On Tuesday, Juventus played one of the best halves of football it has played in years. On Saturday, they perhaps played one of the worst.
Indeed, the first half of Juve’s away tilt against Empoli was about as bad as the opening 45 minutes of Tuesday’s win in Manchester was good. Juventus were comprehensively outplayed by a team that came into the game sitting in the relegation zone, and went into the locker room deservedly behind. The second half saw a better effort, and the champions equalized in less than 10 minutes on a slightly dodgy penalty call, before a fantastic goal by their premier summer signing secured all three points with a 2-1 win over Empoli.
Injuries have been bugging the Bianconeri of late, and they certainly played their part in this game. Not only was Massimiliano Allegri missing a good chunk of his midfielders, captain Giorgio Chiellini was announced as a starter only to pull out with a muscle injury just a few minutes before kickoff.
Despite the shortage of healthy midfielders, Allegri fielded all three of the ones who could go, just as he did in Manchester in midweek in a 4-3-3. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual spot in goal. He was screened by Mattia De Sciglio (making his season debut after missing the first two months with a preseason leg injury), Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele Rugani (who replaced Chiellini in the lineup), and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi took up their spots in midfield. Federico Bernardeschi started his first game since the international break up top, joining Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala, who in Chiellini’s absence started a game as captain for the first time.
Empoli coach Aurelio Andreazzoli countered Allegri with a “Christmas tree” 4-3-2-1. Ivan Provedel made his second start of the season for the Tuscan side in goal, with Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Matias Silvestre, Domenico Maietta, and Luca Antonelli arranged in front of him. Ismael Bennacer, Afriyie Acquah and Hamed Traore manned the middle of the park. Rade Krunic and Miha Zajc set themselves up behind Francesco Caputo at the top of the formation.
Juve seemed to jump in with two feet and forced Provedel into an early save in the sixth minute when Sandro headed a corner right at him. Ronaldo quickly followed by firing high over the bar from extreme range. In the ninth minute Dybala picked a defender’s pocket and sped toward the goal, only to blaze another ball over, and a minute later Pjanic curled one past the post.
The shots were coming fast toward Provedel, but Juventus was also doing a lot more defending than one would have thought through the first 10 minutes. Even though Juve kept making chances — like a 16th minute cross along the ground by Sandro that both Ronaldo and Dybala attacked only to crash into each other — there were some worrying signs that things might not be quite right.
In the 24th minute Empoli hit the target for the first time, but Krunic’s effort only produced a limp shot on the turn that was easily swallowed up by Szczesny. By this time, the fatigue in the Juventus midfield was becoming evident. No one was passing the ball with particular crispness, and some errors were creeping in. Even Matuidi, the human equivalent of a V8 Hemi, looked like he needed a good rest. In the 28th minute, Bentancur nearly allowed a counterattack with a loose ball at the top of the Empoli penalty area, and a minute later Empoli struck.
It started with a good run from Acquah, who juked Sandro onto his rear end before outrunning Matuidi and laying the ball into the box. Kruic got an ever-so-slight touch to the ball to deaden it for Caputo, who was coming in the opposite direction and stroked a curler past a diving Szczesny to open the scoring.
Juve tried to respond immediately. Ronaldo saw a free kick from an acute angle on the left blocked into the path of Dybala, who tried to side-foot the ball in but only succeeded in ballooning it over. Ronaldo took another dead bal five minutes later from long range but couldn’t get it past the wall, then saw a header from a good Sandro cross go straight at Provedel.
Four minutes from the half Empoli almost doubled their lead, with Bennacer flipping in a free kick and Di Lorenzo just missed making contact with. A minute later the Azzurri were back near the goal on a counter that was ended by a good challenge by Bentancur—although that was made somewhat less impressive by the fact that he had given the ball away himself. Three minutes later Szczesny was fortunate to see a deflected shot bounce to him. Referee Gianpaolo Calvarese was called to the VAR screen to determine whether Bonucci had deflected it with his hand, but ultimately decided not to overturn the call—likely the right decision, as Bonucci’s arms were tight to his side as it made contact with him.
Juve nearly equalized on an own goal in first half stoppages—the second time Empoli had nearly done Juve’s work for them—but when the whistle finally blew, they ended a disappointing half of football quite deservedly behind.
Whatever Allegri said to the team must have snapped them out of some of their funk, because They came out quickly and two minutes into the half saw Provedel make a good save to deny Sandro, then seconds later fly to top a gorgeous Pjanic shot onto the bar.
There was an element of fortune to how Juve managed to tie the game. It was the 53rd minute when De Sciglio sent a low cross into the box. Bennacer got to the ball first, then tried to get cute and dribble between Bernardeschi and Dybala. The Argentine got himself in between the Empoli No. 10 and the ball and got bowled over as Bennarcer tried to reclaim it. It took Calvarese a second, but he blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot.
By the letter of the law, it was probably a correct call. Dybala had managed to establish position in the split second before the contact. Still, it was a pretty soft call — the kind that those that buy into the conspiracy theories that every move the league makes is done to get Juventus more trophies point at and scream over. The fact that Calvarese didn’t go to VAR will probably get them even more hot and bothered, although Andreazzoli, to his credit, declined to comment one way or the other on the matter after the game. Ronaldo stepped up to the spot for his first penalty kick as a Juventus player and duly dispatched it, firing to his left as Provedel went in the opposite direction.
The next few minutes were up and down, and Empoli had a couple of chances to respond, only for Bonucci to snuff out a 64th-minute counter, then three minutes later cleared a deflected shot from Krunic that would have been real trouble had it gotten past him.
Then, with 20 minutes left in the game, Ronaldo did how Ronaldo do.
The assist went to Matuidi, who put a simple pass in to his feet. The Empoli defense finally sagged a bit, and Ronaldo loaded up and unleashed a piledriver from about 25 yards. The powerful ball twisted across the goal, past a stranded Provedel and flew into the junction between the side and top netting. It was really the first real Ronaldo Goal we’ve seen since he was signed. He’d scored a few impressive ones, but this was the first one that was worthy of a spit take. It was a truly fantastic strike, and it put his team up 2-1.
Ronaldo almost had his first Juve hat trick 10 minutes later when substitute Juan Cuadrado took a beautiful one-touch pass from Dybala and burst into the right side of the box, drawing Provedel out of the goal before squaring it back, but the Portuguese overran the play and the ball passed behind him.
The final 10 minutes of the match consisted mostly of Empoli striving for an equalizer. Andrea Barzagli was brought in as an extra defender for the last few moments, although Juve gave their opponents a few too many set pieces in stoppage time, the first on a needless off-the-ball foul by Bentancur and the second on a Dybala lunge that could very well have earned him a second yellow. Neither free kick sequence came off, though, and after the one that followed Dybala’s foul was headed out, Calvarese blew his whistle for the last time, and Juve had pulled out a win from one of their lesser performances of the year.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Strong on crosses and free kicks, and on the occasional weak shot Empoli sent his way. Could do absolutely nothing about the goal.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. He’s not nearly as dynamic or flashy as Joao Cancelo, but a look at his numbers tells a productive story. He made two tackles, an interception, and three clearances, contributed two key passes, completed 85.9 percent of his passes, and three of five crosses. Looked assured despite it being his first match of the year.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Not a bad game from Bonucci, who tied for the team lead in interceptions and completed a shade over 96 percent of his passes. Made some important interventions after the equalizer to set the stage for Ronaldo’s stunner.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Solid but not spectacular. Positioned himself well as he always does, and made a good intervention on a one-on-one midway through the first half. Does he get the playing time if Chiellini has to miss games?
ALEX SANDRO - 8. A really great day for the Brazilian. He made three key passes, led the team with four tackles, and hit the target with three of five shots.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Not his best day, as while he didn’t misplace a ton of passes, but the ones he did miss on were pretty bad. Makes up for it with a really stellar defensive day: four tackles, a team leading five clearances, and three interceptions. He looked tired by game’s end, though.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Five key passes led the team, along with 97.4 percent accuracy. He too, though, looks a bit worse for wear with the midfield crunch.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. When this guy starts looking tired, you know he needs some rest. Got the assist with Ronaldo’s second, but a little rough in possession today. Good regaining the ball as well.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. A pair of key passes and three interceptions punctuated his day, although he was a little wasteful in the box in his first game as captain.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. Not a good day for Berna. He was imprecise up front all day. Seems to be coming to earth a little bit after his incredible start.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Man, that second. What a beauty. He may have been higher, but he started doing a little too much with the ball at his feet and was a little selfish from time to time when he had runners around him.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Made a good run or two but nothing huge. Did make some nice defensive interventions late.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. On for the last 10 minutes, used his speed for whatever he could do as Juve clung to their lead.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - NR. On to close things out as the extra defender late.
I was a little surprised when the lineups came out that Allegri was going with three midfielders for a second consecutive game. With only three healthy mids on the roster, Max needs to be careful when it comes to husbanding their strength. Pjanic in particular comes to mind, as he played a ton of minutes last year and looked really gassed by the end of the year. I’d been expecting a 4-2-3-1 that would have allowed for a little flexibility in the midfield and allowed someone to rest. One way or the other, it’s pretty clear that going into the season with only five midfielders was a mistake. Another body in midfield is going to be a necessity during the January transfer window, and until Sami Khedira and/or Emere Can get healthy again it might behoove the team to throw a primavera player onto the squad to provide a little added depth if need be — especially if he continues to use a three-man midfield.
It does look like Allegri is keeping the false nine in play in the absence of Mario Mandzukic. I think depriving the opposing defense of a reference point this way is an excellent way to cause havoc in the attacking third, but the kinks need to get ironed out. Both Dybala and Ronaldo had a tendency to drop deep to receive the ball, which is great so long as they’re not doing it at the same time and leaving no one higher up in the box. Overall, though, it’s a good tactic to try and something worthy of further experimentation.
Thankfully, there is no midweek fixture this week. Juve are back in action at home against Cagliari on Saturday. That gets followed up by the return game against Manchester United in the Champions League, a game that could clinch the top spot in Group H with two games to spare.