We all are waiting for the day that Maurizio Sarri’s system will be second nature, that the ball flows around the field in a majestic and entertaining display of offensive football while pummeling the likes of newly-promoted Brescia into the grass.
It’s a tantalizing prospect, and there are signs that that promise will one day be fulfilled. But that day wasn’t Tuesday.
Fortunately, as much of a slog as Juve’s trip to the Stadio Mario Rigamonti was, the team was able to grind out another win. It’s become a trend so far this season, something they’ve done in three of their five games. Like in other games, there were encouraging signs on Tuesday, but they weren’t incorporated into a whole game.
Frustrating as that is, it’s still to be expected in this stage of the year. The team has played all of six competitive games as they learn a system that is the polar opposite to what the holdovers from Max Allegri’s tenure are used to while simultaneously settling new arrivals into the team. Juve is still very much within the learning curve. In the meantime, though, Juventus are showing they are still able to leverage their superior talent to achieve victory. They also again showed the resilience to come from behind after an early mistake, eventually forcing an own goal before the half before a fantastic strike by Miralem Pjanic proved the difference in the 21-1 win.
It wasn’t sexy by any means, but points are points.
Going into the season’s first midweek round, the big story had nothing to do with Juve. The headlines about this clash were everything to do with Mario Balotelli, who was finally making his Brescia debut after serving a four-game suspension that carried over after a red card in his last game in Ligue 1 last year. Those stories were supplemented by the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, who was left out of the traveling party with a minor strain.
With Ronaldo out, Mario Mandzukic still sitting out amid speculation of a move to Qatar, and Douglas Costa still injured, Sarri took the opportunity for some experimentation. Known as a dogmatic devotee to the 4-3-3 in recent years, he instead deployed his team in the 4-3-1-2 formation that he used at Empoli and his early Napoli days. Wojciech Szczesny returned to the starting lineup after a day of rest over the weekend, with Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs De Ligt, and Alex Sandro arrayed in front of him. Pjanic was joined in midfield by Sami Khedira and Adrien Rabiot, who made his first competitive start in nearly a year. Aaron Ramsey was employed as the trequartista behind the strike pair of Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain.
Brescia manager Eugenio Corini deployed his own 4-3-1-2 to oppose the defending champions. Jesse Joronen started in goal. The back four in front of him was made up of Stefano Sabelli, Andrea Cistana, Jhon Chancellor, and Ales Mateju. Daniele Dessena and Dimitri Bisoli joined teenage sensation Sandro Tonali in the main midfield line. The trequartista position was manned by former Juventus reject Romulo, while Balotelli partnered with Alfredo Donnarumma — a man with no relation to AC Milan’s starting goalkeeper, but who had led Serie B in goals last season and who had scored three times in Brescia’s first four Serie A games.
It was Donnarumma who gave Brescia a shock lead before some of the fans had time to settle in their seats. The move was a lovely one, starting with Tonali, who took a one-two and burst down the left side. Romulo received his pass and then shuttled it to the striker, in the right channel. Sandro was faced up to him, but the fullback was forced to give ground, wary of the fact that Bisoli was moving in to overlap on the left. Taking advantage of the space, Donnarumma fired a shot to the near post. It was a shot that Szczesny should have saved, but it clanked off his hands and into the goal to give the Serie B champions the early lead against the eight-time defending champions of Italy within four minutes.
Juve’s first attempt at a response came five minutes later, when Dybala got himself into a good shooting position. He chose to take an extra touch to get the ball onto his left foot, but that let the defense get into position to block. The ricochet, though, fell to Rabiot, whose first-time shot flew a short distance over the bar.
Juve kept up the majority of possession, but Brescia did anything but sit back and hold their lead. They pressed hard and stayed narrow, disrupting Juve’s passing lanes and leading to a lot of dead ends. Even Szczesny and his defenders found themselves under enough pressure to make it difficult to build attacks.
That said, Juve was still racking up some shots. Higuain had a near-post shot turned away in the 12th minute, and Ramsey’s flicked header on the ensuing corner floated just over the bar. In the 17th minute, Khedira was sent down the channel by Dybala, but pushed his shot just past the far post. Less than 60 seconds later came an unwanted development. Danilo pulled up while tracking back to defend, and immediately signaled to the bench for a replacement. Juan Cuadrado was sent on in his stead, leaving Juventus with only two players capable of playing fullback on the roster.
The 25th minute saw Higuain get sent through one-on-one by a slide-rule pass from Dybala. He ended up being offside, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because Joronen beat him in the one-on-one. A minute later a nice cross from Cuadrado glanced off his head and just past Khedira’s attempt to tap it home.
Brescia had potential on the counter, but beyond Donnarumma’s goal hadn’t been able to create much in the way of shots in the first half hour. Balotelli’s first real involvement came on the stroke of 30 minutes when he hit a powerful free kick that forced Szczesny to tip over the bar.
A goal before the half would have been a huge boon for the Bianconeri, and they managed to get it in an ugly fashion five minutes before the break. After Dybala made a pretty run into the box to earn a corner kick, the Argentine whipped a ball into the box that Joronen was late making up his mind on. Ramsey just missed it, but the Finnish keeper and Chancellor got tangled up, and the ball bounced off the center back’s arm and into the goal to tie the score.
Balotelli tried another free kick from even further out before the half but turned it wide.
The second half started out a bit more cagey, but after nine minutes Higuain was presented with a gilt-edged chance to put the team into the lead, latching on to the ball after Dybala held up at the top of the box and pushing into the area. He proceeded to lose another one-on-one with Joronen, this time one that counted. A minute later Dybala snaked his way to the byline and tried to play the ball back. Joronen tipped the ball right to Rabiot, whose volley was spectacularly cleared off the line by Chancellor, making up for his earlier mishap.
But Juve kept pushing, and that pressure paid just after the hour when Dybala was brought down just above the right channel. It was perfect position for him, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s almost magnetic attraction to the wall seemed to spread to him — although it must be said he came far closer to clearing it than Ronaldo usually does. Fortunately, the ball bounced right to Pjanic, who had been standing over the free kick with Dybala, and the midfielder skipped a fantastic half-volley past Joronen to give Juve the lead.
The Rondinelle looked to get right back into the game, with Dessena taking a good crack at the ball after ghosting into the back end of the box on a cross by Tonali, but he missed it wide. A minute later Alessandro Matri, who had come on as a sub shortly after Pjanic scored, got free behind the back line - too free, in fact, as he was flagged for offside after causing a brief panic and providing a nice layoff for Balotelli.
The rest of the match saw the teams trade almosts. Dybala almost put the game away with 16 minutes left when he unleashed a shot from the top of the arc that went inches wide. Bisoli almost got his team back even two minutes later when he again snuck in on the back side of the defense. Khedira almost made a brilliant run through the box but was run down by defenders and only managed a tame poke at goal. Brescia sub Bruno Martella almost had an equalizer with a shot from the left side but Szczesny did well to parry the ball away.
Federico Bernardeschi came very close twice in two minutes, barely missing one shot and having another deflected barely around the post. Pjanic then tried to add to his highlight reel by aiming for goal on a free kick from the left wing, but his shot didn’t dip in time and it settled just over the bar.
Just into stoppage time Balotelli had a chance to completely flip the headline, but Bonucci did just enough to put him off and the ball passed over the goal, with referee Fabrizio Pasqua awarding a goal kick. Higuain had one last chance to kill the game off when Cuadrado had an attempt saved that came right to him, but he somehow got his feet all wrong and couldn’t tap the ball in. Matri headed a last gasp over the bar, and Pasqua blew to end the match once Szczesny put the ball back into play.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 5.5. Made a couple of good saves later in the game, but Donnarumma’s goal was a shot that he has to stop. His first big mistake of the year — let’s hope that, like last year, they are very few.
DANILO - NR. Pulled up early. Serious questions need to be asked about Fabio Paratici’s decision to go into the season so thin at fullback.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Didn’t make a whole lot of tackles but did well to keep Balotelli off-balance in open play and didn’t make any mistakes.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5.5. Made some awkward passing mistakes and looked a bit panicked at times. Still settling in, but needs to get there fast given the injury situation.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Made three tackles and a key pass. He’s slowly coming back around to where he used to be when he was one of the most sought-after defenders around. He’s been the most consistent player on the team so far.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Defended well, added two key passes, and actually won a footrace with an opponent to get to a loose ball, which I don’t think I’ve seen in three years. Was constantly running the channels, although he didn’t manage to cause any real danger.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Boy, was that goal special. A really sweet hit. Served as the linchpin of the team, recording 124 touches and making 115 passes, completing 93.9 percent of them.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. His counting numbers are high (three tackles, three interceptions) and had that excellent shot blocked off the line, but you could tell how long it’s been since he played regularly. It was apparent how much faster the game looked to him than to everyone else around him.
AARON RAMSEY - 6.5. A nuisance in the hole, and got into some good positions. If this formation becomes a regular fixture going forward, his presence will be huge.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 4.5. Badly off his game. Lost a pair of one-on-ones (although only one of them counted because he was offside on one). There were a number of opportunities he should have done more with.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. The most dynamic presence on the field for Juve. Dribbled into good positions, kept the ball, and came very close to scoring. His first of the year is coming, and he’s proving to Sarri that keeping him on the bench in this kind of system is a mistake.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Had a heck of a day from the flank, whipping in some dangerous crosses while making three tackles, three clearances, and a number of good-looking crosses. At one point successfully faced up Balotelli to block a shot at the source.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Unleashed a couple of nice shots toward the end of the game.
BLAISE MATUIDI - NR. On to add some steel late, did well chasing after the ball.
Sarri’s experimentation with the 4-3-1-2 was pleasing to see, not least because one of the things he’s often dinged over is tactical inflexibility. If Sarri can switch between this and the 4-3-3, he’ll be able to get different players into different positions that emphasize their strengths.
If there’s one thing that can be criticized about how this formation worked out was how the shape developed. Juve’s attack was far too narrow, allowing Brescia to bunch up themselves and bottle up a lot of attacks. A formation like this is always going to be reliant on the full-backs for width, but they simply weren’t used much. Sarri is going to need to find a balance there if the formation will work.
Speaking of width, the opponent’s width is starting to become a concern. Over the last few weeks, several opponents, most notably Atletico Madrid, have been managed to find full-backs or, in the case of Brescia, midfielders on the back end of play. Against Atleti it was long diagonal switches, on Tuesday it was more an issue of midfielders ghosting in on the back end of crosses. However they’re being fed, these players are getting open on the back end and causing problems, something that the coaching staff will have to sort out before it comes back to bite them.
Juve head back home over the weekend, welcoming SPAL to the Allianz Arena before their first home game of the Champions League against Bayer Leverkusen. After that, it’s a trip to Inter before the international break.