The 2-2 draw Juventus escaped Allianz Stadium with on Tuesday night in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 against Tottenham Hotspur is going to be tough to swallow. Even the 3-0 drubbing by Barcelona that Juventus took in the Champions League opener didn’t sting this bad.
The Bianconeri started the game in fourth gear, going ahead in less than two minutes and leading by two within nine. It looked like the experience of last year’s runners up was going to grind the up-and-coming men from North London into dust.
But from the moment the celebrations ended after that second goal, Tottenham began creeping back. Eventually, the Premier League side dominated the game, claiming 66 percent of possession and taking advantage of uncharacteristic mistakes from major names to earn the draw and put themselves into the driver’s seat, however slightly that may be, going into the second leg next month.
Juventus came into the game having conceded only one goal in all competitions since Nov. 19, a span of 16 games that included 14 wins and two draws. A key contribution to that run was the transition from a two-man midfield to a three-man midfield, which solidified a defense that had been lacking. That made it puzzling that Massimiliano Allegri decided to field the 4-2-3-1 that took opponents by storm last year. Gianluigi Buffon manned the goal, with Mattia De Sciglio, Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro shielding him. Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira formed the double pivot in midfield. Douglas Costa surprisingly took a central position rather than Federico Bernardeschi, who took the right across from Mario Mandzukic. Gonzalo Higuain, looking to shrug off the label of underachiever in big games, took his customary place up top.
The 4-2-3-1 is Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino’s default, and he sent out captain Hugo Lloris in goal, anchoring the back line of Serge Aurier, Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sanchez, and Ben Davies. Mousa Dembele and Erik Dier manned the middle, with Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, and surprise starter Erik Lamela one level up behind the team’s jewel, striker Harry Kane.
When it was drawn in December, this tie was cast by many as a duel between Higuain and Kane. The €90 million man was looking to finally cement himself as a big-game player, while Kane’s every move adds to the number that will be bandied about by the likes of Real Madrid if they vie for his services in the next summer transfer window. Both would make their marks on Tuesday night.
It was Higuain that drew first blood. The game had barely begun when Pjanic was fouled halfway into Tottenham’s end of the field. With Davies for some reason occupying himself with Bernardeschi on the wing rather than the goings-on in the penalty area, Higuain dashed into the right channel. Khedira created enough traffic in the box to pick off the trailing defender, and the Argentine was all alone to volley past Lloris to put Juve up 1-0 in 73 seconds.
It took only six minutes for Spurs to suffer their second body blow. A cross-field pass into the box by Mandzukic was met by Bernardeschi, but the winger was obliterated by Davies, and German referee Felix Brych immediately pointed to the spot. Higuain stepped up, and polished off a nine-minute brace with a hard shot to the keeper’s right. It was, in truth, in a decent spot for a save, but there was so much power on the shot that Lloris could only tip it on its way by.
It was here that the game began slipping away.
It’s hard to tell exactly what happened. Perhaps it was always Allegri’s intention to drop back for the first part of the game with the aim of getting Tottenham to tire themselves out with their high press. Perhaps he simply resolved to sit on a two-goal lead and try to add on the counter.
Whatever the reason, Tottenham slowly began to gain complete control of the game. For the first five or six minutes after the second goal we saw the kind of defending we’re used to seeing when Juventus is trying to salt a game away — the opponents moved the ball laterally a ton but never really put it into dangerous positions. The problem was there were 75 minutes left in the game. Against a team like Tottenham, that’s unsustainable.
The first warning came in the 16th minute, when Eriksen was almost released down the right side, only for the ball to roll just over the end line before he put in a dangerous ball. Barely a minute later Higuain was brought down in the attacking third, but Brych made no call and Tottenham sprinted down the left side. Kane eventually tried to latch on to a through ball on that side of the box and came together with Benatia. The ball rolled out and Brych again held his whistle, infuriating the visitors.
A missed one-two pass between Costa and Sandro triggered another Spurs counter that was broken up by a desperate slide by Benatia. Chiellini made a similar play to beat Alli to a Davies cross in the 25th minute, moments before Spurs created their first real opportunity.
It was Eriksen who was the creative force, dropping a long ball into the six-yard box behind the Juve defense. Kane was there to meet it at point-blank range, but Buffon was equal to it and batted it away. Three minutes later Eriksen took the rebound of his own free kick delivery from the attacking left and curled it past the far post.
At this point Juve were completely failing to get the ball out of their own half. They couldn’t string passes together under Pochettino’s press. Any attempt to get out would result in either an interception or a giveaway under pressure, but on the half-hour they finally managed to break out after De Sciglio stuffed an attempted run in the box by Alli. The ball shot downfield, and a give-and-go between Pjanic and Higuain saw the striker dance through the defense and fire from 14 yards out. Lloris was rooted to his spot, but the ball fizzed just wide.
Spurs continued to pin Juve back in their own half, but the defense, with a little help tracking back from upfield, held — until the 35th minute. A terrible pass from Higuain intended for Khedira was intercepted and dropped into the path of Alli. Chiellini arrived to face him up but fell down, leaving an easy lane to pass to Kane, who responded to Higuain’s brace by rounding a stranded Buffon and finishing from the angle to make it 2-1.
Juve barely mustered a response, and five minutes later Buffon made a good save on a long Eriksen drive to keep the team in front. They continued holding the visitors off until stoppage time, when Costa burst into the box and was chopped down by Aurier, sending Juve to the penalty spot for the second time with a chance to deflate Tottenham’s comeback and take the game by the scruff of the neck again.
Higuain stepped up to finish his hat trick. But the gremlins started creeping into his mind again, and as he has in so many huge games in the past, they gummed up the works. The big striker went with power straight down the middle and slammed it off the crossbar. Even if he had gotten it down, Lloris had sussed him out and stayed in the center of the goal anyway.
The second half began, but not much changed.
Despite the obvious need for an extra body in midfield to try to cope with the press, Allegri refused to make a change. The result was more of the same: long clearances that allowed the Tottenham center-backs to recycle the ball or giveaways further up the field as the visitors continued to press.
One of the few times Juve broke into their opponents’ side of the field nearly turned into that desperately-needed third goal. Mandzukic headed a long ball down to Higuain, who released Bernardeschi on the right side. The winger cut inside and unleashed a angled laser that Lloris was only just able to tip wide. Pjanic picked out Mandzukic with the ensuing corner but the big Croatian headed straight at the keeper. A minute later, just before the hour, Higuain was taken out as he tried to dribble into the Tottenham half. Pjanic was destroyed off the ball at the same instant, but somehow Brych, who started the game well but as it progressed started letting far too much go on both sides, declined to call either foul, adding insult to injury by booking Higuain for dissent.
More waves of Tottenham attacks crashed into the Juve defense, and with 19 minutes left Chiellini made a dangerous mistake, fouling Alli dead center in the penalty arc. Eriksen had all sorts of options, and the Denmark international was aided by a wall that completely lost its composure. Buffon took a false step as his teammates crumbled in front of him, and Eriksen fired a low drive to the keeper’s right. It looks like Pjanic was supposed to be in place where the ball went, but he ended up in front of the rest of the wall, pretty much dead center between the ends of what the wall had become. The ball sailed through the empty space and into the net to tie the game.
Tottenham finally tired a bit with a quarter of an hour to go and Juve got a bit more freedom to move, but it was too little to late. Rodrigo Bentancur, who replaced the totally ineffective Khedira in the 66th minute, was a rare bright spot, starting several moves, including one that wound its way to Bernardeschi in the 77th minute. The lefty cut in once again and his shot took a deflection that actually put the ball into better position for Lloris to smother it. Ten minutes later Costa nearly forced Vertonghen into an own goal, the Belgian poking a ground cross past his own post with Higuain lurking behind him, still trying to make amends for his miss.
But after two minutes of stoppage time, Brych blew his whistle to stop proceedings, giving Pochettino’s men the away goals edge heading into Wembley Stadium in three weeks.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6. It’s strange to think of a goalkeeper keeping his team in the match when they were actually ahead, but that’s what Gigi did several times in the first half. Absolutely made the false move on Eriksen’s goal but was also badly betrayed by his wall, which absolutely crumbled.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Didn’t get into the game going forward—who did today?—but he was pretty good on the defensive right. He had Lamela bottled up for most of the night and didn’t let anyone get past him once he’d squared up. Denied Alli at the last gasp in the first half.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 5. Responsible for both goals in some form. Fell down in front of Alli for the first, and conceded the free kick that delivered the second. Did lead the team in clearances, but on a day in which he passed Giampiero Boniperti on the team’s all-time appearance list, he was shockingly poor when it counted.
MEDHI BENATIA - 5. Had to chase after the likes of Alli and Eriksen with Chiellini mostly dealing with Kane. Made six interceptions but had to ease off the gas after a yellow card and generally had a rough night of it. Not as bad as some of his more shambolic performances from earlier in the year, but definitely his worst in the last few months.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Led the team in tackles but was really poor in possession and was one of the main culprits in allowing Tottenham to keep the ball in Juve’s half of the field. Needs to be better.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 2. Invisible. Did absolutely nothing. Completed an astonishing 53.9 percent of his passes. He can’t be a regular starter going forward.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. The game started full of promise with his assist to Higuain off the free kick, but he was awful after. His job is to help keep possession but lost it repeatedly and only managed to complete two-thirds of his total passes—an abject failure for him. He did make the ones he completed count—he tallied four key passes—but in a game that saw Juve get overwhelmed in midfield he didn’t do his job.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Denied by a smart save early in the second half and tracked back to help defend on that side pretty well. With Davies a shambles on the defensive left on Juve’s occasional forays forward, it’s tantalizing to think what he could have done had they team managed any sort of initiative.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5.5. Earned the second penalty but wasn’t as disruptive as he has been over the last month. Why he was playing in the middle rather than Bernardeschi, who is far more capable of playing in the center, was a puzzler.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Another case of what if, as Aurier was a shambles at left-back and if Juve had been able to feed him any crosses to the back post he would likely have dominated the Ivorian. Three tackles tracking back but slowed down early in the second half after what looked like a muscle injury that Juve can ill afford.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5. This is going to be unpopular. Yes, he scored his goals, but he also missed another two huge chances later in the first half that would have put a spike in the game. Missing from the spot was huge—it gave Spurs a shot in the arm going into the half. At the end of the day, the story of his game is yet another choke under pressure.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Looked lively in midfield after replacing Khedira. Started a couple of good moves by gaining the ball.
STEFANO STURARO - NR. Saw little of the ball in 15 minutes after coming on for a hobbling Mandzukic.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - NR. Saw out the last seconds of stoppage time.
I’ve held back knowing that this section was coming up.
Warning: Rant ahead.
Max Allegri is a good coach, of that there is no doubt. But from time to time he is capable of making monumental tactical errors. He did so in both ends of the Round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich two years ago, and we saw it again against Tottenham.
I don’t see much in the way of an argument to the contrary here. Allegri is entirely responsible for the horror show we saw on Tuesday.
The decision to move back to a 4-2-3-1 was astonishing. It worked fantastically last year, but this year whenever it’s been used the midfield has tended to get overwhelmed. That wasn’t a problem last year, but it is now. Perhaps Khedira has simply regressed to the point where he can’t handle a double pivot. Perhaps Pjanic’s game has evolved to the point where he’s not a good fit for it. Maybe, just maybe, that formation is missing Leonardo Bonucci more than any of us realize. His place is the only one that’s really turned over from last season to this. It might be that there was something to his game that made it work better than anyone else.
Ultimately, though, the reason is immaterial. The “Five Star” formation is not nearly as effective as it was last year. The use of a three-man midfield, whether in a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-2-1 has provided far more defensive solidity, and it’s what Allegri has used exclusively in the 16-game unbeaten run that Juve had going into this contest. Yes, Blaise Matuidi was injured, but frankly that’s even more reason to play three midfielders. Matuidi is quite possibly the only guy that can hold down a double pivot with Pjanic. It also didn’t help that the formation put all four of Allegri’s healthy forwards on the field at the same time, giving him no room to maneuver if he had to start chasing goals. Placing Costa in the center, an unnatural spot for him, was another head-scratcher.
His in-game decision making wasn’t much better. Like I said earlier, it’s entirely possible that Allegri had planned on dropping back and soaking up Tottenham’s pressure in an effort to tire them out before hitting the gas in the mid-to-late stages of the second half. He certainly didn’t plan on going up two that early, but after he did he should have gone for the jugular, rather than sitting back and continuing to soak up attacks.
Once it became apparent that the midfield was being overrun, the clock was ticking to put on either Bentancur or Claudio Marchisio to help out and get the ball flowing the other way. But Allegri didn’t add a third midfielder until the 76th minute, when Sturaro came on for a hobbling Mandzukic. He also didn’t deign to remove the insipid Khedira until he himself started limping.
The best chance Tottenham had in this tie was to make it into a shootout. The higher the aggregate goes, the better off they’ll be. By playing the 4-2-3-1, Allegri played right into his opponents’ hands and was roundly spanked as a result. If he makes any similar mistakes when Juve heads to Wembley, the team’s schedule will suddenly look a lot more open.
The second leg of this tie will be at Wembley Stadium, Spurs’ temporary home until their new stadium, built on the footprint of the old White Hart Lane, is completed. Wembley is a big place and has a big field, which many thought would be a detriment to Pochettino’s men’s pressing system at the beginning of the year.
Bottom line, Juve can win and go through, but it’s going to take a lot better from Allegri and his players if it’s to happen.
As for their next contest, it’s Derby della Mole time! The third game between the city rivals will take place at the Stadio Olimpico di Torino will be a lunchtime (or, in the case of US viewers, breakfast time) kickoff on Sunday, with Napoli taking on light opposition in SPAL. After that, Juve actually have a week in between games for the first time in ever, before back-to-back home games against Atalanta in Serie A and then again in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal.