After Juventus finally broke into the post-restart win column on Monday, many were hopeful to see more of the same. The win over Bologna was a big step forward from Juve’s dire offensive performance in the Coppa Italia, and with 18th-place Lecce coming up, it was hoped that the team would turn things up another notch.
If you looked only at the 4-0 final score, you’d assume they did just that. The deeper story is a little bit more complex. Lecce — who going into the game were the only Italian team to have visited the Allianz Stadium without ever being defeated — were able to stand up to Juve for the better part of half an hour, until a big mistake led to a red card from out of nowhere. Up a man, the home side turned the screws and could — perhaps should — have been up two goals at halftime. Fortunately, those missed opportunities didn’t come back to bite them, and they scored four times in the last 37 minutes of play to turn the game into a rout.
The storyline coming into the game was what Maurizio Sarri would do in defense. With Alex Sandro and Mattia De Sciglio both injured and Danilo suspended after a foolish red card on Monday, the manager had no natural fullbacks left on the roster. He’d have to get creative to fill in the left back spot in his 4-3-3. He had two choices: employ Blaise Mautidi as an emergency left back, or use Under-23 talents like Pietro Beruatto or Wesley to fill the position. Just has he had in a similar situation earlier this year, he chose the former, as the Frenchman joined Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, and Leonardo Bonucci in covering goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield, with Federico Bernardeschi, Paulo Dybala, and Cristiano Ronaldo forming the trident attack.
Lecce coach Fabio Liverani was severely hamstrung going in, having only 14 healthy first-team outfield players. His strategy was clear when he released his 5-3-2 lineup, with ex-AC Milan prospect Gabriel playing in goal. The back five consisted of Andrea Rispoli, Nehuen Paz, Fabio Lucioni, Giulio Donati, and Brayan Vera. Panagiotis Tachtsidis, Marco Mancosu, and Jacopo Petriccione played in midfield, supporting the strike pair of Filippo Falco and Evgen Shakhov.
The story of the restart for Juventus has been a hot start followed by a dip later in the game. Friday that script was flipped on its head. Fresh off receiving a four-point lead after Atalanta’s 3-2 comeback win over Lazio on Wednesday, it looked as though the team switched off a little bit early. A misjudge by de Ligt on a long ball allowed Mancosu to flick it on to Shakhov, who in turn teed up Rispoli, who was bombing up the wing and latched on to it in the right channel. It was an excellent chance, but Rispoli hit it just past the upper corner.
The opening phases of the game weren’t particularly exciting. Juve wasn’t as quick out of the gate, and there wasn’t much in off-ball movement. As opposed to Bologna, who had boldly pushed up and attempted to play the ball, Lecce were content to sit in their back five and counter, as Milan and Napoli had been. That’s a strategy Juve’s still-imperfect interpretation of Sarrismo still has difficulty cracking.
But the defense was still keeping the goalkeeper relatively worry-free — that is, until the 16th minute, when a terrible pass by Cuadrado gifted Mancosu the ball in the Juve box, but the midfielder failed to do much but hit it weakly at Szczesny. Juve finally attempted their first shot in the 19th minute when Bentancur flicked a corner to the far post that floated wide.
Rabiot nearly opened the scoring in spectacular fashion when he hit the ball across goal from 30 yards or more, but Gabriel made a flying save to keep the score level.
The teams were trading chances until just after the half-hour mark, when a big mistake changed the balance of the game. Lecce had been doing well playing out from the back in the opening stages, but as they tried to do it again Lucioni got lazy and mishandled it. Bentancur, who had been pressing the man who made the pass, continued his run through the middle of the field and picked his pocket. He was looking at a clean run on goal, but Lucioni took him down immediately, earning a straight red from referee Marco Piccinini.
For the first three or four minutes after the red Lecce hung in and even got themselves another shooting opportunity, but Juve started turning the screws and began to pin their shorthanded opponents back. With five minutes left Ronaldo somehow got rid of his markers on a corner and was presented with the definition of a free header from seven yards away...and hit it over. It wasn’t quite so bad a miss as Inter’s Roberto Gagliardini’s gag against Sassuolo on Wednesday, but it was definitely a chance that was easier to convert than to miss.
Ronaldo tried to make up for it by turning provider two minutes later, slipping in a good low cross to Bernardeschi, who was cutting into the six-yard box, but he fluffed his chance, getting underneath the ball and slicing it over.
Juve had two more misses early in the second half, and Sarri decided that enough was enough. Douglas Costa was introduced for Rabiot, with Bernardeschi dropping back into the midfield. Costa’s impact was immediate, dancing in and putting in a good cross that no one could meet. But Bernardeschi and Matuidi kept the pressure up as Lecce tried to get it clear, and Shakhov made a terrible pass that instead fed Ronaldo in the box. Ronaldo spotted Dybala just inside the penalty arc and fed him perfectly, taking all the spin off the ball and allowing the Argentine to take a touch and fire a peach into the opposite top corner. It was his ninth league goal of the season and his second beauty in as many games.
Not only did Lecce now have to try to take more chances to equalize, they were also tiring, and more and more openings were now forming in their back line. Luca Rossettini, who was sent in at halftime to reinforce the back line, made a fantastic clearance to prevent a Cuadrado cross from finding Ronaldo for a tap in, but a minute later he tripped the Portuguese in the box as he took a feed from the right. Piccinini pointed to the spot immediately, and Ronaldo executed it exactly the same way he did in Bologna, waiting until the keeper moved and then slamming the ball right down the middle.
By this point it was all Juve. Ronaldo missed another free header in the 69th minute, heading down into the ground but right at Gabriel, allowing the keeper to somehow parry it. Six inches to either side would have put it past him. De Ligt then took a long shot that the Brazilian had to tip past the post. The game was firmly in control, Sarri used his last changes to introduce Gonzalo Higuain for his first game since the restart, as well as hand midfielder Simone Muratore his Serie A debut.
The former made an impact in less than five minutes. Ronaldo took down a long ball, dribbled to the edge of the box, then cut inside. He pulled two defenders with him, allowing Higuain to burst into the vacated space. Ronaldo aimed a back-heel pass at him that bounced off Donati’s knee and right into Higuain’s path. The striker stroked it past Gabriel with his left foot. Two minutes later they put the capper on things when Costa put in a cross after a short corner and Rossettini’s terrible marking allowed de Ligt to stoop over and head the ball in from steps away.
It was a thorough thrashing at this point, and Piccinini didn’t even add any stoppage time.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Organized the defense well and made the saves he needed to make, although they weren’t all that complicated. Once Lucioni was sent off he had little to do.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Shook off a rough start to put together a pretty solid game, leading the team with 104 touches. His attacking talents were useful as Juve took over following the red.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. As solid as ever in the back and showed some attacking teeth as well, scoring his third goal and nearly picking one up sooner than that. Also threw in a key pass.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Completed two-thirds of his long balls, including the one that led to Higuain’s goal. Notched a key pass and led the team with two tackles, but today wasn’t a game for counting stats on the defensive side of the ball.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7.5. Just like the last time he had to play left back, he had a solid day, making a couple of nice crosses. It helped that he didn’t have to defend all that often after the half-hour. This is a viable option in an emergency — but Fabio Paratici has to make sure that such emergencies don’t happen again next season.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Buzzed around like his usual self after a down game on Monday. Directly caused the red card with his pressure, and completed 90.2 percent of his passes. Disruptive.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7.5. Made seven key passes, which is a number that made me do a double take because it sure didn’t seem like it at the time. Also completed 95.1 percent of his passes.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Adequate in the midfield, and nearly opened the scoring with a great shot from distance. But he needs to be more than adequate, especially if Matuidi is needed elsewhere more often.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Had a golden chance at the end of the first half that he really should’ve converted and also had problems staying onside for long passes. However, his pressing was a key factor in the opening goal and he completed 96.8 percent of his passes.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. His second beautiful goal in as many games, and a pair of key passes to boot. He’s been one of the strongest players since the restart happened.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. He only got one official assist because his ball to Higuain came off Donati’s knee. His balls to both Higuain and Dybala were wonderful, but he should’ve had a hat trick. That first header was a sitter and the second was only slightly less so. His sights aren’t quite aligned yet.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. Five key passes in 39 minutes. That’s absurd. His speed and technique helped pull a few Lecce defenders out of alignment, which is exactly what the team needed. He might serve the team better as a supersub than a starter.
AARON RAMSEY - 7. Played very well in the midfield. Made a really special turn in the 75th minute only to be denied by Gabriel. If he gets starters’ minutes in his legs, it could be very useful.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - NR. His goal was excellent. With everything that he’s had to go through over the last few months, weathering a pandemic and dealing with his monther’s cancer, that had to feel good. He ended up putting two of three shots on target in 14 minutes of work. He can really help the front line.
SIMONE MURATORE - NR. Kid impressed in his Serie A debut. It’s not a surprise Atalanta wants him.
Sarri had limited options to cover the left-back spot, but the use of Matuidi was a good decision. I would have maybe used the last change to let Wesley have a chance to run a bit. Sarri hasn’t used all five of his available changes since the first game back, but he’s going to have to start doing that a little more as the games pile up and the need to manage minutes becomes paramount.
But the first of those subs was absolutely fantastic. The game was screaming for Douglas Costa’s skill set, and Sarri didn’t waste any time in getting him on the field. This is one of the areas where Sarri does compare favorably with his predecessor — I can envision Max Allegri waiting to make that move until it was too late. Sarri did what was needed immediately, and it paid dividends with Costa’s impact.
Sarri’s system still hasn’t sunk into this team yet — and it’s debatable if it ever fully will with this group—but at the very least Juventus are starting to push. The team has seemed timid to shoot in certain situations this year, but they got off 26 shots today. By the end of the game Gabriel had a look on his face that can best be described as “make it stop.” If they can keep that up, it will be a great help indeed.
Juve’s next game, on Tuesday, will be tricky — they’ve lost to Genoa at the Marassi in two of the last three years and have lost to either Genoa or Sampdoria with regularity during their eight years atop the league, so this has the potential to be a trap game. After that comes the home leg of the Derby della Mole the following Saturday.