The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Despite the arrival of a pair of new midfielders, new Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri continues to employ the pair of Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi to man the middle of the park along with Miralem Pjanic. The tactical system might be different, but the Bianconeri still carry the same Achilles heel that they’ve had for years: defending set pieces.
The latter problem reared its ugly head twice before the international break, contributing to the blowing of a 3-0 lead against Napoli before Kalidou Koulibaly’s own goal bailed the team out. In their first Champions League games of the year on Wednesday, Juve again failed to keep a multi-goal lead, conceding on a free kick and a 90th-minute corner to allow Atletico Madrid to snatch a point out of nowhere in a 2-2 draw.
The teams had come into the game in very similar situations. Both were making major adjustments and were very different from the sides that met last year in the round of 16. Sarri had replaced Max Allegri on the Juventus bench, bringing with him a completely new system that the team is still getting used to. Diego Simeone was still on the sideline for Atletico, but the roster had gone through major turnover, with stalwarts like Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godin moving on. Additionally, neither team had come into the game looking particularly good, having both dropped points for the first time over the weekend. Juventus had been insipid in a goalless draw against Fiorentina, creating hardly any chances at all. Atleti had fallen 2-0 away to Real Sociedad, and were forced to replace all-world goalkeeper Jan Oblak after he took a blow to the head.
So it was that the two rebuilding sides headed into a crunch opening tie at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid. Sarri entered it with his usual 4-3-3, with only one change from the lineup that wilted in the heat in Florence. Wojciech Szczesny took his place in goal, protected by Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, and Alex Sandro. The midfield trio, to the consternation of many, remained the same combination of Khedira, Pjanic — who quickly recovered from the knock that forced him from the field in Florence — and Matuidi. Juan Cuadrado was the surprise starter in place of the injured Douglas Costa, with Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo joining him.
Simeone also went with his standard formation, a 4-4-2. Oblak was fine to start, with Kieran Trippier, Jose Gimenez, Stefan Savic, and Renan Lodi screening him. Koke, Saul Niguez, Thomas Partey, and Thomas Lemar formed the midfield bank, with Diego Costa and the Portuguese wunderkind Joao Felix forming the strike pair.
It took less than 60 seconds for Juventus to do something they failed to do the entire game on Saturday: earn a corner kick. That didn’t go anywhere, and for the first 10 minutes the teams probed and prodded looking for an opening.
On that 10th minute, Ronaldo tried to dribble through a narrow space and was dispossessed. The ball shot upfield at the feet of the young man who may be his successor. Joao Felix charged forward with two men in front of him, neither of whom stepped in to make a challenge, despite having cover right there and the arrival of reinforcements. This gave Felix the chance to make himself some space to shoot, although the effort was parried around the post fairly easily. On the ensuing corner kick, Gimenez found some space near the penalty spot for a relatively free header. He sent it over the bar, but the Uruguayan finding that space on corner kicks turned into a worrisome trend as the game went on.
Atleti looked more in command for the next stages of the game. They very effectively used long switches to find their full-backs in swaths of space on the back end of the play, but they weren’t able to create any truly dangerous chances out of it. The biggest danger came on another header of a corner by Gimenez, but it was sent right at Szczesny.
It took 22 minutes for Juve to finally register their first shot, a long effort from the left wing that Oblak held easily. The Bianconeri slowly moved themselves into the game, but like Atleti couldn’t get themselves into a place where they could truly threaten the goal. The closest they came was five minutes from the break, when Cuadrado collected a clearance off a corner kick and put in a great cross to the back post that Ronaldo could only tamely head at Oblak. Right at the stroke of halftime Khedira broke into the box and laid the ball back to its edge, but Matuidi badly mishit his attempt at a first-time shot.
Whatever Sarri said to the team at halftime, though, seemed to have an immediate effect — and three minutes in Juventus had a surprise lead.
The move started with Bonucci, who put one of his patented long balls over the top to Higuain. The Argentine had little support, but he showed great patience to allow help to arrive. At first it looked like he would need to try to feed Ronaldo as he cut in from the left to buy time, but he noticed Cuadrado arriving on the right and hit him with a slide-rule pass all the way across the defense. The Colombia international, whose performance to this point had been marked by poor decision making and giveaways, took a stepover to make some space, and unleashed an immaculate, left-footed curler that nestled into the far top corner, leaving Oblak absolutely rooted to his spot. It was a wonder goal if there ever was one, and Juventus had a 1-0 lead.
Atleti registered two quick shots within the five minutes after the goal as they tried to respond, but neither found the target. The hour mark saw them with a golden chance to equalize, but a pullback into a perfect position by Koke was shanked wide by a sliding Gimenez.
After a somewhat amusing moment when Dutch referee Danny Makkelie found himself on the turf after getting hit in the face with a ball, Juve broke out and doubled their lead. This time it was Ronaldo making the initiating pass, sending Sandro down the left side. His inch-perfect cross was met by Matuidi in the near channel with a thunderous header that bounced off Oblak’s shoulder and into the roof of the net.
But Juve let their opponents right back into the match five minutes later. It was an all-around failure in defense, as Gimenez out-jumped Danilo to send a cross back across the face of goal, while Rodrigo Bentancur, just on for Khedira, let Savic waltz past him to halve their deficit.
A response to that was almost in the cards when Higuain got into a good position down the right channel. He fired near post, but Oblak (the best in the world right now in my opinion) was equal to it. The rebound found Matuidi at the top of the box and his first-time shot was on target and out of Oblak’s reach, but Trippier had managed to get into good position and he kicked the ball away inside the six-yard box.
Paulo Dybala came on from the bench with 10 minutes left and quickly jinked a few defenders to put in a good cross that was well defended.
Atleti continued to push for an equalizer. They were almost helped by Danilo with eight minutes to go when he gave away a horrendous pass in his own half. Koke put substitute Vitolo down with a one-touch pass and the Spanish striker charged forward, getting himself a good shot, but Szczesny desperately clawed it over the bar. A minute later a cross from Trippier pinballed around at the top of the six yard box. One ricochet saw the ball hit Bonucci’s arm, but Makkelie decided against awarding a penalty, ruling that the ball was too close to the defender when it got him.
With three minutes left we found a Juventus debut on our hands as Aaron Ramsey came in to try to close the game out. Unfortunately, they couldn’t manage it.
Dybala had scrambled back to cover on defense and blocked a shot attempt out for a corner. The ensuing kick saw the same ball find Gimenez in the same space he’d found all game. He went up for it at the same time as midfielder Hector Herrera, who was the one to get the contact to it and send it past a flying Szczesny and into the net with seconds left before stoppage time.
Ronaldo very nearly provided some more stoppage time magic in the 94th minute, taking a throw-in and slaloming through four defenders before unleashing a shot from 16 yards. It’s the kind of shot you expect Ronaldo to bury almost every time — ALMOST being the operative word. Instead Ronaldo’s shot skittered the width of the ball past the post, carrying with it the last chance of the game. A minute later the ref blew for full time, and Juve were left pondering what could have been.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. A good night in the sticks, making a great play against Vitolo to keep Juve ahead, even if that ended up only being momentarily. Neither goal was his fault, though that Vitolo shot was really the only serious save he had to make.
DANILO – 3.5. This was a really poor game. His passing was all over the place, his defending was atrocious. All in all, a really bad day for the Brazilian, and a far cry from his first outing against Napoli. Hopefully he starts to settle. On the bright side: a lot of the challenges he lost were probably plays that Joao Cancelo wouldn’t even have been in the same zip code for.
LEONARDO BONUCCI – 7.5. This was his best game in a really long time. He was always in the right place, marked well, and his passing was good as well, particularly the long ball that sprung Higuain for Cuadrado’s goal.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT – 6.5. Settling in a little bit now. Led the team with nine (!!) clearances and got his positioning right more often than not. Made a couple of good interventions on crosses.
ALEX SANDRO – 8. The best player on the team in this game. He was up and down the left side all game long, attacking with aplomb and defending with resolution. Led the team in key passes (3) and interceptions (3), and provided an absolutely perfect cross for Matuidi’s goal.
SAMI KHEDIRA – 4. Legitimately forgot he was on the field once or twice. He manages to find his way into the right spot to do something rather dangerous a few times a game, but in between those moments he’s a liability.
MIRALEM PJANIC – 6.5. Metronomic in midfield, completing 97.3 percent of his passes. Kept things moving in possession and made a couple of good defensive interventions as well.
BLAISE MATUIDI – 6. A great header for the goal, but with the ball at his feet his first touch let him down repeatedly, bogging down numerous attacks. If he were to somehow find that kind of touch, he’d be an automatic start in this lineup because of his engine and ball-winning skills, but it’s hard to see that as a viable option.
JUAN CUADRADO – 6.5. Led the team in tackles and took that fantastic goal, but he also made a slew of boneheaded mistakes, especially in the first half. Sarri took some responsibility for potentially confusing him by putting him into an attacking position when he’d trained mostly as a fullback this year. All in all, this game was confirmation to me that Juan is best used as a supersub, where he can react to tired players rather than need to make decisions about how to beat them.
GONZALO HIGUAIN – 6. Fantastic slide-rule pass to Cuadrado, but he had problems holding the ball up against Atleti. He just plays too slow right now.
CRISTIANO RONALDO – 5.5. Led the team in dribbles with four, but the two shots he did find the target with were pretty tame, and he missed a huge opportunity to put the team back in front with seconds left in stoppages. By his standards, that goal has to be scored.
Set pieces are obviously going to be the going story here. In his post-match press conference Sarri called the idea of changing from a zonal marking system to a man-marking one a “cliche,” so he obviously doesn’t consider that a solution. Of course, Juve struggled aginast set pieces under Allegri as well, with Giorgio Chiellini available for selection even. Something has to be done, though — Juve have leaked four goals over four games on set pieces, so some extra time in training is definitely necessary.
What Sarri did do at halftime certainly galvanized the squad, as it again looked as though the new system is being picked up. It’s by no means in full flight yet, this is much more to celebrate in this game than there was in Florence a few days ago. Once that’s fully ingrained — and the midfield gets a little more technically sound as Ramsey and Adrian Rabiot settle in — things could be scary for Juve’s opponents. This game had a disappointing result, but there are a lot of positives to take from it as well.
Juve’s next Champions League test comes on the first day of October, when Bayer Leverkusen visit the J Stadium. The German outfit lost 2-1 to Lokomotiv Moscow in their tournament opener, and will be looking to keep themselves out of a desperate situation. Juve will have to tread carefully against the young, talented Bundesliga outfit.
The next game overall comes on Saturday, when Hellas Verona home to Turin.