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Toothless Juve fall to Atalanta at home, take huge hit in quest for top four

Early? Maybe. But Juventus may have just put themselves into too big a hole to get themselves out of.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

There will be a significant amount of people who say that it’s too early for me to say what I’m about to say. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way around it anymore.

Juventus aren’t going to be in the Champions League next season.

I hope I’m wrong. I just don’t think I am.

They showed just how far they’ve backslid in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Atalanta. The team couldn’t pass their way out of a paper bag in the first half. La Dea throttled the team with their press, not allowing Juve to get out of their defensive half unless they hoofed it long. A single mistake was all that was needed for Atalanta to score the game’s only goal on a two-touch counterattack.

Juventus got themselves into the game batter in the second half, but real scoring chances were few and far between. Against a team that had just been ripped apart multiple times by one of the worst teams in the Champions League this season, Juve only managed two shots on target. Their best opportunity to score came deep into stoppage time, when Paulo Dybala hit a free kick that was so close to perfect but for a few inches that were the difference between the ball skipping over the upright and nestling just underneath it.

It would be easy to take that moment and few others and say, as Massimiliano Allegri did in his post-match press conference, that it was just a few decisive moments that made all the difference. Would things be different right now if Duvan Zapata’s shot had been a few inches higher, or Dybala’s a few inches lower, or if Joachim Maehle had been correctly called for handball moments before that when the ball clearly struck his flailing arm? Sure, the result could’ve been. But you can’t rely on margins like that when you’re trying to get to the top four, and the bulk Juve’s game was simply not good enough. The result was Atalanta’s first away win against Juventus since October 1989 — when I was two months old.

But not the cold fact that Juventus is currently showing themselves completely incapable of scoring — or even creating serious threats — from open play. They’re not good enough to compete with the teams at the top of Serie A, and now they’ve got seven points and as many as three teams, pending the result of Lazio’s game with Napoli on Sunday, between themselves and a berth in next season’s Champions League. And there’s no sign that they can make that ground up.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Allegri caused some debate as to whether the lineup he put out an hour before kickoff was the 4-4-2 he’s been kicking like a dead horse or a 4-3-3 setup. At the end of the day, it seemed like there wasn’t much of any shape given how much everyone was floating around. Wojceich Szczesny started in goal, screened by the back four of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot were the midfielders, while Dybala a free-flowing wild card up top along with Alvaro Morata and Federico Chiesa.

Gian Piero Gasperini went with the usual suspects in his well-drilled 3-4-2-1 setup. Summer signing Juan Musso took his place in goal, with the trio of Rafael Toloi, Berat Djimsiti, and Juve loanee Merih Demiral in front of him. Davide Zappacosta joined Maehle as the wing-backs, bookending Remo Freuler and Marten De Roon. Matteo Pessina and Ruslan Malinovskyi supported the hulking Zapata in attack.

The game started out quite fast, with Juve trying a couple of rushes down the field while Malinovskyi picked up the game’s first shot after only four minutes, thumping one off of Bonucci’s chest. But Juve couldn’t get through Atalanta’s press, and much of the possession they managed to maintain consisted of passes back through their own defense to try to find a new route out of their own half. When they misfired on those — an unfortunately frequent occurrence — they had to motor back to their own goal to stop a counterattack. De Light nearly gifted an opener on 15 minutes when he badly misplaced a back pass to Bonucci, allowing Zapata to tee up Freuler at the edge of the box. The Swiss international fired his shot well wide, but the warning shot had been fired.

Juve seemed to take the warning to heart. Two minutes after the close call, Dybala got the ball in his favorite spot in the right channel and pulled a nice little slalom to get himself space to shoot, but couldn’t come up with one of his trademark curlers and made an easy save for Musso. Morata’s attempt at a volley a minute later couldn’t test Musso. Moments later, Juve were denied their best chance of the half when McKennie found Chiesa over the top with a fantastic ball to put him one-on-one with Musso, but Toloi made up just enough ground at the last minute and blocked his shot attempt.

Atalanta started to take the game in their teeth at that point and revved up their well-oiled machine. Juve spent another period unable to get out of their own half, routinely turning the ball over. Ironically, the critical moment came after Allegri was audibly heard to be screaming to his team to play quicker passes. What followed was a quite lovely sequence that unfortunately ended with a bad mishit from Morata that went straight to Djimsiti. The Albanian’s first touch split the defense and put Zapata clean through on goal. Szczesny did exactly what he was supposed to do in that situation: get low, get big, and force Zapata to either beat him high or to the side. He very nearly succeeded, as the Colombian hitman did the former, smashing a thunderbolt that skipped in off the underside of the crossbar.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

For the rest of the half, Juve only created one more creditable chance, when McKennie’s layoff to Dybala was pulled well wide in the 34th minute. Beyond that, nothing really came of the host’s attempts to get back into the game. Things went from bad to worse when Chiesa came up limping at the end of the first half. He never came back out for the second half, and was replaced by Federico Bernardeschi, who made his first appearance in nearly a month.

Atalanta came out flying to start the second period and for a while looked good to double their lead. Juve slowly regained control, but control didn’t equal threat. Every time Juventus moved forward, something was off. There was little off-ball movement, and when someone did make a good run, the man with the ball missed it. Strong runs with the ball saw little or no support and ended in a wall of defenders.

True opportunities were few and far between, but even those petered out. On the hour mark, Bonucci found McKennie with a chef’s kiss of a long ball, but Djimsiti emulated his defense partner Toloi and his last-ditch challenge prevented the American from taking a shot. Juve kept the ball and worked it around to Dybala, who fired high at the near left post. Making matters even worse, McKennie twisted his knee on the play and had to withdraw, replaced in a surprisingly attacking move by Moise Kean.

Five minutes later, Juve truly came a whisker from tying the score when Rabiot collected a defensive touch above the box and let fly to the far post, but Musso somehow got the last digit of his middle finger onto the ball, pushing it around the post.

Atalanta had the occasional chance to score, including a pair of blocked shots in quick succession in the 74th minute, but they were largely on the defense. The problem was “on defense” didn’t exactly mean “under siege,” and despite having control of possession there was never a sense that an equalizer was imminent. The introduction of Kaio Jorge for a faltering Morata was too little too late, and in the six minutes of stoppage time that was added Juve saw two major incidents go against them. The first came when Maehle contacted the ball while wildly swinging his arm while following through on a change of direction, but referee Giovanni Ayroldi only granted a corner and it wasn’t even looked at on VAR. The corner was taken short and Bernardeschi got lucky when he went down easy and bought a free kick just above the right-hand corner of the box. It was the kind of position that, in the recent past, would have heralded Wall Time. But it was right in Dybala’s wheelhouse, and La Joya struck it sweetly, but just failed to get the right dip and clipped the crossbar.

Sixty seconds later, Ayroldi’s whistle ended the game, and Juve’s pit deepened even further.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Did what he had to do well, claiming crosses well and at one point making an alert dash out of his box to bail de Ligt out after an ill-advised back pass. Nothing he could possibly have done to stop Zapata’s goal.

JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Defended well and consistently threw himself into physical battles with his countryman Zapata. Racked up two tackles, two interceptions, and three clearances, with one key pass going the other way.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5. Not a great week for the Dutchman with Giorgio Chiellini out injured. He came close to disaster multiple times with back passes that were hit either too short or too long, and looked generally overwhelmed at times. He was also caught too deep playing Zapata onside on the goal, although that entire play happened so fast that you can’t fault him too badly for it.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Led the team with four interceptions and defended well for most of the day. The odd duck was his passing, only completing 78 percent of his attempts. He was only three for seven on his long balls, but the ones he did complete created what amounted to significant threat in this game.

ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Surprising to find two key passes attributed to him, because he felt relatively anonymous for the majority of the night. The spurt of form that started the season seems to have petered out, and it may be time to see if Luca Pellegrini can truly push him for this job.

WESTON McKENNIE - 6.5. A really good day out of the midfield for the Texan. He tied for the team lead with four key passes, and contributed defensively with a pair of interceptions. His gorgeous long ball for Chiesa deserved to become an assist. He’s just hit a nice vein of form, which makes the injury that forced him off all the more ill-timed.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Completed 92.4 percent of his passes and was one of the only players actually moving the ball forward out of midfield. Also made three clearances and a pair of tackles. It tells you a lot about the state of the attack that he led the team in dribbles (3). He’s generally played well since his arrival, but he needs more help in the middle of the park.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Could’ve been higher had Musso not denied him an equalizer, but not by much. His night was characterized mostly by the spraying of passes all over the place. Continually played out of place in this mostly-4-4-2, he simply isn’t being put in the best position to succeed.

PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. His four key passes tied for the team lead and he forced one save out of Musso, but the lack of service from the midfield saw him dropping really deep to try to get things started, especially in the first half. That last kick would have been heroic, though. But he gave a huge effort and never gave up.

ALVARO MORATA - 5. Morata is an incredibly streaky player, and right now that streak has taken the form of Snow Miser. For whatever reason he doesn’t seem to have much burst in terms of pace, which inhibits him from making any strong runs from deep. And let’s not forget it was his loose pass that led to the goal. He shouldn’t be considered an automatic starter at this point.

FEDERICO CHIESA - 5. Only touched the ball 29 times, and didn’t make too much with it when he did. One of his few strong runs started in his own defensive third, and after he’d made his first man miss he had two more to deal with by the time he got to midfield. An injury is bad news for Juve, but it also could enforce some much-needed rest, because after a long 2021 he looks like he’s dragging.

SUBS

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. The rust from a month on the shelf showed. He never really got anything going in place of Chiesa and winged a bunch of rushed shots that never had a prayer of finding the target.

MOISE KEAN - 5.5. Didn’t get very good service, but he wasn’t able to even get a shot in. Did do a few things off the ball and his presence freed up Morata to perk up a little bit before he was taken off.

KAIO JORGE - NR. Didn’t have nearly enough time to make any sort of impact. Needs to be put on earlier in situations like this.

***BONUS LOANEE RATING***

MERIH DEMIRAL - 8. An absolutely immense day in defense for the Turk. He racked up five tackles, four interceptions, and four clearances and kept Morata shackled until the introduction of Kean opened things up for him a little bit. Surprising that Juve didn’t attack him more once he was booked in the second half. The way he’s played this year it’s almost certain that Atalanta will exercise their purchase option, which could put Juve in a sticky spot when it comes to a much-needed rejuvenation of the center-back position.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-JUVENTUS-ATALANTA Photo by ISABELLA BONOTTO/AFP via Getty Images

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Not a lot of people knew what shape Allegri was planning on sending out when the starting lineups were released. It didn’t necessarily look like any of his players did, either. Players roamed the pitch without really looking like they had a real purpose, and when they did have the ball they were either giving it away fairly cheaply or, if they were off the ball, standing in place waiting for something cool to happen with the guy with the ball.

Right now, it simply doesn’t look like Allegri is coaching this team particularly well. This is a manager who was able to break through the vaunted press of Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund team with relative ease, yet seemed at a loss for how to break Gasperini’s version. There’s no togetherness, no chemistry that you’d expect even after a coaching change by the time November rolls around. In his press conference he complained about the players being too anxious in the attack, but to me that seems like a byproduct of them either not knowing what is expected of them or of being played in a position that doesn’t suit them that they don’t have the instincts for.

The players do bear some level of responsibility, but Allegri’s coaching also looks about as listless as it did at the end of his first time in charge.

LOOKING AHEAD

The schedule doesn’t ease up in terms of pace over the next few weeks, but it does in terms of the level of the opponents. Things start with a trip to newly-promoted Salernitana, followed by visits from relegation-threatened Genoa and then Malmo to finish off the Champions League slate before another road league game, this time against the league’s big surprise in Venezia. Only then will they get more than three days off between games.