As I was getting my little situation ready to watch the game — piping hot mug of coffee, water for hydration because of sweat because of nervousness, my pens and disheveled notepads — I, upon seeing Gigi Buffon’s perfectly unshaven face flash upon the scream, decided to write down the following thought: The two men for whom I would leave my wife — I don’t think she’s going to read this — are Gigi Buffon and Edward Norton. I know Ed is completely normal-looking, but there’s something about him that really gets me.
But I digress, because the real point that I want to make today is that a third man has joined that group, and his name isn’t Paulo Dybala. It’s, of course, Gianluigi Donnarumma. Holy coconuts! How good is that kid?! He’s 18 years old, and when I was 18 I was writing a book about a guy named Adam Everbe and the book had like twelve thousand footnotes because I was clumsily and terribly attempting to channel T. S. Eliot or something.
Juventus played extraordinarily well to open this game: Dani Alves, Paulo Dybala, and Marko Pjaca were the instigators. They distributed, created, and attacked. There were more chances for the Bianconeri than if Chance the Rapper was standing in the middle of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The torrential pressure culminated in the 30th minute, when center back Medhi Benatia said temporarily to his central defensive position, “Hold on, I’ve got an idea,” and as the defender barreled down the field Dybala and Alves — as they are so prone to do — connected marvelously, the end result of which was an absolutely exquisite ball from Alves to a just-onside Benatia. The bag man took a touch off his chest and deftly deposited past Donnarumma.
After a pretty darn good first 30 or 40 minutes. I simply can’t agree with some who called Juve’s performance “very flat.” And it’s not like I’m afraid to criticize: I lashed out pretty harshly after the Udinese performance, but I thought this game, even if it had ended level, was a solid — if imperfect — showing. There was some questionable possession, some boneheaded turnovers, and my biggest criticism was that Juventus collectively pulled what Pjaca did a few weeks ago: foot a little heavy on the gas early on, the consequence being that the last twenty or so minutes were pretty poor. Juventus dominated possession (59 percent), chances (24 shots, 11 on target), and ye olde eye test. As good as the teenage wunderkeeper was, there were still missed chances; the lack of finishing was another area of concern.
But for much of the game, that was it. A single goal. Donnarumma had probably three to five saves that, for a lot of keepers in top-flight leagues, would’ve bulged in the back of the net. Juventus outplayed Milan by leaps and bounds in the first half, so it sucked mightily when, in the waning moments of the first half, Milan sprung a counterattack and scored.
The blame falls firstly on Andrea Barzagli, whose presence at the right back position was a questionable decision for me given Milan’s pace and also given the fact that Milan would pretty obviously be employing a counterattacking football, i.e. necessitating pace in the right and left backs. And then, what the hell was Benatia doing? He tried to have it both ways, holding and covering the attacker. He failed at both, and it nearly cost Juventus two points.
After the 67th minute, when Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain passed it back and forth nearly the entire way down the pitch, there was a gradual loss of pace and composed attacking. The ten or so minutes before this saw another flurry of opportunities, several thanks to Pjaca, but after this moment there wasn’t much good.
There’s so much to say about this game, about the individual performances, and we can’t really address it all, but I thought the last 20 or so minutes was pretty clunky. That seems like the right word. Maybe “disjointed.” The fluidity with which Juventus attacked in the first half-hour of the game wasn’t there, and Milan were happy to sit back and absorb the pressure, generally well.
Then, the end happened.
Higuain nearly converted an improbably volley, but Donnarumma, AKA my newest man crush, denied Pipita once again. The ball stayed in the penalty area, Juventus pushed everyone forward, and then
Moise Kean ripped off his jersey to reveal superhero regalia and scored a dramatic last-effort volley Stephan Lichtsteiner launched a cross into Mattia De Sciglio’s chest/arm. You won’t find a complaint here.
The penalty itself was a wonder to behold, for both Donnarumma and Dybala were flawless. The keeper guessed the right direction, and was a few inches away from what would’ve been — if I were a Milan fan, or any fan besides a Juventus fan — the perfect ending to a thrilling game.
But Dybala was better.
- More like Daniele Whogani, am I right?
- This isn’t an original idea, but it’s amazing how good Dybala is with the right personnel on the field. Against Milan the Alves-Dybala-Pjaca-Pjanic interweaving was wonderful. Dybala and Higuain also had a splendid move in the second half. But it’s sure fun to watch when La Joya is in good form.
- I know Mr. No Good was out with Mr. Bad Tummy, but Pjaca looked dangerous out there tonight. Yes, he missed two(ish) golden opportunities. *complain, complain* But he played a thorough match. It’s time he see more action, especially with the fine point that Sam made earlier. Juventus have three separate competitions right now, they’ve switched to a 4-2-3-1, and Max Allegri has elected not to shuffle the front line very dramatically. Higuain is tired, and it’s starting to show. At some point, to hold on in all three of these, it’s going to take faith in someone like Pjaca.
- Allegri’s lineup was, um, interesting. Some of it ended up working pretty well (Alves at right wing), and some of it didn’t work well (Barzagli, Benatia sort of).
- Best moment so far from the usually-terrible beIN announcers. Juventus got a free kick in a pretty dangerous position, and the commentator said it was the sort of opportunity that gives keepers “Pjanic attacks.” Well played, my friend/mortal enemy.
Numbers Attached to Humans
BUFFON 6.5 — Maybe he could’ve done better on the goal; his positioning seemed a little awkward, but Bacca was deft in possession. Other than a conservative parry or two there wasn’t much for Buffon to do. (Note the rhyme.)
BARZAGLI 5.5 — He attempted to make a run or two forward in the early moments of the game, but he wasn’t very good in possession, or in distribution. He lacked the pace to track the counterattack, and Juventus paid for it.
BENATIA 6.5 — I honestly feel like this is generous. He scored a goal (yay), and then didn’t help Buffon out much on the single legitimate chance for Milan in the game.
BONUCCI 6.5 — Wasn’t quite as sharp with his distribution, and he was beaten by Milan’s wingers on more than one occasion. But he was generally the stalwart defender we know him to be.
ASAMOAH 7.5 — For me, Juve’s best defender of the game. It won’t show up statistically, and he didn’t offer much moving forward, but every time Milan attacked to the right he was there. He’s a hell of a backup to Sandro.
KHEDIRA 7.5 — I for one thought the midfield played a great game. Khedira was the most accurate passer for Juve, he moved forward pretty well, including a laser beam of a shot to which Donnarumma said, “No,” and he tracked back well too; he snuffed out a Milan counterattack in the latter part of the second half.
PJANIC 7 — Oh boy, I bet he’d like to have that free kick back. Otherwise a solid if unspectacular performance. He was extremely close to threading a long-range through-ball to Higuain at one point; if the play had coalesced it would’ve been a gem. But any time you log nearly 60 percent of possession with two midfielders, those two deserve a ton of credit. Pjanic was second only to Bonucci in touches.
ALVES 8 — Look, I know Alves is occasionally too flashy, and he gets cute, but the dude is good. And maybe Allegri just tapped into something with Alves at right wing. He links up extraordinarily well with Dybala on a consistent basis, and he’s maybe Juve’s best crosser behind Pjanic and Dybala. The assist to Benatia was wonderful. He played a perfect ball to Pjaca later in the game. He was really good.
DYBALA 8.5 — Besides Kean, the man of the match for me. Goodness gracious it’s good to watch him when he’s in form, and tonight he was. Tonight was far and away his best performance in the 4-2-3-1; he was a sparkplug of an attacking midfielder, creating chances everywhere. As I watched the game, Dybala was the only Juventus player who seemed a threat throughout all 90 minutes. Others had flashes (Pjaca, Higuain), but Dybala was magic throughout. This isn’t even to mention the penalty.
PJACA 7 — He missed chances, but he created chances. He positioned himself well. He paced himself well. His most thorough performance as a Bianconero.
HIGUAIN 6.5 — Again, I agree with Sam’s point: Pipita seems pooped. It showed tonight. There were moments of near-brilliance, but he’d be a few feet wide one direction, or a touch would be heavy, or he’d pass when he should’ve attempted on goal. Yet even a crappy Higuain performance nearly shut the game down in the final moments. He remains a threat, someone whose runs and attacking positions are consistently dangerous.
LICHTSTEINER 6.5 — His pace was a breath of fresh air in the second half, and he defended pretty well. He made a handball happen! Yay, Switzerland!
RUGANI 6.5 — I’m about one million times more comfortable with Rugani at the back than Benatia, and I have a really freaking hard time understanding why Allegri has him so far back in the rotation. He didn’t need to do much against Milan, given they were sitting so far back when Rugani entered the game. But there needs to be more time on the field for this guy.
KEAN 10 — Man of the match by all accounts. He doesn’t record a single touch or statistic, yet still Juventus score with him on the pitch. Brilliant!
ALLEGRI 6.5 — A rather strange bunch of decisions from the cranky old manager. I persistently question his unwillingness to play players like Rugani and Pjaca; today, illness forced his hand with the young winger, and Cuadrado’s suspension. The decision to throw Alves on the right wing really paid dividends, and isn’t a bad option moving forward if we need to get these attackers some rest.
Tactics: Pressing and the Pjaca Effect
One of the feats I looked for in the matchup against Milan was, simply, Juve’s intensity. It’s a difficult thing to measure, but — as in many sports, I think — it can be most easily tracked through defensive statistics. I remember when I played basketball in high school, and our coach would be as excited by a deflection as an actual steal, the idea being not just that one thing leads to another, but the pressing of the opponent requires a sort of constant vigilance and aggressive awareness about their movements, about their possible movements, about their tendencies, etc.
Against Udinese, although Juventus dominated virtually every statistical category, the Bianconeri seemed to sit back rather than press — and this against an inferior opponent. Here are the tackles from that fixture:
And here from the Milan game:
Juventus had twice as many tackles against Milan in the opponent’s half of the field, and nearly three times as many successful tackles. It felt like it, too. I think part of it against Milan was having Alves deployed as a winger; he’s an attacking right back at heart, and he tussled pretty well. But there were others, too, chipping in defensively: Dybala, Pjaca, Higuain.
The Pjaca Effect
Mario Mandžukić is a good player, and I know y’all think I/we have too much of a crush on him, but he’s a got very real merits. His ability to hold possession, his willingness to run 97 kilometers per game, tracking back and teaming up with Sandrao or Asamoah — these things matter, and they make a difference.
But he’s still a striker. And with Mandžukić on the field, Juventus predictably attacks through the right, allowing the Croatian faux-winger to drift into his true-striker position: a second target man in the box. This sounds great in theory, and although Juventus haven’t been totally ignoring the left the chances have come from the right.
Here against Udinese we can see four chances from the right side of the pitch, three from the center, and a goose egg from the left.
Again, this isn’t to say Mandžukić is worthless, but the dude is a striker. I admire his flexibility, and that he’s allowed us to make this formational transition, but maybe the thing that’s happening before our eyes is that he’s a stopgap solution, the true solution to which is a true winger in Pjaca.
Here’s the shot of the chances created against Milan:
It’s still heavy on the right, and I’m betting that it stays that way, especially since Dybala tends to hover in that right-central area of the field, but I want to float a theory out there that Pjaca’s dynamism — i.e., the characteristics of a true winger — will open up Juve’s attack in a myriad of ways. Tonight we saw Dybala in prime form, and maybe one of the reasons that was the case is that Pjaca was on the left wing. His talent, I think, relieves pressure. Mandžukić does a lot to help his team out, but he’s not particularly creative, and not particularly dangerous in one-on-one attack the way that Pjaca is.
That’s a Wrap
There will be a lot of chatter about this game, but I think it behooves us as Juventus fans not really to be concerned about it. There will be talk of conspiracy, and let’s focus on football. There will be talk of partisanship, but let’s focus on tactics. Let’s focus on the three (!) competitions in which this team is currently playing. There’s a hell of a lot of good, of fun, of excitement—let’s enjoy it.