Good morning, folks, and welcome back to another edition of “How To Say In 1,000 Words, What You Could Have Said In 500”! My name is Kaushik, and you’re joining me outside the Juventus Stadium in Turin, where today’s topic of discussion is the recently-concluded Serie A match between Juventus and Cagliari. Everyone was wondering how Juventus would respond to a week that’s been perceived as somewhat of a reality check. Former player and Juventus legend and victory cigar, Simone Padoin, warned that Cagliari’s chances seemed bleak as they were sure to run into an angry Juventus this Wednesday evening, and boy, the lads sure didn’t disappoint!
Like the last team to visit Juventus Stadium in Serie A, Cagliari came to Turin with a very Italian side and sought to play their brand of football rather than simply park the bus. While this made for an extremely open game from the get-go, they certainly did so to their detriment. On the second minute itself, Miralem Pjanic fired in a long free kick straight at goal, which former Juventus fan favorite Marco Storari somewhat clumsily kept out. Juventus were pouring men forward with deadly intent from the get go, but a long ball over the top towards Marco Sau could have created a sticky moment for Gigi Buffon, had Andrea Barzagli not intervened with a brilliant last-ditch intercepting tackle. The veteran brought out another brilliant tackle moments later, and Paulo Dybala broke down the right, before playing a sweet ball through to Gonzalo Higuain, who brilliantly attacked the space between the two centerbacks. The angle was tight, however, and Storari saved his attempt well.
In an eager attempt to atone for the lackluster performance against Inter over the weekend, the Juventus players were playing with a fire and determination to be first to every ball on the pitch. Soon, Dani Alves broke down the right and fired in a pinpoint cross at Higuain, who once again held back his run to find space between the two centerbacks, but his header was straight at Storari. Juventus were clearly knocking at the door, and with pressure mounting, they got their well-deserved lead at the 14 minute mark.
From a very central free kick, Pjanic fired in a brilliantly lobbed ball that Higuain expertly volleyed first time at goal, only to be met by an even more impressive save by his nemesis for the night, Storari. Luckily, Daniele Rugani was on hand to tap into an open net, his first goal as a Juventus player.
The team kept the pressure up, however, and were eager to double the lead and put the game to rest early on. Alex Sandro really should have done better after having met a wonderful Dybala cross, only to fire his bullet header just wide of the far post.
Higuain was proving to be a handful for the Cagliari defense, and in the 33rd minute mark, he collected the ball after some wonderfully crisp midfield passing some 25 metres from goal, before deftly cutting past his man and firing a piledriver shot that agonizingly struck the upright and went out for a goal kick. From the resulting goal kick, however, Cagliari clumsily gave the ball away to the high Juventus press, and Sandro played in Pjanic in the box with acres of space. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, he pulled out another miracle save from Storari, only for the rebound to fall kindly to Higuain this time, who made no mistake in tapping in to score a very well deserved goal.
Juventus were clearly enjoying themselves, and they made it 3-0 soon later. From a corner, Pjanic played a perfectly weighted low pass outside the box, for an onrushing Alves to fire a neat finish into the far bottom corner.
Cagliari made two changes at the break to try and enforce some modicum of damage control, for this Juventus machine was certainly in the mood today. Somewhat surprisingly, Gigi Buffon came off at halftime for Norberto Neto, who made his first appearance of the season. The second half began more quietly than the first, with a lot of physical challenges and fouls made in the middle of the park, disrupting play for the most part.
Marko Pjaca came on for a tired Dybala at the 72-minute mark, and he immediately broke down the left flank and won a free kick just outside the box. Despite the narrow angle, Pjanic went straight for goal and demanded another great save from Storari. The ball broke kindly for Hernanes, who fired in an absolute missile that was heading for the top corner had Storari not made another miracle save.
Soon, Mario Mandzukic came on for Higuain, and also had an instant impact. On the 84-minute mark, Pjanic floated in a wonderful long ball for Mandzukic to head back across into the path of Lemina. The Gabonese controlled the ball under immense pressure, and his stretched finish was saved by the immense Storari. Once again the rebound proved to be his bane however, as this time it was bundled over the line by his own defender Ceppitelli.
The game concluded with a double chance for the Croatian duo of Pjaca and Mandzukic. The younger Croat showed tremendous strength to break into the Cagliari half, before threading through a wonderful pass for his veteran compatriot, but his finish was poor and went well wide. The very next minute Hernanes launched a gorgeous ball over the top that Pjaca brought down brilliantly, but his first touch narrowed his angle down significantly, and he could only lob the ball over both Storari and the crossbar. That proved to be the last bit of action for what was a dominant Juventus display!
Juventus coach Max Allegri opted to rotate his squad for this game, and Rugani and Hernanes both got their first starts of the season. It is worth nothing that while Juventus lined up in their customary 3-5-2, they attacked in a far different and more offensive shape. I consider the crucial part of this change to be Pjanic, and his free-roaming role as an outside midfielder.
The team pressed really high up the pitch, with the outside midfielders, Pjanic and Lemina, pushing up to pressurize their midfield. And, to complement this, both Rugani and Chiellini enjoyed tremendous success in pushing up and denying Cagliari any space to even enter our third of the pitch. Each took turns in starving attacking midfielder Joao Pedro of the ball completely, while the other two kept the forwards, Boriello and Sau in their pockets.
While attacking, the team adopted what resembled a 3-4-2-1 shape, with Alves and Sandro playing more as traditional wingers than wingbacks, the narrow Cagliari formation affording them a lot of space to dominate the flanks. Lemina held a very restrained position next to Hernanes, and this afforded Pjanic the freedom to wreak havoc by drifting further forward from his left midfield position. Dybala ended up mirroring this by dropping deep and drifting to the right, and it was only while defending that he maintained a more advanced position than Pjanic. However, the left flank was the far more controlled and straightforward flank, with Sandro stretching the Cagliari defense to great effect, and Pjanic linking up very well with him in the space between defense and midfield.
On the right, it was a bit of a roulette of position changing, as Alves played as much more of an auxiliary midfielder than a winger, and he incessantly drifted into the middle of the pitch, with Lemina and Dybala frequently pushing right in his place. This part baffled me somewhat, and while the position changing might have been a nightmare for Cagliari to deal with in terms of marking and watching runs, it limited both Alves and Dybala’s productivity in the final third significantly. It’s Alves who you want cutting to the byline and firing crosses in, while Dybala creates from the center, not the vice versa. Whoscored tells me that Alves had 137 touches of the ball, which was 40 more than his nearest competitor, Pjanic. A pretty baffling statistic.
It is worth noting however, that a lot of freedom that our midfield enjoyed stemmed from the presence of Hernanes, who even when not on the ball, was required to be marked by one of the Cagliari midfielders. For the most part, this was Joao Pedro, and this played a big role in his quiet 45 minutes on the pitch. Hernanes for his part, kept it very simple and was very positive in possession, pushing the team as a whole forward with intelligent passing, and affording space for Pjanic to make plays with, and for Lemina to bulldoze through, which they did to great effect.
BUFFON 6 – Il Capitano had absolutely nothing to do for the half he spent on the pitch, and he might as well have called up his financial advisor and made plans for his retirement. It would have been a more productive 45 minutes at least.
RUGANI 7.5 – Extremely promising seasonal debut for the youngster, as he continued on from his impressive preseason showings by slotting into the backline with complete ease. He dominated Marco Boriello throughout, and left the veteran frustrated on the ground on multiple occasions. It’s amazing to see the difference in his composure on the ball as compared to last year, and it looks like he’s adapting well to the “build from the back” play style we possess. The goal will give him a world of a confidence, and here’s hoping he gets more minutes soon.
BARZAGLI 7 – Extremely solid, smart and efficiently tidy. It was a welcome return to form for Barzagli, who had a difficult evening against Inter after coming on for Medhi Benatia. He had a relatively quiet evening with little to do, but he still showed supreme awareness and reflexes with some wonderful last minute tackles and interceptions.
CHIELLINI 7 – Far more composed and reassured showing from King Kong, too. He pushed up and dominated Sau for his entire time on the pitch. He is also showing a budding synergy with Alex Sandro on the left, both while defending and attacking, and this is heartening. Maybe he just needs some time to return to his usual lofty levels.
DANI ALVES 6.5 – Alves is proving to be a bit of question mark. His positioning really begs the question of whether it’s Allegri who’s instructing him to play that way, or he’s using Allegri’s “play with freedom” motto and his position as an experienced champion to try and put himself in the middle of the action more. Either way, it’s resulting in him spending the majority of the match away from the flank — which is a shame because when he does get into crossing positions, he almost always gives Higuain/Mandzukic something to fight for. Took his goal excellently, though. That isn’t to say he didn’t play well, for his ability to link up is world class, just that he’s spending far too much time away from the flank, reducing his efficacy, and hence Dybala’s too as a result.
LEMINA 8 – Man of the Match for me. He absolutely dominated the midfield. He displayed a range of passing that I wasn’t sure he possessed, which clearly points to him having the composure to be less adventurous when playing as the midfield pivot. He certainly has a deft touch however, and the way he used his ball control and strength to bully his way into the opposing half is very reminiscent of Pogba. He was very sound defensively, too, and intercepted the ball many times. Unlucky that he couldn’t finish the chance that ended up being an own goal, but he is fast carving a crucial place in this midfield.
HERNANES 7 – I was happily surprised with the Brazilian, as he had a very encouraging match. Without being tasked with too much defensive work, he always made himself available for the pass and with smart runners on either side of him, he spread the play and pushed the team forward extremely well. He also looks much more efficient on the ball, by not talking the two or three extra touches he was taking last year, and moving it around quicker.
PJANIC 7.5 – The Bosnian is definitely far more suited to this role in this system. His movement and silky touch was a major source of inspiration to many of our attacking moves. I expect to see much more from him however though, as I feel like he’s still adapting and growing into the squad. His role today while attacking was reminiscent of Pogba last year, as he frequently sought the ball in an advanced position on the left, and used his wonderful eye to bring others into play.
ALEX SANDRO 7.5 – The wingback is hitting a rich vein of form and it’s tough to see Uncle Pat taking many more minutes off him at this rate. He bombed up and down the left flank all game and completely shut it down defensively, too. He was missing that golden touch in the final third, but his passing and positioning was on point all game. He seems to be developing a wonderful chemistry with Pjanic that is just lacking when Asamoah plays there instead.
DYBALA 7 – La Joya is starting to look tired and I think a rest is due. He had a far better game, as a lot of his touches and flicks came off as a result. He brings those around him into play wonderfully, but he looks a little short on confidence in front of goal. His positioning as a result of Alves isn’t quite helping, as he just isn’t finding himself in shooting positions, let alone goal scoring positions.
HIGUAIN 8 – On another night, he could have had a hat trick. Pipita had a brilliant game, where the defense had absolutely no answers for him. His off the ball movement is just joyous to watch, as his incisive running frequently bisects the two centerbacks and their positioning right in two. It looked like it might prove to be a frustrating evening for him, but luckily he was in the right place to tap home our second, and his fourth of the season. Held the ball up and brought the others into play extremely well, and I’m very excited to see more of him.
NETO 6 – The Brazilian had to wait close to 15 minutes just to be able to touch the ball with his hands, and that pretty much sums the story up I suppose. He might as well have played charades with the crowd behind him for all the work he had to do.
PJACA 7 – The promising signs are numerous from the young Croat, but he is far from the finished item. It does look like he possesses a special skillset including his wonderful dribbling abilities, speed and strength. He seems to be well composed on the ball too, and showed some lovely vision in his time on the pitch.
MANDZUKIC 6.5 – Did very well to nab the assist for the fourth goal, but arguably should have done much better when presented with the chance to make it 5-0 late on. He seems to have started the season slowly like last year, but considering his main competition is Higuain, who’s on fire, and not the wildly erratic Morata of 2015-16, he could find minutes hard to come by if something doesn’t go his way soon.
ALLEGRI 7.5 – He said the team had to improve on a technical level, especially with regards to the passing, and it seems like the team understood his words. His rotation policy was also nailed today. It’s very encouraging to see us limit the opposition to zero shots on goal, by means of high pressure and relentless attacking. I have faith in his vision for this team.
STORARI 9 – It could have easily been 6 or 7 goals for us had it not been for the veteran keeper. He is adored by the Juventini, and with good reason. It was a pleasure to see him at the Juventus Stadium again, and he was extremely unlucky that three of his brilliant saves ended up becoming rebounds for goals.
- I hope to see Chiellini rested this weekend, and more minutes for Rugani who looked very impressive today.
- I’m also hoping to see Dybala rested for either Pjaca or Cuadrado and a formation change this weekend, as he badly needs it.
- In hindsight, Hernanes at regista might not be the worst idea in Marchisio’s absence — especially considering Lemina looks a far more impressive box-to-box midfielder than Asamoah.
- It’s still early, but I think based on the positions of the players Wednesday night and their performances, the strongest starting 11 we have on paper is a 4-3-1-2 with a midfield trio of Khedira, Marchisio and Lemina, and Pjanic playing as the TQ. This is almost certainly likely to look like a 4-3-2-1 going forward however, with Dybala dropping deep and drifting to the right, and Pjanic pushing up and drifting to the left.
- Pjanic as a free-roaming midfielder >> Pjanic as a regista.