't in a good way," he says. "If I don't watch the player and I only look at the numbers from his heart monitor, it looks as though the player has had a great session at high intensity. ... I always tell my assistants to look at how the players move their legs, not the computer."
Allegri doesn't even have a laptop or a desktop computer. You won't find a MacBook at his home -- not one belonging to him, anyway.
"In my ignorance I don't even have a computer," he says. "I've got an iPad that Juventus gave me. I watch games on it, pull up some stats. Fortunately I've got a good memory and I manage to remember what happens in games."
To Allegri, so much of how he sees coaching is sensory. He is the natural; it's about picking up signals for which there are no stats, no advanced metrics. In fact, Allegri exhibits the famed Tuscan flair for swearing in disdain for those who believe the idea that coaches are better off watching the game from the stands, where they have a better view of what's going on. Allegri calls it "mega bulls---, one of the biggest bulls--- I've ever heard," and it isn't the only time he waxes profane over the course of our conversation.
"A coach has to be on the sideline. He has to breathe the game, he has to understand when it's time to make a sub or take off his best player because the team needs a different kind of player," Allegri says. "How can you see that from the stands? I've had to do it a few times and you feel detached. You're disconnected. You don't hear the sounds of the pitch. You don't look the players in the face and you have to do that in order to decide whether it's time to take them off or say something to encourage or spur them on.
"If you're not there, how can you do that? All you can do from the stands is phone the bench and say, 'Take him off,' just like the fans do. The perception is different from the sideline. They're making out football to be an exact science. If that's the case, the coach may as well go to the cinema."
Allegri laughs at the news that Serie A is giving every club's coaching staff a tablet with the app Virtual Coach downloaded. Another abomination, in his opinion. "Now we're really done for," he says. Allegri's reasons are understandable enough. We are less dependent on our brains than ever before. There's an app for everything, a how-to video on YouTube. Google holds the answers to all our questions. Tiredness these days comes from screen time, not independent problem-solving, and we as a society are killing creativity, a crime Allegri cannot abide. "If you mechanise everything, you no longer have thinking players," he says.
The final couple of years at Juventus saw Allegri engaged in heated debate with the theorists, scientists and tacticians who, he believes, want to make the game about them and not the players. "They want to teach birds how to fly," was one of his famous lines. That and, "If they had taught us less, we would have learned more."
It sounds laissez-faire and even hands-off, but Allegri is brain-training. He is stimulating the occipital lobe. He wants players to think for themselves and feels there's a tendency these days to teach and teach and teach without leaving any space for learning. He points to the door at the end of our meeting room in the Palazzo Parigi, the hotel that is the scene of our interview. "If the players are used to going through that door and the door is locked, they'll end up banging their heads against it. If the players are used to thinking for themselves, they'll try to find another way out."
This is how their spontaneity and unpredictability are nurtured.
"When the ball gets to your [Cristiano] Ronaldos, [Paulo] Dybalas, Ronaldinhos, [Clarence] Seedorfs or [Andrea] Pirlos ... I have to put the other players in a position to get the ball to them, and once they have the ball they decide what to do with it, what the best decision is," Allegri says. "My son is 8, and every now and then we go on YouTube and watch the great players, the amazing things they do in attack and in defence, because football is art. In Italy, the tactics, schemes, they're all bulls---. Football is art and the artists are the world-class players. You don't have to teach them anything, you just admire them. All you need to do is put them in the best condition to do well."
This is the Livornese in Allegri, the anarchy and freedom fighting his city is renowned for up and down Italy. "I love it when I see a great player do something amazing," he says. "On the bench, I'm a spectator watching a show put on by someone, and that someone is a player." This is a classic Allegri trope, downplaying his own role and subscribing to the old Italian school of thought that the very best coaches are the ones who do the least damage to a team, putting everything in its right place without overtinkering and introducing mistakes. It's a school of thought Antonio Conte recently called "humiliating," presumably because it appears to diminish the metier of coaching.
Allegri isn't saying coaches are unable to add value or affect games -- both major strengths of his own repertoire. He's merely pushing back against the propensity to overload and overcomplicate.
"When I was a player 30 years ago, I had Bruno Giorgi, one of those old coaches who have all now been denigrated," he says. "He was my coach at Cagliari and on the whiteboard he used to put players in pairs and then circle them. At the end of the team talk, he'd say, 'Who wins the most duels wins the game.' At the time I was like, 'Look at this guy,' but that's football: You have an opponent in front of you and you have to beat him. When the ball gets cleared, if you win the header, you have the ball 70 metres from goal instead of 20 metres. If you win 18 of 20 duels, it's harder for your opponent to get a chance to score against you."
In his opinion, the emphasis on tactics and systems misses the point.
"One evening I went for dinner with [Vittorio] Munari, the best sporting director in Italian rugby," Allegri explains. "He said to me: 'Rugby is a team sport and you get to a team by looking at it like this: 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1. ... Football is the same."
The focus should lie in polishing up a player's fundamentals, improving his reading of the game and making him think: all the simple things that are actually hard to teach, let alone master, like defending, which Allegri believes Italians have been made to feel ashamed of. Then comes the organisation. At a time when owners and fans are looking for the next big idea and are increasingly influenced by advanced metrics and drawn to coaches associated with some buzzword indicative of innovation or a particular style, the challenge Allegri faces is whether his own vision, which must not be misrepresented as reductive, is as marketable and compelling. He will not dress football up as something it's not and instead charismatically cuts through the noise with persuasive conviction.
The question is: Does simplicity sell? The 52-year-old's record certainly speaks for itself, and trust in his "reasoned instinct" is well-deserved. Gennaro Gattuso once said of Allegri: "He's an excellent poker player." He knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
One day at the races, Allegri bet on a horse by the name of Minnesota. The odds of it winning were very long, so long that a friend joked it was about as likely to come in first as Allegri was to make it as a coach. Minnesota won, and Allegri not only collected his winnings, he went on to become one of the leading coaches of his generation. Whoever employs him next can be sure they're backing a winner.