For a little more than a month now, we’ve been wondering what the final form of Maurizio Sarri’s Juventus is going to look like. We’ve seen clues in fits and starts. The first hour against Napoli. The first part of the second half against Atletico Madrid. The majority of Saturday’s game against SPAL.
But on Tuesday night against Bayer Leverkusen, we may have seen the most complete game Juventus has played since Sarri took over.
The irony in that fact is that it happened in a very un-Sarri-like way.
Bayer had the lion’s share of possession on the night, with Juve striking quickly when the German outfit made a mistake. It wasn’t prototypical Sarrismo by any means, but it was effective. The visitors were unable to manage a shot on target, while Juve’s total team effort was backed up by strikes from all three of their starting forwards to notch their first victory of the UEFA Champions League campaign by a 3-0 score.
Sarri’s squad was boosted by the return of Alex Sandro, who had been on bereavement leave over the weekend to mourn the death of his father. That brought the number of natural fullbacks available for selection to a whopping one, with both Mattia De Sciglio and Danilo still out until after the international break. The starting lineup given on both Juve’s social media and on the broadcast described it as a 4-3-3, but from the first whistle it was abundantly clear that Sarri had pulled a fast one and had kept the 4-3-1-2 that he had gone with over the last week, just with different personnel. Wojciech Szczesny took back his starter’s position in goal after a day off over the weekend. Juan Cuadrado again served as the right-back, joining Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs De Ligt, and Sandro in the back four. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi manned the midfield, while Federico Bernardeschi made his first start of the season in any competition employed as the trequartista. Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo formed the strike pair.
Bayer Leverkusen came into the game as part of a five-way tie for second in the Bundesliga. Manager Peter Bosz was down a few key players, with winger Leon Bailey and wide midfeilder Karim Bellarabi entering the contest on the shelf and captain Lars Bender pulling up in warmups. Undermanned, Bosz went with a 4-4-2 formation, with Lukas Hradecky starting in goal. Mitchel Weiser took the place of Lars Bender, whose twin brother Sven partnered with Jonathan Tah in central defense, with left-back Wendell completing the defensive line. Twenty-year-old sensation Kai Havertz started on the right side of midfield opposite Kerem Demirbay, with Julian Baumgartlinger and Charles Aranguiz manning the center of the field. Kevin Volland took the captain’s armband for the Germans, partnering Lucas Alario.
A fan wouldn’t have been blamed for getting something of a sinking feeling in the game’s opening minutes. Bayer took control of possession early, and in the third minute a good dummy got Alario into a good shooting position, but the striker blasted it way over. Five minutes later Demirbay got in on the fun, cutting inside and firing a shot that again went over the bar, but this time not by much. It looked for a minute like it would only be a matter of time before the visitors tweaked their sights sufficiently to find pay dirt.
Juve, meanwhile, were slow getting out of the gate, often misfiring by just enough on their passes to leave the ball exposed for Leverkusen to steal it and bring it back the other way. Still, they showed some venom just before the 15-minute mark when Pjanic dumped a ball over the top for Cuadrado, who charged down the right side but neglected to look up before he crossed, sending the ball into empty space while his support trailed a few yards behind the play.
But that was the last mistake Cuadrado made on the day. And it became clear as well that the early warning signs of those Leverkusen shots were actually false alarms. As the game progressed, Juventus ceded possession to their visitors, but their incredible team defense prevented them from being able to do anything with the possession. Bayer’s players were forced into long series of lateral passes, unable to get anything north and south that could pave their way to the goal. Despite all their possession — 58 percent in the first half — they could do nothing to actually threaten the goal. They wouldn’t get another shot in until the 48th minute.
Juve, on the other hand, proved highly clinical in taking the lead on 17 minutes. Cuadrado started the move with a ball over the top toward Higuain. Tah won the aerial duel, but somehow managed to simply skim the ball into the air. It settled right in front of Higuain, who took one touch to put the ball into his path, then struck it against the grain of his run and past Hradecky to put Juve ahead on their first shot of the night.
The pattern of the game continued, with Bayer holding possession and their hosts refusing to let them do anything about it, waiting until they made another mistake they could exploit. It nearly came in the 39th minute, when Khedira played the ball to Higuain on the left side of the box. The Argentine drove a diagonal shot toward the far post, but Hradecky anticipated the direction of the shot and moved to parry, with Pjanic’s attempt at a followup being blocked.
The half came with Juve down fairly big in the possession numbers, but still with a feeling that the game was securely in control. Just like the opening of the game, Bayer got in a quick early shot when Aranguiz got free on the back end of a corner but volleyed wide. There were earnest appeals for a handball on the shot and Sandro did indeed have his hands in an unnatural position, but the ball had clearly hit him in the head rather than the hand.
Ronaldo, who had heretofore been a bit quiet, finally got into the game in the 57th minute, when he was served perfect position after a run and square ball by Cuadrado. It was the kind of spot that, given Ronaldo’s standards, you expect a goal every time. Instead Hradecky read him well and got down to make the save.
But there was no saving anything four minutes later, when Higuain played a give-and-go with Ronaldo and burst into the right channel. Ronaldo ran back in for a return, but a sliding effort by by Weiser tipped it away. Waiting to clean up was Bernardeschi, who redeemed a rough night by easily slotting the ball home to double the lead.
Given the way the defense was playing, that was pretty much it. Bayer continued to keep the majority of possession, but still could do nothing to trouble Szczesny. The ball continued to be forced laterally, with no passes incisive enough to give the visitors a chance. It was peak-level BBC stuff. When Ronaldo was again denied by Hradecky in the 74th minute — on another chance you would have expected him to put away — there wasn’t even much concern, because the Leverkusen attack didn’t show any signs they would be able to change the state of affairs. The almost managed it when substitute Paulinho was sent through and beat Szczesny to the ball, but his attempt to chip the keeper floated over the bar. Moments later Tah had the chance to get his head to a cross, but it too bobbed over for a goal kick.
Ronaldo finally did get his goal just before the end of regular time, slotting the ball past Hradecky after a pair of subs, Rodrigo Bentancur and Paulo Dybala, combined to put him into the right channel. Dybala’s assist was particularly delightful, nutmegging Bender on the way to Ronaldo. After an uneventful three minutes of stoppage time, the game was blown dead, and Juve walked off the field with their first win in Europe on the year.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - NR. There’s no point in giving a rating here. What did he do? Take a couple of goal kicks? I guess he kept the defense well organized, but he could have read the latest issue of FourFourTwo back there and not have had to look up.
JUAN CUADRADO - 8.5. I never thought he’d be this good in this position, but in this case I love being wrong. Not only did he join the attack with impunity, he defended fantastically throughout, a couple of times catching Volland when Bayer found him on the back side and preventing him from doing anything dangerous. Whatever Andrea Barzagli is doing to him in training, keep it continue.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 8. Held the defense together beautifully, and led the team in clearances — although on a day like this that means he had three. Nothing was getting by him today.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. Remember the hot take that he was overrated and not worth the price tag after the Napoli game? Yeah, about that. He’s settled in well the last two outings, and didn’t put a foot wrong Tuesday night.
ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. Most of the wing play went down the right side, so he didn’t do a whole lot moving forward. Simply playing Tuesday night must have been so tough, and really the only thing missing from the script today was him scoring.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 7. Unusually active on defense, racking up a pair of tackles and a pair of interceptions opposite a key pass on the offensive end.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Not the metronome he was over the weekend, but he defended well when Juve were out of possession, racking up three interceptions and always clogging passing lanes.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7.5. Led the team with four interceptions and was a decent threat going forward as well. His work rate isn’t human.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. He had a really rough first half and looked a step behind everyone else, but was right where he needed to be for his goal, which will hopefully boost his confidence in a big way.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 8. If I told you before the game that Higuain would be the team co-leader in dribbles, you would have laughed at me, right? Yet there he is. An immense effort, with a perfectly taken goal and a key pass setting up Bernardeschi’s goal. The kind of game the team wanted him to have when he first got the No. 9 three years ago.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Worked hard up top pressing along with Higuain and Bernardeschi, and got in a key pass of his own as well, but really should have taken both of those goals that he missed before he finally got himself on the scoresheet late. Could have truly killed the game off a lot earlier.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Played some good defense and linked well with Dybala to set up Ronaldo’s goal. Also blocked a shot and made a tackle.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. Kept the ball flowing as Juve started to click on the possession game later on.
PAULO DYBALA -NR. A beautiful assist to Ronaldo in his limited action, and got in a nice shot from the outside as well. He’s in great form right now.
Sneaky, sneaky, Maurizio.
Everyone expected Sarri to use a 4-3-3 with Bernardeschi in for Ramsey, but he kept the 4-3-1-2 in effect regardless. This is turning into a high-level option, and for a coach like Sarri, who has a reputation for being notoriously inflexible, adding a weapon like this to his arsenal and suddenly having two options to choose from depending on the opponent is an unexpected but welcome development. Higuain and Ronaldo do seem to work well off each other, although it was apparent Bernardeschi was a little rough after not playing much so far this season, and doing so in a position he probably hasn’t trained in much this season. He got his goal though, so obviously Sarri had seen something in training.
It’s strange, given Sarri’s philosophy of football, that the game ended up playing out the way it did, but the fact that the defense is finally starting to solidify is a huge plus. If they can eliminate that as a weakness, Juventus will be a big step forward to realizing their potential this season. Now he just has to tweak that attacking game until it’s running smoothly.
It’s a crunch top-of-the-table Derby d’Italia on Sunday. Juve’s first match against Antonio Conte as an opponent, their first first-second match as the second-placed team in goodness knows how long, and the biggest game of the season up to this point to go into the international break.