Has anyone had a better month of March than Moise Kean?
Going into the month, the talented teenager was criminally underused. He’d played only three minutes of Serie A football all year, supplemented by a 12-minute cameo in the 3-0 win over Young Boys in the Champions League and a start — and a goal — in the Coppa Italia Round of 16 match in Bologna. In the meantime, Mario Mandzukic was driven into the ground, causing the burnout that we’re still seeing affect him now.
But now, in the space of a month, he’s turned himself into one of the most indispensable players on the team.
First he scored a brace in his first league start against Udinese while the established starters rested for the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid. He then came a whisker away from scoring the winning goal in that tie before Cristiano Ronaldo finally clinched it from the spot. He raised his profile even more with two starts and two goals for Italy during the international break, and he capped off the month on Saturday by injecting the energy and decisiveness that Juventus were lacking during a turgid performance against Empoli. Powering home a fantastic assist from Mandzukic mere moments after coming on, the youngster continued his meteoric rise and sealed a 1-0 victory in a game that definitely saw Juve suffering from a post-international hangover.
Kean may have been the story coming out of the game, but the story coming into it was how Juve would deal with the lack of Ronaldo, who is racing to be fit for the Champions League quarterfinal against Ajax after pulling up with a hamstring injury in Portugal’s Euro 2020 qualifier on Monday. Massimiliano Allegri’s charges would have to adjust to playing without their superstar — adjustments that had to be recalibrated almost immediately after Paulo Dybala reported a twinge in his leg during warmups and was withdrawn — according to Allegri as a precaution.
Rather than throw Kean into his planned 4-3-3 from the start, Allegri chose to replace Dybala with Rodrigo Bentancur and shift to a 4-4-2. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual place in goal, with Joao Cancelo, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro screening him. Bentancur joined Emre Can, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. Federico Bernardeschi joined Mandzukic in a strike pair.
Empoli manager Aurelio Andreazzoli deployed a 3-5-2. The goal was tended by Bartlomiej Dragowski, with Frederic Veseli, Cristian Dell’Orco, and Domenico Maietta in front of him. Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Marko Pajac played as the wing-backs, bookending Ismael Bennacer, Rade Krunic, and Hamed Junior Traore. Diego Farias and Francesco Caputo perched up top.
In the game’s opening phases it looked like Juve were still on break. Empoli had read the book that other provincial clubs have used to cause Juve problems this year and pressed them from the outset. It didn’t help that Joao Cancelo looked like he had no idea what defending was. He constantly pinched in close to the center-backs, leaving massive swaths of grass for Empoli’s players to move into. Farias used one of those spaces to create the game’s first big chance nine minutes in, but Rugani scrambled back in time to block the shot and force a corner.
The last-minute change seemed to throw Juve into disarray. Without Dybala to connect the lines the team’s passing suffered, Bernardeschi didn’t have the room to do the things he does best playing as a seconda punta rather than a winger. The four central midfielders had trouble figuring out how to operate as a bank of four and which of them would serve as makeshift wide men. The result was one of the more unlikely sights you’ll see in Serie A — a provincial side dominating possession at the Allianz Stadium.
The Tuscan outfit was all over the place, and their press was causing Juve problems. Cancelo’s torrid half continued when he was caught in possession deep in his own half, but Rugani, fresh off his new contract extension, again came in to block the cross. The first shot to actually clear a defender came a few moments later when Krunic fired high over the bar in the 19th minute. Krunic was again the man to threaten when he cut inside from the left and then tried to put the ball back against the grain to the near post, but he put it wide.
Juve was reduced to playing on the counter, but despite the low quality of their play they did manage to carve out the best chance either side had in the period just after the half-hour mark. It came on a cross from, of all people, Matuidi, who found Mandzukic after the Croatian had evaded his markers in the box. He powered the kind of downward header that we’re so used to seeing ripple the back of the net, but it was a little too close to Dragowski, and the keeper managed to get a hand down and scoop it into the air, where a teammate managed to head it back for him to control.
Juve started getting a bit more of a foothold in the end stages of the half, but weren’t able to do much more than pitch crosses into the box, most of which were closer to Dragowski than they were to a teammate. Cancelo was the worst offender, not putting his crosses close to anyone. As the teams went into the half, Empoli had controlled 60 percent of possession and Juve were looking like they were sorely missing their injured superstar.
After the match Allegri said that he waited until halftime to make any major adjustments given the limited time he had before kickoff. Whatever he did in the locker room certainly did the trick, because Juve took hold of the game in the second half. Only three minutes into the half Bernardeschi’s low shot was clawed away from the near post by Dragowski, and two minutes later he launched himself at a cross from Sandro. His volley skimmed the top of the crossbar, and both he and Dell’Orco spent a few minutes getting treatment after colliding at the end of the sequence. He wasn’t done threatening, and right on the hour mark he hit a first-time shot off a good knock-down by Mandzukic and just hit it a little too high from inside the penalty arc.
Juve kept Empoli in their own half in the early parts of the second period, but there was an energy, a sharpness that seemed to be lacking. The final touch, whether it be a pass or a shot, was always just a little bit off. The problem was that the guys who seemed likeliest to provide the spark — Ronaldo, Dybala, Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa — were all nursing their various injuries. Kean was the only other forward available. It was surely only a matter of time before he was introduced into the fray.
Fortunately, Allegri didn’t give in to his unfortunate tendency to wait too long to introduce his subs — although the first man off the bench wasn’t Kean, but Leonardo Spinazzola, who made an instant impact by cutting inside and unleashing a powerful shot. Veseli blocked it and it landed at the feet of Cancelo, who unleashed a cross/shot that was always going wide of the goal and had far too much power for any of his teammates to reach before it flashed by.
Kean finally made his appearance in the 69th minute. Less than three minutes later, Chiellini unfurled a long pass into the left channel from just inside the Juve half. Mandzukic ran onto it and, with a deft flick of his head, put it into the path of the 19-year-old. Kean let it take an extra bounce to get to his stronger right foot, then lashed at it. It took a deflection off Dell’Orco that gave it a wicked curve, and it bent inside the near post for Kean’s third league goal of the season.
Six minutes later he nearly doubled it when Pjanic picked Maietta’s pocket and sent the striker through, but Dragowski came out and made an impressive double save, first blocking Kean’s shot with his arm and then parrying the ball away when the rebound ricocheted off Mandzukic and headed back toward the goal.
The failure to get the second goal has so often been costly for Juve, but this time they held fast. Empoli pushed for the equalizer, but Rugani and Chiellini locked down the penalty area, and held the visitors without a shot on target for the entire game. Rugani did well to track Caputo on a ball into the box with three minutes left, and Szczesny punched away a last-ditch free kick in stoppages before the final whistle finally sounded.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had very little to do, but controlled his box well when the odd cross came in.
JOAO CANCELO - 4. This was a terrible game for him. The number stats might say otherwise — he actually led the team in tackles and was credited with a pair of key passes — but his defensive positioning was awful all game. He kept pinching way in, practically standing next to Rugani and leaving massive swaths of space for opposing wide players. His crosses were almost all terrible. He airmailed most of them right into Dragowski’s arms. He seems to have taken a step back since he had to undergo knee surgery over the holidays.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Blocked three shots and made three tackles as well — a number that you don’t often see next to his name. He looked more confident and cleaned up Cancelo’s messes. Also connected on two of three long balls.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. The usual excellence at the back, and added in the long pass that Mandzukic turned into an assist. We’ll probably see him rest a bit over the next week as Ajax looms.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Not his greatest game, in keeping with the form he’s been in the last month or so. Defended quite well, but only sporadically a threat up the left side in attack.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Like Sandro, played quite well in the defensive phase (three tackles, three clearances) but wasn’t very incisive going forward.
EMRE CAN - 6. Completed 92 percent of his passes and added two tackles and three interceptions. A key pass came as well. Nothing spectacular but a solid midfield performance.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Made five key passes on the night and threw in three interceptions and a tackle. Key in Juve gaining the advantage in the second half.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Very nearly claimed an assist in the first half, and totaled two key passes on the day before being withdrawn for some more offensive firepower.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. Much better in the second half than the first. Seemed a little limited trying to work in a strike pair as opposed to on the wing, but used the space better in the second half and came close a couple of times.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6.5. Did a really good job knocking balls down for his teammates. His assist was really damn pretty — a no-look headed pass that fell perfectly for Kean. Also came really close to opening the scoring in the first half but for a decent save by Dragowski. Still doesn’t look like the full force he was at the beginning of the year but this was an improvement.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - 7. Three tackles and a key pass in half an hour. Added some dynamism on the left side that had been missing from the team as a whole.
MOISE KEAN - 8. What floors me about this kid is how good his instincts are. He’s always in the right place at the right time. Add that to the technique he’ll develop as he grows older, and we have a star in the making. On a related note: can we just give this kid the No. 9 shirt already?
MARTIN CACERES - NR. On to solidify things in the waning minutes and blocked a shot.
Allergi was put into a tough spot when Dybala pulled up during warmups, but whatever adjustments he made at halftime worked well. Keeping Kean on the bench after he played two full games over the international break was the right move — the kid will need some rest, especially given the fact that the team plays seven times in the next three weeks. But the game was crying out for him, and Allegri did well to make his changes early enough for the impact to be felt.
Unless Dybala’s injury is truly minor and we see him on the field against AC Milan in a week, he’s going to have to get creative with only three healthy forwards, although Cuadrado and Costa are also both expected back relatively soon. Rotation, though, will be key as this next period of the season gets underway in earnest.
A midweek league fixture looms, as Juve fly to Sardinia for a visit to Cagliari on Tuesday before returning home to face AC Milan on Saturday.
After that, Amsterdam comes calling.
Here we go.