At the end of the day, Juventus’ 2-0 win over Tornio in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals on Wednesday was relatively routine. Wojciech Szczesny had very little to do in goal, seeing only a single shot on target (plus one that hit the post). Tornio was totally unable to maintain any kind of possession and looked adrift without injured striker Andrea Belotti as a reference point.
But it’s equally true that this was a disappointing performance for the Bianconeri. They could easily have been up two, three, or even four by the half. They often made all the right decisions in buildup, but were imprecise when it came time to deliver the final ball. Douglas Costa’s cracking opener was well-deserved, but Torino was still a mistake and/or a counter away from tying the game up until Mario Mandzukic’s controversial second put the game on ice.
What did we learn from this bonus Derby della Mole? Here are five talking points from the match.
Why does Douglas Costa ever sit?
Was Costa good or what?
His pace and dribbling ability pried open the Torino defense time and time again. There were times I was sure he wouldn’t manage to get any space, then he would make one cut and be in acres of it. He adds the dynamism of an on-form Juan Cuadrado, but with a consistency more akin to Andrea Barzagli. He has his off days, but they are not nearly as off as Cuadrado’s, and they are less frequent. Why he isn’t a week-in, week-out fixture in the starting XI is beyond me, and the sooner he is one, the better things will be.
Can we also talk about that goal for a minute?
It was a peach — one of the better ones we’ve seen from Juve this year and will probably be a top-five contender by the end of the year. It was almost too pretty.
More Doug, please.
Oh, Christmas tree...
For the second straight game Massimiliano Allegri sent Juve out in a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” formation. I said over the weekend that I think this might be the best formation for the team right now, and the more I see it the more entrenched that position becomes for me.
We still need to see some more, but like the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” last year, the Christmas tree is looking like the best way to blend all of the current team’s best elements together. There are two main elements that need to be combined for it to do that: defensive solidity, and the ability to play Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain at the same time.
In the case of the former, the key seems to be a three-man midfield. Juve was often overwhelmed in the middle while using the 4-2-3-1 earlier this year, putting stress on a back four that was still learning to cope with the loss of Leonardo Bonucci and leading to an alarming number of goals conceded. But when Allegri switched to formations that used a three-man midfield in late-November, the defense tightened up, and since then they have kept clean sheets in nine of 10 games. There have been other elements, notably the improvement of Medhi Benatia’s form, but correlation is impossible to ignore: keeping three in the midfield has resulted in a far more stable defense.
The question then becomes how to incorporate the two Argentines into a formation that uses three mids. A 4-3-3 isn’t a good fit. It would maroon Dybala on the wing where he’s less able to influence play — not to mention it would necessitate him learning another new position. A version of the 4-3-1-2 that Allegri used to bring the team to the Champions League final in his first year with the team is a possibility, utilizing Dybala in the hole behind Higuain and Mandzukic. But that would leave the high-priced wingers the team brought in this summer with nothing to do.
The Christmas tree is an ideal solution because of the versatility of the players that can play in that bank of two. Costa and Federico Bernardeschi can both play both wings, and the latter also has experience as a trequartista. A pairing of two of them with license to roam behind Higuain will allow them to use their talents anywhere the play takes them, making the whole attack more dangerous.
No system is perfect, and adjustments will always need to be made. But this formation is worth giving an extended run to see how well it works with different personnel groupings. If it works out well, it could well be the default going forward.
Daniele Rugani watch
DANIELE RUGANI PLAYED IN THIS GAME.
I cannot express how happy that makes me. Rugani needs to be playing more minutes than he has been. Not only does he represent the future of the team, the present might get dicey if he keeps sitting. Those pesky rumors about Arsenal are popping up again now that the winter transfer window is here. To lose him at this stage, with Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini nearing the ends of their careers and the potential of a pairing with Mattia Caldera on the horizon, would be a big blow to the future of the defense.
The good news is he played pretty well. M’baye Niang got past him off his shoulder when he hit the post, but that was the only negative in a solid game. He made life difficult when Torino mounted their infrequent attacks, and even got a little more physical than we’re used to seeing him, seeing a yellow card for his trouble. There aren’t a lot of detailed stats available for Coppa matches at this stage, but he’s never been a counting stat guy—he relies on his positioning more than brawn, and does so well.
It’s difficult to unseat Benatia given his current form, but Rugani should be getting more of a run-out as the team hits the business end of the season. Not only can he help the team on the field in the short-term, it will help his long-term development as the passing of the defensive baton approaches.
Kwadwo Asamoah is not a better left-back than Alex Sandro in the larger sense. But in terms of current form, he’s playing much better than the Brazilian. He put in another good shift against Torino on Wednesday. He may never again have the dynamism he showed before injuries derailed his career, but he’s replaced that with industry. He was everywhere on the left side today, defending well and pressing up to add width to the attack.
As the Champions League knockout rounds approach, one must ask the question: given their respective form, should Asamoah be considered for the starting XI if Sandro doesn’t start to improve—or craters even further?
All things considered, Sandro is probably the better bet, but if his play continues to be inconsistent and he ends up in a trough come Champions League time, Asamoah is proving himself to be a viable option.
A look ahead
The Coppa semifinals are now set. On the other side of the bracket are AC Milan and Lazio. Juve will face Atalanta in the two-legged semifinal, with the first leg later this month.
Atalanta’s 2-1 win over Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo was a relief to some fans. Last year’s semifinal between Juve and Napoli was an intense affair, and having to do that again would be a serious drain on the team’s energy.
But Atalanta isn’t a draw to relish. They’re led by one of the best coaches in the country in Gian Piero Gasperini, and are fueled by one of the best youth systems in Europe. Juve currently have three top prospects on loan with La Dea: Caldera, Leonardo Spinazzola, and Riccardo Oroslini. They came back from a 2-0 deficit to draw against Juve in Bergamo in October, and rumbled through their Europa League group in fairly short order.
Juve are the better team on paper, but Atalanta are a damn good unit, and the tie will be a big challenge. The winner will be the team that can execute their game plan and play best as a unit. Just because Napoli isn’t around doens’t mean the route to a fourth straight Coppa Italia final is any easier.