The first two months or so worth of games in Andrea Pirlo’s reign have been frustrating, to say the least. Juventus started hot in the opening game of the season against Sampdoria, but had never gotten back to those heights, dropping points against teams that they should have been beating — and often having to come from behind to do it. As the team emerged from the season’s second international break, they were set to embark on a truly brutal stretch of schedule that would see them play 10 games in 30 days.
With Cagliari first on that docket, Pirlo had made it clear: he expected there to be improvement.
That improvement was clear on Saturday.
The visitors came out of the gate strong, and for the first five minutes it looked like another struggle was in the offing. But Juve quickly bore down and began utterly dominating the Sardinian outfit. Cagliari didn’t register their first shot until five minutes before halftime, and only got three overall, none of which hit the target. Juve, on the other hand, were constant menaces to Alessio Cragno’s goal. They had one goal called back early and another shot in the early parts of the second half hit the bar, and in between Cristiano Ronaldo hit a quickfire double right before halftime that provided the margin of victory. The ball moved faster, the press got the ball back quickly, and even Federico Bernardeschi played one of his best games in years. It all added up to a 2-0 win that was refreshing in how routine and unproblematic it ended up being.
Pirlo got two big reinforcements back into the squad, and he deployed his usual 3-4-1-2/4-4-2 hybrid, with Gianluigi Buffon claiming the starting gloves in goal to give Wojciech Szczesny a break after international duty. With Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci out injured, Matthijs de Ligt was pressed back into the starting XI in his first game back from shoulder surgery in August, joining Merih Demiral and Danilo in the back three. It was a special day for Juan Cuadrado, who wore the captain’s armband from the start for the first time in his Juve career. Bernardeschi played on the left side, with Arthur and Adrien Rabiot in between the two. Dejan Kulusevski floated from the middle to the wing in the attacking phase, with Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata forming the strike pair up front.
Where Pirlo was getting players back, Eusebio Di Francesco was losing them. Diego Godin was one the players affected by the COVID-19 outbreak that settled into the Uruguayan national team in the last week, and midfielder Nahitan Nandez was in isolation. He was also down Luca Cepitelli and two others to injury. He countered Pirlo with a three-man defense of his own, arranged in a 3-4-2-1 with Cragno at its base. Ragnar Klaven, Fabio Pisacane, and Sebastian Walukiewicz screened Cragno, with Gabriele Zappa and Alessandro Tripaldelli on the wings. Marko Rog and Razvan Marin manned the middle, while Joao Pedro and Adam Ounas played behind Giovanni Simeone.
The Isolani started out like gangbusters. They gained possession quickly and had a couple of dangerous attacks, but the defense was able to get the ball away, and slowly started to exert themselves. By the time the clock ticked into double digits, they were well and truly in the ascendency, and in the 11th minute Bernardeschi found the back of the net with a powerful near-post drive, but Morata, who had provided the final ball, had been a fraction offside when he received the ball, chalking off a well-worked goal that would’ve capped off an excellent week for Bernardeschi, who had played incredibly for Italy over the international break.
As the half progressed, it was clear that the pitch at the Allianz Stadiium was a one-way street. By the 20th minute a goal started to seem like a it was inevitable, with Juve pinging passes around in the Cagliari half and quickly regaining the ball after they did lose it, playing exactly the kind of football Pirlo has espoused since he was hired in August. Cagliari were simply getting overwhelmed, and were holding on by the skins of their teeth. They had been able to scramble the ball away, like in the 25th minute when they got away with allowing a great passage of play that ended. with Morata releasing Ronaldo down the right channel, with a last-ditch slide from Walukiewicz taking the ball out for a corner just before Ronaldo could latch on for an easy finish.
The pressure continued to ramp up. Morata headed wide from a corner, and in the 29th minute Ronaldo laid the ball to Kulusevski after being swarmed in the box, and the Swede’s shot, an attempt to curl the ball to far post along the ground, didn’t get any of the spin it needed to curve and it stayed straight, just missing the far post.
The siege continued, with Bernardeschi again getting a sight at goal, hitting a powerful first-time shot after a free kick was headed out, but unfortunately it was right at Cragno, who still had to make sure to hold it after initially coming close to spilling it with the strikers close by. A minute later, he finally conceded the opener.
It was an excellent move, with Morata receiving a pass from Bernardeschi into the box with his back to goal and moving it on to Ronaldo above the left channel. The superstar cut inside, dribbled past Zappa and Pisacane, and hitting a shot for the far post just before Rog came across to close the window. Cragno didn’t have a prayer, and Juventus were ahead.
The second game within four minutes. A Kulusevski shot was deflected out for a corner, and Demiral flicked Cuadrado’s delivery to the far post, where someone had left Ronaldo, of all people, completely unmarked. It was an impressive display of body control from the Portuguese, stopping himself mid-stride to keep from overrunning it and reaching back to hit a close-range tap into the net.
Juve kept on going forward, and nearly put the game away eight minutes into the second period, first when Cuadrado danced inside from the right for a shot that was blocked out for a corner, then on the ensuing set piece when Demiral abused Walukiewicz in the air to hit a powerful header that beat Cragno but slammed off the crossbar. Three minutes later a powerful counterattack saw Ronaldo pass up the opportunity to go for his hat trick when he dummied for Bernardeschi, who opened his body up and tried to hit the ball to the near post on the left, only to be met with a good save by Cragno.
Cagliari managed a miniature spell of possession right around the hour mark, but they only managed to get Marin and Rog to shoot from well out, both of them missing the target by a significant margin. Morata then wasted a great run by Bernardeschi when he hit the ball leaning back and skied it. The visitors then capped their best spell of the game when they put the ball into Buffon’s net in the 67th minute, but the goal was called back when Marin somehow managed to let himself stray offside on a short corner routine.
That was the last serious threat Cagliari mounted all game long. Pirlo was able to display the impressive depth that the team does have when it’s that close to full strength, sending on Paulo Dybala and Weston McKennie right after the no-goal and Rodrigo Bentancur, Federico Chiesa, and, perhaps most importantly, a returning Alex Sandro for the last five minutes. There were a few attempts to pick up a third goal, the most successful of which was a long-range effort from Bernardeschi deep into stoppage time that brought out a relatively comfortable save from Cragno, but for the last 20 minutes of the game Juventus saw the game out with relative ease, picking up a badly needed win and making it look easy.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - NR. Had precisely zero to do apart from occasionally having to help recycle the ball. It was akin to the simplest of days he had behind the BBC defense in its heyday.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 8. An enormous day for the Turkey international on both sides of the ball. He made two tackles and three clearances on defense, and also registered an assist, two key passes, and a 98.8 percent completion percentage. He took three shots as well, including one that cracked into the bar. Perhaps his most complete day at Juventus, if not ever.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7.5. Pressed directly into the starting lineup due to injuries, the kid picked up right where he left off, making three tackles and three clearances. He was simply immense, helping to keep the dangerous combo of Joao Pedro and Giovanni Simeone quiet all night long.
DANILO - 6. A merely solid day after his recent string of excellence, he was still quite good, and made one particularly good intervention at the far post to prevent a good cross from becoming dangerous in the second half. He’s been the team’s most consistent player.
JUAN CUADRADO - 8. Celebrated his first run as captain by making a game-high 123 touches, including a whopping six key passes, throwing in three tackles and three interceptions to go with it.
ARTHUR - 7. Completed 95.1 percent of his 101 pass attempts, but the fact that he only picked up one key pass shows that he still needs to work on getting the ball forward on a consistent basis. Once he irons that out he can be a deadly part of the midfield.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. The Frenchman has turned into an absolute ball-winning monster, turning in four more tackles and constantly harassing opponents in midfield. He’s been key ot Pirlo’s press.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7.5. Easily his best game in a Juventus shirt since the second leg against Atletico Madrid two seasons ago. He led the team in dribbles with four (no one else had more than one), had three key passes, hit the target with three of four shots, and completed 97.8 percent of his shots. One or two things go his way and he’s got a goal or two to take home. Hopefully he can build on this.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 7. Dangerous every time he touched the ball, making three key passes and taking four shots, several of which were blocked and once barely missing the far post. Also threw in three tackles defensively.
ALVARO MORATA - 7. Assisted Ronaldo’s first goal and had two key passes overall. Could’ve had a second one if he’d been able to stay onside on Bernardeschi’s close call. Makes great runs and he’s always dangerous when he runs with the ball.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8.5. He had a slow start but picked up in a big way with two goals before the break, both of which were excellent. Add to that three key passes and even a pair of tackles, if you can believe that. A great day.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Still finding his feet after starting the year with a series of health setbacks. He flashed once or twice, and helped finish the press a couple of times, but still dropped way too deep to pick up the ball. I’m still confident he’ll come around.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. His first touch was an excellent slide tackle on the wing, and he helped lock things down in them middle to keep the lead.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. In for the last five minutes or so to keep an already-booked Arthur out of further trouble.
FEDERICO CHIESA - NR. In to close the game out late and get a load off Kulusevski.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. A first run for the veteran. As you might remember from the most recent episode of The Old Lady Speaks, we think this return means a lot for the team.
This is how Pirlo draws things up. The press worked really well, sealing Cagliari into their own half for long stretches of the game, especially in the first half. The ball moved quickly and and directly toward the goal. The attackers were playing for each other rather than themselves. Even Ronaldo was passing up shooting opportunities he’d usually be taking for himself to turn provider.
Now the question becomes whether this was an effect of having a relatively weak opponent who were missing key players due to injury and the pandemic, or whether Pirlo has finally woven his ideas into the team’s fabric remain to be seen. The schedule is jam-packed, but the next two weeks will see relatively weak opponents until the return game with Barcelona on December 8. That will afford the team the time to expand on this game and get into a groove before bigger games against the likes of Barca—whose struggles are growing worse and may have just lost Gerard Pique for the year—and Atalanta in the middle of December.
Juve stay in Turin on Tuesday for a Champions League clash against Ferencvaros, and could clinch a spot in the knockout round if they win and Dynamo Kyiv fail to beat Barcelona. Then comes a trip to Benevento before another home European game against Kyiv.