Finally, a game reminiscent of the good old Serie A that we were accustomed to watching ~10 years ago. A game of two titans, two top sides going against each other in what was going to be a near-Scudetto decider. And while the score at the end decided nothing, the game had everything: good football, great drama, multiple controversies, referee mistakes, violent plays, and most importantly, two goals on each side to cancel it all out.
Having played once recently in Coppa Italia (a game at San Siro which Juve won 2-1), the two teams were no strangers to each other. It was, however, the coaches pre-game set up that had the most influence on how the game went on for most of the 90 minutes.
Despite being very successful with his preferred 4-2-4/4-3-3 formation early in the season, Conte has been relying on his 3-5-2 formation to nullify threats from rival teams when playing away from home this season (e.g. vs Udinese and Napoli). Borriello and Quagliarella started the game as the main strikers much to the surprise by many, especially with the prolific form Alessandro Matri has been in lately. I assume Conte wanted to use his strongest strikers that play with their backs to the goal since Milan's center-backs are some of the strongest in Serie A this year.
Unfortunately, Allegri and the AC Milan players were very well positioned in midfield/attack and were able to take full advantage of Conte's 3-5-2 set up in the first 45 minutes. One particular problem, taking the ball out the back under pressure, has been a recurring theme for Juventus this season and Conte has yet to find a valid solution to it.
Ever since the beginning of the season, it was clear that Conte wanted the ball played out from defense and played on the ground. In too many cases, however, our poor-passing centre backs have only Pirlo to pass to when getting the ball forward. Unless one of them finds space to push the ball up the field (rare and scary, especially when Bonucci's or Chiellini's does it), the rest of our midfield does a poor job getting back and providing passing options for our shaky defenders. This often results in either a poor pass from our centre backs, or a mistake by Pirlo, who by the time he receives the ball and turns is surrounded by multiple opposing players. Here's a quick example of that in the beginning of the game against Milan:
Teams have learned this flaw in Conte's possession-style formations and are quick to exploit it with high pressing in the early stages of the game. One would expect for the rest of our MVP midfield to drop deeper and provide support for outlet passes, but Vidal and Marchisio have been slow to recognize this or, later in the games, too tired to make the extra run back and help kick-start the attack. Milan on the other hand, did this much better on Saturday:
It was no surprise then to see Bonucci gift a pass in his own third of the field to the Milan players, who quickly ran at Juve's defense and scored the opening goal on 15 minutes (off of Bonucci's deflection at that).
The rest of the first half was dominated by Milan as they pressed high, were better organized, and had Robinho, who was a nightmare for our defense for most of the game. Quagliarella and Borriello failed to provide the type of target-man service in attack, and were often muscled out by Milan's defenders. Milan even managed to score a second goal 25 minutes in, but Buffon scrambled the ball away before the referee could comprehend what happened and the goal was not given. More on that later.
As our Juventus Offside comment section was reeling and Twitter was blowing up asking Conte to make changes at the half, it looked like Conte had finally switched his 3-5-2 to a more natural 4-3-2-1 with the introduction of Pepe over the disappointing Estigarribia at the 46 minute mark. Pepe took his familiar position as a right winger, Quagliarella now played the attacking left winger position Vucinic usually occupies, while Chiellini and Lichsteiner settled in more natural full back positions. The change in formation and attitude was complete when Vucinic entered the game in Marco Borriello's place on the 52 minute mark, adding a bit of desperately needed flair to an attack that was stagnant and unoriginal for most of the game.
Milan was still the dominant side on the pitch, but the change in character from the Juventus players was becoming more evident as the half went on. The last spark was Alessandro Matri, Juve's leading goalscorer this season who replaced Quagliarella in the 70th minute and was instantly dangerous, scoring a goal that was falsely ruled offside by the same linesman who didn't see Muntari's goal earlier in the game.
Matri was not to be denied a second time, however, as he took a delicious Pepe cross on the volley and slotted home for the game-tying goal on 83 minutes. Juve's resurgence in the second half had finally paid off, what due to Milan's fatigue after pressing and pushing for most of the game, what due to Conte's change of tactics and attitude.
Did Juve deserve to win this game? Hell no. I'd even go as far as to say that Milan deserved to win, but one thing I've learned from watching football all these years is that you play until the final whistle and anything can happen.
What is more important, in my opinion, is what kind of attitude will these two teams come out with after this game. I believe Milan feels encouraged yet angry - they played well but didn't get the 3 points. Now they have more games ahead (unless Arsenal pulls off a miracle comeback) and are still technically behind (Juve have a game in hand). On the other hand, i Bianconeri are certainly not celebrating this point too much. Our team has obvious gaps and weaknesses and little time to fix them. Conte will have to work hard in these next few weeks to find a way to score more goals and be more threatening in attack. More importantly, after enjoying a positive run at the beginning of the season, many of our players have dipped in both dedication and grinta on the field. That has to change if we are to mount a serious Scudetto challenge.
Almost 2 days after the game, and there is still plenty of talk and discussion about all the controversy involved in this game. It'd be very easy to get drawn into it. Instead, let's try to objectively look at what is fact and what is opinion. Here we go.
- Milan scored two legitimate goals in the first half. Only one was given.
- Juventus scored two legitimate goals in the second half. Again, only one was given.
- Vidal deserved his red card for his tackle on Van Bommel.
- Mexes intentionally punched Borriello in the stomach
- Mexes deserved a red card for punching Borriello in the stomach
- Muntari deserved a card for retaliating violently to Lichsteiner's defense
- Van Bommel hit Pirlo in the head
- Antonini hit Lichsteiner in the head at the end of the first half
- Pirlo hit Van Bommel in the head...twice (minutes 22:56 and 31:54 in the second half)
- Galliani screamed at Conte in the tunnel at the half as well as at the referees
- Conte had a verbal altercation with Van Bommel and Boban after the game
Good, we got all that out of the way.
Now, what did all of those incidents mean? Well, the two disqualified goals cancel each other out. Any sane Milan fan will agree to at least that. Now, does the second goal Muntari score change the game? Of course it does. How? No one knows. It's easy to say that Juventus are screwed and they definitely lose the game cuz of the 2-0 early lead. What is definitely true, is that it would be harder to come back from a 2-0 lead than a 1-0 lead (simple logic). But Juventus have come back from 2-0 down before this season...and it was against a top table team as well. Just ask Napoli. I'm not saying that would've happened again, but I'm not saying it wouldn't have, either.
Is there a bigger conspiracy at hand here? My opinion is a definite no. Many are quick to jump to mocking conclusions in the style of "Moggi this, Berlusconi that". But in all seriousness, the refs just screwed up. Twice. And big time. Fortunately, it all evened out at the end. I am really curious to see how many games suspension Mexes receives (if any). If he doesn't, I would definitely entertain any conspiracy theories. That's a clear red card per review.
In summary of the controversy, Conte put it best: "... this game was fired up too much by everyone, both those within it and outside of it. The atmosphere in my view was not good for sport. It’s a shame, but the match is decided within the pitch and too many things happened this week." (source)
It feels like the same thing is happening now after the game as well. Gotta love Serie A :)
Buffon: 7 - Buffon is a big game player, there's no doubt about that. Had no chance on the first goal, and reacted amazingly and swiftly to make sure Mexes' header didn't go in and Muntari's didn't count. Was also super quick to react to any on-rushing balls and runs by the Milan players. Very, very solid performance by our keeper. Too bad the lads in front of him couldn't do the same.
Barzagli: 6 - If there is one guy who benefits from the 3-man defense it's Barzagli. His lack of pace is usually balanced out by Bonucci's tracking nearby, though Andrea doesn't quite possess the technical ability to play as a quasi right back at times when taking the ball up the field. He did a much better job stepping out in front of Milan's strikers in the second half.
Bonucci: 4.5 - Man, was that brutal to watch. Leonardo had one solid interception in the first 10 minutes, and everything just went downhill from there. He lost the ball on several key occasions, one leading to Nocerino's goal, and was totally out of the game for most of it. If the 3-man defense made sense when he was playing decent, it now makes absolutely no sense. Bonucci needs to sit down for a few games, and get his chance again against a smaller team in Torino to get his confidence back. He's definitely not one for the big games. Shame.
Chiellini: 5.5 - I was personally a bit disappointed with Chiellini for most of the game. As the third-in-line captain (at least in my head it's ADP>Buffon>Chiellini), he did little to lead the defense out of the early game slump. Instead, he settled for deep positions, gave up space and waited for Robinho and Emmanuelson to attack, and was a follower instead of a leader in the team for most of the game. He did improve in the second half and was a lot more of a presence on both sides of the field, but overall I look for him to lead our defense, especially when he has a young kid like Bonucci alongside him.
Lichtsteiner: 6 - A quiet game by the Swiss' standards, but you cannot put all the blame on him. While not a natural wing back, he did relatively well in the first half, providing width and crossing in attack. Was a bit more of himself defensively in the second when Pepe was in front of him as a winger.
Pirlo: 6 - I thought Allegri's decision to not man-mark Pirlo was an interesting one. Too bad the ever-talented midfielder couldn't make the most out of the space he had at times. He even misplaced some simple passes and his touch just wasn't there during the game. In all fairness, he rarely got much help from Marchisio and Vidal, and even less from the forwards early on. Could've and should've done better though. Look for him to step it up after the international break. Our Scudetto challenge will depend on him greatly, and he is too great of a player not to step up to the challenge (pun...not...intended?)
Vidal: 5.5 - My man of the match in the first half, though I'm sure many of you would disagree. Still, he was the only one playing with fire, with determination in the first half. In the second, he tired and even got injured. Then, his hustle turned into chaos (as it often does) and he made a reckless challenge on Van Bommel for a red card. Overall though, I thought he had a decent game. If he starts playing a bit deeper, he'd be able to get more touches and get into the game more. We need his South American flair desperately.
Marchisio: 5.5 - I couldn't even tell Marchisio was playing until 10 minutes into the second half. What has happened to the difference-maker of the first part of the season? He needs to be the source of energy, the spark that wakes up the Vucinices and Borriello's of our team. Instead, he was lost in the shuffle for most of the game. Played way too high to get any good link-ups with Pirlo, tho not far enough to be a threat to Milan's goal. Another very disappointing performance.
Estigarribia: 5.5 -Why on earth did this guy start in the toughest match to date this season? And as a wing back at that? Huge mistake by Conte. Esti needs to work on many aspects of his game, mainly defensive positioning, running with the ball, and crossing. Had a decent shot after Muntari's not-goal, which saved him from a 5. Yay.
Quagliarella: 5.5 - I promise you I'm not just giving everyone 5.5 cuz I'm lazy. Really, Quagliarella had a very insignificant game. Was marked out for the majority of the first half and failed to make a difference by dropping deeper to get the ball. He had one big chance in the second half and he scuffed a shot at goal from 5 metres straight at Abbiatti. I was furious. I've calmed down since. But man, he wants to be a clinical striker, that's his chance. And don't be grabbing your leg like it's cramping after missing a big chance like that!
Borriello: 5 - Next to Estigarribia, another inexplicable selection by Conte. Borriello is useless. There is nothing he can do better than any of our other strikers. Without getting into why we bought him in the first place, he had no reason being on the field at all on Saturday. He even managed to prove that himself.
Pepe: 7 - Revitalized our team and put in some great-looking crosses. Was an obvious sub choice and I was very glad to see him come on right at halftime. Great assist to Matri for the goal too.
Vucinic: 6 - It was tough for Mirko to get into the game, especially since he's not a big game player. Did well to stretch the field a bit, but was mostly ineffective. Just didn't look up for it. There was talk that he got in an argument with Conte about running laps after the Catania game, but I doubt that's what kept him out of performing against Milan. Even he must have more brains than that, right?
Matri: 7.5 - MA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TRIIIII! Yeah, you yelled it when he scored, and you know it. It was awesome. He came in, scored a couple goals, tied the game in both scoring and controversies, and salvaged a point. Grazie Alessandro!
Conte: 6 - Got things horribly wrong at the beginning, and faced an uphill race all night. The choices of Esti and Borriello were a rookie mistake, and we already discussed his wrongfully preferred starting formation. Nonetheless, he realized his mistake at halftime and tried his best to change things up. Matri saved his ass with the energy and goals he brought when coming on, but this still is one of Conte's worst games as a Juventus manager. Gotta give him this though - he has defined a Juventus character this year that was missing in years past. If it weren't for that team character, we would have never come back from going down against Napoli or Milan. The biggest test of that character will be when our first defeat comes. Something tells me he/we'd bounce back strong.