Juventus travelled to the beautiful city of Florence to play Fiorentina in the last game of the Serie A weekend. The visitors were without Stephan Lichtsteiner through suspension, Dani Alves through injury, and both Mario Lemina and Medhi Benatia due to national team obligations, but welcomed back Leonardo Bonucci and Alex Sandro to the starting lineup in their full returns from injury. Fiorentina, however, took the visitors completely by storm and recorded a well-deserved 2-1 victory as goals from Nikola Kalinic and Milan Badelj were enough to clinch the three points despite Gonzalo Higuaín’s second-half response.
The home side started with remarkable purpose and intensity on Sunday night as they dominated possession early on. They recorded their first short on target after just seven minutes through Matías Vecino, though the returning Gianluigi Buffon made the save to deny the Uruguayan an early opening goal. That was merely the beginning of an absolutely storming start to the game though because a few minutes later Fiorentina went even closer to opening the scoring: some brilliant hold-up play by Nikola Kalinic allowed Vecino to bundle his way forward to the penalty area and past Khedira only to crash a shot against the outside of the post from close range. The men in purple were playing like men possessed in the opening period, leaving the Bianconeri in a shell-shocked and largely clueless state.
Juve finally managed to calm the storm around the 25-minute mark, although this was in part thanks to the many fouls and dangerous tackles coming from both sides. Juventus still couldn’t muster any sort of offensive play or cohesive passing rhythm. Meanwhile, Kalinic continued to absolutely harass the Bianconeri backline with his remarkably intelligent hold-up play, ability to win aerial duels, and surprising strength on the ball. Just when Juventus seemed to have truly calmed things down in the game though, Fiorentina finally found the deserved breakthrough thanks to the standout player Kalinic. The Croatian started the move himself by winning yet another aerial duel and nodding it down to Federico Bernardeschi. The Italian winger calmly took the ball in his stride, waited for Kalinic to make the right run, and slipped the ball through to the striker. He made no mistake by striking a low drive first-time to the far corner and past Buffon: 1-0.
It was a deserved goal for Fiorentina as they had thoroughly outplayed and outfought Juventus up to that point, especially thanks to Kalinic’s consistently-fantastic holdup play. Juventus, quite remarkably, almost found the equalizer straight away as a deep cross from the subdued Alex Sandro created chaos in the home side’s box. The ball fell to Gonzalo Higuaín who struck the ball straight away but was blocked quite remarkably at the last moment by Maximiliano Olivera. That was the last notable piece of action of a fascinating first half which the home side thoroughly enjoyed and left the visitors with much to ask for.
Juventus had unfortunately not learned their lessons from the first half as they still allowed Fiorentina to come flying at them after the break. La Viola won the ball back after yet another spell of rabidly-intense pressing and the ball found its way to Kalinic thanks to some good work by Carlos Sánchez. The Croatian striker was suddenly 1-on-1 with Buffon, but the goalkeeper managed to prevent the second goal thanks to some good goalkeeping and defensive pressure by Bonucci to put Kalinic slightly off balance. Buffon was helpless to prevent the second goal a few minutes later though. Milan Badelj played a dangerous cross into the box towards Federico Chiesa who had drifted away from the static Sandro. The ball floated past everyone, however, and bounced past the surprised Buffon and into the back of the net: 2-0. The increased lead only lasted for five minutes though as Juventus hit back through a Gonzalo Higuaín goal after Khedira’s cross bounced awkwardly off Sturaro and fortuitously into the Argentine’s path: 2-1!
Fiorentina still bravely maintained the high press for the remainder of the game despite the fear of tiring and/or fizzling out in the closing stages of the encounter. Juventus started to throw men forward and finally seemed to be getting some sort of (much-desired) attacking momentum although it was far from what fans are used to seeing. La Viola obviously soaked up the pressure and simply lurked on the counterattack; this often caused some real moments of danger which Kalinic and Bernardeschi could have punished had the offside trap been a little friendlier to them on a few occasions. Juventus were inches away from the equalizer in the 80th minute after a Dybala free kick delivery was headed on target by Higuaín and saved by Tatarusanu. The mayhem that ensued in the box resulted in everybody hacking and slashing at the ball but eventually Chiellini could only muster a weak shot that the goalkeeper recovered in time for to hold onto.
The visitors thought that they had finally done enough to get the equalizer after substitute Mario Mandzukic latched onto a long ball and showed some fantastic skill to lay the ball off for Dybala just inside the box, but the Argentine capped off a miserable evening by ballooning his effort well off target and into the stands. The home side could have killed the game through Ilicic late in stoppage time after a through ball from Kalinic allowed the substitute to beat the offside trap, but the Slovenian ran out of space after rounding Buffon and the ball trickled out of play for a goal kick. Six minutes of stoppage time were also not enough for Juventus to salvage a point from this game and so the game ended 2-1 to the delight of a euphoric home crowd.
BUFFON 6 – A few nervous passes aside, he couldn’t do much this game. The first goal seemed to catch him off guard so he couldn’t get down quickly enough while the second goal was unfortunate.
BARZAGLI 5.5 – The best of the bunch today as he definitely wasn’t the disaster that his teammates were during this game.
BONUCCI 5 – Not a welcome return from injury. Got completely bullied into submission and outfought by Sunday’s Man of the Match, Kalinic.
CHIELLINI 4 – An even worse and absolutely atrocious performance by Chiellini. His passing was completely clueless and he was all over the place.
CUADRADO 5 – Poor first half but fared better in the second period as he won plenty of fouls against the energetic Olivera.
KHEDIRA 4.5 – An anonymous performance by the German.
STURARO 4 – I’m sure everyone in the comments will tear Sturaro apart, so I see little reason to add any more fuel to the fire.
MARCHISIO 5 – Borja Valero’s and Bernardeschi’s fluent positioning gave Marchisio a terribly difficult time defensively and also struggled to deal with Fiorentina’s furiously intense pressing game.
SANDRO 5 – Actually did alright defensively against Chiesa until the second goal. Generally he just seemed off the boil for most of the game and was invisible in the first half.
HIGUAÍN 5.5 – Gets a bit extra for his goal but generally starved of service the entire game.
DYBALA 4.5 – One of the worst Dybala performances in Juventus colors. The miss, the wayward passes, the yellow card, almost everything that could go wrong did for the young Argentine.
PJACA 5.5 – Didn’t get too many opportunities this game, but that one delicate piece of footwork by the left touchline was a joy too watch. It was a bit confusing to figure out his position as well: part midfielder, part winger, part forward. If Allegri really is that fond of the Croatian he should probably not play him in three positions at the same time.
RINCÓN N/A – Played too little to really judge.
MANDZUKIC N/A – Ditto for Mario, except that he should have recorded a deciding assist after some brilliant play to tee up Dybala. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite end as we had expected.
ALLEGRI 5.5 – The usual pitchforks and blood-hungry jackals will be out clamouring for the death of the 3-5-2, but I also largely agree that he had little other choice than to play this formation. The exclusion of Pjanic was, admittedly, a bit dubious in my eyes as well especially because it meant that we had not one but two functional central midfielders in the side (Khedira and Sturaro). In other words, we had two players doing the duty of one in midfield: a pretty frustrating redundancy. Also, he really didn’t find a way to deal with Fiorentina’s pressing. At least his substitutions were actually quite alright.
Tactics: Now you see me, now you don’t.
Fiorentina had a swaggering game full of intense pressing and by taking a peak at their tactical setup, we can figure out why they did. Paulo Sousa set his team up in a fascinating hybrid between 3-4-3 in attack and 3-5-2 when defending. The key to the success of this fluid system was the movement and positioning of two men: Federico Bernardeschi and Borja Valero.
In the above picture, Fiorentina are in possession and building an attack and we see Bernardeschi hold an inside-right position and Borja sneaking forward from a left-of-center position in midfield. The Spaniard played an especially interesting role because he played as a central midfielder in defense but shuttled forward as a trequartista when his side were on the offensive. Due to this, Badelj and Vecino had to remain very disciplined in their central midfield positioning and rarely ventured forward. Bernardeschi on the other hand, was quasi-winger and quasi-support striker. In the first picture he’s more in his winger position but in the following picture (and for the opening goal as well actually) he’s almost in a center forward position.
The knock-on effect of this little switcheroo? Marchisio — and the space he operated within — was completely overloaded. Blink once and Borja was next to him, blink twice and Bernardeschi was running at him from the other side, blink thrice and suddenly the both of them were buzzing around him from different angles. Technically, Khedira was supposed to be marking Borja but I don’t think the German was comfortable tracking him back so deep into his own half. To make matters even worse, Kalinic would drop a bit deeper close to Marchisio’s space just to give him another worry to think about. It was a terrifically difficult situation for Il Principino to find himself in, especially when you factor in the relentless pressing that the team had to endure from Fiorentina.
In closing, I do wonder one thing. One of the perennial trade-offs in footballing tactics is that between having a fluid system and a rigid one. Fiorentina, quite rightly, played a largely fluid system which means, however, that there will inevitably be spaces in midfield (especially during transitions). In this case, the space was in behind Borja due to his very demanding responsibility to play “two” positions and occasionally vacate his (very important) central midfield position. I wonder, then, which Juventus player(s) was supposed to or played in the position to exploit this space?
Looking for ideas and playing the Blame Game.
It’s pretty obvious that this was an abject Juventus performance and, naturally, fans will look for culprits to blame. As usual, the 3-5-2 is subjected to the most spirited abuse but as I said earlier, Allegri had little other choice given injuries and suspensions. I do still wonder why Pjanic wasn’t used at all especially because of the redundancy in central midfield, but perhaps the formation indeed doesn’t play to his strengths. Nevertheless, Fiorentina’s relentless pressing, the positioning of Bernardeschi and Valero, and Kalinic’s game-winning performance completely overpowered Juventus today. What really got under my skin though, was the never-ending flurry of misplaced passes (Chiellini? Dybala? Sturaro?) and dodgy fouls (Chiellini?) that just added insult to injury. January is an incredibly difficult and important period of the season so this kind of mental absenteeism and complacency comes at no worse time.
Time to pick ourselves up, ragazzi, because the season is absolutely not going to get any easier.