After an expectation-shattering performance a week ago against Sampdoria, it was only natural for Juventus to come back down to earth a little bit. The competition for Round 2, Roma, was a significant step up from Samp, and growing pains were always to be expected for a team — and a coach — that was still finding its footing.
Football did indeed exert some gravity on the Bianconeri on Sunday night against their Roman hosts, who have the distinction of being the club that has beaten them more than any other team in Italy since Juve’s nine-year title reign began. They fell behind for the first time under Pirlo, fought back, gave up another goal and then went down to 10 men. But this Juventus showed a resiliency that was missing from the team under Maurizio Sarri, picked themselves up, and then got the equalizing goal from Cristiano Ronaldo before seeing out the draw in relative comfort.
It wasn’t a win, but it was certainly a point earned rather than two points dropped. It came as the team settled in their newest signing and as the coach did a little bit of experimenting that the non-traditional offseason prevented him from doing in less meaningful games. And while it wasn’t the greatest, it wasn’t a horror show, either — and the result can be looked at, if not with glee, at least with a certain sense of satisfaction.
Pirlo made one player change from last week’s opener, dropping Gianluca Frabotta and giving the returning Alvaro Morata the start in his first game back. Paulo Dybala made the bench, but wasn’t deemed fit to start. Matthijs de Ligt, Federico Bernardeschi, and Alex Sandro remained on the sideline due to injuries. The formation was again reported differently in different places, but again acted like last week’s 3-4-1-2. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual place in goal, with Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini protecting him in the back three. Dejan Kulusevski was dropped back from the strike pair into a right wingback spot, with Juan Cuadrado being moved to the left. Adrien Rabiot and Weston McKennie again played in a double pivot, with Aaron Ramsey in the hole behind Morata and Ronaldo.
Roma manager Paulo Fonseca’s future with the team has been the subject of speculation after the sale of the club to the Friedkin Group finally went through just before the season began, but for the moment he’s still here, and he was looking to help offset last week’s embarrassing setback, when a goalless draw against Hellas Verona was converted into a forfeit loss when Amadou Diawara was improperly registered for the game. He employed a 3-4-2-1 setup, with the veteran Antonio Mirante at its base. Highly-regarded defender Marash Kumbulla joined Gianluca Mancini and Ibanez in the back line, with Davide Santon and Leonardo Spinazzola serving as the wingbacks. Jordan Veretout and Lorenzo Pellegrini played the pivot in midfield, while Henrikh Mikhitaryan and Pedro formed a bank of two behind Edin Dzeko, who was probably still wondering why he wasn’t on the other side of this clash after the crazy transfer events of the last week.
The game started looking fairly even, with both teams looking to probe the other’s defenses. Ramsey was caught offside after a good move early on, and Ronaldo registered the game’s first shot in the eighth minute when he tried to shoot through a gaggle of Roma players at the left corner of the penalty area. Mkhitaryan responded to that four minutes later when he charged down the middle of the field from his own half and ended up one-on-one with Szczesny after some terrible defending by Bonucci. But the former Roma keeper was equal to the task and smothered the Armenian’s shot.
Morata had his first shot in the 18th minute, heading a free kick over the bar, before Ronaldo was pipped to a recycled corner at the last minute by Ibanez, preventing a point-blank shot that could well have opened the scoring.
Neither team had created all that much in the way of opportunities so far, but it was Roma who did open the scoring in the 31st minute, somewhat against the run of possession. Another counterattack had seen Dzeko looking to square a ball into the box for Pellegrini. Rabiot did really well to intercept the pass but thought McKennie was closer to him than he was, leaving a back-heel into space that Veretout was able to slam toward goal first time. Rabiot was stranded and the shot met his outstretched arm, earning him a penalty and a booking. Veretout stepped up to take the shot and sent it low and to his left, but got lucky when Szczesny guessed right and got a hand to the ball, only to see it bounce off the inside of the post and into the net.
Juve went on the hunt for the equalizer immediately, and found it 12 minutes later in similar circumstances. Cuadrado had put in an excellent effort to keep a ball from rolling out for a goal kick on the left wing and pulled the ball back to Ronaldo, who pulled his usual cut inside. He skipped his way past Mancini and looked to put the ball across for Ramsey, but his pass struck the hand of Pellegrini, who had been anticipating a shot and left his arm dangling as was positioning himself for a potential block. Referee Marco Di Bello blew his whistle immediately, but curiously didn’t book Pellergini as he had Rabiot, even though his arm was far enough from his body to warrant it — something to keep in mind for later. For the moment, however, Ronaldo stepped up to the task and fired his penalty to the right, with Mirante falling away to the opposite side.
But parity didn’t last long, as Roma took advantage of the sole minute of stoppage time to deliver a devestating counterattack after a Juventus free kick. The effort was helped by some wild attempts by Kulusevski to put his delivery back into the mix after it was headed out, but the ball eventually fell to Dzeko, who put the ball through for Mkhitaryan, triggering a three-on-one break. Cuadrado did what he could to disrupt things, but Mkhitaryan slipped a perfect ball to Veretout, and this time Szczesny’s luck in one-on-ones ran out. The Frenchman executed the finish perfectly, putting Roma into the locker room with a 2-1 lead.
Roma looked the likelier to extend that lead in the second half. Just six minutes after the restart a short corner generated a shot from outside the box by Pedro that Szczesny had to palm over the bar. Five minutes later Dzeko had an open look at goal from just in front of the penalty spot but bonked it off the post. It went down as a missed sitter to most everyone, although it’s hard to imagine how it could have possibly stood if it had gone in, considering the fact that he had gotten that space by throwing Cuadrado to the ground by the back of his collar.
One hopes that the referee didn’t called that foul because the play ended as a goal kick for Juve, but it’s hard to say, because through out the second half the man’s performance went from Di Bello to Di Brutto. He had booked Pellegrini for wiping out Ramsey in the 54th minute—a moment that could have turned the game on its head had he properly booked the midfielder for his handball in the first half. That became especially glaring when he flashed a second yellow to Rabiot just after the hour due to a fine acting job by Mkhitaryan, putting the team down to 10 men just after Pirlo had made his first change of the match, sending on Douglas Costa for Morata and giving Arthur his debut in place of McKennie. Now those changes would never see their desired effect. Roma instantly came close to taking advantage of the extra man when an excellent passing move put Dzeko in point-blank shooting range, but he put the ball right at Szczesny.
Fonseca’s attitude began to shift in the minutes after Rabiot’s dismissal, and he started to look to consolidate his lead, sending on Bruno Peres in place of Santon. Unfortunately for him, the Brazilian instead watched the visitors equalize less than 60 seconds after his introduction. It came when Douglas Costa fitted in a pass to a streaking Danilo, who had made a foray up the wing from the back. Ronaldo proceeded to do his Superman thing, practically hovering and making contact with the cross more than seven feet off the ground. It glanced off the side of his head and past an astonished Mirante, evening the score at 2-2.
From that point on there wasn’t much in the way of excitement. Roma had one big chance with 14 minutes left on a floated ball to the back post, but neither Giallorossi player in the vicinity could get a touch to the ball. Chiellini made a huge defensive header with Dzeko lurking in the center of the six-yard box a few minutes later, but nothing much else happened as Pirlo’s side consolidated their point and eschewed any risk to see out the match.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. That penalty will weigh heavily on his mind. It’s always hard to say a keeper should have saved a penalty, because they are at such a disadvantage, but when you get that much contact you should probably be able to keep it out. He made a couple of other excellent stops, though.
DANILO - 8. Raise your hand if you had Danilo as the team’s best overall performer over the first two games ... put your hand down, sir, I’m certain you’re lying. The Brazilian led the team in both tackles and assists with four each, and his forays forward were productive, providing the assist for the second goal and finding the mark with two of his three crosses. But Joao Cancelo, though, right?
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Not a great day for Leo. He was beaten badly on Mkhitaryan’s early counter, doing that thing where he drifts to the side and throws out a leg behind him while the attacker sweeps by. He did have the most clearances on the team and completed 97 percent of his passes, but they weren’t the kind of passes that maintained static possession as opposed to helping do something with it.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Made a big defensive header late, and generally kept things tight in his areas of the field, making a tackle and two interceptions. It will be important, though, that Pirlo works out how to help him on counters, and Bonucci as well, because they don’t have the legs to be chasing the ball everywhere anymore.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. He worked hard as a wingback and was able to pull out a key pass along with a tackle and two interceptions, but he doesn’t really belong in that spot. I’ll elaborate in the next section.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. I’m anticipating this rating to make some people bug out, but he wasn’t really terrible Sunday night. His only big mistake was the bad ball that led to his handball. I don’t hold the second yellow against him because it was ridiculous — Di Bello sent him off for being in the vicinity of a guy who was about to fall on his ass of his own accord anyway. Before that, he was doing pretty well, and I counted at least three times where he was pressed by a Roma player only to ride out the challenge and keep possession.
WESTON McKENNIE - 4. What a difference a week makes. After a fantastic performance against Sampdoria, he got overeager and started moving too quickly for himself, making a lot of bad passes and distorting the team’s shape as he tried to press. I still think he has a bright future ahead of him, but there will be some growing pains as he gets used to this level.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Made two key passes and completed 88 percent of them overall. He was clearly out of place on his side though — again, more to come in the next section.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. A week after playing out of his skull he regressed big time. He didn’t drop a single key pass against Roma — which is really his job in this setup — and at least one of his passes triggered a counterattack. The entire team was off the pace Sunday night, but it’s worth wondering if a few more games like this will see Paulo Dybala slotted into this spot when he’s healthy.
ALVARO MORATA - 5. A little out of sync with the rest of the team, which was kinda understandable given he’s only trained with them for a couple days. I expect he’ll settle in soon enough.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. He only managed 43 touches as the midfield failed to get any of the forwards much in the way of touches. But he came up big when it mattered, nailing the penalty and coming up with another of those gravity-optional headers. Far more clinical than he was a week ago.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. Registered a key pass and completed 87.5 percent of his passing, although I’m still a little confused as to how he’s supposed to fit into this setup.
ARTHUR - 6.5. Picked up a key pass and generally looked good partnering with Bentancur. The midfield pairing brought a little control to things after they went down to 10 men. Seems a bit more creative in the double pivot.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Completed all 21 passes he made and stabilized things after Rabiot was sent off. It’ll be interesting to see whether he or Arthur steps in for the suspended Frenchman next week.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - NR. Sent on for Kulusevski for some defensive stability as Pirlo looked to consolidate the result.
The truncated offseason imposed on all of us by COVID-19 was a serious disservice to Pirlo, who was deprived of the friendlies a coach uses to experiment and determine what lineup combinations work best. As a result, he’s going to be forced to use some of these early games to do that tinkering, and he did so today, even though he only changed one player.
First off, putting Kulusevski as a wingback was a thing to try, but it’s not a great place for him. He wasn’t bad and gave a lot of effort, but he’s a player that needs to be closer to goal. Putting him here might be useful in a go-for-broke situation, but it’s not something that should happen regularly. By corollary, Cuadrado wasn’t as effective on the left as he was on his natural right side. Obviously, Sandro’s return will help in this regard, but the team really does need some more fullback/wingback depth.
I also think it was a mistake to start Morata so soon. As I mentioned, he wasn’t quite in sync with the rest of the attack, and given the fact that he’s only been training with the team for a few days that was understandable. I expect he’ll settle into things, but he may have been a better option off the bench Sunday night.
The midfield is also a place to look at. Rabiot and McKennie performed well against Sampdoria, but built on that by taking Pirlo’s ideas of regaining the ball quickly to a little bit of an extreme, scrambling the team’s shape and leaving the back three much more vulnerable to the counterattack. It’s also clear that the two of them, as good as they can be on their day, might not be the best in terms of creating out of the double pivot. Arthur seemed much better in that regard, and it will be interesting to see what Bentancur can do as well. When everyone is fit and integrated it might be interesting to see the two grouped into pods — one of Benta and Arthur combined with one of Rabiot and McKennie — so that there can be a more creative outlet along with the ball-winners.
One last thing to note was an interesting tidbit from Pirlo’s post-match press conference, when he mentioned that Bentancur was probably overplayed last season and was in a specialized training regimen to help him get back into top condition. To have a coach that will pay more attention to squad rotation — something both Maurizio Sarri and Massimiliano Allegri had their deficiencies in — will be very good later in the season when trophies could be on the line.
Another big game looms next Sunday with Napoli traveling to the Turin for the first matchup between Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso as coaches. After that, the league will break for international duty.