The first 2 1⁄2 months of the season have not been particularly kind to Matthijs de Ligt. He arrived in Turin as a 19-year-old with a big price tag and big expectations. While it initially looked like he would be eased into the lineup behind the team’s long-serving incumbent center backs, any plans to that regard were dashed when Giorgio Chiellini tore his ACL in training less than two weeks into the season.
Thrust into the spotlight, there have been ups and downs for the young Dutchman since then. A horrific performance in his first start against Napoli was followed by a run marked by inconsistent play and an incredibly unlucky tendency to be struck on the arm by the ball while in his own penalty area. The player himself admitted over the last international break that he had to build up his confidence again. Some of the more histrionic amongst the Juventus fan base had even begun to call him a bust before November had begun.
That, of course, is a gross overreaction to what has been a quite normal set of growing pains. But the fact remains that de Ligt has had his share of downs this season, and going into his first Derby della Mole he certainly needed a sign — for himself as much as for the fans—that things would start looking up.
While he certainly gave everyone a scare in the first half — seriously, at some point the balls have to stop hitting him in the arm, right? — de Ligt ended the night the hero, volleying in an equally excellent pullback from Gonzalo Higuain on a corner kick for the night’s only goal and putting in solid defensive work in the game’s final stages to secure a 1-0 victory to keep Turin black and white, and maintain Juve’s one-point lead atop the league table after Inter had kept the pressure on earlier in the day with a come-from-behind win against Bologna.
As he has said he would, Maurizio Sarri kept his 4-3-1-2 formation intact. Wojciech Szczesny reclaimed the starter’s gloves after a midweek rest. Leonardo Bonucci and de Ligt formed the now-traditional pairing in the center of defense, bookended by Juan Cuadrado and Mattia De Sciglio, who made his return from the injury he suffered against Napoli in August to give Alex Sandro some badly-needed rest. Adrien Rabiot was suspended following his red card on Wednesday, but Miralem Pjanic made a surprise return from a muscle injury a week ago to reclaim the regista spot. That kicked Rodrigo Bentancur to the right side of midfield, with Blaise Matuidi claiming the other side. Aaron Ramsey was still not deemed fit to start, so Federico Bernardeschi again started in the hole behind the strike pair of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala.
Walter Mazzarri’s Torino entered the game in a desperate situation. After losing in the Europa League playoff round to Wolverhampton, the Granata had proceeded to lose five of their first 10 games, their worst start since 2008-09 — the last time they were relegated. He had to hope the Derby would rouse the team from its funk, but he was missing top defender Nicolas Nkoulou through suspension and Iago Falque and Kevin Bonifazi to injury. He did have the ever-steady Salvatore Sirigu in goal behind a formation that was slightly modified from his usual setup. Screening Sirigu were Bremer, Lyanco, and Armando Izzo, with Ola Aina and Cristian Ansaldi serving as wing-backs. Soualiho Meite, Daniele Baselli, and Tomas Rincon formed the midfield, while Simone Verdi got the nod over Juve’s former scudetto hero Simone Zaza, playing behind Andrea Belotti to give the team a 3-5-1-1 look rather than Mazzarri’s traditional 3-5-2.
The home side made their intentions known within seconds, earning a corner that resulted in an easy save for Szczesny as Bremer nodded the ball directly at him. Torino continued to hold the ball and force Juve onto the defensive early, but the Bianconeri started to muster a response in the form of counterattack, and in the ninth minute had their first sighter when De Ligt lofted a beautiful ball for Cuadrado, who dished off to Dybala. The Argentine’s shot was blocked out for a corner, and the ensuing corner kick eventually found the ball teed up for Matuidi. The Frenchman’s drive hit Meite in the side of the arm, but he had it tucked into his side and was in no way making himself bigger with it, and no call was made despite the appeals.
Torino continued to press the attack, and the ball was sent back the other way after the potential handball. Belotti was nearly sent clean through, but Szczesny scampered out of his box to slide in and dig the ball out to touch. The throw-in was taken long, and Belotti flicked it into the center ... and off the arm of de Ligt. The young defender’s arm was down by his side and even with his body, and the deflection came at very close range, and despite a round of loud penalty appeals, referee Daniele Doveri eventually decided against giving a penalty. Doveri had a few difficulties controlling things later in the game, but he got both of these calls correct.
The rhythm of the game began to establish itself, with Torino holding possession and Juve playing on the break. Ronaldo stooped down to head a ball that came in from the right side, but looped it over, while Dybala mishit a decent pass from his strike partner over the bar. Szczesny wasn’t bored on the other side, either, facing a pair of shots, but both were struck straight at him.
It was Sirigu who had to make the game’s first really good save just after the half-hour mark, when Dybala finished a quick break by dancing into the right channel and firing a shot that quite literally knocked the Torino keeper down as he parried it away. Four minutes later saw what might have been Torino’s best opening of the half, when a magnificent touch from Belotti bamboozled De Sciglio, but the striker opted to tee up Meite, whose shot ballooned over. Just before the break Juve found another opportunity, this one in the aftermath of a free kick. As the team recycled the ball, Pjanic lofted a ball to the back post for Ronaldo. He chested it down and fired the ball into the legs of Izzo. The deflection effectively turned into a square pass for de Ligt, who had stayed up after the set play and was siting in a gap between Lyanco and Bremer. He stabbed at it and sent it goalwards, forcing Sirigu to dive and claw the ball away with one hand.
No such action seemed to be forthcoming in the second half. The second period began incredibly dull, and it took more than 10 minutes before either team got a sight at the other’s goal — in this case a low shot from Ronaldo after a through ball from Dybala that Sirigu got down to knock away.
Sarri didn’t take long to begin changing things. He replaced Dybala with Higuain on the hour mark and followed him with Aaron Ramsey, who replaced Bernardeschi. Higuain worked hard for his first 10 minutes to no real result, but he turned the game on its head in the 70th minute.
He was hanging on the far end of the line on a free kick when Bentancur’s delivery found him perfectly, and he hit a piledriver of a volley that Sirigu just managed to punch over the bar. On the ensuing corner kick Higuain again hung around on the far post, and again shook away from any markers. He didn’t have a shooting angle, but identified the perfect passing lane between Meite and and Izzo. He hit the ball first time through that lane to de Ligt, who was waiting at the end of it and whacked it home.
The last few games Juve has had a nasty habit of giving up equalizers within five to seven minutes of scoring the breakthrough, and Torino nearly took that tendency to extreme levels. Straight after the restart, less than a minute after the goal, Ansaldi danced in from the Torino left, past three midfielders and an ineffectual challenge by Cuadrado — who, in his defense, had to be careful due to a booking earlier in the half — before firing a low dart to the near post. Szczesny was equal to the effort and got down to push it around the upright. Verdi then got free to flash a cross across the face of goal, but no one was there to meet it. Higuain then had the chance to put the game to bed with a clever touch to a pullback by Ramsey, but he didn’t get much power on it and Sirigu scrambled to smother it.
Zaza got the call from Mazzari and got in on the act immediately, having a shot charged down by Cuadrado. As the game went on, though, the home team found the opportunities dry up. Juve had a couple more chances to seal the win, including a long free kick that Ronaldo actually got beyond the wall and on target (!!!) although Sirigu stopped it easily. The Torino keeper also had to get off his line when Ramsey charged down an errant back pass, but the keeper won the one-on-one with the Welshman and Juve didn’t have anyone who could take advantage of the rebound.
Five minutes of stoppage time were added on, thanks in most part to a farcical moment earlier in the half when Izzo tried to get Ronaldo sent off by dropping to the ground as if he’d been shot when they bumped each other on the way back to their positions following a set piece. Deep into that period Torino thought they’d managed to equalize, only for the offside flag to fly up on Bremer as he turned it in. Doveri blew the game dead sixty seconds later, and the first Derby of the year ended in a victory.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made a really smart save right after de Ligt’s goal and dominated his penalty area for the entire game.
JUAN CUADRADO - 8. Shared the team lead with four tackles, and added a pair of key passes at the attacking end. I really can’t believe he’s turned into the team’s best right back, but this is one of those times I love being wrong.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7.5. Also recored four tackles, and was a sure thing in the back all night. Closed down Ansaldi just enough after the goal to deny him an angle that Szczesny had well covered.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. A perfectly taken goal, along with seven clearances, a pair of interceptions, and seven of eight long balls completed. Easily his best game in a Juve shirt. He could have scored twice if Sirigu hadn’t been quite so quick.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Started the game looking like a guy who hadn’t played since August, but settled down as the game went on and eventually put in three tackles and two interceptions.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Made two key passes and delivered a couple of very good set pieces, including a near-assist on that ferocious Higuain volley. Didn’t rack up the counting stats on defense like he sometimes does, but did well to harass Torino’s ball handlers. Had the best pass completion numbers on the team.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 8. Made a whopping six key passes and made three tackles and two interceptions on the defensive end. Not the kind of day where he takes midfield over with his passing, but he put in an excellent shift, especially considering he wasn’t expected to start.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Worked hard in midfield, but his feet tended to be where attacks went to die. If he only had a first touch...
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. He’s finding it difficult to produce in the middle of the field and is clearly robbed of some of his dynamism when playing as the trequartista. Certainly useful in the position when it comes to the press, but there needs to be more out of him.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Completed every one of his passes and was a constant player in the buildup up top. Nearly ripped Sirigu’s hands off in the first half.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. Bring it, stans. Ronaldo did not have a good name. He put three of his seven shots on target but only one of them had any danger behind it, and his control wasn’t that great today either, as evidenced by his five unsuccessful touches. He did make three clearances on set pieces, and, wonder of wonders, he actually cleared the wall on a free kick, but this is his second straight rough one, and maybe needs another rest.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7. Nearly scored the opener, and his assist on de Ligt’s game-winner was perfect. He changed the game.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. Got into a couple of dangerous positions, and nearly put the game away late.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Kept things buttoned up on his side of the midfield and helped close the game out.
Credit should be given to Sarri for accepting the fact that between the opponent’s attitude and the state of the pitch, playing classic Sarrismo wouldn’t be optimal in this match. He said as much in the post-match press conference, putting yet another crack in the myth of his complete tactical inflexibility. He’s proven to be more adjustable so far in his first season at Juve, which can only be a positive going forward.
One thing that he’s consistently shown since he took the sideline after his early-season illness is how well he’s used his in-game subs. He again pushed the right button as the right time on Saturday night, as Higuain’s introduction changed the way Torino had to defend Juve and making the crucial plays that led to the game’s only goal. After five years of Max Allegri waiting until the 75th minute to even make his first move, to see Higuain coming on with half an hour to try to influence the game was a welcome thing. If Sarri continues making adjustments like this, he could counter almost anything.
A Wednesday game trip to Russia looms, as the return match against Lokomotiv Moscow is next on the cards. The game kicks off in the early 12:55 (EST) slot. Juan Cuadrado will be suspended due to yellow card accumulation. After that, AC Milan comes to the Allianz Stadium for the last match before the international break.