You can never take a game for granted in Serie A, even against the lowliest of clubs. Juventus learned that the hard way last season, when away draws to relegation strugglers SPAL and Crotone let Napoli back into the title race and set up a grandstand finish to the league.
Many people expected the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo would eliminate games like that and turn the grinders into easy wins. As Juve’s first game against one of those lesser teams, Frosinone, showed, that simply isn’t how Serie A do.
The Canarini were reeling after taking a 5-0 hammering by Sampdoria last week, and they were determined to avoid a similar fate on Sunday. They parked the bus and forced Juve to work for every spare blade of grass. The result was a stunningly dull affair as Juve slogged against an organized and stubborn defense without ever really testing Marco Sportiello in goal, until finally breaking through with eight minutes left and striking again in stoppage time to salt away a 2-0 victory.
Massimiliano Allegri made a bunch of changes to try to rest his team with midweek fixtures coming fast and furious. He employed much the same formation as he had a week ago. Wojciech Szczesny remained in goal, screened by a back four of Juan Cuadrado, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur was handed his first start of the season alongside Miralem Pjanic and Emere Can in midfield. Paulo Dybala was deployed as a trequartista behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic.
Frosinone manager Moreno Longo decided to set up shop from the very beginning, employing a 5-3-2 in front of Sportiello. Francesco Zampano and Cristian Molinario manned the fullback spots, flanking Marco Capuano, Bartosz Salamon, and former Juve prospect Edoardo Goldaniga. Iceland international Emil Hallfredsson led the midfield along with Raman Chibsah and Raffaele Maiello. Stipe Perica joined the experienced Costa Rican Joel Campbell up top.
The opening minutes of the game were about as boring as you can have, as Juve began probing Frosinone’s formation for weaknesses. The first real action came in the seventh minute, when Mandzukic nodded a ball from Cuadrado into the middle. Ronaldo tried to tap in the loose ball, but Sportiello got his hand to it and slowed it just enough for Capuano to catch up to it and blast it away from the line.
Frosinone saw their first shot come in the 11th minute when Maiello skied one way over from distance. Two minutes later Dybala found himself alone on a run through the left channel, but rather than shooting chose to center the ball for Ronaldo, and the defense dug the ball out. The ball quickly found its way back to Ronaldo, but his shot was tame and right at Sportiello.
The 20th minute saw another good opportunity for Ronaldo when Goldaniga’s errant attempt to head a Cuadrado cross clear fell to him. For once he had the time to steady and shoot, but Sportiello was up to the task and saved well at his near post. That was probably the last serious save Sportiello was faced with for a good 40 minutes of game time.
He nearly had to deal with Dybala 60 seconds later when the Argentine burst through the box on a one-two with Ronaldo, but he was dispossessed just as he brought his leg back to shoot.
The good news at this point was that Frosinone wasn’t generating anything. They sent in the occasional cross, but for the most part they were completely shut down. They gained a few corners, including one in the 24th minute on a bizarre passage that saw Sandro attempt to chest a cross back to Szczesny only to push it way too wide and gift a set piece, but Szezesny and his defense sealed them off.
In the 25th minute Ronaldo earned a free kick dead in the center of the field about 25 yards out. He stepped up to take it himself, but only succeeded in burying the ball into the wall, then firing his follow-up into the scrum of bodies in front of him.
Just after the half-hour Mandzukic headed a far-post free kick back across the grain, where Rugani took an acrobatic effort with his back to goal and hooked it just over.
It was hard to get any kind of position against Frosinone’s resolute line. Any promising position was often snuffed out before it could be exploited. Dybala was almost on the receiving end of an inviting cross from Ronaldo in the 38th minute, but the defense scrambled and whacked the ball away before the connection could be made. A minute later Frosinone made a rare break forward, but Rugani slid in to stop the run at the top of the box.
By the halftime whistle, it was clear it was going to be one of those nights — especially after Cuadrado and Pjanic ripped long shots into orbit before time ran out.
It was, unfortunately, looking like one of those games where Douglas Costa’s pace and skill would have made all the difference. Unfortunately, the Brazilian was serving the first game of his suspension, and was injured to boot.
The second period could have started with a bang, but Cuadrado’s pass was just behind Dybala, pulling him out of shooting position and forcing him to feed the ball to Bentancur, who pulled the ball just wide. Ronaldo had a shot blocked by Salamon five minutes in, and three minutes after that Mandzukic pounced on a blocked cross and fired in a ball that was in a good spot but far too fast for Ronaldo to get to it.
If there’s one thing that Allegri has improved upon as a manager in the last calendar year, it’s that he’s become much more proactive with his substitutions. With Costa unavailable, he turned to Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Bentancur in in the 56th minute, changing the formation into a 4-2-3-1, and his impact on the game would be felt in a big way.
Things still weren’t going Ronaldo’s way. In the 59th minute he skied a ball over the goal from seven yards. Things were going so badly that when Dybala earned a free kick on the right side moments later, Ronaldo moved into the wall and allowed Dybala and Pjanic to stand over the ball. Dybala’s effort was far better than Ronaldo’s earlier in the game, but needed about three more inches to get over Chibsah’s head.
Sportiello was finally called back into action when Ronaldo got turned around on a Bernardeschi centering pass but still found a way to poke the ball toward goal with a back-heel, forcing the keeper into a good save.
Joao Cancelo replaced the underwhelming Cuadrado at right back with 20 minutes to go, seconds after he Colombian airmailed another shot after a good move by Bernardeschi and Sandro. He and Bernardeschi started clawing out opportunities.
It was Bernardeschi whose shot was blocked out for a corner kick in the 81st minute. The corner that came in saw shots by both Cancelo and Pjanic blocked—but the latter ball fell right at the feet of Ronaldo, who fired a powerful shot that ricocheted off Sportiello and nestled into the goal to finally break the deadlock.
Can almost immediately gave the hosts an opportunity to peg back with a free kick in a dangerous area, but substitute Camilo Ciano decided to put a shot on goal from distance rather than float it into the penalty area, and didn’t come close.
As Juve backed up a bit to conserve energy they threw themselves into counterattacks. Ronaldo led one such effort as regulation time ticked away, but held the ball too long and by the time he passed it the defense was able to stop things up. He nearly mucked up a similar run three minutes into stoppages when he overhit a pass to Pjanic, but Capuano’s attempt to clear the ball was equally poor, allowing the Bosnian to continue the break and find Bernardeschi on the side of the box. Berna took one touch inside, hesitated, crept in one more step and fired to the near post. Sportiello got a hand to it but it wasn’t nearly enough, and it skipped behind him and into the goal to salt the game away.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. A low rating for a clean sheet, but he simply didn’t have anything to do. Didn’t even face a shot on target.
JUAN CUADRADO - 4. This was really not his day. There was very little for him to do defensively but he was all over the place in terms of his offensive contribution. He was overhitting crosses, skying shots into the crowd...this was bad.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. He was always in the right position. Made a pair of interceptions and nearly scored in the first half. He also won three aerial duels. A good first showing of the season.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7.5. Three tackles and as many clearances, he spent most of his time at or over the halfway line ready to cycle the ball back into the attack.
ALEX SANRDO - 7. Constantly caused problems down the left side, making three key passes, while also remaining solid at the back with three tackles and two interceptions.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Very understated but had quite the impact before he came off. Tied for the team high with four key passes and completed 90.9 percent of his passes, while tacking on two tackles in defense. Needs more opportunities to do things like this.
EMERE CAN - 7. Looked good in front of defense, making a pair of tackles and generally keeping Chiellini and Ruagni clean.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7.5. Played as a box-to-box today with Can in front of defense, and it looked like it freed him to do a little more. Three key passes and an smart assist on the counter for the clincher.
PAULO DYBALA - 5. He’s clearly still trying to find his place in this team. Was initially placed as a trequartista behind Ronaldo and Mandzukic, but he was having trouble interplaying with them. Eventually got himself into a couple of decent positions but couldn’t really capitalize on them.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Won a trio of aerials but couldn’t find the target and generally didn’t get into positions to threaten the goal. Could be fatigue creeping in.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Never gave up and kept on fighting for a goal, although a good number of his shots were tame efforts that never looked like threatening Sportiello. This game will be good experience for him in terms of how difficult it is to attack lower-level teams in Serie A as opposed to La Liga.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 8. Continues to solidify his place as the best player on the team in the first month. Made four key passes in 35 minutes, and looked more dangerous than anyone else on the field. His goal was a thing of beauty. If he’s not starting next week against Napoli, something will be seriously wrong.
JOAO CANCELO - 6. Brought a little extra dynamism and a lot more precision to the right back spot in the stead of Cuadrado.
BLAISE MATUIDI - NR. Came on to sure up the midfield after the goal.
This week’s formation was far more defined than last week. Whereas last week it looked like the three forwards didn’t really have a defined role, this week it was clear that Paulo Dybala was the trequartista in a 4-3-1-2. As you may have read earlier this week, I’m a fan of trying this, but this particular alignment doesn’t look like it works so far. It doesn’t look like Ronaldo and Mandzukic know who is the prima punta and who is the seconda punta in the arrangement — and frankly neither one really has the dynamism at this point in his career to play the latter role the way we all think of it. They’re both more reliant on power, pace, or both.
Dybala looked better when the introduction of Bernardeschi turned the formation into a 4-2-3-1. He’s far more comfortable in that role with a sole reference point in front of him. For the 4-3-1-2 to work, it may require Dybala taking the seconda punta position himself and installing either Pjanic or Bernardeschi in the hole.
Allegri wasn’t nearly as critical as most fans were of his performance after the game, pointing out several good passages and insisting that better fitness will bring better games. Chiellini was even more effusive after the game, calling him “fundamental” and saying “If he works with this attitude, he’s better than a year ago.” That’s...a bit more praise than I think is necessary, because he still looks pretty lost out there, but obviously his teammates are banking on his ability to improve.
Further back, playing Can in front of the defense and releasing Pjanic a little further forward looks like a brilliant move. If we start to see that a little more, Pjanic could really start dictating games on the level we expect him to.
One last comment: It’s time to start rotating a little more as the midweek games start coming thick and fast. In particular, it looks like Mandzukic needs a break. He had a hellacious workload over the course of the World Cup. Croatia’s penchant for extra time saw him essentially play a full extra game. This would have been a perfect game to kick the tires on Moise Kean, and the same can be said of Wendesday’s coming tilt with Bologna. It’s time to let the Mandzubeast have a breather.
A pair of home games are coming. The first is a midweek clash with Bologna, who broke out of a four-game goal drought to humiliate Roma 2-0 earlier in the day Sunday. After that, it’s the first big league game of the year as Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli comes to town looking to replicate their dramatic last-minute win last May.