You could just feel a difference as Juventus geared up for their match with Udinese on Sunday.
Every season under Massimiliano Allegri has had a palpable turning point. In 2014-15 it was the group stage game against Olympiakos that saw Juve change to a 4-3-1-2 formation. In ‘15-16 it was the humiliating October loss against Sassuolo, resulting in Gianluigi Buffon’s legendary “Sassuolo address” and the last-second derby victory courtesy of Juan Cuadrado’s legendary Miracle Ass Goal. Last season, it was another humiliating loss, against Fiorentina, that saw Allegri go into his cave and come out with the “Five Star” formation that dominated all competitions up until the Champions League final.
The previous two games had the feeling of a similar shift. A week ago the Bianconeri suddenly found themselves in the driver’s seat in Serie A after they won their trip to Lazio 1-0 on a last-second stunner and Napoli lost a 4-2 shocker at home to Roma. That momentum looked like it had been stunned in its tracks on Wednesday when they fell behind 1-0 in the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16 against Tottenham Hotspur, but a quick tactical change saw them stun the Premier League outfit with two goals in two minutes and 49 seconds, winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate and advancing to the quarterfinals despite being seriously outplayed for the majority of the two legs.
That brought Juve flying back to the Allianz to play that other team in black and white, and they took care of business with consummate ease. Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele Rugani dominated Udinese’s front line, and Paulo Dybala supplied both of the goals in a 2-0 win that, several hours later, proved enough to propel Juventus past Napoli and into first place with a game still in hand.
Allergi had a shorthanded roster to chose from going into the day. Not only was he still missing Federico Bernardeschi and Juan Cuadrado due to injury, both Stephan Lichtsteiner and Alex Sandro were suspended due to yellow card accumulation. That led to Mattia De Sciglio — himself returning from several weeks out with a muscle injury — and Kwadwo Asamoah manning the fullback position along with Chiellini and Rugani. That quartet screened Wojciech Szczesny, manning the goal for Buffon on his now-customary rest day after a midweek fixture. Several midfielders were also given a day off, with Claudio Marchisio and Stefano Sturaro replacing Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi, joining Sami Khedira in a midfield trio. Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa flanked Gonzalo Higuain in a formation that was described in most places as a 4-3-3 but acted more like a 4-3-2-1.
Massimo Oddo’s team was looking to avoid its fourth consecutive defeat, as well as secure a better result than the 6-2 loss they suffered to a 10-man Juventus at the Dacia Arena in October. Oddo sent out 40-year-old Alberto Bizzari in goal behind a 3-5-2. Gabriele Angella, Bram Nuytinck, and Samir made up the back three. Antonin Barak, Valon Behrami, and Seko Fofana formed the midfield, bookended by wing-backs Sylvan Widmer and Ali Adnan. Maxi Lopez and Jakub Jankto were paired up top.
Before the game began a touching tribute was made to fallen Fiorentina captain Davide Astori. Both teams and the match officials locked arms and stood together in the center circle while a tribute played over the speakers. As the tribute ended the camera caught an emotional Buffon crossing himself.
The match started fast. Dybala got himself into the left channel within 120 seconds and fired in a shot that was blocked by Angella. The ball was sent back upfield and Jankto was fouled by a sliding Giorgio Chiellini just outside the penalty area on the left side. Juve’s vice-captain was booked for his trouble, and Adnan fired the free kick at goal from a tight angle. The traffic in front of Szczesny blocked his view of it until late, but the Poland international managed to punch it aside for a corner.
It should be noted now that this was the last shot on goal Udinese mustered for the rest of the game.
Udinese pushed for another minute or two, but soon Juve sealed things off and it became one-way traffic. The first salvo was a long ball from Marchisio in the sixth minute that Higuain tried to flick forward to Dybala, but the pass led him into too much traffic.
Juve players and passes began buzzing around and into the box. Udinese managed to defend well enough in the beginning, and Juve’s final balls were just the tiniest bit off. Higuain wasn’t given enough room to turn for a shot in the eighth minute, and a hard through ball from Costa was just out of Dybala’s reach in the right channel. A good cross by Asamoah missed its target by inches, and with a quarter of an hour gone Costa pulled off an outrageous dribbling move to cut in from the right and find Dybala, who was quickly swarmed by defenders.
Another near miss on a cross came a minute later when De Sciglio made a good move to get free on the right and crossed the ball low, just missing the outstretched foot of Sturaro, who had a defender practically climbing on him.
There had been a lot of smoke but no spark, but that changed in the 19th minute when Higuain was brought down hard by Angella, who was rightly booked for the takedown. The free kick was positioned on the right side about three yards back of the penalty area — Dybala’s butter zone. The Argentine ripped an absolutely perfect free kick into the top corner that three keepers wouldn’t have been able to stop. It was 1-0 and there was every sign that Juve would pile on.
Udinese did make a quick push after the goal. Widmer’s shot was deflected high over the bar, and on the ensuing free kick Jankto likely earned some future ribbing from his teammates by losing an aerial against Dybala. A final attempt to get into the Juve box was intercepted by Sturaro, who made a nifty move to give himself space to make a pass to release the pressure.
There was a scary moment just after the half hour when Dybala got his leg tangled up in Behrami’s and spent several moments on the ground getting attention from the training staff. It was the kind of incident that can cause a major injury — and for the record Behrami did nothing underhanded, the two players just came together — but fortunately Dybala made his way back onto the field in a few minutes and quickly factored into the game’s next major incident when Sturaro fed him a ball in the channel, only to see him get taken down by Angella. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for Angella to have seen a second yellow card, but Piero Giacomelli kept the stationary in his pocket as he pointed to the penalty spot.
In his post-game press conference, Allegri said he had told Dybala to take any penalty kicks given that day, but he deferred to Higuain, perhaps still smarting from his tangle with Behrami. Higuain stepped up and fired low to the keeper’s right — far too low and not nearly far enough to the right. Bizzari clearly had it figured out from the get-go and palmed it away for a corner to keep the margin at one.
Juve kept the ball moving around the box. Sturaro managed another surprising moment of skill when he back-heeled the ball to Khedira, but the German didn’t have enough leg to latch on to the pass. A few minutes later Costa flew down the right side, nutmegged a defender in full stride, and eventually earned a corner kick that Chiellini redirected just too high just before the halftime whistle.
The second period had barely begun before Juventus put the game away. Higuain made up for his penalty miss with some fantastic holdup play, receiving a long ball from Asamoah and holding off Angella long enough to play the ball into tons of space for Dybala, who easily deposited a right-footed (!!) finish past Bizzari.
Udinese again mounted a short-lived attempt to get back into the game. Szczesney had to wake up from his nap to claim a free kick delivery from Adnan, and in the 55th minute Lopez skipped through the middle of the box but pushed it too far and allowed Woj to get out and snare it. A minute later Khedira had the third goal of the game on a plate but ballooned a great feed from De Sciglio way over the bar.
The rest of the match was essentially a training session. Costa kept flying everywhere, riding a challenge in the 70th minute to fire in a cross that substitute Blaise Matuidi missed at the back post. Eight minutes later the Brazilian again played supplier, making an excellent solo run and finding Dybala in an excellent area, but his attempt at his third hat trick of the year was met by an excellent save from Bizzari. The No. 10 kept looking for his third and with four minutes to go hit the side netting after a one-two with Mario Mandzukic.
A quick three minutes of stoppage time were academic, and there was nothing else to do but wait on the results from Napoli’s tilt with Inter at the San Siro. Most of us probably threw up in our mouths a little bit while rooting for Inter to succeed, but they held on to a scoreless draw, and Juventus ended the day in sole possession of first place.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had so little to do after Adnan’s early free kick that I seriously considered not even giving him a rating due to lack of activity, but those two claims in the second half swayed me. He could have taken a nap back there and not affected the outcome.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. Talk about poise. Whenever he had to defend on his side he was dead calm. Made a couple of good stops, totaling three tackles, and was totally composed whenever the ball came his way, at one point making a header back to his keeper under pressure and at an angle look a lot easier than it was. If he plays like this consistently it would make a venture for a guy like Hector Bellerin pointless.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Had the kind of defensive game that was quiet in a good way. You hardly noticed him because you hardly noticed the guy he was defending. He recored a pair of tackles, an interception, and three clearances. Also completed 94.6 percent of his passes.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. It’s a testament to Chiellini’s quality that he defended so well despite having to reign himself in after his early yellow card. He actually didn’t have any tackles (and Rugani had two — it must be aliens) but seven clearances and connected on all 13 of his long balls, completing 96.8 percent of his passes, most in the starting XI.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 7. Excellent play down the left once again. Connected on both of his crosses, and racked up three tackles, an interception and four clearances. Sign this man to an extension.
STEFANO STURARO - 6.5. Quietly had one of the best games he’s had in a long time. Found the right spots and nearly latched on to some good service, and showed a surprising amount of flair.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 8. On a day where Pjanic sat out, Marchisio settled into his old regista role and the ball zipped around the park. Completed 92.2 percent of his passes and completed all 12 of his long balls. If this doesn’t earn him more playing time, then what will?
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. He wasn’t awful. That’s the best that can be said. None of his passes created much in the way of danger, he blasted his lone opportunity way over, and he was only minimally involved on defense. He wasn’t a detriment to the team today, but when Pjanic returns to the field it should be time for il Principino to take his starting place.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. Dude was EVERYWHERE. Udinese had no answer for his pace. Six successful dribbles, made a key pass and triggered several other dangerous moments. Oh, and he made a pair of tackles tracking back.
PAULO DYBALA - 9. You can always gauge Dybala’s confidence levels just by looking at him, and boy howdy is he flying right now. Both goals were fantastically taken, and only an excellent save by Bizzari kept him from a hat trick. He also made a pair of key passes and even won an aerial duel on the defensive end.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7. At halftime I was going to give him a much lower rating than this, but his holdup play on Dybala’s second goal was absolutely fantastic. If he starts doing that more it will make Juve quite dangerous indeed. Let’s just not have him take penalties anymore.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Whiffed on a good cross from Costa, and generally didn’t have a ton of positive impact in his 28 minutes.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6. Nearly supplied Dybala’s third goal with a good pass down the channel.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Only given a few minutes but still managed to dispossess someone in midfield and start a counterattack.
Before Dybala was injured in January, I argued several times that the 4-3-2-1 was probably the best way to incorporate both he and Higuain on the field at the same time. Today’s game may have proven that correct. The formation was listed by a lot of media as a 4-3-3 but it didn’t really act that way, as neither Dybala nor Costa was particularly wedded to any one side of the field, switching up as needed and the former often playing through the middle.
This formation the best way to combine a three-man midfield, which at the moment gives the team its best defensive capability, with an effective mix of the two Argentines. It also makes for a ton of versatility, as any of Juve’s forwards, when healthy, could combine with Dybala in the hole behind the striker. I’d like to see a lot more of this moving forward.
I give a lot of props to Allegri for rotating here. Miralem Pjanic has looked gassed the last few weeks, and his play has suffered. Letting him rest was a good call, and given how well Marchisio played the idea of the two of them orchestrating in midfield simultaneously is intriguing.
I will make one very small nitpick about Max’s decision making this week. Once the score went to 2-0, it was the perfect situation to give Bentancur an extended run, but Allegri’s first substitution was Matuidi, and the Uruguayan only got three minutes at the end. Bentancur is going to be a beast of a mid, but he needs to play, and this was one of the best chances to get him some playing time in a while and Allegri gave it to an older guy who could have used the full day off considering he’s only recently come back from injury. Not the best sub strategy.
Napoli’s second consecutive slip-up means Juventus isn’t just in the driver’s seat in the league. If they win Wednesday’s makeup game against Atalanta, they can come close to taking control. Three points would take Juve’s lead to four, giving them some room for error if another deep Champions League run starts taking a toll. It could also deal another psychological blow to the Partenopei, who until the last two weeks have been flying high.
The bad news is Atalanta will be no pushover. Two weeks ago, Gian Piero Gasperini was set on playing a B squad to rest his main XI for the Coppa Italia semifinal, but now that Juve has knocked La Dea out of that competition he has no more need of that. The Bergamo outfit is now chasing a return to the Europa League, with even more urgency now that they feel the need to make up for their heartbreaking exit from this year’s competition. They’re a tough out and came back from an early 2-0 deficit to earn a 2-2 draw at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia in October.
But if Juve does defend home turf and come home with the points, they’ll find a far easier task on Saturday against SPAL before the international break. With a few breaks, they’ll be firmly in the driver’s seat by the time play resumes.