Sunday’s game between Juventus and Hellas Verona was one of those games that makes you want to slam your head into a wall repeatedly, until the pain is gone.
Yes, between injuries, suspension, and COVID-19, Juve came into this game severely depleted, missing Giorgio Chiellini, Matthijs de Ligt, Alex Sandro, Federico Chiesa, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, some of the players that Juve did get onto the pitch — chiefly Paulo Dybala — were rusty as all heck after an extended layoff due to injury.
But that doesn’t make watching Juve scrambling to equalize after giving up the lead thanks to a dumb giveaway on a cross-field pass any easier. Verona are a better team than their form has been the last few weeks, but they’re still a team that Juventus ought to be beating. Instead, the home team came out lethargic, lacking both sharpness and urgency. And while they did get run over repeatedly by the Bad Luck Express, seeing two different players hit the crossbar and Alvaro Morata have yet another goal called back for a VAR-assisted offside decision that was decided by millimeters, they were too often content to pass the ball around laterally, and were at their most dangerous in transition. It took a slap in the face in the form of Verona’s opener to get them going, and while they did manage to pin Verona back and equalize — even come very close to going in front — it was something they simply should have been doing from the beginning of proceedings and perhaps make the match as easy as you would think it should be on paper, not one that ended in a 1-1 draw.
Andera Pirlo had a selection crunch on his hands going into the match, especially with Chiesa suspended thanks to that ridiculous red card call against Crotone. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual spot in goal behind Pirlo’s 3-4-1-2, with Merih Demiral, Leonardo Bonucci, and Danilo in front of him. Federico Bernardeschi replaced Chiesa in the lineup, playing on the left wing while Juan Cuadrado took up station on the right. Adrien Rabiot and Arthur made the double pivot, while Aaron Ramsey played in the hole behind Morata and Dybala.
Ivan Juric had been dealing with his own run of bad form. Verona had only scored one goal on the field coming into the game, with the other three they were credited in the standings coming from a 3-0 default they got from their opening game against Roma after the Giallorossi made a clerical error in their roster list. Juric went with a 3-4-3 to counter Pirlo’s setup. Marco Silvestri took the starting spot in goal, behind the threesome of Alan Empereur, Federico Ceccherini, and Matteo Lovato. Marco Faraoni and Darko Lazovic manned the flanks, sandwiching the midfield duo of Ronaldo Vieira, Adrien Tameze. Ebrima Colley, Nikola Kalinic, and Mattia Zaccagni formed the attacking trident.
Verona came out of the gates pressing like their collective hair was on fire the moment Juve kicked off. They drove the ball all the way back to the Juve penalty area and nearly forced Szczesny into a bad pass, but the hosts recovered and broke the press, sending Rabiot down the field in all kinds of space before he made a rough decision in the box and sent it into the defense.
The first half fell into a pattern. Verona’s press would force Juve into lateral and backward passes, producing either a lot of useless possession or turnovers from which Juric’s men could press their own attacks. On the occasions that Juve did manage to break the press, though, they looked dangerous, although Verona’s defense managed to get back in time to keep them from finishing the moves.
They weren’t creating much on the other side, though. Despite a few solid spells of possession, a blocked Kalinic effort in the eighth minute was the only shot either team registered for the game’s first 20 minutes. That doesn’t count the 20-year-old Colley, who thought he had an opener in the 16th minute after Juve repeatedly failed to clear a corner, but he was clearly offside and the assistant’s flag shot up in short order to pull play back.
It wasn’t until the 20th minute that the game saw its first shot on target after Rabiot spotted Bernardeschi making a good run through the defense and sent him through on goal. Unfortunately, the shot was a little too simple, and Silvestri parried it around the post with ease—the kind of lack of finishing touch that has dogged Bernardeschi his entire time in Turin.
The teams traded a few shots off target in the next 10 minutes, but the game was very much being played at Verona’s pace, with Juve making powerful breaks but not finding the final ball.
That is, until the 41st minute, when Danilo burst forward from the back three to join the attack. He slipped the ball to Ramsey down the left, who rolled the ball across the box 10 yards away from goal. It went all the way to the right channel, where it was met by Cuadrado. The wing-back had the space to measure it up and had the upper far corner open and begging for his shot. Unfortunately he struck his shot ever so slightly off, and he damn near broke the crossbar in two.
The Colombian was a protagonist again with seconds to go before halftime, getting the ball after an excellent Rabiot tackle and sending a perfect through ball for Morata, who lifted a perfect chip over Silvestri for what he thought was his fourth goal in three games. But before play restarted referee Fabrizio Pasqua had a long conversation on his earpiece, and eventually the goal was ruled out by ... it’s hard to say. Maybe a stray thread on his sock? It’s the second time in eight days that Morata has had a goal ruled out on a millimeter-difference VAR call when in reality he was in a position that gave him no unfair advantage whatsoever. It’s a part of VAR that has grown infuriating since its introduction, and IFAB needs to do something to update the offside rule to prevent these instances, cause it’s harming the game.
The pattern of the game continued into the second half. The only real action early on was a Colley miss, until a horrific mistake at the hour mark gifted the Mastini the game’s first goal.
The culprit was Bernardeschi, who capped off a bad day by leaving a pass well short of his target and handing Ivan Ilic an easy interception. The ball was shuttled to Zacagni, who moved forward and fed Andrea Favilli, the former Juve academy product, who hit a first-time, side-footed shot past a stranded Szczesny. Favilli had only been on the field for five minutes, and he only managed two more before coming off after injuring his hamstring while scoring the goal.
Bernardeschi was immediately removed for Dejan Kulusevski, and the quality of the Juventus possession began to improve almost immediately. The pressure ramped up, and Verona suddenly found themselves well and truly pinned in their own half. The first few efforts were blocked or off-target, but the efforts started creeping closer as the clock ticked on. Dybala’s free kick with 20 minutes left looked like it was headed goalward, only to hit one of the wall’s components at its zenith to deflect out. Two minutes later Morata had a shot saved as he was hauled down by the back of his shirt, but Pasqua kept his whistle in his pocket.
Things took a turn for the worse with 16 minutes left when Bonucci stepped forward into midfield to join the attack but pulled up and immediately signaled to the bench that he needed to come off. He handed the captain’s armband to Dybala and was replaced by Frabotta. Meanwhile, Juve’s luck continued to elude them, as Dybala took a shot from the edge of the arc that bounced off two defenders and beat Silvestri’s hand but bounced back off the underside of the bar.
But two minutes later the pressure finally paid. Morata sent the ball around a corner to Kulusevski, who carried into the box and drifted to the middle, slowly turning Faraoni inside out and providing himself with a shooting angle, dispatching a low curler into the net on the far side and knotting the score.
Rabiot nearly put Juve into the lead two minutes later when the ball squirted out to him and missed the top corner by a whisker, and Dybala had a couple of misses in the next few minutes as Juve pushed to get ahead. The closest they came was stoppage time, when Silvestri pulled an excellent double save against Dybala and then Morata, then minutes later denied another strong drive from Cuadrado. The game stretched two minutes beyond the minimum of five thanks to a fracas between Faraoni and Kulusevski on the sideline, but Juve coiuldn’t make that one last breach, and ended up settling for a single point for the third straight league game that’s actually been played.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had no chance on Verona’s goal, but commanded his box well with a couple of good punches. Was a little shaky under the press, though, and was a little lucky he didn’t make a major mistake early.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 7.5. He was excellent. Made a bunch of well-timed interventions that nipped some potentially dangerous situations in the bud. Didn’t put a foot wrong — and now he might have to lead this line. which is going to be very interesting.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Led the team with six clearances, but his distribution was uncharacteristically poor, completing only 84.6 percent of his passes and only attempting 39 of them. Hopefully he can go on Wednesday, because otherwise...
DANILO - 7.5. It’s time to start buying into this as a thing. He led the team with four interceptions and added in four tackles. He also added in a key pass and completed passes at a 95.7 percent clip. He was a key part of the move that nearly saw Cuadrado score, and generally has been one of the best players on the team this season.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Made a couple of typical Juan decisions but was for the most part a force in midfield. He made two key passes, hit the bar, and had a last-second shot beaten away, plus four tackles, three interceptions, and a clerance on defense. Good shift.
ARTHUR - 6. Led the team with five tackles, but I wasn’t too impressed with his play in possession. Most of his passes went sideways or backwards, and he doesn’t seem like he has a sense of where people are on the pitch, getting the ball and then swiveling around to see where everyone is before making his decisions. Hopefully as he settles in and gets to know his teammates that’s a habit he’ll kick.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Ran in the midfield a lot, contributing two key passes, a pair of tackles, and three interceptions. He was recovering balls all over the place again, and will probably be a big component on Wednesday.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. Hadn’t been very good on the night — he only completed 68.8 percent of his 16 (!!) passes — before dropping his grade through the floor with that awful pass that led to the goal. It’s clear he doesn’t have much confidence right now, and with Chiesa out the experiment was worth a try, but he needs a change of scenery to get himself back together.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Made two key passes, but only completed 83.6 percent overall and wasn’t able to consistently connect the lines between the midfield and the strike pair.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Clearly rusty, seeing as this was only his second game and first start in nearly three months. He did grow into things as the game went on, finishing with three key passes, and if that one that hit the bar went in this would be a different grade, but early in the game he was definitely misfiring.
ALVARO MORATA - 7. Worked hard up front, notching three key passes and forcing a pair of saves out of Silvestri. Could (should?) have had a goal if not for VAR. Like I said before, that rule needs to be addressed.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 7.5. His introduction changed the game. Was a danger anytime he touched the ball, and ended with two key passes and a well-taken equalizer. Starting on the bench today is probably a matter of resting him, but he’s showing he needs to be in the XI on a regular basis.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - NR. Probably created more threat on the left in 15 minutes than Bernardeschi did in an hour. Very nearly got on the end of an errant shot by Dybala late.
GIACOMO VRIONI - NR. On to provide a fresh pair of legs to maybe do something big late.
Pirlo threw in a very interesting tactical wrinkle in this game that was obviously meant to anticipate Juric’s hyper-press. From time to time, Bonucci stepped into the midfield to act as another distributor in an attempt to beat the pressure. It didn’t produce any game-changing moments, but it was a good idea to attempt, and a sign that Pirlo is capable of coming up with custom adjustments from opponent to opponent as needed.
That said, it probably isn’t lost on the coach right now that the team’s best moments Sunday came from when they broke on the counter. That’s something I would lean into in the next few weeks. With so little time to install his ideas after the truncated offseason, it might not be a bad idea for Pirlo to lay out a simplified version of his tactics that lean on counters while he works on the finer points of what he wants to do in training and unleashing them when they’re ready. Antonio Conte did something similar during the 2011-12 season, when his first attempts at a 3-5-2 met with mixed results and he shelved the system for a few weeks before unleashing it again later on. With a team like Barcelona on the horizon, it might not be the worst of ideas to try.
One of the biggest games of the young season looms next when Barcelona visits Turin in a big Champions League clash on Wednesday. Then they travel to Spezia to take on the Serie A newcomers for the first time in league play.