Juventus opened up their third consecutive defense of the Coppa Italia on Wednesday when they welcomed Genoa to Allianz Stadium.
The last time Juve and Genoa tangled, it was the second game of the season, and the Grifone got out to an unexpected two-goal lead before Paulo Dybala took over and scored his first career hat trick to send the Bianconeri out of the Marassi 4-2 winners.
Dybala was the protagonist for Juve again on Wednesday night — we’ll get to that in a bit — and Massimiliano Allegri’s men were never truly challenged on their way to a 2-0 win that sent them through to the quarterfinals of the competition for the 11th consecutive year. They will tangle with Torino in a bonus Derby della Mole on Wednesday, Jan. 3.
What did we see on Wednesday, and what does it mean? Here are five talking points from the Round of 16 match.
Dybala had started the last two games on the bench. Between that, reports of unrest in his personal life, and rumors that his brother and new agent had begun shopping the striker around Europe, the tabloids have been salivating over the 24-year-old’s future.
Dybala was given the chance to put that all behind him when he was given his first start since the Champions League group stage finale against Olympiacos. Playing as a false nine in a 4-3-3 (another thing we’ll talk about later), Dybala’s day wasn’t perfect, but it ended up being exactly what he needed. He played a part in both goals, scoring the first and setting up Gonzalo Higuain for the second.
The Argentine looked a little imprecise at times early, and could probably have opened the scoring far earlier than he did had he made a run into the box rather than ball-watching when Federico Bernardeschi headed the ball across the box in the ninth minute. He also sent a free kick into the wall and had a shot or two blocked and looked shaky when he scuffed a finish in the 38th minute. But he broke through four minutes later when Claudio Marchisio found him with a good early pass from the right via a Bernardeschi dummy. Dybala controlled perfectly, let it run across him and fired home.
From that moment on there was a visible change in the way Dybala carried himself. You could tell he was more confident, and the pass he sent to Higuain was a peach.
Fans will hope that this is the beginning of another fertile period for the young striker. It could just be that Dybala, like all players in all sports, just needed a mental healthy break. It worked for Higuain a few months ago, and it certainly seems like it worked here. Saturday’s match against Roma will be more instructive on that front.
He didn’t get himself on the scoresheet, but Bernardeschi had a great day on the right wing. He put the ball in dangerous areas quite a few times. He did well to set up Douglas Costa in the 25th minute, but the Brazilian was denied by a fantastic save from Eugenio Lamanna. Five minutes later Costa returned the favor, with Bernardeschi just missing into the side netting. He also had a nice free kick denied by Lamanna, who, beyond Wojciech Szczsney, is probably the best No. 2 goalkeeper in Serie A.
He did less in the second half as Genoa found a small foothold and as Allegri’s system morphed as the game progressed. But for a good portion of the game he was the team’s most dangerous player, and the fans gave him a nice ovation as he left the pitch.
It’s games like this that are the reason I, and others who write for this site, are so keen to see Bernardeschi playing more and bigger minutes over the likes of Juan Cuadrado. His play had none of the brain farts, showboating, or mystifying errors that color the Colombian’s game on his bad days. It’d be nice to see if he can replicate this performance in bigger games than this.
I love watching Rodrigo Bentancur play. He’s already got a very advanced sense of the game for someone his age, and the talent to make use of it. Watching him now makes me think of Paul Pogba in his first season at Juve.
He went about his defensive responsibilities well, and going forward made a couple of really excellent passes. He was the one that set up that early square from Bernardeschi that could have resulted in the opener, and in the second half he sent a 25-yard shot sizzling past the far post.
A friend I was watching the game with described the young Uruguay international perfectly: he’s an uncut diamond. With some shaping and polishing, Juventus will have a beautiful player on their hands. If this is what Carlitos Tevez’s last gift to the Bianconeri is, it was a wonderful one indeed.
I have to admit I wasn’t fond of the idea of Szczsney becoming the heir apparent to Gianluigi Buffon. His years at Arsenal had done little to convince me, and at Roma he put up good numbers but was subject to the occasional meltdown — not unlike Roma as a team. Going into the season I was far more in favor of buying a young Italian like Alex Meret — or even seeing if Gianluigi Donnarumma would ever slip through Milan’s fingers — rather than rely on the Pole.
I’m beginning to think I was wrong. And I’m glad about that.
Szczsney has started the last four games as Buffon nurses a calf injury, and he’s been damn good. Juve kept their seventh straight clean sheet in the win, and Szczsney was a big part of it. He only faced one shot on target, but also raced off his line several times to beat strikers to dangerous through balls and was a commanding presence on the few occasions Genoa got the ball into the air in the box.
I actually enjoy being proved wrong when it comes like this. Life A.B.—After Buffon—might just be in safe hands after all.
Using Dybala as a false nine was a significant tactical wrinkle from Max Allegri today, and for the most part it worked. The combination of Bernardeschi, Dybala, and Costa brought a lot of speed and technique to the party, and they pulled defenders out of position for each other to exploit space.
The big issue with this system, though, is its lack of height. Without the heads of Higuain or Mario Mandzukic to aim for ball had to be kept almost entirely on the deck during buildup. A few balls came over the top, but for the most part crosses weren’t a viable option.
Allegri acknowledged as much in his post-match press conference, telling reporters, “Obviously, when Dybala is the center forward, then the box must be filled with runs from the wingers and midfielders. It’s something we can test out, but in order for it to work, we need the wide men to constantly push forward.”
The style of play a Dybala-led line necessitates will obviously take some more training to refine. It may actually end up better suited for games against big teams like Napoli as opposed to provinciale like Genoa. Whereas Napoli like to attack and can leave lanes open, the tendency of the ball to stay on the ground in this system feels like it wouldn’t play as well against a resolute and well-organized defensive group.
Still, it showed some clear promise, and is worth experimenting with in an attempt to refine it. Having options to rest Higuain is never a bad thing, and it could give Dybala the sense of being “the man” that has been missing in his game. I look forward to seeing this new system improved upon in the future.