It was a game that Juventus absolutely had to have.
Not something you usually say about this team when they’re faced up against a team that’s playing its first top flight season in two decades and is currently propping up the table. But after the week anyone remotely connected with Juventus has had, you can be forgiven for thinking that nothing was going to be a given.
After a pair of humiliating losses, injuries to significant players, and off-field issues that are getting significantly more worrisome — and after last season’s inability to handle these kinds of games (**coughBeneventocough**) — Juve absolutely needed this win, especially after Atalanta throttled Venezia earlier in the day on Tuesday, raising the prospect of falling nine or 10 points back of the top four and truly burying their chances of making the Champions League.
Fortunately, they managed to pull themselves through this time. It wasn’t easy. Juve took a 1-0 lead into the half that really ought to have been 2-0, but for some VAR shenanigans of the offside variety. With the game poised, as it so often is, on the edge of a knife, a lucky post strike was all that kept Juve from scrambling for a winner in the latter stages of the game. But a sneaky strike from one of the most maligned players on the team brought the needed closure, and Juve managed to slam through the finish line for a 2-0 victory that will hopefully be the beginning of the team getting back on track.
The news of the day as kickoff time approached was a long-awaited tactical switch from Massimiliano Allegri. With his depth limited due to injuries and the team needing a major kick in the pants, he finally switched from the 4-4-2 he’s been using this season to the 4-2-3-1 that the makeup of this team has been screaming for since Day 1. Wojciech Szczesny took the gloves, with Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, a returning Giorgio Chiellini, and Luca Pellegrini set up to protect him. Manuel Locatelli and Rodrigo Bentancur formed the double pivot, while Dejan Kulusevski, Paulo Dybala, and Federico Bernardeschi banked behind Moise Kean, who started in place of the out-of-form Alvaro Morata.
Salernitana are already on their second coach of the season, and Stefano Colantuono was taking no chances at home against the Turin giants. Vid Belic started in goal behind a 5-3-2 setup. Wajdi Kechrida, Frederic Veseli, Norbert Gyomber, Riccardo Gagliolo, and Luca Ranieri spread out across the back, with Leonardo Capezzi, Lassana Coulibaly, and Nadir Zortea in the midfield. The strike pair joined the forces of Federico Bonazzoli and Simy, who had come up with his fair share of goals against the Bianconeri in three Serie A seasons with Crotone.
Juve looked very much like they were still working their way into the new formation, but they also very much wanted to come out on the front foot against such an inferior team. Dybala tested Belic twice in the first 10 minutes of the game, albeit with easy shots right at the keeper, and Kulusevski came very close in the sixth minute when he took a Locatelli pass off of Kean’s foot and barely missed the far post with a first-time curler.
Juve kept the pressure up, and all the hosts could muster in the early going was a header that Simy zipped past the post with Szczesny scrambling to cover. As opposed to last week, Juve were at the very least putting shots on the frame, although there was still some indecision in front of goal. That indecision was wiped out in the 21st minute, when Dybala played a neat one-two with Kulusevski and unleashed a low rising shot from the penalty arc that powered past Belic and ripped into the net. It was one of the best goals the team has scored this season, and for the first time in a week Juventus wasn’t chasing a game.
Seven minutes later it looked like Juve had doubled their advantage when Chiellini slammed home the rebound after Belic’s excellent save on a wicked Cuadrado free kick. But referee Francesco Forneau was called to the monitor by VAR official Aleandro Di Paolo. At issue was the positioning of Kean, who was offside by several inches of flesh on his shoulder and, in Forneau’s opinion, became involved in the play as he and Bonazzoli first attacked the rebound. Kean’s positioning in no way gave him an advantage over his defender or the keeper, but the obsessive nature of the way VAR deals with offside calls meant that the goal was chalked off. It’s yet another data point in the case for the badly needed overhaul of the offside rule, as calls that marginal aren’t what the rule is meant to address.
The rest of the half saw Juve maintaining the ascendency but looking just out of sync. Players got into good positions for passing moves but they didn’t quite time their passes right. At one point late in the half Cuadrado wasted a really good passing move by executing a dummy when there was no one behind him to dummy to. Gyomber got away with raking Kean down the back of his heel without even being called for a foul, and at the very end of the period Kulusevski made an excellent diagonal run into the box but the pass to him bounced too high and didn’t come down in time for him to exploit his position.
The visitors looked to maintain the attack as they came out of the locker room and Dybala had a shot blocked in the first two minutes, but Salernitana suddenly made a push, and the half took on a back-and-forth rhythm that made Juve’s one-goal advantage far more tenuous that one would hope against a tiny provincial side. It nearly evaporated altogether in the 58th minute when a cross from Veseli bounced off of Chiellini and toward the back post. For some reason, Cuadrado pulled out of a challenge with substitute Andrea Schiavone to avoid bringing him down, leaving the ball for Ranieri to take a free run up and smash the ball across goal. Szczesny was completely stranded, but somehow Ranieri only managed to skip the ball off the far post, the rebound flashing across the empty goalmouth and over the end line.
It was an extreme let-off, and Salernitana smelled blood, pushing forward and bossing proceedings for the next few minutes while Juve regrouped. Ranieri again had a good opportunity as the ball bounced through the box in the 67th minute, this time putting the ball back across. De Ligt, who had collided with Milan Djuric in the box and was lying in a heap with the Bosnian striker on top of him, managed to stick a foot out and redirect the ball out of harm’s way. Play was briefly stopped as VAR decided to check for a penalty, which would’ve been ludicrous to call given the fact that the attacking player was lying on top of de Ligt, but fortunately for all concerned the check was brief.
Juventini blood pressure were rising by the second, but with 20 minute to go those hearts were calmed by the man whose head they had been calling for three days before.
Morata had been introduced just four minutes before, and his first couple of touches had been similar to what we’d been seeing throughout this cold streak he’s been enduring: just off and stalling the attack more than keeping it moving. But in the 70th minute he erased a lot of frustration with a ridiculously cheeky finish. It started with a switch of play from Dybala on the right to Bernardeschi, who came down to the end line and crossed for Morata at the near post. The ball deflected off Zortea and into Morata’s path. He lifted his leg and clipped a low volley with the outside of his foot, nutmegging Belic and finally giving Juve the insurance goal they needed.
Juve saw the result out without much in the way of incident. Dybala had a couple of opportunities to put an exclamation point on things in the closing minutes, first being put through by Morata only to fire his shot straight at Belic, then in the depths of stoppage time when Morata earned a penalty kick. He had to wait for a bit while Allegri went through the odd formality of introducing Matias Soule into the game solely to watch his countryman take the pen. Unfortunately, that went pear-shaped when the turf under him gave way, causing him to slip and sky the ball over the bar with the last kick of the game.
Fortunately, he and his teammates had made things academic long before.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Didn’t have to face a shot on target. The defense had left him completely stranded when Ranieri hit the post, there would’ve been no fault on him whatsoever. Was strong on crosses he could claim and while things got hectic every now and then, the fact that Salernitana only had four shots total is a testament to his organization from the back.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. A really impressive day, hitting three key passes and being the only Juve player to complete a cross. He forced a fantastic save out of Belic on that free kick that led to the disallowed goal. He was strong defensively too, racking up two tackles and three clearances.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. A major step forward after a really bad week for the young Dutchman. Led the team with six clearances and didn’t make any of the mistakes in possession that plagued him in the last two contests, completing 96.4 percent of his 111 pass attempts.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7.5. Really deserved the goal he scored, but turned in a big defensive day with three tackles, two interceptions, and four clearances, to go along with 90.2 pass completion, including seven of 11 long balls.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 6. Tenacious in defense with three tackles, but he needs to iron out his passing, completing just 86.7 percent. Did put in a few good balls from the left, and his pugnacious attitude is a nice thing to see after a few years of wondering where the team’s grinta had gone.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6.5. Made a bunch of really good passes upfield, and completed 93.4 percent of his 121 pass attempts, including one key pass. He’s used to playing in a 4-2-3-1 after years of doing it under Roberto De Zerbi, and with the right partner he can fly in this formation.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Completed 94.3 percent of 122 passes, including eight of nine long. He gave the ball away in the attacking third a bit too much, but his defense was typically pugnacious, racking up three tackles and two interceptions.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. The attack still breaks down a lot at his feet, mostly due to the fact that he still doesn’t trust his right foot and is constantly trying to shift it onto his left, allowing defenders to corral him. However, his assist to Dybala was excellent, and he made three tackles in defense as well. Also led the team in dribbles.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. He understood that he had to take the team on his back — and did so Tuesday night, taking nine shots and hitting the target with four of them, including his peach of a goal. He also racked up two key passes and started the move for Morata’s goal with a nice switch. It’s a pity that the turf gave out on him on the final penalty.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Unfortunate that the slight deflection on his cross deprived him of an assist on Morata’s goal. He worked hard up and down the left, but wasn’t as incisive as the other Wing of Fede, but he also worked hard defensively and recorded a pair of tackles.
MOISE KEAN - 5.5. The service to him wasn’t the best, but he also didn’t do all that much with the ball when he did get it. One of the pieces of his game that he needs to polish is holdup play against a team like Salernitana who will play deeper more often than not. He also needs to learn to just let fly — he didn’t register a shot in this game, although he did provide a key pass.
ALVARO MORATA - 7. Excellent finish after only four minutes, and his holdup play was generally better. Also deserved an assist with his late ball to Dybala but his teammate couldn’t convert.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Competent defense on the left flank and didn’t put a pass wrong in 25.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Added some defensive muscle as Allegri dropped back into a 4-4-2 to defend his lead once he got his second goal.
MATIAS SOULE - NR. Frankly, I’m mad about this one. A kid only has one debut, and he deserved to do more than walk onto the field and watch Dybala take a penalty.
That was my reaction when I realized that Max Allegri had finally decided to make the tactical shift that this team has been crying out for for months.
Granted, it’s not like the team was flying like the days of the old Five Star lineup. The players were clearly trying to figure out the new shape and how to interact with each other in the shape. But it also put each player on the field in their best position, with the possible exception of Cuadrado, who’s needed at the fullback spot in the absence of Danilo and Mattia De Sciglio. While there was still an element of disjointedness, there were also some good moves that just lacked a good finish, and they can only get better with more experience.
Allegri needs to keep this formation going. The roster is still a flawed one, but this 4-2-3-1 is the formation that fits it best, and it can only get better when Federico Chiesa and Weston McKennie return from their injuries and plug into it, to say nothing of the aforementioned full-backs freeing up Cuadrado to move forward to the wing.
We can only hope that this long-awaited tactical switch is a real step forward as opposed to a one-off. We can only wait to find out whether it remains in place on Sunday.
Juve next welcome Genoa to the Allianz Stadium before finishing the Champions League group stage against Malmo. That’s followed by consecutive road games against Venezia and Bologna. The string of lower tier opponents continues through Christmas, and Juve need the points from each of them.