I hate talking about referees.
I really do. In all sports, officials are at their best when they are completely anonymous and no one is saying their names. Unfortunately, on Juventus’ trip to Crotone on Saturday, people were talking about Francesco Fourneau and the VAR more than any player.
Fourneau is a relatively young referee, and this game was his first Serie A assignment of the 2020-21 season. That showed in Calabria, as he fired off cards for relatively trivial offenses and contributed to the opening of the scoring when he called a soft penalty against Leonardo Bonucci 10 minutes into the contest. In the second half, the officials were downright decisive. With half an hour left, Fourneau made an absolutely absurd call when he gave a debuting Federico Chiesa a straight red card for a foul that barely merited a yellow, then chalked off a go-ahead goal by Alvaro Morata after a lengthy VAR review that judged the back half of the Spaniard’s heel to have been offside when the ball was contacted.
That’s not to say Juventus dominated the game and had it stolen out from under them. The team produced a disjointed performance and allowed the home side to dominate for good stretches of the 1-1 draw Saturday night. There were several factors involved in that, chief among them the fact that the team was missing Cristiano Ronaldo and Weston McKennie due to positive COVID-19 tests earlier in the week and a slew of other big players were out injured, including Paulo Dybala, who was on the bench, and Aaron Ramsey and Alex Sandro, neither of whom were even in the squad. The team that Andrea Pirlo did put out against Crotone — who were missing several players due to the coronavirus themselves — was experimental and never really gelled. That being said, the game was still in the balance when Chiesa received one of the worst reds you’ll ever see, and the call changed the entire course of the game in terms of what moves Pirlo ended up deciding to make.
This was a game that was truly altered by the officials, which is a damn shame in any sport.
With a bunch of players out and a few more only fit for the bench, Pirlo altered his shape a tiny bit and handed out a surprise debut. The 3-4-2-1 formation was anchored by Gianluigi Buffon, marking the start of the keeper’s 24th season in professional football. Danilo, Bonucci, and Merih Demiral formed the back three. Chiesa and Gianluca Frabotta were the wingbacks, bookending Arthur and Rodrigo Bentancur. Manolo Portanova was the surprise of the day, joining Dejan Kulusevski behind Morata at the tip of the spear.
Crotone coach Giovanni Stroppa was missing five players of his own, including one due to a positive COVID test announced hours before the game. He put a 3-5-2 into the field, with club stalwart Alex Cordaz — at 37 an old hand, but still five years younger than his opposite number — in goal. Former Juve prospect Luca Marrone centered the defensive line along with Lisandro Magallan and Sebastiano Luperto. Pedro Pereira and Arkadiusz Reca framed the midfield of Salvatore Molina, Luca Cigarini, and Milos Vulic. Long-serving striker Simy partnered with Junior Messias up front.
Juve was working a very different combination of players, and it was clear that they were still getting familiar with each other in the game’s early stages. It was the hosts who registered the game’s first shot in only the second minute, when Demiral lost Simy in a bad position, but the Nigerian fired wide.
Crotone were pressing hard, and Juve’s unfamiliarity with each other was hampering their ability to get out of it. For the first 10 minutes or so of the match there was little in the way of forward passing coming from the Bianconeri, although Bentancur did make a nice stab forward to Chiesa up the right side to force a couple of Juve corners. Morata began getting a foothold in holdup play, and it looked like the visiting team was starting to settle in a bit when they got hit with a bolt on the other end.
The back line had proved susceptible to a long ball to either wing, and Danilo had already been forced into defending an overlap on his own once before in the game when a similar situation presented itself. This time he wasn’t able to interdict the ball, and the ball was left for Reca in the left-hand side in the box. He beat Bonucci to the spot by a fraction and put in a ball that didn’t look all that threatening, but referee Francesco Fourneau’s whistle pierced the air in the mostly-empty Stadio Ezio Scida. Reca had made slight contact with Bonucci as the two got to the ball. It looked like a 50/50, but the ref pointed to the spot and booked Bonucci, a soft penalty that Simy proceeded to dispatch cooly, using a long, slow run-up to send Buffon the other way before easily dispatching to the shooter’s right.
Juve looked to respond, but they were still having trouble getting out of their own way. Cigarini was booked, but Crotone nearly had the chance to double their lead on a counter when Simy hesitated at the top of the box, allowing Juve to reset. But this team can get back into a game in the wink of an eye, and they did just that in the 21st minute.
It was Route 1 to the goal, with a long ball from the back being chested down by Morata for Kulusevski, who sent Chiesa to the byline on the right side. The new arrival cracked a low, hard cross with his first touch, and it was met by the run of Morata, who had followed the play poked it in with his left foot to tie the game.
That goal started to turn the momentum. Morata found a real groove, holding up well, drawing fouls, and trying to send Juve’s younger players forward. While the end product wasn’t as great, you could see glimpses of what Pirlo wants the team to try to do. One moment in the 36th minute saw Chiesa drill a good pass across the field for Frabotta at the back post. He couldn’t redirect it into danger, but you could see the influence of coaches like Gian Piero Gasperini, who creates so much offense on similar wingback-to-wingback passes.
Both teams produced a spark of danger in the dying minutes of the first period. For Juve it came off a slick move by Morata, who received a pass from Kulusevski and slipped Portanova into the channel on a diagonal run, but the youngster couldn’t mark his debut with a goal, putting it right at Cordaz. Two minutes later, Crotone found Reca acres of space on the left side. His cross sizzled through the six-yard box, with Frabotta’s weak attempt at a back-heel clearance bouncing to Pereira, who likewise put his shot right at the keeper and Buffon was quick on it.
The Old Lady nearly whacked the Squali with their purse straight out of the restart when Bentancur hit a weak defensive header on the half-volley that whizzed just past the post. But after that early chance, it was Crotone on the offensive for much of the first half. Demiral was clearly having problems adjusting to playing in a three-man defense, something he’s never done before, and he nearly gave Messias the room he needed on a long ball into the box, but the Brazilian couldn’t control it and allowed Buffon to claim. Juve promptly lost possession and the ball nearly fell to Simy in perfect shooting position, but Demiral made up for his mistake seconds before with an inch-perfect sliding tackle in the box.
Crotone kept Juve penned in their half of the field for large chunks, and perhaps should have gone ahead in the 55th minute when Cigarini found himself in excellent shooting position at the top of the box but elected to try to blast the ball top corner instead of shaping it in lower. At that point Pirlo had seen enough of Portanova, replacing him with Juan Cuadrado, and was likely scheming more attacking moves (read: putting Paulo Dybala into the game) when Fourneau turned the game on its head by completely overreacting to contact Chiesa made on Cigarini’s leg as the latter slid in to try to win the ball, leaving the Bianconeri with 10 men for half an hour.
Ironically, it was Juve who nearly took the lead just three minutes after Chiesa’s dismissal when Morata flicked a Kulusevski free kick across the goal. It passed in front of a flummoxed Cordaz but hit the base of the post. Bonucci was in excellent position for a rebound, but the ball bounced in just the right direction for Cordaz to claim it before the captain could get there.
The next 10 minutes or so were relatively uneventful. Crotone stepped up and tried to threaten, but Juve tightened up, moving Cuadrado to the wingback spot and playing what was essentially a 2-4-3. Kulusevski made way for Federico Bernardeschi, while Adrien Rabiot was parachuted in for Arthur to provide some defensive resolve. It looked to be working, and with 14 mintues left they broke downfield. Cuadrado danced on the right corner of the penalty area before putting the ball in. It may have actually been a scuffed shot rather than a cross, but regardless, it came in perfectly for Morata, who had dropped a step behind his marker and opened his body and left foot to tap in. Fourneau held up the restart of play and waited a long time as the people in the VAR booth went over things before finally signaling that Morata had been off. When the deciding image came up on screen it was agonizing—the kind of call that, while correct according to the letter of the rule, isn’t what it was meant for in spirit, and that IFAB really needs to look into addressing the next time they consider rules adjustments.
The rest of the game passed rather uneventfully The only shot came from Crotone sub Luca Siligardi, whose near-post header with four minutes left was saved easily by Buffon. Unfortunately it was Fourneau who was again the most talked about man on the pitch, missing a clear second yellow when Cigarini brought down a running Morata and, after adding seven minutes of stoppage time to make up for the long VAR review, declining to give an obvious free kick inside the penalty arc when Morata was knocked down. By the time he blew his whistle it was probably best for everyone’s blood pressure that the game was over, but we’ll never really know whether this was a point gained or two points dropped thanks to such an unevenly officiated game.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6.5. On the spot for a pair of good saves. The defense was a little discombobulated, which is his responsibility as the marshal at the back, but he did what he could with a lineup that wasn’t familiar with each other nor, in Demiral’s case, with playing in a back three.
DANILO - 7. It’s remarkable how well Danilo has adjusted to playing as part of a back three. He racked up two tackles, three interceptions, and two clearances, and generally marked his men well. He was stranded one-versus-two on overlaps twice early and did well to disrupt the first.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. The penalty against him was soft but it wasn’t egregious, and when he was at his height he would’ve made that play without giving the ref the opportunity to blow his whistle. Bonucci’s defending has become timid over the years, and it’s really frustrating to watch.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 6. I’m not quite as high on this performance as some people are. He made that fantastic tackle in the box to deny Simy and led the team with five clearances and four interceptions, but there were a few times where he let his man get too much room on balls in behind him, and as was the case last year some of his better plays covered for his own mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he’s a high-quality player, but he’s still got a lot of rawness to him. He’ll improve.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7. His assist was excellent, and he added three key passes and four tackles, which tied for the team high. That’s a good sign that he might actually work at this wingback spot. He created tons of danger when sent long down the right side. He gets no deductions for the red card because the call was obscene.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Kid picked right up where he left off in his first start of the year. Completed 92.7 percent of his passes (one key pass), made four tackles, two interceptions, and four clearances, and very nearly put Juve ahead early with a great half-volley that only just flew wide. Now that he seems fitter he should be the regular starter.
ARTHUR - 5.5. His pass completion was high, but he didn’t create much with them, and a lot of the time he started twisting and turning on the ball looking for ... some kind of pass that he obviously wasn’t seeing. It’ll take him time to settle in, so I’m not particularly concerned, but it wasn’t a great first start.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 5. Didn’t provide the same danger going forward the way he did against Sampdoria, and his defending was shaky, especially when he gifted Pereira that shot late in the first half. He’ll need to raise his game with Alex Sandro’s absence extending far longer than originally thought.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 7. Led the team with four key passes, including the one that produced Chiesa’s assist. He also found the mark on three of six crosses and dovetailed well on the right side with Chiesa. Getting him closer to the goal as opposed to where he was against Roma certainly improved things.
MANOLO PORTANOVA - 4. Provided hardly anything in his debut. Missed a golden chance at the end of the first half and failed to generate danger for his teammates, attempting only 14 passes. We’ll see if he’s brought in again during Pirlo’s selection crunch, but he’ll have to improve over this.
ALVARO MORATA - 7.5. He really could’ve had three in this one. His goal was great, both in the hold-up he used to set it up and the finish. The header that went off the post was another excellent play, and while the VAR intervention hewed to the letter of the rule it really wasn’t the spirit of it. His holdup play was great, winning six aerial duels and constantly serving as a pivot for the likes of Kulusevski and Chiesa to take forward. Add Ronaldo or Dybala to him playing like this and the attack is going to be terrifying.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. He was sent on to be a more attacking piece, but was forced to take the wingback spot when Chiesa was sent off. He did well on that side, keeping the defense solid and nearly providing the winner before VAR intervened.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Did what he was sent in to do, solidifying the midfield down a man and making three interceptions in only 21 minutes of play.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4.5. Essentially partnered Morata as a second striker after Chiesa came off. Didn’t have a whole ton of service, but when he did get the ball he didn’t attack with it, especially on a late counterattack when he pulled up and eventually passed the ball all the way back to his own half rather than try to play in for the run of his strike partner. He just doesn’t seem to have any confidence right now.
There are a lot of people — Danny included — who have questioned Andrea Pirlo’s decision to keep Paulo Dybala on the bench with Juve chasing the game. Like the game against Roma, Dybala wasn’t introduced even though Juve needed a goal. But with Dybala still less than fully fit — this time with a gastrointestinal illness—and Juventus down a man, I understand the decision not to risk him. Between keeping the team’s shape down a man and the fact that Dybala has never been the best of defensive forwards, it would’ve been a big risk to send Dybala on. If he were fully fit it might’ve been a different scenario. Had Chiesa remained on the field, I have no doubts he would have been on the field at some point, but Fourneau’s ridiculous decision likely forced him to change his plans. But with all the circumstances stacked the way they were, Pirlo chose prudence, and I can’t really fault him for that.
His choices ahead of the game were interesting, even though they didn’t all pan out. Portanova didn’t contribute much in his debut, but the 3-4-2-1 shape could be viable going forward. It allows for any number of combinations between Ronaldo, Morata, Dybala, Kulusevski, and even Chiesa and allow them the freedom to get to their best spots on the field while still supporting each other. It will be interesting to see if it remains an option once the likes fo Ronaldo and Ramsey return to the lineup. As Pirlo said in his press conference, the team is still very much a work in progress, but you can see where Pirlo wants it to go, and if it gets there, this team has the talent to do some special things.
Next up on the docket for Juve is the Champions League opener on Tuesday against Dynamo Kyiv. Then they return home for a Sunday home match against Hellas Verona.