Of the problems Juventus have had to work through in this early phase of the season, one of the more serious ones has been an inability to break down an opponent that has sat back to defend. Tuesday’s game against Ferencvaros was a prime example of these struggles, and, in Juve’s first league game since last weekend’s commanding performance against Cagliari, Juve again struggled to break down a determined defense — this time newly-promoted Benevento — despite having the vast majority of the possession. After breaking ahead after 20 minutes on a brilliantly worked goal, Juve gave up an equalizing goal with the last kick of the first half, then completely lost the plot in the second, producing next to nothing despite largely hemming Benevento back.
Unlike midweek, when Andrea Pirlo’s changes made enough of a difference to eventually provide a last-second winner, this time the players who came off the bench couldn’t make much of an impact. That was exacerbated by the decision — which, to be fair, was a valid one at the time it was made — to leave Cristiano Ronaldo at home for rest. The result was a maddening progression of unthreatening passes made over and over as the clock ticked down, and this time there wasn’t a stoppage time hero to salvage the points. The 1-1 draw was a microcosm of all of Juve’s troubles: the inability to break down opponents, the inability to get results away from home, and the inability to take advantage of an opportunity to draw closer to the teams ahead of them in the standings.
Pirlo had Leonardo Bonucci back in the squad for this game, but he still wasn’t fit to start, so he again leaned more toward a 4-4-2 than his 3-4-1-2 hybrid in order to accommodate another makeshift lineup at center-back. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual place in goal, with Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Danilo, and Gianluca Frabotta lined up in defense. Federico Chiesa was given a run in his more natural right side in the four-man midfield, with Arthur, Adrien Rabiot, and Aaron Ramsey arrayed next to him. Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala formed the strike pair up top.
Pirlo’s opponent in the Benevento dugout was a man he doled out assists to time and time again over the course of his career, Filippo Inzaghi. The old striker employed a season-appropriate Christmas tree formation, with Gaetano Letizia, Luca Caldriola, Kamil Glik, and Federico Barba lined up to defend goalkeeper Lorenzo Montipo. Perparim Hetemaj, Pasquale Schiattarella, and Riccardo Improtta manned the midfield, while Gianluca Caprari and Artur Ionita joined forces to support Gianluca Lapadula up front.
Juve started the game out well, and Dybala registered the game’s first shot after six minutes, a blocked effort from a good spot in the right channel after a good run to the byline by Chiesa. But Benevento pushed back and created some possession of their own. Cuadrado attempted a really risky chest pass to Szczesny, who was even more nonchalant about getting to the ball and almost let Lapadula steal in to poke the ball home before picking it up. Three minutes later, Barba tried to sneak in a shot at the near post, but Szczesny was alert and easily tipped the ball away, beginning a sequence of corners that eventually saw Lapadula push a header over.
After that scare Juve bore down, and began to keep the lion’s share of the ball in the Benevento half — although they did allow the occasional dangerous counterattack that petered out thanks to either the effort of de Ligt or a simple lack of quality from the home side. But for all their possession, the ball was moving laterally too much and not creating much in the way of danger. In the 21st minute Chiesa decided to eliminate the superfluous passing and unleashed a long diagonal ball that hit Morata, who had taken advantage of an error in defensive positioning to run into a ton of space, in stride. He faced up Ionita, took one touch to the outside to open up the space, and banged a left-footed shot across the goal and in off the inside of the post.
Taking the lead gave the Bianconeri a little more pep in their step, and five minutes later they should have had their second after Morata chested a pass from Cuadrado into the path of Dybala. The Argentine played a one-two with Ramsey, receiving the return just to the right of the penalty spot. It was the kind of move that he normally ends by throwing up the Dybala Mask in celebration, but his form and fitness still wasn’t there, and his shot, which went for the far post but didn’t bend, instead arrowing past the post for a goal kick as the striker fell to his knees and pounded the turf. Five minutes after that, Frabotta ended a strong run forward by dropping the ball back for Ramsey, got no power at all on his shot, which produced something that even the highly suspect Montipo was able to keep away.
Benevento continued to carry a sting in the counter, and they were unlucky not to equalize with 10 minutes left in the half when Letizia’s ball in from the left found an unmarked Lapadula, whose header went just wide. But Juve let them hang around, and in stoppage time picked up a succession of corners, the first of which produced an excellent sprawling save out of Szczesny when Schiattarella jinked Arthur out of his shoes and curled a ball toward the bottom corner. The second was taken short, and Schiattarella tried to chip the ball back into the box. Arthur was the only man in the vicinity of the pass, but his attempted clearance was absurd in its ineptitude. It was essentially a pass to Letizia, who volleyed the ball across goal and, like Morata’s opener, bounced in off the inside of the post with the last kick of the half.
Benevento made the first probes in the second half when Improta missed on the break, but Juve should’ve gotten the lead back six minutes into the period when Chiesa got into the left channel. Montipo rashly charged to the edge of his six-yard box, leaving the goal gaping, but Morata couldn’t get around it and just headed it back in the direction it came and wide of the post when anything on target would’ve meant a brace for him. Two minutes later he turned provider, laying off for Dybala, only to see his struggles continue when he blazed over.
Almost the entire rest of the half was one ineffectual slog, with Juve keeping a lot of possession but creating precious little, with Benevento producing less and less when they tried to counter. Morata had two shots just around the hour mark, the latter of which was a long-range bolt that flew wide, but those were the only two shots either side registered for more than half an hour. That dull string was finally broken by a Benevento counterattack, when substitute Marco Sau played a 1-2 at the end of a counterattack had his shot blocked on the slide by De Ligt. Then on the other end Dybala got on the end of a ground cross by Federico Bernardeschi, side-footing one back where it came from, only for Montipo, for all his rough goalkeeping, managed to tip the ball around the post.
Referee Fabrizio Pasqua added six minutes of stoppage time, but Juve only managed a single tame shot that was aided into Montipo’s arms via deflection, and Pasqua denied a pair of penalty appeals, the latter of which prompted Morata to have a choice word for Pasqua at the final whistle, prompting the referee to mar a relatively good performance by showing some exceedingly thin skin and brandishing a red card to the Spaniard, a final insult in a game full of disappointment.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. Made one of his better saves of the year right before the equalizer, and had little to do otherwise, although he was a little nonchalant in possession at points.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Looked tired and didn’t manage to create much danger on the right going forward. He needs to be afforded the opportunity to sit at some point very soon.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. A complete horse in defense. He snuffed out several counters and blocked a shot late, keeping the game tied. He’s been immense since his return.
DANILO - 7. Got caught napping once in the box, but was his usual self today as he again deputized as an emergency center-back. He completed eight of his 10 long balls, and made three interceptions as well.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 5.5. Made two key passes, but was largely absent going forward beyond that, but he did play pretty well defensively.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7. An absolute peach of a pass for the assist. That’s what you want to see from him — or rather that and his pushing up to the byline looking for good crossed. Perhaps one of his most dangerous guys on the pitch until he came off.
ARTHUR - 4.5. He made perhaps the most incisive pass he’s made all season — unfortunately it was to an opponent, not a teammate. That mishit clearance was absolutely awful, and the fact that he had two key passes on the night was actually a huge surprise, because it never felt like anything he did had an end product behind keeping possession going. He deserves the criticism he’s starting to get, and needs to start stepping things up.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Not quite so dominant as he sometimes is, but he still put in the most complete performance out of any midfielder. Led the team with three clearances on defense and three dribbles on offense, and completed 92.1 percent of his passes.
AARON RAMSEY - 4.5. Completely ineffectual on the left side of midfield. Was set up with a great shooting opportunity in the first half and essentially passed it to the keeper’s feet, and his contributions in buildup were few and far between.
PAULO DYBALA - 5. I had to watch this game on a replay, and given the reactions against Dybala as I was on my way home from the day job I was expecting to see an insipid, sullen display out of Dybala. That isn’t what I saw. What I did see was a guy who is still very much out of form and not quite 100 percent fit, but he was getting to the right spots — he just wasn’t finishing plays that he usually finishes. He was close to a late winner but was denied with a good fingertip save. He even ended the game with a pair of tackles, and I don’t remember the last time I said that about him. In my opinion he’s working his way out of the funk — and he’ll need to do so with Morata set to miss time after his late red.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. His goal was gorgeous, but he should have put Juve back on top with that header early in the second half, and losing his head at the end could hurt Juve long-term, as he’ll be suspended for at least the Torino game.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Didn’t actively hurt the team, which was a lot more than could be said about the man he replaced, but he wasn’t supplying much in the way of chances either. Definitely still getting used to what Pirlo wants of him.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. Had a key pass and registered one shot on target, but it was a weak, deflected effort. He struggled to find a niche once he was out there, and playing against Benevento’s set defense doesn’t lend itself to his strengths.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Two key passes in his 30 minutes and would’ve had an assist were it not for that late save on Dybala. He’s approaching a more respectable level.
Pirlo is going to be questioned as to why he left Ronaldo at home rather than having him as an option on the bench, but this situation isn’t one that was unique to him. This isn’t the first time over the last three years that Ronaldo didn’t even travel when he was rested for a road game against a provincial side — it seems to be a standard practice for him. He would certainly have made an impact off the bench, as this was another game where the ball needed to be moved out wide to stretch the Benevento defense, but with no one that had size to replace Dybala up front, Pirlo was more limited in that regard than he’d been on Tuesday. He’s currently a bit more limited in what he can do tactically until he has another center-back to make his hybrid 3-4-1-2 actually work, but the team got disorganized as the game went on, and that’s on Pirlo to instill a more disciplined structure to finally be able to break down a team like Benevento when they pack in to defend a potential result. Given the craziness of this season it’s still not fair to judge him too harshly at this stage, but he’s got to make sure that the Cagliari game wasn’t an outlier.
The packed-in schedule continues, with the return match against Dynamo Kyiv up next in the Champions League on Wednesday, as Juve will look to keep pace with Barcelona and have a chance at passing them when they play them again. That’s followed on Saturday by the season’s first Derby della Mole, Then the trip to Camp Nou for the Champions League group stage finale the following Tuesday.