Despite the opening Champions League group stage game looming large on the horizon, Juventus had to negotiate a potentially tricky game against a notoriously difficult opponent: Sassuolo. The team led by the man whose name is as stylish as his look, Eusebio Di Francesco, travelled to the Juventus stadium hoping to shake off an embarrassing administrative gaffe and get back to winning ways.
Given Stephan Lichtsteiner’s much-discussed absence from the Champions League squad, Allegri made the obvious change of resting Dani Alves and playing the Swiss – this is a change we can basically expect to see every Serie A game that precedes a UCL group-stage game. Medhi Benatia replaced Andrea Barzagli in defense, Kwadwo Asamoah was rested as Miralem Pjanic made his debut in Juve colors, and Mario Mandzukic made way for the golden boy, Gonzalo Higuaín, to complete the changes from the last league game.
The game started in very frantic fashion. The first few minutes saw many fouls, few passing moves, and little rhythm to the game. Gianluigi Buffon was forced into an early one-handed save to prevent Matteo Politano’s low drive from creeping into the net. Sassuolo maintained some remarkably high pressure without the ball and it seemed to be working well. Out of the blue, though, came the first goal. A Sassuolo corner broke down and Juventus began a rapid counter attack. Pjanic deftly skipped past a challenge, leaving the defender on his backside, and threaded the ball to Paulo Dybala. La Joya needed little more invitation as he glided forward before spotting his compatriot Higuaín making a bursting run on the inside-right channel, who needed only a simple through ball and a few touches before rifling the ball into the far corner of the goal. The second goal also came courtesy of our record signing as he acrobatically volleyed a headed ball by Sami Khedira into the back of the net from 12 meters out.
The storming start to the game would not end soon as Leonardo Bonucci came close with a header from a corner, but Pjanic quickly showed the Italian how it was done as he brilliantly headed Lichtsteiner’s cross onto the crossbar but reacted first to bury the rebound.
A three-goal lead in a mere 30 minutes! But just when we thought we had seen it all, we witnessed a hyper-rare Buffon mishap as he flapped at a cross from a corner. Alex Sandro banged his clearance against Luca Antei and just like that, Sassuolo had pulled back a goal. The Bianconeri consolidated the rest of the half and went into the break with a 3-1 lead.
The second half was played at a different pace but with the same result: Bianconeri dominance. Khedira and Pjanic kept Andrea Consigli busy with a few driving shots as Sassuolo struggled to maintain the early-game defensive pressure. The (new?) BBC had the time to patiently build up play from the back as Allegri probably told the lads to not drop off the pressure and allow Sassuolo back into the game in the second half. This largely worked and Buffon had essentially nothing to do after the break, save for one freakish moment where Politano (again!) rounded the keeper but saw his effort heroically cleared off the line by Lichtsteiner to prevent an unnecessarily nervous final 5 minutes of the game.
Mission accomplished: Three games, three victories. six goals scored, two conceded. Not bad at all!
BUFFON 5.5. As usual, the legendary goalkeeper had little to do, but, unfortunately, had one crucial mistake for Sassuolo’s goal. He’ll want to forget his uncharacteristic mishap for Antei’s goal very quickly.
CHIELLINI 6.5. Thankfully put his nightmare performances for Italy behind him and returned to the usual, reliable destroyer at the back.
BONUCCI 6.5. Didn’t give Matri an inch of space and barely put a foot wrong.
BENATIA 6. Continues to impress and show intelligent anticipation to stop opposition attacks. The yellow card was unfortunate though.
LICHTSTEINER 7. A dynamic display by the Swiss to shrug off that Champions League “controversy.” Very active on both sides of the pitch, supplied the cross for Pjanic’s goal, and capped off his display with a remarkable last-ditch save on the line late in the game.
LEMINA 7. Our stand-in regista continues to impress. Didn’t make many mistakes, but the few he did make he quickly corrected. He’s very tidy in possession and distributes the ball laterally very confidently.
PJANIC 7.5. Extremely busy performance and debut by the Bosnian. His passing was short, quick, and effective. Sharp reactions to pounce on the rebound for his first goal in Bianconeri colors.
KHEDIRA 6.5. Quiet but assured performance. Played a role in Higuaín’s acrobatic 2nd goal.
ALEX SANDRO 6.5. Good all-round performance. He seemed more active offensively than defensively, but did both at a good level.
DYBALA 7.5. Creative, busy, and intelligent. Linked up nicely with his compatriot for the first goal and had a few lovely dribbles by drifting out wide a few times.
HIGUAÍN 8. He had all the fun in the world against Sassuolo and showed his enjoyment through 2 very well-taken goals. A fantastically clinical performance as life in Juventus colors continues to blossom for the Argentine hitman.
ALLEGRI. 7.5 Very good game management by Il Mister here. Instructed the boys to start intensely early on and more controlled late on. The midfield looked very balanced and there seemed to be real purpose in the play.
Mandzukic 6.5. Had a snap-shot that tested Consigli well and looked busy.
Hernanes 6. Didn’t do anything (blatantly) wrong.
Tactical observations: Whenever, wherever, whatever
Although much of the excitement was about seeing Higuaín start his first game in Juventus colors, there was an even greater buzz surrounding Pjanic’s first appearance for La Vecchia Signora. Being the nerd that I am, my eyes were on the tactical aspect of the game and thus I noted a few observations concerning his role and positioning in the side. Firstly, it seemed that when Juventus was building possession early on in the build-up, he adopted a deep, double-pivot position alongside Lemina.
However, once the first phase of the buildup was complete, the Bosnian moved aggressively high up the pitch to join the Argentine striking duo as we see below.
So he essentially played two roles: facilitator from deep and creator from high up the pitch. In light of this, I’m surprised Allegri let him complete the full 90 minutes, but then again, he is just returning from injury so this could just be an attempt to build match-fitness. He played the roles wonderfully, though, elegantly combining patient distribution with penetrating vertical passes.
Speaking of players fulfilling multiple roles, La Joya Dybala was running riot all over the place. He was intelligently positioning himself wide and overloading the wings with Lichtsteiner and Alex Sandro. This forced one of the Sassuolo central midfielders to come out wide to provide cover or the winger to directly challenge him. This facilitated ball circulation from one side to the other through midfield and, when one of the opposition wingers had to come defend, freed up one of Benatia or Chiellini off the ball.
A Madman’s Musings
Overall, a remarkably energetic display in the first half combined with a more controlled style in the second half. The victory was never really in doubt even though Sassuolo did manage to provide a few late sights on goal to remind us that they were going to go down with honor. What surprised me most was the directness of the play in attack, especially early on. We wanted to get the ball from back to front as quickly as possible. Bonucci didn’t do too much distributive work because Pjanic and Dybala were relentlessly driving the squad forward. An interesting change in intention and purpose from the team, a change that must be accredited to our favorite Madman Max Allegri.
Let’s see how we deal with Sevilla on Wednesday! Forza Juve!