Since the last international break in November, there have been some promising signs about Andrea Pirlo’s Juventus. A couple of performances that make you look up and say yeah, this time is headed to the right place. Sometimes the results, like Wednesday’s draw against Atalanta, don’t completely show it, but there has been steady improvement over the last month.
But Saturday night’s game against Parma was the clearest sign yet that Pirlo’s Juve is trending in the right direction.
This was the kind of win that has become routine during this nine-year title run. A comprehensive, authoritative demolition of a lesser opponent — the kind that didn’t come earlier in the year against the likes of Crotone and Benevento. It took a little more than 20 minutes for them to finally get hold of the bit, but once it was between their teeth there wasn’t any looking back. Parma did manage to force Gianluigi Buffon into a couple of smart saves, but in the grand scheme of things Juve dominated proceedings and came out with a comprehensive 4-0 win.
Pirlo made four changes from the game against Atalanta, continuing to rely on his 3-4-1-2/4-4-2 hybrid. Buffon sat behind the back three of Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Matthijs de Ligt. Dejan Kulusevski made the start at right wing-back against the team he played for a year ago, with Alex Sandro on the other end. Weston McKennie and Rodrigo Bentancur started in midfield, with Aaron Ramsey in the hole behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata.
Parma manager Fabio Liverani countered with a 4-3-1-2 formation. Luigi Sepe started in goal, with the back four of Simone Iacoponi, Bruno Alves, Yordan Osorio, and Riccardo Gagliolo arrayed in front of him. Hernani, Jasmin Kurtic, and Simon Sohm made up the midfield, with Juraj Kucka playing behind the somewhat unorthodox strike pair of Andreas Cornelius and Gervinho.
The game started on the slow side. Juve’s buildup play went to the right places for the most part, but didn’t move fast enough to open Parma up. On the other end, the same old mistakes looked poised to creep back into the game. In the sixth minute Bonucci was jumped in possession, leading to a short-field counter that the Crusaders couldn’t make count, with Hernani firing wide.
Things started looking up in the 12th minute, when McKennie dropped a gorgeous pass into the box for Ramsey, who had broken through the middle of defense, but it didn’t fall right for the Welshman to get a shot away and the defense scrambled it clear. Four minutes later, Parma nearly stole the lead with a lightning quick counter triggered by Kurtic. The Slovenian’s pass was just out of the reach of Cornelius, but Kucka was ready behind him, and hit a low shot first-time to the near post. Buffon was ready, though, and stopped it dead with his feet before picking it up.
The team took that warning to heart, and Juve started turning the screws. A few well-worked moves petered out in the box, until the 23rd minute when Morata flicked a cross from Sandro behind him, and Kulusevski met it just to the right of the penalty spot. He unleashed that exquisite left foot of his, rapping it in low to the far post and then having the class to decline any celebration against the team he played for last year.
Juve’s downfall against Atalanta was their inability to extend their lead, and they learned their lesson quickly. Three minutes after the opener, Morata picked up a pass on the left wing and lofted an excellent cross to Ronaldo, who was waiting as he made his run into the box. He split the center of the defense and made one of those interminable hangtime jumps of his, heading the ball back in the direction of the cross and past a completely stranded Sepe.
Juve pushed for their third and came close on a few occasions but had to wait until just after the restart to get it. It came from Ramsey, who slid a pass into the left channel that Ronaldo controlled with one touch and buried just inside the far post with his second. The rout was well and truly on.
They thought they had the fourth less than 10 minutes later, when de Ligt headed home a rebound after Sepe saved McKennie’s initial effort, but Bentancur’s corner kick had bent over the end line, nullifying the goal. Ronaldo then missed his hat trick when he pushed a free header wide, then Morata and Bentancur missed the target in rapid succession less than a minute apart.
Parma began to look a little better once Liverani made a triple sub, including the introduction of Roberto Inglese for Cornelius. The Italy international immediately made an impact and gave Parma some more dynamism, but he and his teammates couldn’t finish any moves, culminating in Gagliolo stabbing a cross wide from almost point blank range with a little more than 15 miniutes left.
Just a few minutes later Pirlo sent on a few more of his subs, including Juan Cuadrado for Bonucci, who had a hitch in his step that one had to hope wasn’t a bad sign. Manolo Portanova was given a rare run out and very nearly scored his first Serie A goal with a powerful drive that Sepe did well to get down to. But the fourth finally did come with five minutes left, when Federico Bernardeschi send in a wonderful cross that was met by Morata, who had gotten just enough separation from Alves to give himself a free header that he thumped back across to the far post.
It was such a thorough dismantling that only one minute of stoppage time was added on, putting Parma out of their misery and sending Juve back to Turin buoyed by one of their best performances of the season.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Kept the defense organized and made some great saves, including denying Kucka twice from good positions. He continues to make Father Time look silly.
DANILO - 7. Shared the team lead with three interceptions and stayed solid throughout the night. Couple that with 96.9 percent pass completion and you’ve got one heck of a night.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. A vintage performance for Leo, who completed 12 of 16 long balls on the night to help trigger the attack. He and the rest of the back line was often well inside Parma territory to help orchestrate the attack.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. Made more tackles (2) than any other defender on the team, and was super-involved going forward, making a whopping 139 touches and completing 94.5 percent of his passes.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 7. Added a key pass to his excellent goal, and overall made progress toward maybe getting some more consistent playing time. Still, he has some things to work on when the team is in buildup mode as opposed to playing on the break. Once he rounds out that part of his game, look out.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7.5. Hounded opponents on the press all day long, and showed a range of passing both with his feet and his head. He’d have had two assists if people had been more clinical. Ended it with a pair of key passes and completing 95.5 percent of his passes.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. Without question his best game of the season. Took 111 touches, led the team with three key passes, completed 97.7 percent of his passes, and shared the game high with six tackles. The only thing that could’ve made his day better was converting one of the shots he took. This is the Benta we’ve been looking for.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Co-led the team in dribbles with three, and made a pair of tackles in the defensive phase. He got to bomb forward a lot Saturday and is looking closer to the player we saw when he first signed than he has in years.
AARON RAMSEY - 7.5. A smart assist on Ronaldo’s second goal, two key passes overall, and three interceptions while helping out on Pirlo’s high press. This is the kind of game you keep hoping to see out of him every week.
ALVARO MORATA - 8.5. Two assists on the day, including an absolute peach of a cross for Ronaldo’s first, followed up by a great header of his own at the end. An excellent way to bounce back after a bad performance midweek.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8.5. Scored from open play for the first time since Dec. 2, and both of them were pretty snazzy goals. He was also actively involved in buildup for others, recording two key passes and completing 92 percent overall. A good bounce-back for him as well.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. A pretty cross to notch his first assist of the year.
JUAN CUADRADO - NR. Tallied a tackle and two interceptions in only 15 minutes of work.
MANOLO PORTANOVA - NR. Very nearly scored his debut goal with the first team and blocked a shot toward the end.
FEDERICO CHIESA - NR. On to give Ronaldo some rest at the end of a match that was over.
This was Pirlo’s football the way he wants it played. The press was extremely effective at keeping Parma penned in their own half — the home team had only 30% of possession in the first half and finished the game with 37.6 percent. The buildup play started off a little sluggish, but got crisper as the game went on and ended up pulling apart a Parma defense that had come into the game on the back of two clean sheets out of their last three matches and had given up more than one goal only once in the last six weeks.
The coach is surely to be happy with how the midfield is beginning to shake out, especially if Bentancur — who has been steadily bouncing back from his early-season struggles his last few games and seems to have had another coming-out party on Saturday night — plays this way more often. While it still could use a Manuel Locatelli-type player to pull some strings in ways that Bentancur and Arthur can’t, this unit is beginning to settle in together, and that could go a long way toward steadying the ship permanently.
In-game, Pirlo had little to do other than provide for some load management, which he did quite well. Letting Portanova run so that Adrien Rabiot could keep his heels up was a good idea, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing some of the other kids out there, but you don’t want to overdo it with U23 players and ruin their eligibility for the B team, so I get it.
Just one more match to go before this season’s miniature Christmast break. That’ll be against Fiorentina at home on Tuesday.