Here is the most extraordinary element to Juventus’ perfect start to the season: Despite adding Cristiano Ronaldo to the roster, both the tactical theory and the tactical practice remain absolutely the same from a year ago. The fact is probably the perfect Rorschach test for one’s stance on Massimiliano Allegri. The manager who has won four consecutive Serie A titles, four consecutive Coppa Italia titles, and earned two trips to the Champions League finals does not play sexy soccer. The Old Lady’s skipper is neither Pep Guardiola nor Maurizio Sarri, and even though he’s added arguably the world’s best forward he’s not going to change his ways.
I’m not interested in a tiresome debate on Allegri as a manager, because I think the results speak for themselves and that the ugly pragmatism with which his side plays is brutally effective. What I’m interested in, instead, is the fact that Juventus have maintained the hallmarks of Allegri football — defensive solidity, formational flexibility, a game-by-game starting 11 — but added three incisive playmakers who could move the needle in a substantial way for the club this year.
The idea, in short: Juventus is still Juventus, but management have given Allegri a side more loaded than ever with individual talent than ever.
Joao Cancelo is Juventus’ best fullback, and it’s not close
The match against Sassuolo will be, for sometime, marred by Douglas Costa’s ugly incident at the end of the match. The secondary story will be the brace from Ronaldo, his first goals in black and white. But the real story should be about the nearly flawless performance from the 24-year-old Joao Cancelo. The Portuguese star has improved in every game in which he’s played for Juventus this year, and in Turin against Sassuolo he absolutely terrorized the pitch in every facet of the game.
Cancelo led Juventus with five tackles. He led Juventus with five dribbles. He led Juventus with 80 touches. He completed four of five long balls. And he did a lot more. If I were handing out a man of the match award, I’d give Cancelo serious consideration.
I think Alex Sandro is a very, very good player. But Juventus fans waited all of last season for the Brazilian to regain the form he showed the season before, and, frankly, there hasn’t been any consistent proof that he’ll be able to get that again. He’s still going to be a rock. He’s still going to have his moments. But maybe not pressuring him to be the best left back on the planet would be a good restart for the embattled back.
The sneaky-encouraging sidebar to Cancelo’s game: He wasn’t even supposed to start. Mattia De Sciglio was set to make his season debut but got injured during training, and Cancelo took his spot. Talk about stepping up to the plate.
DC deadly off the bench; CR7 will score goals
The spitting incident has been covered in other posts, so I want belabor the point here.
Juventus obviously have an abundance of riches on the wings — doesn’t it feel like just yesterday that the club had no wingers? — and the speedy Brazilian is the most flexible of them all. On the right wing he cuts in and whips crosses or curving shots that must make keepers tremble continuously. On the left wing he jets up the sideline and rains in crosses. No matter where he plays, he zigs and zags and generally creates pressure.
When DC took Mario Mandzukic’s place in the 60th minute — the absolutely appropriate substitution — he injected immediate electricity into the game. His first real involvement came off the corner kick in which he, at 5-foot-7, held up the ball like a target man and then sprung the counter attack which led to Ronaldo’s second goal. Costa’s heat map shows him all along the right flank — from end to end — and pretty much everywhere in and around the box.
That kind of influence and pace is fantastic to have. Coupled with the quality of shot Costa brings, it’s deadly. And as we’ve seen time and time again, teams struggle to deal with No. 11 coming off the bench.
The third player is obvious: Cristiano Ronaldo will score goals.
The comparison is somewhat obvious and even exhausted, but from the time I first saw Ronaldo in a Juventus kit this is what I thought: LeBron James is a Juventus player. Not in terms of marketability, not in terms of influence even, but more so in the fact that Juventus now have a player who, like James, can create something out of absolutely nothing. A player whose quality clearly stands above the rest.
That showed Sunday afternoon, and I suspect it will show more and more throughout the season.
I think Allegri is one of the best managers in the world, and I think the idea of adding higher quality players to a proven system makes a lot of sense. There will, by default, be the large swarms of complainers, but as long as Juventus keep winning games I (and Juventus management) couldn’t care less.
Aperitivo afterthoughts: two of them
1. Emre Can impresses in the middle
With Miralem Pjanic resting ahead of Juve’s Champions League opener in Spain with Valencia, newcomer Emre Can manned the middle of the field. He did quite well, I thought, and I’m interested in seeing how he could improve there. From the times I watched Can at Liverpool, it did seem like he tended more toward a box-to-box style, but he looked pretty good as a deep-lying playmaker. Yes, it was Sassuolo. But still. I’d love to see Can and Pjanic play together at some point with Can just in front of the center backs and Pjanic allowed more freedom forward, possibly linking play and connecting with Ronaldo a little more.
2. Paulo Dybala was . . . fine?
Juve’s No. 10 is a very good player, and he’s only 24, and he led the team in goals last year, but he remains, as ever, a question mark positionally. He started on the right wing, and then when Mandzukic left it seemed like a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo and Dybala up top (at least for a little while) and in neither formation did Dybala really do much of anything too effectively. At the same time, he didn’t look overwhelmed, and there were multiple occasions when it felt like Juve’s players were somewhat forcing the issue by trying to feed Ronaldo rather than set up Dybala. A single shot is not enough.
Alas, this was the fourth game of the season. As Tom Petty said, love is a long road. I think the same applies for football. The Dybala rumors will continue the less he plays and the less he scores, but there’s plenty of time for things to change before the January (or summer) windows set in. For now this seems like something we should stick a pin in (in terms of worry) and take a wait-and-see approach.
Luckily for us, we won’t have too long to wait, because the Champions League begins on Wednesday.