The beautiful city of Milan was host to a top-of-the-table clash as AC Milan welcomed league-leaders Juventus to the San Siro stadium. Despite the fantastic atmosphere created by the intimidating home crowd, Juventus started in very confident fashion. Paulo Dybala forced Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma into an early save after meeting a dangerous cross of the in-form Alex Sandro. It was only the beginning of an early Bianconeri siege as Donnarumma was again called into action, this time Sandro himself tested the Milan goalkeeper with a firm header, although the play was called back for offside earlier in the attack.
Milan weathered the storm well though and responded with a chance of their own: M’Baye Niang received the ball wide on the left and showed some impressive footwork to get a yard of space away from Andrea Barzagli and put in the cross. Carlos Bacca flicked the cross on to Jose Suso who tested Buffon with a neat side-footed shot which the Italian
legendary superhero phenomenon goalkeeper saved smartly. Alex Sandro and Dybala quickly tested Donnarumma again with two efforts that the Italian youngster comfortably saved to keep his side in the game.
The match really heated up in the closing stages of the first half. First, Dybala slipped past Juraj Kucka on the break and, after spotting Donnarumma well off his line, attempted a speculative effort from the half-way line. The effort went well wide of the target but, in the process of striking the ball, Dybala pulled his hamstring and had to be substituted off for Juan Cuadrado.
Then came the most controversial moment of the game. Juventus were awarded a free kick about 30 meters from goal which Miralem Pjanic curled into the box. Leonardo Bonucci, in an onside position from the cross, attempted to flick the ball into goal but missed it while his teammate Medhi Benatia watched on from an offside position, uninvolved in the play. With neither player getting a touch, the ball bounced past a dumbfounded Donnarumma into the back of the net for the opening goal! The Milan players were livid though as they pleaded for offside on both Juventus defenders and, after a few minutes of deliberation between Referee Nicola Rizzoli and his assistants, the goal was (incorrectly) ruled out for offside. Pjanic was understandably livid and gave Rizzoli a piece of his mind in the aftermath of his overruled goal, earning himself a yellow card in the process.
The last action of the half came courtesy of Hernanes, who drove a decent low shot wide of the far post. 0-0 at the break, but more than enough controversy and action for both sides.
Juventus started the second half brightly as Dani Alves drove in a good cross into the penalty area which Gonzalo Higuaín couldn’t quite divert on target. Higuaín continued to try to sneak in behind the Milan defense but was denied well by the impressive Gabriel Paletta, while Cuadrado tried his own luck with (very wayward) long-range shots. Juventus’ second half momentum quickly waned though and, soon afterwards, we had the opening goal. Milan broke down the right wing as Ignazio Abate and Suso exchanged some neat passes that drew Benatia and Pjanic out of position. Suso spotted the run of Manuel Locatelli running into the vacant space and slid a pass into the midfielder who took a few touches to steady himself before unleashing an absolutely unstoppable shot into the top corner.
Suddenly the momentum was with Milan who had a lead to defend for 25 minutes. Hernanes responded with a threatening low shot that skid just wide of the target, before Higuaín released Cuadrado in the inside-left channel but the Colombian’s reluctance to shoot with his left foot allowed the alert Alessandro Romagnoli to recover to clear the danger.
Quite remarkably, Juventus then had a flurry of four consecutive corner kicks that went wasted. This sparked Allegri into throwing on Mandzukic for Benatia and changing the system into a lopsided 4-3-3/narrow 4-4-2 hybrid. With two target men in attack, the Bianconeri resorted to whipping in the crosses which the Milan defenders were more than happy to clear away. Donnarumma was also alert to the danger as he picked out a dangerous Cuadrado cross but caught a stray Pjanic boot to the head in the process. The away side continued to crank up the pressure in desperate pursuit of the equalizer but could only fashion a few half chances as the time ticked away.
After five minutes of stoppage time, Rizzoli blew the final whistle to end an entertaining, though controversial, game of football: a 1-0 victory for AC Milan.
BUFFON 7 – Not quite the heroics like during midweek, but still had a few smart stops during the game. Was powerless for the goal.
BARZAGLI 7 – Dealt with the quick-footed and tricky Niang very impressively.
BONUCCI 5.5 – Sloppy display by Bonucci, quite unconvincing in possession as well.
BENATIA 7 – Very confident and calm display by the Moroccan defender. I was really impressed by him.
DANI ALVES 5.5 – Frustrating performance by Dani Alves, especially when he starts taking hopeful shots from long distance. He had a good first half but poor second period.
KHEDIRA 5.5 – It really seems like the German needs a rest or the midfield needs to be re-balanced so as to get the most out of his skills.
PJANIC 6 – Struggled to spark some creativity into the side.
HERNANES 6 – Solid, but unspectacular performance by Hernanes. He was surprisingly conservative in his passing.
SANDRO 6.5 – Decent performance again by the Brazilian high-flyer. He was very involved offensively as usual.
HIGUAÍN 6.5 – It’s hard to judge him adequately when he gets so little service, but he worked very hard to link-up with his teammates and create something out of nothing.
DYBALA N/A – Let’s hope the hamstring tweak isn’t too serious…
CUADRADO 5 – Really didn’t impact the game at all and it was hard to figure out what his role was.
MANDZUKIC 5 – Barely touched the ball.
STURARO N/A – Played for three minutes.
ALLEGRI 5.5 – I don’t know what Cuadrado’s role was supposed to be, so I wonder what instructions he got from the boss. He really should have been tasked with maintaining the press by marking Locatelli. Montella’s clever rotation in midfield between a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 without the ball and 4-3-3 with the ball clearly troubled Allegri as well, so I’m disappointed with his lack of a response to the tactical nuances of this game.
Tactical musings: The Shadow Games
The scruffy-haired Manuel Locatelli was the hero of the night, so using my unaccredited tactical analysis I tried to figure out why that happened. First of all, it’s important to note that Milan defended in a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 formation out of possession, with Giacomo Bonaventura joining the forward line to press the Juventus midfield.
Theoretically, this meant that Hernanes marked Bonaventura, Khedira was up against Locatelli, and Kucka battled against Pjanic. However, in possession the Italian youngster would drift away back into the shadows of his regista role, away from Khedira’s attentions and into a position that the German felt uncomfortable occupying. Not only that, but Bonaventura occasionally drifted behind the Juventus midfield trio, wandering in the shadows of the Bianconeri midfielders and thus creating space for Locatelli to move into:
As you can subtly see by Khedira’s body inclination in the above picture, he seems to want to block the passing lane into Bonaventura behind him but doesn’t want Locatelli to stride forward so easily. What really infuriated me, however, was why Cuadrado simply wasn’t tasked with marking the midfielder. He has the energy and pace to do so and it’s not like Paletta and Romagnoli are so threatening on the ball that they need to be watched. Regardless of that, Allegri tried to circumvent these midfield issues by instructing his side to press aggressively high up the pitch, especially in the opening stages of the game:
This largely worked actually as Juventus had the better of the first half and forced Locatelli into a few errors in possession. Unfortunately, though, this pressing could not be sustained for the entire game and as this pressing waned, spaces opened up for the Italian to exploit. And exploit them he did, in emphatic fashion:
Looking for a hero
The first half was actually quite good, especially the first 15 minutes. But to see the performance drop off so sharply as the game progressed is an extremely worrying sign. With Dybala likely to be out for a while, I’m really struggling to see where the creativity is going to come from in a team already painfully short of a magical spark — something that doesn’t bode well for an already-isolated Higuaín. It’s not all doom and gloom just yet, but it’s certainly not looking pleasant...