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Fullback-less Juventus cruise to 2-0 win over SPAL

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A makeshift back line had a solid afternoon as Juventus disposed of SPAL at home.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring a... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

When Danilo left Tuesday night’s game against Brescia with an injury, a murmur of alarm ran through the Juventus fanhood. The team had decided to go into the season with only three natural fullbacks on the roster, and now two of them — Danilo and Mattia De Sciglio — would be unavailable, forcing Juan Cuadrado, whose adventures as a defender over the years had seen mixed results, to man the right flank.

Then, on Thursday, the news broke that Alex Sandro — the only other natural full-back left on the team — had flown back to Brazil on bereavement leave after a death in his family. This news was greeted by a twofold reaction from the Juventini of the world: sympathy for Sandro’s loss, and a collective expletive as the fans tried to figure out how Juventus would fill the full-back spots on Saturday’s game against SPAL.

Maurizio Sarri categorically rejected a switch to a three-man defense in his pre-match press conference, and the picture gradually became clearer. Blaise Matuidi, who had some experience early in his career at Sant-Etienne, would serve as the emergency left back. Matuidi is certainly a man who gives 100 percent effort every single time he steps on the field, but considering the defensive frailties the team has already shown as they adapt to the higher line of Sarri’s system, confidence in the makeshift lineup wasn’t exactly high.

Of course, Juventus proceeded to go out with said makeshift lineup and play what might have been their most complete game of the year. It took a little while for them to figure out how to unlock a packed-in SPAL defense, but a glorious long-range strike from Miralem Pjanic on the stroke of halftime gave the team the lead. A fantastic performance by goalkeeper Etrit Berisha prevented them from putting the 2-0 victory away until late, but unlike previous games, the one-goal lead never looked to be in serious jeopardy, making Cristianor Ronaldo’s second seem like a formality.

Faced with this selection crisis, Sarri decided to forge ahead with the 4-3-1-2 formation that looked so promising in midweek. Gianluigi Buffon took the starter’s shirt in goal for the second time in three games to rest Wojciech Szczesny for Wednesday’s Champions League matchup. In taking the field, he appeared in his 903rd competitive club match in all competitions, breaking the all-time record set by Paolo Maldini. Cuadrado and Matuidi took up their stations on the flanks, bookending Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt. Sami Khedira and Adrien Rabiot joined Pjanic in midfield, while Aaron Ramsey once again sat in the hole. Ronaldo was deployed as a pair with Paulo Dybala for the first time.

Leonardo Semplici’s set up his charges in his usual 3-5-2. Francesco Vicari, Nenad Tomovic, and Igor Julio screened Berisha in defense. Jacopo Sala and Arkadiusz Reca were employed as the wingbacks, with Simone Missiroli, Mirko Valdifiori, and Alessandro Murgia making up the midfield. Gabriele Moncini was given his first start of the season in place of the injured Federico Di Francesco, partnered with the always-dangerous Andrea Petagna.

Things looked like they were going to start about as shakily as they were expected to be when de Ligt conceded an early corner on a wonky attempt to head the ball back to Buffon in the third minute. The team’s unfamiliarity with Sarri’s zonal marking scheme was once again on display on the ensuing set piece, with Reca picked out alone at the back post, but his volley attempt flew wide of the goal.

Juventus v SPAL - Serie A Photo by Giorgio Perottino - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

The Bianconeri responded quickly, with Rabiot having a shot charged down and then Ronaldo finding the target, albiet with a tame finish that Berisha stopped easily. The Albanian would have far more difficult work to come.

Things swiftly turned into one-way traffic, but SPAL’s defense stayed compact and funneled Juve’s passing game into their three center backs, much the way Antonio Conte’s Italy squad did to Spain at Euro 2016. That prevented Juve from making much in the way of serious threats at Berisha’s goal until the 19th minute, when Khedira got to a ball down the right side and sent in a cross. The ball was deflected, but still trickled to Ronaldo, who tried to one-time it in but had it deflected out by Tomovic.

The game turned somewhat turgid, and it took another 15 minutes until the next chance arrived — and Berisha’s first moment to shine.

It started with a SPAL free kick that triggered a powerful counterattack. Dybala took a pass from Cuadrado and bombed forward, beating Murgia for pace and cutting past Missiroli into that spot he loves in the right channel. He unleashed one of those beautiful curlers that were so common early in his Juve career but were so rare last year — only to be denied by Berisha, who flew to his right and beat the shot away with one hand.

Ten minutes later, Berisha was at it again. This time it was Ramsey he denied, after the Welshman separated from Tomovic at the far post and met a cross from Ronaldo. Berisha had been following the cross and looked to have overrun the play as Ramsey headed against the grain, but he somehow got his trailing leg to the ball to keep it out.

But there was nothing he could do two minutes later to keep out Pjanic. In fact, it was one of the few balls that he played poorly on the night that led to the goal. Matuidi had come in on an overlap, and Berisha elected to punch it away under little pressure. His punch was rather weak, and fell immediately to Khedira. The German used his first touch to hit a neat square ball that teed up Pjanic beautifully. It took a minor deflection from Valdifiori, but it was hit so sweetly that it was likely going in regardless. It was the best time to break through—the effect of going down so close to halftime was evident immediately in the body language of Berisha, who collapsed to the turf with his head in his hands as the home team celebrated.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-JUVENTUS-SPAL ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

When the second half started it was clear what that effect was going to do. Juve pushed forward and effectively sealed the ball in SPAL’s half. They weren’t able to pose real danger until nine minutes into the half, when Ronaldo skipped through the right channel to the byline, then sent in another nice cross. Khedira stooped low to head it at the near post, and Berisha once again was up to the task, getting his hand down with lightning speed to turn it behind for a corner.

Berisha had prevented Juve from extending the lead, but unlike earlier games this year, there was never a feeling that the lead was under threat. The visitors’ only shot on target on the day came on 59 minutes, when Petanga tried to flick a corner that had been popped up into the air toward the goal, but the effort had no power and was right at Buffon.

The ball kept heading back to Berisha’s goal, but Berisha kept doing what Berisha do. He denied Dybala in the 67th minute when the Argentine ran into the left channel and fired across the goal, then a minute later denied Ronaldo when Dybala sent his partner through the same channel. Six minutes later, Ronaldo was again thwarted after Pjanic mugged a man in midfield and sent him into shooting position, although this one was less outrageous than the previous ones.

Four minutes later, though, the Portuguese finally broke through. The move started with a neat passing triangle between Dybala, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Pjanic. Each player touched the ball once, and at the end of it Pjanic sent Dybala down the left side with tons of space around him. He hit an excellent cross to Ronaldo, who was making a great run. He leaped up and headed the ball down, between the legs of a finally-beaten Berisha.

Juventus v SPAL - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

But the Albanian still had one last trick to perform, flying to save an acrobatic Ronaldo volley after Cuadrado’s cross from the right. By that point, the game was deep into stoppage time, and after a few moments more the whistle blew to give Juve a well-deserved victory.

LE PAGELLE

GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6.5. Had hardly anything to actually do, but kept things well organized for the odd set piece.

JUAN CUADRADO - 8. All over the field Saturday, touching the ball 100 times. He led the team with five key passes, and made a pair of tackles and a pair of interceptions on the defensive end. Would have had at least one assist were it not for Berisha’s awesome day.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Let up very little in the back, and completeld six of nine long passes. He’s somehow started turning into Andrea Barzagli — not a lot of tackles, but preventing most things from getting beyond him.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Without question his best game in a Juve shirt. Co-leader on the team with three tackles, and was never scrambling, save for that one weird header in the opening moments of the game.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 7.5. It’s nice to know that this an option, because with so few fullbacks available he may need to do this again before the winter transfers affords Fabio Paratici the chance to add some reinforcements.

SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. He’s kinda the antitheses of Pjanic. Made only 27 passes all game, which doesn’t seem like it’s conducive to Sarri’s game, but one of those passes was the assist for the opener. That took a lot of guile and craft to not simply whack a cross back in.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 8.5. Hit a long-range screamer for his second game in a row, and completely dominated things in the middle of the field. He made three key passes in addition to his goal, including triggering the run that led to the second, and also intercepted three passes. Attempted 114 passes on his own.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Did a better job on Saturday than midweek, although he’s still looking like the game is moving a bit too fast for him. Matched de Ligt’s three tackles and completed a lot of his passes, but he will be even more useful as the game slows back down for him.

AARON RAMSEY - 6.5. Made one key pass and somehow was kept off the scoresheet by Berisha’s incredible save late in the first half. He continues to work well with both Dybala and Ronaldo to create opportunities.

PAULO DYBALA - 8. Two key passes and an excellent assist. Forced Berisha into two excellent saves, both of which had the Albanian at full stretch. Playing his preferred seconda punta role the last two games has brought the best out of him.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. Created a couple of opportunities — three key passes total — and was denied by Berisha on multiple occasions. Hit the target with five of six shots, and his goal was a superbly taken header.

SUBS

EMRE CAN - 6. Good effort after coming on from Khedira. The team didn’t suffer the drop-off they did when he came on against Napoli. Got in a key pass and worked in and out of possession.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Got himself into a couple of good positions but couldn’t do anything with them. Playing as a striker rather than a winger, he looked a little uncertain in the middle. If he continues to play this role he’ll come around.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Had a tackle and two clearances in 14 minutes and was heavily involved in Ronaldo’s goal.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

This was a nice step forward for the team in terms of interpreting Sarri’s system. Yes, it was against SPAL, but everything comes in stages, and if they can make things begin to work against these teams, eventually they’ll happen against the big ones. The biggest improvement came in defense, where things seemed far more settled than in games past. Ironic, that, considering the fact that a winger and a midfielder were playing the full-back positions.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how Sarri will handle his shape going forward now that the 4-3-1-2 has begun to show so much promise. The team has a lot of guys who can play as wingers, and when Douglas Costa returns it will be difficult to leave his skills on the bench consistently. Ideally, the 4-3-3 and the 4-3-1-2 can coexist with each other depending on the situation, even being switched between in-game if called for. It does have to be said that the 4-3-1-2 has played very narrow this last week. That formation always requires a lot out of the full-backs to provide width, so keeping the 4-3-3 in the quiver — especially once Costa and a few of the full-backs re-take the field — to counteract that, even as an in-game tactical switch, can only be a benefit.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve stay home midweek, welcoming Bayer Leverkusen for their second group stage game in the Champions League. Then comes a trip to Milan for the away leg of the Derby d’Italia against Antonio Conte and Inter. No big storylines there, right?