The last game of the month saw Juventus travel to bogey-team Sassuolo in what has historically been a terribly difficult stadium to visit. Despite Sassuolo’s poor form this season, exacerbated by the unexpectedly taxing Europa League responsibilities and the unfortunate overload of injuries, they are always up for a big game against the Bianconeri on their home turf. Nevertheless, Juventus finally managed to break the curse of the Mapei Stadium, as two quick-fire first-half goals from Gonzalo Higuaín and Sami Khedira secured a comfortable 2-0 victory for the league leaders on Sunday afternoon.
The hosts almost treated their fans to the opening attempt on goal within just five minutes of play as Leonardo Bonucci was awkwardly dilly-dallying in possession and was dispossessed by Matteo Politano, but the Sassuolo winger couldn’t quite get the space for the shot on target, much to the relief of a red-faced Bonucci. Juventus then took the initiative by getting a decent chance after Juan Cuadrado pulled the ball back to Higuaín at the edge of the box, but the Argentine striker could only blast the ball over the war due to the awkward bounce on the pass.
Higuaín would not be denied at the second bite of the cherry, though, as he put Juventus in the lead just a few minutes later. It all started at makeshift left-winger Mario Mandzukic when he played a remarkably casual backheel into the path of a rampaging Alex Sandro. The Brazilian then broke forward on the left wing and drilled a pinpoint low cross into the box for Higuaín, who had expertly drifted away from Francesco Acerbi, to flick past Andrea Consigli with the outside of his right boot for the goal: 1-0! Juventus were in free-flowing form and Sassuolo were struggling to get any type of passing rhythm or possession in the game, despite Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini’s best attempts at granting them a way back into the game with their confusingly errant passes.
Higuaín came close to doubling the team’s lead after Mandzukic drilled a great ball into the area for his strike partner, but the Argentine leaned back too much and blazed his strike over the bar. He did, nevertheless, play an instrumental role in the team’s second goal a few minutes later. Higuaín dispossessed a hesitant Paolo Cannavaro deep inside the Sassuolo half and drilled the ball into the box. Paulo Dybala then played a glorious dummy over the ball to let it run to the upcoming Khedira, who needed no invitation to smash his shot into the back of the net: 2-0! Sassuolo were completely out-of-sorts in this game and could only muster a few half-hearted shots at goal which never threatened Gigi Buffon in goal. The best chance they could conjure in the first half was through Berardi, but the Italian winger could only produce a tame header that sailed comfortably over the bar. The first half ended with Juventus well in control and without a worry in the world.
The visitors upped the ante in the second half and almost had the third goal straight away. Mandzukic played a low cross into the box for Khedira, looking for his second of the game, but Cannavaro was there with a crucial tackle to divert the danger. From the subsequent corner, Mandzukic headed just wide of the post for the Bianconeri, much to Sassuolo’s relief. The danger didn’t stop there though as Dybala came closest to the third goal after unleashing a pile-driver of a shot that struck the bottom of the post, despite slipping in the process of striking the ball. Sassuolo finally sprung back to life and very well could have pulled back a goal at the hour mark: Politano finally found some joy on the wing and fired a shot at goal which Buffon did well to save, then the legendary keeper did even better to save the follow-up shot from Alessandro
Juventus later responded with a big chance of their own as the impressive Cuadrado played a simple pass behind the Sassuolo defense for Higuaín but Consigli saved the Argentine’s shot very well. The danger was still there momentarily but unfortunately only resulted in a header over the goal from Mandzukic. The Croatian was really determined to get a goal that his efforts would have merited and linked up yet again with Cuadrado a few minutes later but his effort on the half-volley also went wide of the target. Aside from a few hopeful shots, the game petered out and Sassuolo finished the game on a whimper as they were, truthfully, really never in the game at all. A comfortable 2-0 victory for Juventus at the Mapei Stadium!
BUFFON 6.5 – Recent birthday boy had very little to day, but was alert when called upon to produce the double save on Politano and Matri’s quick efforts in succession.
SANDRO 7.5 – A bit hesitant and ponderous in the first half, but gets a bit extra for the nice passing interplay and assist at the first goal.
BONUCCI 7 – Him and Chiellini maybe had there heads elsewhere in the first 20 minutes, because they seemed totally off-color. Thankfully reestablished normality as the game progressed.
CHIELLINI 7 – Ditto for Chiellini. Props for that fantastic intercepting tackle in the second half on Matri (or was it Defrel?) and then winning the free-kick as well.
LICHTSTEINER 7.5 – Exchanged passes nicely with Cuadrado today. Politano barely gave him a second of worry all game.
KHEDIRA 8 – Excellent goal for the big man, and he seems to have put his slump in form well behind him.
PJANIC 7.5 – Comfortable on the ball, rarely put a foot wrong. A joy to watch.
CUADRADO 8 – I was very impressed by the Colombian and his passing was especially useful and sharp. An effortless display as he seems to be enjoying the new system.
MANDZUKIC 8 – Mr. No Good put in a, well, good performance. Strong, combative, and surprisingly deft on the ball. Some of his delicate touches and passes were reminiscent of actual wingers, not makeshift wingers/strikers shunted out wide.
HIGUAÍN 8 – He’s so hot right now. He’s in absolutely fantastic form and I swear his extraordinary hold-up play is a work of art to behold. Grande Pipita!
DYBALA 7 – A quiet performance, but not necessarily a bad one as his colleagues simply outshone him. Shame about that cracking strike on the post.
PJACA N/A – Yet another short cameo that I really cannot grade.
RINCÓN N/A – Ditto for El General. Always a pleasure to see his glorious, well-groomed beard, though.
ALLEGRI 8 – Once again spot on with the tactics. The system is functioning excellently and thankfully the team didn’t fall into the same trap of near-collapse in the second half like against Milan in midweek. There was really never a moment of danger of sustained pressure for Juventus today.
Tactical Analysis: If you leave me now...
Given that I discussed Juve’s new system at decent length last week, I shifted the spotlight back onto our opponents of the day: Sassuolo. The wonderfully-named Eusebio Di Francesco set out his team to play a 4-3-3 system with ex-Juventino Alberto Aquilani playing as the regista and Domenico Berardi on the right wing. The hot-headed Sassuolo winger is actually the main focus of this analysis, as his movements and positioning caught my eye throughout the game.
Berardi consistently drifted not just a bit centrally, but often completely to the other wing, thus abandoning the right wing to Luca Antei. This was probably in an attempt to overload that wing and link up with the lively Lorenzo Pellegrini on that side of the pitch. The problem, however, was that Antei left to fend for himself against the double-teamed efforts of Mandzukic and Sandro; it was no surprise then to see both goals come from his side of the pitch (somewhat paradoxically, however, only 31 percent of Juventus attacks came from the left while 49 percent came from the right). He offered limited/no protection for his full back, who got bullied all game long by Sandro and Mandzukic. Granted, Mazzitelli tried to help him out from time to time, but that consequently meant that the home side was very thin in the center of the pitch. Darn knock-on effects, right?
Di Francesco then went for broke around the hour mark by switching to a 4-2-4 system, basically acknowledging that he was going to feed his full backs to the sharks and let his attackers run rampant in a desperate attempt to get back in the game.
Although Politano was more disciplined in his positioning and generally kept a wide position during offensive possession, it wasn’t enough to prevent Juventus totally dominating the battle on the wings. Poor Federico Peluso and Antei were probably singing the lyrics from that lovely song the longer the game went on:
“If you leave me now, you’ll take away the biggest part of me. No baby please don’t go!”
So fresh and so clean
The tactical experiment continues to bear dividends for the fans and team alike as the Bianconeri again display confident, fluid, and vibrant football in the new-look formation. Cuadrado in particular had a fantastic performance while Mandzukic is also treating us to a surprising new array of skills that few of us imagined he possessed. Khedira’s has seemingly put his dip in form well behind him too as Pjanic’s calming presence next to him seems to put him well at ease.
It seems like this system decreases the creative dependence on Dybala because, despite his quiet performance, I didn’t feel like the team struggled at any particular time in creating offensive rhythm. It’s going to be interesting to see how the likes of Marko Pjaca, Claudio Marchisio and Stefano Sturaro will battle to earn places in the current setup, because things are looking rock-solid as they stand now.