The game started off, as has unfortunately become very common of late, in very scrappy fashion with passes going astray and players slipping all over the place. Nevertheless, the first piece of action came courtesy of Sami Khedira in the ninth minute. Miralem Pjanic lofted a fantastic ball over the Empoli defense for the German to control on the chest before quickly swiveling and hammering a shot against the bar from close range. He did seem narrowly offside on this occasion, but the flag stayed down. There was more threat from the Bianconeri just a minute later, as Manuel Pucciarelli handled the ball just outside the box but Lukasz Skorupski comfortably saved Paolo Dybala’s subsequent free kick. As the game progressed, the state of the pitch continued to contribute to the poor, scrappy quality of the play.
Despite the questionable quality of the play, there was no lack of action for the fans.
Juan Cuadrado, starting his first game since rejoining Juventus, broke free on the right-hand side and fired in an awkward cross-shot which Skorupski did well to save to prevent being caught out red-faced. Cuadrado continued his very lively first-half performance by beating the offside trap and latching onto a wonderful long ball by Hernanes, but, with only the keeper to beat, he seemed stuck in three minds before finally taking the shot which Skorupski did well to save.
Suddenly, it was end-to-end stuff as Empoli got their first look at goal. Rade Krunic picked up the ball on the edge of the box and, with no defenders closing him down, unleashed a venomous strike which Buffon did well to tip over the bar. There was even more action to come as Dybala slipped in behind the Empoli defense, but couldn’t quite get control of the ball. Gonzalo Higuaín was alert to the danger, though, as he stealthily latched onto the loose ball and executed a sublime chip from a difficult angle over the heads of the Empoli players but Pasqual was there to clear the ball of the line. Cuadrado then fired a wild volley over the bar from the Pasqual clearance to end that dramatic piece of action and also bring an end to an intriguing, though sloppy, first half.
Juventus quickly carried the momentum from the first half into the second half. Khedira, having an off-color performance here, released Higuaín in the inside-left channel to go through on goal. The Argentine striker was uncharacteristically hesitant as he tried to shift the ball onto his stronger right foot but this gave Giuseppe Bellusci enough time to snuff out the danger.
Empoli continued to frustrate the Bianconeri and even managed to get a few sights on goal as Massimo Maccarone powered a header over the bar and Krunic almost punished a rare Leonardo Bonucci error soon afterwards. Record-signing Higuaín finally had the ball in the back of the net after Cuadrado played a deft 1-2 with Pjanic that allowed the former to square the ball across goal for the Argentine to tap-in, but the goal was rightly disallowed for offside on Cuadrado. A lovely triangle between the three players, but it wasn’t quite enough for the Bianconeri.
Two minutes later, though, the offside flag wasn’t there to save Empoli.
Alex Sandro, unusually quiet offensively this game, made a strong run forward down the left and danced past a few half-hearted challenges before squaring the ball to Dybala. The left-footed wizard took one touch to compose himself and then rifled the ball into the goal for the opening goal! We had only just finished celebrating when the second goal was already scored, as second-half substitute Mario Lemina played a neat pass into Higuaín who, again on his left foot, waited and waited and waited until he finally decided to give his left foot a chance and smacked the ball into the goal to double the Bianconeri lead. A quick-fire double was merely the beginning for the Bianconeri as a third goal followed soon after. Higuaín calmly rounded Skorupski after the striker capitalized on a woeful Marco Zambelli awful back-pass.
It was all-guns blazing now as Empoli’s confusingly high defensive line was exploited time and time again by a rampant Bianconeri side. This time the speedy Cuadrado again got in behind the defense and fired a far-post shot inches wide of the target. A minute later, Lemina easily beat Empoli’s ineffective offside-trap but, with fellow substitute Marko Pjaca free in acres of space in front of goal, the Gabonese midfielder went for personal glory in an infuriatingly-selfish piece of play which Skorupski saved. The last big chance of the game came for the Croatian winger as he unleashed a blistering shot which Skorupski tipped over the bar for a corner. After two minutes of stoppage time, referee Mazzoleni brought an end to a fascinating lunchtime encounter that resulted in a 3-0 victory for Juventus!
BUFFON 7 – Combined a tidy save on the Krunic shot with a few routine stops. Rarely called into action.
BARZAGLI 6.5 – Got burned by Pucciarelli early in the game, but other than that didn’t put a foot wrong.
BONUCCI 6.5 – Other than two uncharacteristic mishaps in the second half, he played in his usual confident style especially once the Empoli forwards tired late on.
CHIELLINI 6.5 – Didn’t have much trouble today. Solid performance.
CUADRADO 7 – I wanted to downgrade him because his end-product remains frustratingly poor, but he was the main offensive outlet in the first half as most attacks went down the right side.
KHEDIRA 6 – Wasn’t a great outing for the German today. Perhaps feeling the effect of the recent fixture pileup. I hope he gets some rest soon.
PJANIC 7 – Quiet in the first half, but had a bright 15-minute spell when the goals came flying in. Overall a solid performance, though.
HERNANES 7.5 – Very confident display by the Brazilian as he enjoyed the freedom in the middle of the park. He really is most useful in low-pressure games like these, especially to rotate the starters.
SANDRO 7.5 – Again an offensively quiet game, but defensively imperious. It’s funny that the first time he really got forward this game immediately resulted in a great assist for the opening goal.
HIGUAÍN 7 – I actually thought he was quite poor today, particularly wasteful with his two huge chances before his goals. Then again, given the two goals he scored, it’s hard to downgrade him too much.
DYBALA 7 – Finally picked up his first Serie A goal of the season! He said he’s lacking confidence, but I think he’s shown great maturity recently to just keep working hard for the team.
LEMINA 6.5 – Added a breath of fresh air into the midfield after coming on for an off-color Khedira. I’m still really displeased about the selfishness during that breakaway though.
PJACA 6.5 – Brightest performance by the Croatian so far in his Juve stint and really offers a unique option from the bench with his direct play. Played very wide left but also drifted centrally from time to time.
STURARO N/A – Played for eight minutes in his first appearance of the season.
ALLEGRI 7 – Was smart to realize that Khedira needed a break and brought in Lemina at a good time. Although the first half was underwhelming, it was good to see greater urgency in the second period. Also played the midfield numbers game very well (see below).
Tactical Dissection – One thing leads to another
Michael Cox of the great ZonalMarking website discussed at great length why two-man striker formations always struggle against three-man defenses and in this game we could clearly see why. Maccarone and Pucciarelli, the two Empoli strikers, generally pressed Barzagli and Chiellini, respectively, when out of possession. Obviously, that would leave Bonucci as the free man in the center of the trio and if there’s someone you don’t want to leave unchallenged for Juventus, it’s this brilliantly talented libero. Here we see the problem crystallized clearly:
The key player in this equation was Krunic. He occasionally decided to move higher up the pitch to challenge Bonucci, thus making it a 3v3 at the back. But as with many things in life, one thing always leads to another. Hernanes would be totally free in front of the defense given that Daniele Croce and Andres Tello would mark Khedira and Pjanic, respectively; Jose Mauri was the regista. Hernanes utilized this freedom in different ways: sometimes he would distribute the ball from midfield...
… while other times he would drop back into defense to help the defense build-up play from the back:
His freedom in midfield meant that he could comfortably ping balls out wide and, given that Empoli was playing a narrow diamond midfield, all the space was out wide. So kudos to Allegri for getting the tactics right here and Hernanes for executing them very well.
See you, Space Cowboy…
It was another one of those confusing performances where we were unconvincing for long periods but still managed to secure a flattering scoreline. I don’t really know what to think of or how to feel about such games, but it does seem grossly ungrateful to complain about four consecutive victories with 12 goals scored and none conceded. Nevertheless, with the International break once again upon us, we’ll have enough time to ponder these curious times for the Bianconeri.