Two games in, and in stark contrast to last season, Juventus has a whopping six more points than we had then! HIGUAIN A BETTER SIGNING THAN DYBALA CONFIRMED! However, where the bulk of the game against Fiorentina was high-intensity fluidity just missing ruthlessness in front of goal, this game was much more of a labored cagey affair in the scorching Roman sun.
Saturday’s game began very slowly as neither side looked keen on taking too much initiative and expending much energy in the early stages. Lazio, however, were pressing much higher than Juve, and we struggled to get out of our own half for the first few minutes. There appeared to be a lack of chemistry in the middle, as our midfielders kept getting crowded off the ball and we struggled to bring Mario Mandzukic or Paulo Dybala into the game.
A Dybala header off a deflected Alex Sandro cross that Federico Marchetti dived to his left to keep out at the eighth minute was the first real chance of the game. Lazio continued to enjoy the more productive possession, and despite not really getting a sniff of goal, the wide players, Felipe Anderson and Senad Lulic were keeping our BBC defense (2nd iteration) on their toes.
The first 15 minutes were extremely cagey, and for any Premier League fans either interested in watching Serie A — yup, all seven of them worldwide — or who just got lost while navigating their sports channels (far more likely), this must have served the dual purpose of being a visual lullaby, and a clear justification for Paul Pogba returning to United. I mean, they ARE the club who made him who he is today after all amiright?
The Juventus midfield, so impressive a week ago, continued to struggle to keep a hold of possession. Kwado Asamoah, in particular, was looking thoroughly lost on the ball, and lost possession no less than four times in the first 10 minutes — a fact that clearly didn’t escape Max Allegri’s scrutinizing gaze, judging by his post match comments. Mario Lemina also needlessly gave the ball away at the 23rd minute mark, and this presented Lazio with their first chance of the game, as Dusan Basta broke away down the right flank, and fired in a vicious low cross, that Gigi Buffon could only get his fingertips too. Thankfully, Medhi Benatia was present to clear the ball off the line while under pressure.
Eventually, we began to maintain a better hold of possession, but were still playing quite far away from the Lazio goal. Lazio in turn, began to cede possession and attempt to his us on the break through Anderson and ex-Juventus youth product and Carlos Tevez leg bruiser, Ciro Immobile. The heat was taking a toll on the players, and a water break at the 28 minute mark was deemed necessary. If you thought that would lend the game a new lease of excitement however, as I was, you were sadly mistaken.
A long Sami Khedira pass upfield that Asamoah managed to slice at, looped not too menacingly towards the top corner, but Marchetti comfortably managed to keep it out. This was about all for the first half action, as the rest of the half proved to be about as exciting as watching the groundsmen tend to the turf before the game I imagine.
Asamoah and Dani Alves, in particular, had really poor first halves, and I found myself hoping Allegri would change things for the second half by taking a defender off for Miralem Pjanic or Marko Pjaca to support the attack and give us an extra body in midfield to pass too. Lazio were playing with Immobile on the counter for the most part anyway.
The second half however started slightly more brightly. Allegri seemed to have gotten his instructions across better, as finally there seemed to be some flow breaking forward, as Khedira and Asamoah began to grow into the match, and better support Dybala and the until then anonymous, Mandzukic. Sandro began to see much more of the ball, as finally the wide players started to get into the game and stretch the Lazio defense.
One such move lead to the best chance of the game thus far, as a brilliant deep cross from Sandro on the left, found Mandzukic break away from his man in the box, and fire a fierce volley straight at Marchetti, who managed to save it well, only for the rebound to fall at Dybala’s feet. La Joya managed to wiggle his way past his man and fire a low shot that just trickled agonizingly past the far post.
Juve looked much sharper this half, and at the 62th minute, Dybala broke away after intercepting a short Lazio corner. He played the ball through to Alves on the right, who brilliantly played a long ball over the top back to Dybala. The Argentinean got to the byline and played a gorgeous backheel into the path of Khedira inside the box, but the German opted to try to square the ball to Mandzukic instead of going for goal, and the Lazio defense managed to sneak a touch in before it reached its target, giving us a corner. From the ensuing set piece, Giorgio Chiellini fired a rocket header just over the bar.
On the 65 minute mark, Mandzukic came off after a pretty luckless evening, for Juve’s record signing, Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine offers a much more varied and larger (gettit? wink wink) threat than the Croatian, with his deadly off the ball movement, and the effect was almost instantaneous, as Juve took the lead.
Dybala broke forward towards the final third, and Higuain’s forward run dragged both defenders Bastos and Stefan de Vrij with him. Dybala’s lovely ball over the top was completely missed by Lucas Biglia, and this found Khedira completely free inside the box after one of his trademark late runs, and he made no mistake in firing a wonderful angled drive past Marchetti into the bottom corner.
Finally, the game began to open up slightly, as Lazio began to pour forward in numbers, and this offered us more space on the counter. Despite their increased possession, Lazio struggled to fashion any real openings. Substitute Patric fired over from inside the box following some fine work from Immobile, and the Romans finally had a shot on target a few minutes later, as Parolo’s drive from outside the box was comfortably saved by Gigi.
Juve were content to see the game out and try and hit Lazio on the break, and in such a flow, the game drew towards its close. The only other chance of note came deep into stoppage time, as Sandro broke forward with pace down the left. Once again, Higuain’s forward run drew two defenders with him, and Sandro squared the ball across to substitute Pjaca just outside the box. Juve’s latest attacking prospect brilliantly used his trickery to completely bamboozle Stefan Radu, but he ended up hurrying his shot, and hit it straight at Marchetti. Juve held on for the win, the clean sheet, and the three points.
I must say that Simone Inzaghi seemed to have won the tactical battle of the first half. He set Lazio up to completely nullify our offensive structure, and he succeeded, albeit, at the cost of giving up on most of their offensive threat. Lazio’s 3-4-3 structure utilized the somewhat defensive Lulic at left forward, with the sole intention of keeping Alves in check. Playing with wide midfielders and wide forwards, resulted in a very neat overlap occurring on either flank, and this pegged both our wingbacks back for the entire first half. Had it not been for Benatia and Chiellini’s brilliance in not giving this overlap any space to exploit down the flanks, they might have had far more joy going forward.
While defending, wide forwards Lulic and Felipe Anderson took up much more central positions. This resulted in Lazio having four men in the middle, which completely crowded out the middle of the park, and gave our midfield trio absolutely no space to work with and maintain possession with. This had the domino effect of Dybala dropping absurdly deep just to get the ball at all, leaving poor Mandzukic thoroughly isolated against three center backs and starved of any service. The two men on their left flank, also meant Alves got no space to play hugging the flank, and he wandered far too central into Khedira’s position far too often, further crowding the midfield and causing positional confusion.
Still, seeing the potential that Dybala and Alves had in playing quick one-two’s down the right, Inzaghi moved Felipe Anderson to the left for the second half. The Brazilian Olympic gold winner is far more talented and offensive than Lulic, and his teamwork with Jordan Lukaku kept Alves completely away from the action for the second half. Lulic was tasked with marking Sandro down the left, and struggled a little on his weaker side, as Sandro found far more joy breaking forward without the threat of Anderson to deal with. Everything considered, I can’t really look at Inzaghi’s tactics and deduce that he played for anything but a draw, while maybe hoping for a suckerpunch goal on the counter.
I have to say, I can see a number of positional weaknesses with this version of the 3-5-2, most primarily, without the threat of Pogba able to single-handedly carry the ball forward, Dybala is being forced to play extremely deep to get the ball. Two games in a row now, he has been too far away from goal for my liking, and Mandzukic has had a torrid time in complete isolation. Especially considering Khedira and Asamoah’s proclivity for late runs into the box, I’m hoping to see us play with a TQ soon, either Pjaca or Pjanic, as we desperately need a link for the midfield and attack. Dybala’s best position is as a second striker, playing off either Mandzukic or Higuain, not as a trequartista.
Buffon: 6.5 – For the second game running, Gigi had absolutely nothing to do, with only one real shot on goal to face for the whole game. A nice clean sheet for him this time though, and I take heart in seeing him have so little to do. It means our defense is back to their best. He showed his usual brilliant command of the box in the second half as Lazio broke forward more though.
Benatia: 8.5 – MotM. For all intents and purposes, Benatia looked like a younger and more modern version of Barzagli today. Next level reading of the game, and a wonderful ability to read the flow of the game too, as the moment Lazio began to double up on Alves, he took a slightly wider position to ensure they never had any joy down that flank. Five clearances, six tackles and seven interceptions speak of his total dominance today. He is a serious threat on set pieces too.
Barzagli: 7 – The "Bonucci" role doesn’t utilize his strengths well, and he had a quiet game by his usual standards, as all he really had to do was keep an eye on the not-so-immobile Ciro Immobile. He looked a little like someone playing in an unfamiliar position, but otherwise he was quite solid.
Chiellini: 7.5 – Its been a strong start to the season for King Kong. Like Benatia, he handled Lazio’s overlap down the flanks very well, and never left Sandro by himself. Made many a crucial interception or clearance, and was rock solid and focused as ever, one foolish loss of possession aside.
Alves: 6.5 – The skill is there for all to see, but I think, like Patrice Evra in his first season, we will see the best of him in a back four. The more offensive wingback position is affording him a little too much freedom for my liking, and he has to work on his positioning. Hardly got into any positions to cross from all game. His chemistry with Dybala is worth keeping an eye on however.
Khedira: 7.5 – Had a pretty anonymous first half, but was absolutely everywhere as the game opened up in the second. His first half can be attributed to our midfield as a whole being given no space to work with. His positioning on the defensive side was top notch throughout, however. He found far more space to work with in the second half, and was a constant menace going forward. Took his goal very well, and his fitness and form could be a major defining point for our season.
Lemina: 7 – Not an easy day at the office by any means, but continues to impress as the midfield pivot. His physicality and game sense serve as an excellent shield for the defense, and he was particularly impressive at the back today. Guilty of giving away possession cheaply a few times, but did his best to try and rotate possession efficiently. Has the potential to become an important cog for this midfield.
Asamoah: 6 – Poor game from the Ghanian. While it is true that he was starved of space by a determined Lazio midfield, he did himself no favours by persistently trying to dribble his way out of trouble. His positioning as a midfielder is still a question mark to me, and all the improvement he showed in his chemistry with Sandro last week, was completely absent today. Not writing him off of course, but he still needs to prove himself as a central midfielder.
Sandro: 7.5 – Much improved performance from the Brazilian, who was solid as a rock defending against both Lulic and Felipe Anderson, and put in a very productive shift up and down the left flank. He delivered some beautiful crosses, and his dribbling was vital in helping us break forward and relieve the pressure on the defense at the end of the game. He’s really making the left flank his own, and I expect great things from him.
Dybala: 7 – His dribbling is a joy to watch, but he’s playing just too far away from goal for my liking right now. He needs to be playing between the lines of their centerbacks and midfield, not facing their midfield head on. He deserves a goal for his efforts though, and I hope he gets one soon. Showed some excellent link-up with Alves and Khedira yet again, but his very effective partnership with Mandzukic from last year isn’t firing as of now.
Mandzukic : 6.5 – I feel for the Croat, I really do. Two games in a row now he’s been pretty isolated against multiple defenders. Today he got absolutely no service at all until the second half. It isn’t his fault, but his style of play isn’t tallying with the system we’re running at the moment. Without Claudio Marchisio, Bonucci and Pjanic, his hold-up play becomes a non-factor because he’s not getting anything to hold up.
Higuain: 7 – His biggest impact at the moment seems to be what he does without the ball, rather than with it. I’ll attribute this too to the system we’re running right now, and his fitness, which is steadily improving. It wasn’t an easy game to come into, as we scored right after he came on, and were content to sit back and let him lead the line alone. Bastos did have his number though, and he’ll be disappointed he couldn’t make more of his few break away opportunities.
Just as the exciting new season gets underway, we’re forced to break for the international break. Sigh... when football becomes a tease... This is a good opportunity for players like Pjanic and Higuain to build on their fitness and sharpness, however, and it gives players like Lemina, Asamoah and Sandro more time to develop some chemistry, which are both good things. I feel like Lemina and Higuain have some bonding to do, too. The look Gonzalo gave him after the Gabonese fired a long shot right into his back, screamed "Even ignoring the pass you didn’t give me, if you do that again I’ll eat you,” doesn’t really bode well for team spirit.. Or his "50 days to a new you!" weight loss program.