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Juventus show flashes of brilliance and lingering Dybala-Ronaldo issues

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For 15-30 minutes the Bianconeri were “excellent.” Then what happened?

Juventus v AC Milan - Coppa Italia: Semi-Final Second Leg Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Adrien Rabiot. Sami Khedira. Federico Bernardeschi. Juan Cuadrado.

The list of players Maurizio Sarri deployed off the Juventus bench was, even as familiar as we all are with the depth of this squad, startling. And that list, of course, did not even include two regular first-side minute earners in Aaron Ramsey and Gonzalo Higuain — or Giorgio Chiellini, for that matter.

By his own admission, Sarri “got swept up in the enthusiasm of having five substitutes,” and though the gambit failed to pay dividends the logic of making those moves is sound, and I don’t fault the manager for doing so. He made like-for-like changes across the board, pulling two players who hadn’t done much to that point (Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi), and injecting a lot of fresh energy into the Bianconeri against a Milan side down a man and needing to score a goal to advance.

This, for me, attested to an operative truth about Juve’s prospects throughout the rest of this virus-tampered season: no club in Serie A comes close to Juve’s depth. But as I watched the first 10-15 minutes against Milan, with incisive passes, purposeful movement, and confident touches, something struck me: maybe more important than the squad’s depth was the extended amount of time granted between a new manager and his players.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

We’ve been saying that Sarri needed time to instill his tactics since the moment the former banker was hired. The man he replaced, the venerable Max Allegri, could not be more different in his convictions. The players Sarri inherited were not hand-picked to express his ideas; his ability at Napoli to be involved in obtaining certain players with certain traits for certain roles was instrumental in his success down south. So to make a fluid whole out of these disparate parts, the one thing we were all certain he needed was time. And he was just given a big chunk of juicy pandemic time to let the ideas marinate.

For 15 minutes, things were, in Sarri’s word, “excellent.”

The game was always going to fall apart, which in due course it did. It was 90 minutes of a clearly superior Juventus side playing a Milan side coming off the same strange COVID-19 break and without a couple of their best players due to suspensions from the first leg. Juventus were awarded a penalty that was squandered, and then a karate-kick red card after which, for the vast majority of the game, they could not capitalize.

In the end, though, the disjointedness was almost exclusively a product of the final third. I’m so used to seeing the midfield be the source of the club’s problems that it seems strange not to be asserting some disfunction in the center of the pitch, but as ho-hum as a couple of the performances were (Pjanic, Khedira — boy would Ramsey have been a nice tool out there) the unit collectively controlled the tempo, the direction, and the pace of the game. As they should with the man advantage. What’s more, Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt pressed so high up the pitch they played in defender-midfield hybrid roles for large stretches of the action.

When Sarri took Douglas Costa off the field, the already-clunky partnership between Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala totally fell apart. Of the two, actually, Ronaldo looked more out of sorts, and Dybala had himself a pretty fine game in all facets; the little No. 10 was tracking back more than I remember him while registering two tackles and an interception (which led to a half-chance foray).

But this partnership is something we’ve wondered about for a long time now, whether or not it can work at all. Against Milan, Ronaldo played in the center for the majority of the game and, growing frustrated, would track back to get some touches of the ball.

We’ve seen how problematic this is in a few different ways in the past, and those same things were true against Milan. One is that sometimes when Ronaldo tracks back a midfielder will fill the space he vacated, and then if Juve lose possession and the opposition mount a counter-attack then Ronaldo is absolute deadweight in defense, and we’ve already lost a player who would’ve been defensively productive (i.e. the theoretical midfielder who made an offensive run to fill Ronaldo’s vacated space).

A second problem is the opposite case of the same scenario: Ronaldo, who is still very good with his passing, doesn’t have anyone make a good run or fill the space, and all his tracking back accomplishes is a touch back to de Ligt or Bonucci.

When Flash left the field something did change, and maybe Sarri is onto something there. Maybe Costa is the key to letting No. 7 and No. 10 play ball together. Costa is speedier than anyone else on the field, and his ability to quickly occupy space while also being a technically gifted player is something nobody else on this team has. Maybe he’s the right chemical compound to make a fluid product out of Ronaldo and Dybala.

Even if that’s true — let’s temporarily grant that it’s true for argument’s sake — that combination seems unreliable at best. Sarri said he substituted Costa off the field “out of fear that he’d get hurt,” which doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. We’ve seen how frail the Brazilian can be.

Here’s the point: the second leg vs Milan was a mixed bag, and it was always going to be a mixed bag. But I will say that those first few minutes of play were so good that I am disposed to feelings of optimism for Sarri, the rest of this campaign, and whatever happens next year because of it.

Yet a problem remains. How do you solve a problem like Dybala? I don’t know.