One day driving home from work, Marjorie happens to witness two robberies in her small town of Townsville: a hooligan nicks the wallet of a man with an armful of groceries, and two kids on bicycles bully a little boy into forking over his new extremely cool Deadpool action figure. Naturally, when Marjorie gets home, she tells her husband that they must immediately leave the town, for Townsville is now crime-ridden to the point of infecting the youth.
What Marjorie doesn’t know, or would refuse to embrace, is that not only has robbery declined to historically low levels in Townsville over the last few decades, but the two robberies she witnessed were the only robberies that month.
Such is the plight of Juventus fans: skewed perceptions of chance cause false interpretations of reality.
On Saturday at the Bentegodi, Juventus dominated Chievo Verona in every sense of the word, and by every measurable metric, en route to a dramatic 3-2 victory. Possession favored the Bianconeri 73 percent to 27. Juventus logged 26 total shots, 10 on target, to Chievo’s six total and two on target — one of which was a penalty. Juventus earned eight corner kicks to Chievo’s zero.
Despite the palpable one-sidedness of the match, two sequences against the run of play made the game feel as though it was close, as though Juventus were struggling, as though Juventus really struggled at all. Mariusz Stepinski lost Leonardo Bonucci for a moment and expertly headed a cross (one of nine total crosses for the hosts in 90-plus minutes) into the top corner of the net. And in the second half, new fullback Joao Cancelo gave away a penalty because his lunging tackle fell centimeters short.
Chievo capitalized on both opportunities.
In his post-match comments, Max Allegri understood the perfectly.
“These things happen,” the skipper said. “The important thing is to react to them.”
The soundbite is particularly referring to the penalty on Cancelo, but it more generally works for the entire game. Maybe Juventus did, as Allegri said, lower their guard “a little,” but otherwise the game entirely favored the champions. In another world, Stepinski glances the header wide, or else straight to Wojciech Szczesny, or else Bonucci remembers to mark. In another world, Cancelo gets a touch of the ball, doesn’t commit a penalty, and Juventus capitalize quickly thereafter. In another world, Mario Mandzukic’s goal is allowed. Chance is a funny thing.
All the same, Juventus finished the day with a win. Consider the circumstances: In the last two months Allegri’s side has added one of the world’s best players in Cristiano Ronaldo and has subsequently been asked to reorient the entire offensive scheme of the club — an offensive scheme, it should be added, that scored 86 league goals last year. Allegri was therefore tasked, starting Saturday, with putting into practice that which, in training, remains purely theoretical: how should Juventus line up? How is Ronaldo going to play off X, Y, or Z player? What about A or B formation?
Juventus were subjected to multiple strokes of misfortune while simultaneously incorporating an entirely new player and system — yet Allegri’s men not only won; they dominated.
What’s more, Allegri’s understanding of Ronaldo’s game already seems spot-on.
“There were also some good movements that were not rewarded by the midfielders,” Allegri noted of Ronaldo’s runs. “Those are movements that must be read from the back with the ball provided in the right spot.”
The luck will not always be so sour, and when Ronaldo starts clicking, when Paulo Dybala figures out how to play with the new No. 7, when the correct wing combination is discovered — all of which will happen — this team will be among the best, most balanced in Europe.
Aperitivi afterthoughts — three of them
1. Alex Sandro returns
Two years ago, Juve’s Brazilian left back looked like the best left back in the world. Last year, he looked like a good fullback, a reliable player with positive moments but not particularly spectacular from game to game.
This year’s Alex Sandro could be a return to dominance.
Identifying any sort of cause as to why Sandro played so amazingly in his first competitive game is purely speculative — Was he inspired by the faith’s club in him (not selling to PSG) in favor of a move for Marcelo? Is he simply elated that he’s going to be hooking up with Ronaldo on the left side from time to time? Is he simply reverting to his very, very good mean after an off year? — and it’s equally speculative to predict whether he’ll be this good all season, but Sandro was brilliant on the left side versus Chievo.
The game-winning assist is easy to point to, but Sandro also completed two dribbles, led the team with four key passes, and sent a ridiculous 10 crosses into the box — all while stifling attack on Chievo’s right flank.
2. Finding the right non-Mandzukic 11 is going to take time
Juventus looked fine with Ronaldo up top — not amazing, but fine. Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala linked up on multiple occasions that seemed a touch or two away from materializing; it was a bit clunky, but understandably so. Douglas Costa didn’t quite seem to know where he ought to play on the pitch. He was variously seen as the left wing, with chalk on his boots, and then back in the central midfield retrieving the ball. Juan Cuadrado made at least one inane decision on the counterattack.
Things weren’t clicking, but Juventus were still the dominant side.
Then, again as Allegri noted and as most of us saw, the introduction of Mandzukic and Federico Bernardeschi completely changed the complexion of the game. Ronaldo immediately looked more comfortable out wide, and played a couple nice crosses to the big Croatian. Bernardeschi’s creativity and ability to cut inside added a dynamic element to the Juve attack.
In other words, Juventus continued dominating but the proceedings looked considerably more fluid.
For the most part, this was an easy pattern to foresee. Mandzukic is an absolute monster in the center who wreaks havoc, doesn’t care about personal glory, and does whatever it takes to sacrifice for his team. He more than ripples the pond. The disturbance he causes allows Ronaldo to survey the situation and attack accordingly.
What’s going to take more time is figuring out how to best use Ronaldo without No. 17 — because Mario can’t play 90 minutes two times per week. Surely the answer to this question involves Dybala somehow, and perhaps a 4-4-2, but I suspect it’s going to take some time.
3. Bonucci’s return the best for ... Khedira?
Another year, another year of Allegri being totally convinced by Khedira. Last year I was on the “unconvinced” side of things, Khedira’s fabulous last third notwithstanding.
This year? I have no idea.
Khedira scored within minutes with a pretty damn good strike. After that, he did play play a large part in the game in terms of touches (only 66 in 83 minutes) or distribution (zero key passes, one cross, two long balls), but I have to admit that, on reflection, he made some penetrating runs, was positioned extremely well, and reminded me — don’t throw me out — of a sort of box-to-box Gonzalo Higuain, for whom influence on the game is often difficult to measure. Maybe I’m drinking the Allegri Kool-Aid, but I’m willing to suspend judgement and see how things play out.
Bonucci factors in here, because with Bonucci’s passing influence (12 long balls, eight accurate) Khedira doesn’t have as much of a midfield distributive mantle to carry. Instead, he can move forward, which is where he did very well at the end of last year.
All the same, I thought Khedira ran out of gas pretty bad around the 70-minute mark and that Emre Can should’ve featured a bit earlier.
What a way to begin the year: nearly drawing (semi-nearly losing) to Chievo Verona with the debut of Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet when all was said and done at the Bentegodi, Juventus remained Juventus despite the addition of Ronaldo, despite the subtraction of Claudio Marchisio and Gigi Buffon. In no way am I worried about Dybala, about Ronaldo’s lack of scoring, about the near-whiff to begin the new campaign.
This team is very, very good.