Nordsjaelland. Copenhagen. Borussia Monchengladbach. Olympiakos. Sporting.
Over the years, teams like these have haunted Juventus in the Champions League. They’re the Pot 3 and Pot 4 teams that the team should have beaten handily, but for one reason or another failed to beat. Some of those struggles were mere speed bumps on the way to a deep Champions League run. Some were the difference between success and embarrassing failure.
So when Juventus was faced with the Pot 4 team in Group H, Swiss champion Young Boys, there was an undercurrent of anxiety. If Juve struggled, or even lost, it could be the difference between winning the group and losing it. No one wanted to see another draw like the dismal 1-1 against Copenhagen that proved the difference between second and third in 2013, or the loss to Olympiakos put Juve precariously close to crashing out again a year later.
But this Juventus isn’t the Juventus that played those teams. This Juventus is obscenely talented, absurdly deep, and preparing to take the leap back into the category of true European elites. And even with Cristiano Ronaldo suspended after the preposterous red card he was shown by Felix Brych two weeks ago in Valencia, this Juventus easily dispatched Young Boys 3-0 on a Paulo Dybala hat trick.
Ronaldo wasn’t the only absentee for Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri. Mattia De Sciglio, Leonardo Spinazzola, and Douglas Costa were unavailable due to injury, and Sami Khedira would only be able to play from the bench. Faced with the need to give Joao Cancelo a good rest, Allegri dug into his bag of tricks and picked out a new one.
That trick was a 3-4-1-2 formation. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal behind the threesome of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Medhi Benatia. Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro played on either flank, with Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in the middle of the field. Federico Bernardschi played in the hole behind the strike pair of Dybala and Mario Mandzukic.
Young Boys manager Gerardo Seaone countered with a 4-1-4-1 shape. David von Ballmoos protected the goal. Former Serie A player Steve Von Bergen anchored the back four, partnering with Mohamed Ali Camara in the center, with Thorsten Schick (playing out of position due to injuries) and Loris Benito as the full-backs. Sekou Sanogo sat in front of the defense, with Miralem Sulejmani, Leonardo Bertone, Djibril Sow, and Christian Fassnacht arrayed behind Guillaume Hoarau up top.
In the run-up to the game, Seaone mentioned that he wanted to emulate in part the park-the-bus tactics of Frosinone, who held Juve goalless through almost the entire match two-and-a-half weeks ago before finally succumbing to Ronaldo himself.
His problem was that his players sucked at it.
It was only the fifth minute when Dybala found a ton of space to run into the left channel, and Bonucci dropped a dime to him from just inside the halfway line. Camara ball-watched the entire way, and Dybala deftly volleyed the ball into the net to put the team up 1-0.
For the next 10 minutes or so, though, thoughts of those old games against lower-level competition bubbled to the surface. Young Boys spent the majority of that time Juve’s half, and for a moment they looked trapped. Some awful defending in the 12th minute saw Sulejmani burst into the box and round Szczesny, but he took it far too deep and made his angle impossible. Had Juve been playing a better team Juve likely would have paid for such a mistake.
The Swiss pressure broke in the 15th minute when Bernardeschi ran onto a square ball from Sandro and took a powerful shot toward goal. van Ballmoos got down and saved it — nearly spilling the ball into the path of Mandzukic for what would have been a second easy rebound in as many games.
Cuadrado followed that up two minutes later with an ugly shot way wide, but the pendulum had swung back, and for the rest of the half van Ballmoos would have to be alert. Bernardeschi was involved again in the 20th minute, dashing down the left and squaring the ball to Dybala in the middle, who scuffed it right at the keeper. Five minutes later he had an excellent opportunity to double the lead, but kept the ball too long, electing not to exploit a fantastic passing lane to the right and instead funneling the ball left, where the defense managed to swarm and cover.
It was one-way traffic, and the pressure finally paid in the 34th minute, when Matuidi took a square ball from Cuadrado and drove a shot from 20 yards. Again van Ballmoos could only parry the powerful shot, but this time Dybala was in position to pot the rebound, which he did with ease for his second goal of the night.
Juve could have had a third on the stroke of halftime, but Sandro’s excellent low cross managed to get past Dybala, who stumbled as he tried to reach it, and Cuadrado, who quite simply whiffed when he tried to fire it goalwards.
Comfortable with a 2-0 lead, Allegri decided to make a rare halftime substitution, granting Matuidi the rest of the night off in favor of Emere Can. Dybala nearly put the game beyond all doubt within minutes, when Bernardeschi stole the ball in midfield and barreled forward. This time he picked up his head and sent his teammate through the right channel, but Dybala’s right-footed shot thwacked off the far post. A few minutes later he was chopped down inside the box by his former Palermo teammate Von Bergen, but referee Sergei Karasev refused to give the clear penalty.
A period of tedium set in after that, punctuated briefly by another run from Bernardeschi in the 57th minute, who this time tried to go through for the goal himself when he had Dybala in good positions on two separate occasions.
But the hat trick would finally come with 21 minutes left to go. It started with a Bernardeschi layoff to Mandzukic, who scooped one over the heads of the defense. Cuadrado chased it down and slipped in a cross that Dybala stretched to poke in, becoming the fourth Juve player after FIlippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, and Arturo Vidal to score a hat trick in a modern (post-rebrand) Champions League game.
A sure thing became practically certain when the 21-year-old Camara picked up two yellow cards in the space of about three minutes, the first for a stamp on Mandzukic and the second for a forearm shiver to Dybala’s face as the two were battling for possession. Down to 10 men, Young Boys was finished. In the 80th minute Sandro was denied a goal when his header on a free kick was blocked, then Cuadrado’s followup was put wide by Khedira, who was fit enough to play the last 20 minutes of the game.
The last 10 minutes were highlighted by the first Champions League appearance by Moise Kean since November of 2016. The teenager put the ball into the net with five minutes left but had just jumped offside, and a few minutes later had two shots blocked after Can and van Ballmoos clashed over an aerial ball in the penalty area. A third attempt was interdicted in stoppage time, and by the time referee Karasev blew his whistle, Juve looked to have proven that they finally know how to crush a minnow.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had absolutely nothing to do. Faced only a single tame shot on target.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 7. Completely untroubled by the Young Boys attack. They couldn’t get behind him to exploit his weakness against speed players.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. When his passing is on point he’s a huge asset. I’d like to see him have to mark someone like Romelu Lukaku to see if he’s improving at all.
MEDHI BENATIA - 7. Kept his space completely clean. Tied for the team lead in tackles and led in interceptions.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Made four key passes and got into dangerous positions constantly, but some of his end product leaves you scratching your head.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Controlled the midfield expertly, although his free kick delivery was a little off today.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. A good half, went after the ball with his usual tenacity and his shot led to Dybala’s second goal. Deserved his rest.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Went up and down the left side with relative impunity, and put in some nice square balls to set up teammates.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. Needs to get used to playing through the middle again and ended up on the wing after Allegri decided he was clogging the center, but he had the run of the pitch, creating a bunch of chances. He does need to get a little less selfish and pull the trigger on the counter a little better.
PAULO DYBALA - 10. What a performance. This is Dybala at his very best, and it’s really beautiful to watch. Put five of seven shots on target and flowed all over the place.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6. Sometimes the prima punta gets a ton of service and scores goals in bunches. Sometimes the prima punta does a lot of dirty work, winning aerial balls, pulling defenders out of position, etc. That’s what Mandzu did today.
EMERE CAN - 6. Continued Matuidi’s work in holding down the midfield for the second half.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. An uneventful 20 minutes of work to knock the rust off after two-and-a-half weeks on the sideline with a leg injury.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Made all the right runs into the Young Boys defense. If he’d gotten his timing right on that offside goal, it would’ve been a pretty one. He certainly needs development, but much like Rodrigo Bentancur last year, you can tell even in limited action that this kid is going to be special.
We’ve never seen this before. Allegri’s tinkering has revealed a new shape for the team, and his charges took to it with relish. Dybala is clearly loving being the seconda punta, and it may start becoming time to find more ways to get him into that position. The prospect of Ronaldo and Dybala with Bernardeschi playing behind him? That’s breathtaking.
There were a few negatives. For 10 minutes after the goal Juve backed way off and allowed Young Boys to play in their half, rather than going for the throat of a clearly inferior team. But overall this formation and tactical setup was a big success first time out. It’s worth looking at again in the future.
The Champions League will return Oct. 23 when they take a trip to Old Trafford to meet Manchester United. Will Jose Mourinho be coaching the Red Devils at that point? It almost seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
In the immediate future, Juve will take a trip to Udinese on Saturday, where they came from behind with 10 men on the field to dominate the other black-and-white team 6-2 a year ago. Then it’s another two weeks to ruminate as the second international break of the season comes upon us.