Massimiliano Allegri has taken a lot of guff this season, and especially in the new year, for not rotating his squad enough. Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic, in particular, have been given huge workloads and seem to have slowed down at the critical moment of the season.
After seeing what Moise Kean did to Udinese on Friday night, a few people probably have some questions as to why that is.
Of course, with a 16-point lead at the top of the standings (!!), the conversation heading into Friday’s match was about how many players actually would get rest going into the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 against Atletico Madrid, and the conversation coming out of it was already turning to how Allegri would look to turn around the dismal 2-0 defeat they suffered at the hands of Diego Simeone’s men. But somewhere in that conversation the question needs to be asked why this kid hasn’t gotten more minutes to spell the likes of Mandzukic and Ronaldo, and whether those two could have gotten more rest and been in better condition, at which point the situation could possibly not have been so dire.
Yes, the 19-year-old was facing the league’s 15th-ranked side, but table position in this case is deceiving. Udinese came into the game having allowed only 32 goals in 25 games. Their defensive record was better than that of Roma, Atalanta, and Sampdoria, and even with Fiorentina — all of whom are fighting for European qualification spots. The only reason the Friuli outfit found themselves hovering only three spots above the drop zone at this point in the season is because they are dismal in front of goal. They came into Friday having scored only 21 times all year. Only the three teams that currently occupy the drop zone have scored fewer.
So while this was certainly not the upper echelon of Serie A, the young striker wasn’t exactly facing a defense that counted among the dregs of the league either.
And what did Moise Kean do with that defense?
He split it apart. Multiple times.
The young Italy international scored twice in the first half and earned a penalty in the second, keying Juve’s cruise to a 4-1 victory and giving his fellow forwards something to answer to in four days when Atleti come calling.
Allegri did indeed choose to rest a host of his players. Miralem Pjanic and Joao Cancelo, both of whom will be crucial Tuesday night, were suspended due to yellow card accumulation, forcing a day of rest for them. Ronaldo, Mandzukic, Giorgio Chiellini, and Leonardo Bonucci all sat on the sidelines at kickoff. Allegri’s lineup was very much a B team — to the point where three players from the actual B team in Serie C were called up to fill the squad list out. But if there was ever a time to send out the B team, Friday night was it.
The formation was a little difficult to decipher. The team’s Twitter page identified it as a 4-3-3, and at times it looked very much like one, while at others, especially by game’s end, it was more of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 than anything else. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual place in goal, screened by Martin Caceres, Daniele Rugani, and Andrea Barzagli, who made his first appearance since December and led the team out as captain. Leonardo Spinazzola got a rare start as a wingback on the right, while Alex Sandro, who is suspended on Tuesday, took the left. The two sandwiched Emre Can, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Blaise Matuidi in midfield, while Federico Bernardeschi and Kean took to the attack.
Davide Nicola sent his team out with a definite three-man defense. Juan Musso was the starting keeper, with Sebastian De Maio, Bram Nuytinck, and William Troost-Ekong in front of him. Udinese had a teenager of their own on the field in 19-year-old Ben Wilmot, an English midfielder on loan from the team’s sister club, Watford. He joined Seko Fofana and Jens Stryger Larson in midfield, with the whole trio flanked by wing-backs Hidde ter Avest and Marvin Zeegelaar. The Argentinian duo of Rodrigo De Paul and Ignacio Pussetto formed the strike pairing.
Juve got their first shots in early. Within five minutes they had themselves a corner kick, and Rugani saw an opportunity drop to him thanks to an ineffective punch by Musso, who had a terrible day in goal from whistle to whistle. The defender was turned away from goal and tried to reach back for a volley, but put it over.
The home side was not so wasteful five minutes later. The opening goal was set up by Sandro, who read an attempted pass by Wilmot magnificently and picked it off before surging down the left side. He sent in an early ball on the ground that took a slight deflection before finding Kean, who slid in and stuck out a foot to slot it past the keeper, a finish that was a lot harder than it looked at first glance. It was Kean’s first Serie A goal in a Juventus shirt since the last day of 2016-17 season.
Scoring early has posed a problem for Juve over the course of the 2018-19 season, but that wasn’t the case here. Almost the entire rest of the first half was one-way traffic toward Musso’s goal. Udinese got off lucky in that Juve weren’t being particularly clinical. A few headers flew wide, and Bernardeschi went too for much for power after doing a fantastic job controlling a pass from Sandro on 20 minutes, flying it over the bar.
At around 25 minutes both managers had to make some adjustments. Nuytinck’s calf gave out on him trying to chase down a loose ball near the sideline, and he was replaced by Nicholas Opoku. While Nuytinck was getting treatment, the Juve sideline suddenly buzzed with activity, as Barzagli, visibly upset, limped over after suffering an injury of his own. Bonucci replaced him and the armband was passed to Sandro.
The one-sided nature of the game continued, keeping nearly three-quarters of the possession — and at some points in the game more than 80 percent. Kean continued to impress, picking off a pass before being cut off trying to squeeze his way through the defense and later keeping possession with some nifty dribbling before earning a throw in. Matuidi could have done better to control a nice pass from the young striker in the 34th minute — so five minutes later the kid decided to just cut out the middle man.
The second goal was 95 percent Kean and Kean alone. The other five percent came from Matuidi, whose pressure forced Fofana into a poor pass that Kean jumped before sweeping into the left channel. Matuidi continued his run and Bernardeschi made a run into the opposite channel, but Kean made a quick step-over, feigned a square ball, and then toe-poked the ball toward the near post. It was pushed a little further to the stick by a deflection, but likely would have beaten Musso anyway, given how unprepared he looked for the shot.
Pussetto notched Udinese’s first shot on target on the restart, but Szczesny saved the ball quite easily, and the half came with Juve still nursing their 2-0 lead. Nicola hoped that the introduction of Kevin Lasagna at halftime would allow his side to pull back into the game, and while Udinese looked better at the start of the half, Juve were still making more meaningful attacks, and very nearly put the game to bed within two minutes when another weak punch by Musso fell to Bernardeschi, only for him to volley it wide.
It wouldn’t be until midway through the half that the game finally was actually put to bed. Kean was again the catalyst, trying to link up with a ball over the top by Bentancur only to be taken down by Opoku in the box. Referee Daniele Chiffi pointed to the spot. Most were probably expecting Kean to take it as a way to claim his hat trick, and it was a surprising thing to see Can lining up the kick. The German took a stuttering run-up and finally got Musso to commit before lancing the ball down the middle for his fourth goal of the year. Four minutes later Matuidi fully and truly settled things taking when he stooped to head a Bentancur cross and bounced it into the top corner.
From there it was a simple matter of seeing out a 4-0 lead. With such a big lead, Allegri had no issues sending Hans Nicolussi-Caviglia for his Serie A debut for the last 10 minutes. Lasagna finally got Udinese on the board with five minutes to go after Caceres let him get too much space before De Paul fired a diagonal long ball to him, by that point it was little more than a consolation, and after three minutes of stoppage time Chiffi ended the game, turning all eyes to the far sterner test that’s coming.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - NR. Lasagna’s consolation goal wasn’t on him, and for the rest of the match the only thing I’d be able to rate him on is the way he handled back passes. It just doesn’t seem right to rate him.
MARTIN CACERES - 6. Ruined what was a really nice night by letting Lasagna through, but was solid beyond.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - NR. Lasted only 25 minutes on his return to first team action. It was rough seeing how upset he was over this latest setback. It’s probably time for the old war horse to finally hang up the boots at season’s end.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Typically excellent in his positioning and a sure hand on a back line that wasn’t often tested.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - 6.5. I’ve never known him to play the right, but he did so with aplomb. Was a constant nuisance on that side and got into some dangerous spots. With Mattia De Sciglio apparently injured, he may have to jump into the fire on Tuesday.
EMRE CAN - 7.5. Took his penalty with confidence and led the team with five tackles. He now has 16 tackles in his last three starts, and goals in his last two. He might be rounding into better form after his surgery.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. Tied for the team lead with three key passes and was three of three on crosses and 11 of 14 on long balls. That latter included the one that drew the penalty for Can’s strike. He also made three interceptions. A very good job anchoring that defense.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7.5. Was constantly in the right positions all day, but his touch tended to let him down until his header put the game to bed. His goal was a just reward for his work, though.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. Made a pair of key passes, won a team-high six aerials, and created the game’s first goal with a fantastic read and interception. Some outlets aren’t giving him the assist because of the deflection, but that’s nonsense. This was a great game.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. Tied for the lead in key passes on the day, but too often looked indecisive, taking extra touches in shooting positions and holding the ball on the break until the moment was passed. Could have had another level in this game.
MOISE KEAN - 8.5. This kid is special. Both his goals were excellent strikes, especially the second, which was a wonderful display of power, speed, and skill. He really should’ve been given the chance to finish his hat trick. Let’s see some more of this kid, eh, Max?
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Made a couple of nice defensive headers toward the end of the game, and was generally solid in relief of the injured Barzagli. Udinese was so bad going forward that he wasn’t tested much.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Took a shot from distance and tried to connect the lines in the game’s last 20 minutes.
HANS NICOLUSSI-CAVIGLIA - NR. Got in in the last 10 minutes for his first team debut in a moment he probably won’t forget.
Kudos to Max for finally sitting guys like Ronaldo. As was said in the intro, it should have happened more earlier in the season, and with Kean playing the way he did on Friday one can’t help but wonder why the youngster wasn’t given the chance against relegation strugglers like SPAL or Frosinone is a major mark against him. It’s an indictment against the general Italian tendency to be reluctant to give younger players more playing time even though they might have the potential to be game-changers. Kean needs to see the field more, especially if Allegri pulls off the comeback on Tuesday.
As for his setup, it was really interesting to see how the formation worked. At times it really looked like a trident, with Bernardeschi hardly moving from the left and Sandro and Caceres working as traditional fullbacks. But that morphed, particularly after halftime, into a three-man back line. Given the players available and the need to rest certain players, this was probably the best setup he could have put out, and they went and dominated, which is always nice.
The big one looms. On Tuesday night, Atletico Madrid arrives in Turin to complete the Champions League Round of 16. After their 2-0 loss Juve suffered 2 1⁄2 weeks ago, they have to win to get through to the quarterfinals, and win under specific circumstances. Essentially, Juve have to win by three goals in order to advance. A 2-0 win would see extra time and then potentially penalties, but allowing Atleti to score any goals would mean Juve would need at least four goals in order to qualify — which frankly isn’t going to happen in 90 minutes against Simeone’s defense. Balance will be paramount, as keeping a clean sheet will be just as important as pegging back the goals.
After that, Juve will take a Sunday trip to Liguria to face Genoa at the Marassi. The Grifone stole a 1-1 draw at the Allianz Stadium in October, so Juve will be looking for a little revenge. Their magic number to clinch the championship is five games, although that will drop to four if Napoli were to drop points on Sunday against Sassuolo.