We knew that there were going to be games like this.
With a new coach and the implementation a system so entirely different from what the team has known for five years, any person who assumed that Juventus would avoid bumps in the road like Saturday’s drab scoreless draw against Fiorentina simply isn’t thinking rationally.
Whether it was the heat (the mercury touched 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the game), an international break hangover, Fiorentina manager Vincenzo Montella simply coming up with an excellent game plan, or all of the above, the Bianconeri never made it out of neutral on Saturday. They were outshot 18-8, and despite having 53 percent of possession, looked decidedly second best all afternoon in Maurizio Sarri’s first game on the sideline.
Sarri wasn’t helped by the fact that he had to burn all three of his substitutions to replace injured players, two of them in the first half. That forced him to leave players like Adrien Rabiot and Paulo Dybala, who could have each made a critical impact, on the bench.
It all snowballed into a performance that was easily the worst of the young season and inspired little confidence for the Champions League opener against Atletico Madrid midweek.
Sarri was finally back on the touchline after missing the first two games of the season recovering from a bout of pneumonia, but his arrival didn’t change the starting XI very much. The only change from the win over Napoli two weeks before came on the back line, with Danilo replacing the injured Mattia De Sciglio. The Brazilian was joined by Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, and Alex Sandro in front of Wojciech Szczesny in goal. The midfield and forward lines of the 4-3-3 remained the same they’ve been all year: Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi in the middle of the park, with Douglas Costa, Gonzalo Higuain, and Cristiano Ronaldo tipping the spear.
Montella, under fire after two losses had continued an epic 16-match winless streak, changed things up. Abandoning the 4-3-3 that he prefers, he deployed a 3-5-2 formation in front of goalkeeper Bartlomiej Dragowski. Nikola Milenkovic, German Pezzella, and three-time former Juventino Martin Caceres formed the back line. Erick Pulgar, Milan Badelj, and Gaetano Castrovilli deployed as the midfield three, flanked by wing backs Pol Lirola (a Juve academy product) and Dalbert. Federico Chiesa and Franck Ribery, both nominally wingers, joined forces as an unorthodox strike pair.
Fortune started turning on the Old Lady almost immediately. Five minutes in Costa tried to jink his way around a defender but took too long a stride and landed awkwardly. He came up clutching his hamstring. He moved to the sideline and then got himself back on the field to act as a body while Federico Bernardeschi got himself ready, with the official change coming in the seventh minute.
Bernardeschi immediately earned a free kick in a good scoring position when he went up for a header and was greeted by Caceres’ elbow. The Uruguay international was booked for the infraction, but unfortunately the man who stepped up to take the free kick was Ronaldo, and as has become his custom since he arrived at Juventus, he slammed the ball into the wall.
It was about this time that Fiorentina really started turning the screws. They were nearly given a gift on 15 minutes when Szczesny allowed Chiesa to charge him down, and his attempted pass deflected off the forward and whizzed just over the bar. The goalkeeper was better a minute later to get big and deny Ribery, who had gotten on the end of a wayward back pass.
Szczesny had to be alert again against Ribery in the 19th minute, but did well to hold a long-range shot at the near post. He triggered the ball upfield, and the resulting attack forced his countryman Dragowski to make his best play of the day. He had punched away a cross from the right side, but the ball landed at the feet of Matuidi, who hit a piledriver of a shot that Dragowski was able to parry away after quickly resetting himself. Pjanic put a shot in from distance a moment later, but the Fiorentina keeper had a much simpler time of it.
That was about all Juve would manage until the break, though. The next 25 minutes saw Fiorentina repeatedly push forward while Juve failed to keep meaningful possession long enough to start actually building attacks. They would be lucky to go into the half even, with Chiesa mishitting an excellent cross from Castrovilli in the 31st minute and Szczesny doing well to turn a header from Dalbert behind ten minutes later, after the wing-back had ghosted Danilo and gotten to the back post.
Things only got worse, as the second injury of the day came on the stroke of halftime. This time it was Pjanic who limped off to be replaced by Rodrigo Bentancur, who made his season debut. There was one last gasp from Juve before the break when they managed to get in a nice ball from the left side, but Bernardeschi was unable to get a touch in as it bounced in front of him.
The second half didn’t see much of an improvement. An early burst forward saw no one there to connect on the cross, with Bernardeschi’s followup blocked. Then it was back to the usual, with Szczesny parrying away an angled cross/shot by Dalbert and Badelj sending the follow-up over. Just before the hour, Ronaldo bungled a counterattack by holding the ball a beat too long despite having a runner to his left. That hesitation allowed Ribery, of all people, to chase him down and dispossess him, ending what could have been a promising attempt at a smash-and-grab goal.
Sarri had only one arrow left in his quiver, but had to burn it on a third injury, this one at the hour mark when Danilo went down, clearly cramping in the heat. Juan Cuadrado replaced him, and any chance Sarri had of changing the face of the game went by the wayside.
Cuadrado did try to make an impact on the right flank, and he latched on to a through ball from Higuain and cut the ball back to Ronaldo, but the Portugal international seemed to have expended his goals for the week in his four-goal performance against Lithuania on the international break, because his shot lacked any power at all and was easy for Dragowski to save. Chiesa responded immediately on the other end with a good shot that took a slight deflection over the bar.
As they closed on 15 minutes to go, Juve looked for a split second like they’d be able to claw out some offense. Bernardeschi and Higuain combined to send Khedira through into the right channel. Dragowski abandoned his line to close the angle, but Khedira squared the ball to Ronaldo, who would have had a tap-in if not for a last-ditch intervention by Pezzella, who looked more like he had run into the ball than consciously cleared it. Moments later Bernardeschi had a penalty shout when Dalbert shoved him near the byline, but referee Massimiliano Irrati thought otherwise, and no VAR review was called.
Fiorentina had another good chance in the 77th minute, when Milenkovic fired a header straight at Szczesny off a corner, but for the rest of the game things got choppier, as the players who had been out from the start began to look a little worse for wear from the heat. Ronaldo tried an audacious bicycle kick off a cross from Sandro with five minutes left, but he shinned it over the top corner — and the offside flag had been up regardless. Another chance came in stoppage time when Cuadrado burst upfield a second time. He was brought down by Badelj but Irrati played advantage, and the ball eventually got to Bernardeschi. The former Fiorentina man has made noise in this fixture before, most notably two years ago when he beat his old team with a free kick, but his attempt here was, to be blunt, weak AF, and Dragowski had zero trouble in smothering it. The defense had one last scare to deal with when substitute Kevin-Prince Boateng turned a cross from Chiesa wide in the final minute of stoppages, at which point Irrati blew his whistle to end the affair with neither side having made the breakthrough.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Made a couple of good saves, particularly in the first half, that kept the game level. If any of those shots had gone in, though, we would be talking about a much lower grade, because his distribution was awful. He almost gifted Fiorentina a quick opener when he banged that pass off Chiesa, and he suffered under pressure, often giving the ball away or putting his teammates under pressure. He looked a little too much like Gianluigi Donnarumma with the ball at his feet for my liking.
DANILO - 5. Allowed Dalbert to get past him on a dangerous run in the first half and didn’t distinguish himself on either side of the ball particularly well, although he was the only Juve defender to record a tackle in the game.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Was generally where he needed to be, without much of the blunders we’ve seen from him since his return. He completed seven of 11 long balls in attempts to trigger some offense.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Better from the Dutchman, although he is still clearly adapting to the Italian style of play. Led the team with five clearances and made a couple of nice plays in defense, although he also lost a few passes.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Probably the best player on the field for Juve today. Put in a couple of crosses that caused problems and was solid on the defensive end as well.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 4. Led the team with five tackles, but was also anonymous for large sections of the game. One wonders if a player with a little more pace would’ve been able to do more with that through ball with 15 minutes left. His plodding robs the midfield of dynamism.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5. Failed to get the midfield into a passing rhythm before being withdrawn, and he completed only 86.5 percent of his passes, which is unusually low for him. Makes one wonder if he was being bothered far before he left the game.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 4.5. Lacked the touch that was surprisingly on display against Napoli two weeks ago. Did his part when the team was pinned back and put in a few tackles, but his lack of touch is a problem in this system.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. It was a real shame to see him come off so early, and one has to hope that his injury isn’t significant. His pace can change games, and unless and until this lineup changes, he’s one of the only sources of speed the team has.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. I wrestled with this one, because Higuain was giving total effort. He was credited with a key pass (presumably for the Khedira/Ronaldo play that Pezzella ran into) and even counted two clearances on his stat line. But the fact is that he’s totally dependent on service at this point in his career, and this was a game that was crying out for someone who could create his own chances.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. I was frankly surprised to realize that he had as many touches as he did (45). Good service was few and far between, but he didn’t make much out of anything he did get, and he was a little too selfish on that break early in the second half.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 3.5. The second leg against Atletico, this was not. Bernardeschi couldn’t come up with anything today in a game he tends to do well in. If Douglas Costa is out for any significant length of time, he’s going to have to step up. But hey, maybe seeing Atleti again will kick-start his memory.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Coming into a game on the back foot is always a challenge, and while Bentancur was unable to help the team take full control of things there were some encouraging signs from him. He did his usual off-ball work, tirelessly trying to win back possession, and as Danny noted, he made a couple of very good passes in the attacking third on the rare occasions he was in position to do so. If he adds this element to his game, it could be a big step toward realizing his huge potential. Unfortunately, he also lost the ball a few times too many today, resulting in his slightly depressed grade.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Took advantage of some tired legs to produce some of Juve’s best chances of the second half coming up from the right flank. Also blocked a shot on the defensive end.
It’s hard to critique what Sarri did in game because his hands were really tied. As I said before, this game was crying out for some pace and for someone who could create his own shots, but with all his subs taken up by injuries, the manager didn’t have any chance to make a change that could have maybe shifted the balance, or at least allowed Juve to pick up a smash-and-grab goal to win against the run of play.
It is, however, justifiable to wonder why players without pace (Khedira, Higuain) or touch (Matuidi) keep crowding into the starting XI. Perhaps he simply wanted to see the lineup that his assistant Giovanni Martusciello had used for the first two weeks up close before making changes. He also alluded to a lack of match fitness from some players — specifically Rabiot, who was shut out by Paris Saint-Germain when his contract status became an issue last year. This could also apply to Dybala, who joined training late after participating in the Copa America (something Sarri also referenced). Whatever his thoughts on his are, it’s clear that some changes are necessary, especially in midfield.
Finally, I need to talk about free kicks. And yes, this is a coaching matter, because Sarri is the manager and he can give this order if he wants.
Cristiano Ronaldo should not be taking free kicks for Juventus.
He is not even the second-best free kick taker on this team. Pjanic and, when he’s on the field, Dybala are both better than Ronaldo in this regard. A 2018 article by FourFourTwo that explored the top free kick takers in Europe ranked him well outside the top 20 with a success rate of only 6.25 percent. The same article ranked Pjanic 12th with a 14.47 success rate and Dybala second with a 21.05 percent rate, and based on the eye test I would frankly say that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Bernardeschi has him beat, too. You can count on one hand how many times Ronaldo has cleared the wall since he arrived at Juventus. Allowing him to continue to hike up his shorts and slam the ball into the second defender from the left when you have two of the best takers in Europe in the team is willingly passing up opportunities at goals. I don’t care if it bruises his ego or hurts the marketing, he needs to be dropped down the pecking order.
This game certainly wasn’t an encouraging way to go into the first Champions League game of the year against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. That’s especially so considering the fact that Juve have lost both times they’ve visited Atleti in competitive fixtures. But, Diego Simeone’s men did lose 2-0 to Real Sociedad on Saturday, so no one is going to be coming into Wednesday’s game in particularly great shape.
After that, Juve return home to face recently-promoted Hellas Verona on Saturday.