The year 2021 has not been a great one for Juventini. It has seen some of the most mystifying results we’ve seen in years, one of the leakiest defense we’ve seen in almost a century, another disappointing Champions League exit, and, ultimately, the end of a decade of domestic dominance.
On Tuesday, that year finally came to an end, and thankfully it did so in a somewhat satisfying fashion.
The 2-0 win over second-bottom team Cagliari was anything but textbook. Juve dominated possession for long stretches, but weren’t fashioning the kind of chances that were putting Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno under siege. Still, though, with that kind of dominance will often find a lucky break, and Juve found theirs five minutes from time, this one in the form of a deflected shot that prompted the perfect reaction from Moise Kean. Up a goal, Juve continued to keep most of possession, but ran some major risks in the second half and in the end were lucky when Cagliari were denied an equalizer first by an inexplicable miss, and then by an absolutely phenomenal save.
But just like the weekend win over Bologna, the Bianconeri were able to shake off those moments and eventually put the game away with a late goal. It was a win that the team absolutely needed to maintain momentum ahead of a massive stretch of games that begin immediately after the Christmas break, and coupled with Atalanta’s unexpected goalless draw against Genoa, it brought Juve all the way back to within four points of the top four.
Massimiliano Allegri held over the 4-3-3 that he used in Bologna on Saturday, making two changes. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual place in goal, defended by Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur made the start alongside Arthur and Adrien Rabiot. Federico Bernardeschi, Alvaro Morata, and Kean formed the attacking trident.
Cagliari came into the game off the back of back-to-back 4-0 thrashings, the latter of which came at home against Udinese over the weekend and prompted a brief trip into ritirio for Walter Mazzarri’s men. The loss also prompted Mazzarri to freeze out several players, including former Juve man Martin Caceres and defender Diego Godin. He deployed a 5-3-2 setup, with Raul Bellanova, Luca Ceppitelli, Gabriele Zappa, Andrea Carboni, and Charalampos Lykogiannis arrayed in front of Cragno in goal. With Nahitan Nandez and Kevin Strootman injured and Razvan Marin suspended, defender Dalbert was pressed into service in midfield, alongside Alessandro Deiola and Alberto Grassi. Gaston Pereiro played off the shoulder of Joao Pedro up front.
Juve broke out of the gate fast. Within the first four minutes they had several chances, the best of which came on a corner kick when de Ligt headed Cuadrado’s corner kick back across the ace of goal, only to see Kean ballon it wide. The Italy international was center stage within 10 minutes, when Cuadrado sent in an inch-perfect cross that he met with a free header, banging the ball off the post. Seconds later he had another opportunity when Bentancur found him with a pull-back in the left channel, but his first touch let him down and he wasn’t able to get off a shot.
It was one-way traffic for Juventus for almost all of the first half. That didn’t necessarily equate to a lot of shots on target, but it was still a welcome change from ceding control of the game to a provincial side and trying to hit on the counter. Juve’s pressure was sustained, but rather low-level, with the possession ranging from the sterile to the slightly more dangerous. Meanwhile, Cagliari’s only real foray forward came at the half hour when Bellanova got up the attacking right and got in a cross, only for Grassi to head wide under pressure from Cuadrdado.
It was a frustrating half, with Juve failing to break down a team that had shipped 38 goals in their first 18 games. Staring at the possibility of going into the locker room with nothing to show for all their possession, the opener arrived with the suddenness of a lightning bolt. It was five minutes before the half when the ball was triggered forward (for once) by Arthur, who released Bernardeschi with a diagonal ball toward the right. The winger was alone against three defenders, but still managed to get himself into a position to put the ball toward goal. He loaded up for what looked to be a long shot looking for the far post, but it was deflected by Carboni. The deflection took the ball right into the path of Kean, who reacted in a split second to head the ball back against the grain, leaving Cragno completely stranded as the ball nestled into the net.
Juve’s dominance continued in the early part of the second period. Sandro just missed the near post with a header on a corner, then Cuadrado tried to find Bernardeschi at the top of the box on a free kick routine, only for the Euro 2020(1) hero to send the ball into orbit.
But on the hour mark a major warning flare appeared. Juve completely switched off and allowed Bellanova to charge down the attacking right. Bonucci failed to track Dalbert properly, and when the right-back’s low cross found the Brazilian at the top of the six-yard box it looked like Juve had just squandered yet another lead against a provincial club. But the defender-turned-midfielder somehow contrived to push the ball past the far post, giving the Old Lady a huge reprieve.
Mazzarri sensed opportunity and sent on Leonardo Pavoletti, allowing him to take the No. 9 spot and giving Joao Pedro a more free role. Eight minutes later they very nearly had their equalizer again, with another cross from the right finding their star for a free header. Pedro had certainly thought he’d scored, but somehow Szczesny threw a hand up and clawed the ball, which was almost past him, over the bar.
The momentum of the game felt like it was starting to turn. A change for Juve was likely needed, but Allegri held off, save for an enforced choice when Kean pulled up in the 73rd minute. Things slowly started to stabilize, and 10 minutes after he came on it was Dejan Kulusevski who helped to finish the game off. The Swede intercepted an attempted switch by Zappa and triggered a three-on-three run. He shot a diagonal ball to Bernardeschi, who had options but decided to go it alone and fired a powerful shot through the hand of Cragno and into the net for his first goal in 43 Serie A games, since his title-clinching score in July of 2020.
With the lead doubled, Cagliari’s strength drained away, and Juve saw the game out without further incident, pulling tantalizingly close to the top four as the season’s definitive moment loomed after Christmas.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Whoo, boy, was that save important. If Joao Pedro had scored that goal ... it’s hard to tell whether or not Juventus would have been able to pick themselves up and go for a winner. It was an important moment and he came up huge.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Led the team with four key passes and was accurate with six of 13 attempted crosses. The way the game flowed he was almost entirely an attacking player, and he was typically excellent. He also came darn close to assisting on some set pieces, and he seems to have really fallen in love with trying to whip an inswinger to the back post the way he did for his Olympico goal a few weeks ago.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Completed nine of 14 long balls, but he clearly lost some focus with Juve going forward so much, because he was the one who was supposed to be marking Dalbert in the 59th minute and he completely lost him.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5.5. Added a key pass going forward but, like Bonucci, lost focus on one of Cagliari’s few forays forward, in his case the Joao Pedro header. It’s nitpicky, but in a game where the defense has very little to do, you simply have to maintain concentration.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. All of Cagliari’s most dangerous moves came from his side, and he was forced into several fouls as guys beat him one-on-one. He got onto a spurt at the beginning of the season but he needs to find that purple patch again and find the player he was when Allegri first signed him.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Completed 93.2 percent of his passes but wasn’t able to do much of anything with said passes, and had a relatively quiet day in midfield for him.
ARTHUR - 5. Am I aware that Arthur was only making his third start in Serie A this year after months on the shelf and is still learning what Allegri expects of him? Yes. Is he still having a rough time of it? Also yes. A regista has to move the ball forward eventually, and Arthur does that so infrequently that it’s hard to see what he brings to the table otherwise. He led the team in tackles, at least.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 4.5. He was there. That’s about the best I can say about him right now. When he ‘s on he’s incredible, when it’s bad it’s like playing with 10 men,
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 8. A constant thorn in the side of Cagliari. He was super active on the right wing, and he could’ve gotten both a goal and an assistant had his cross on the frist game to be over. This might’ve been his best game since the second leg against Atleti.
ALVARO MORATA -6. Swapped with Kean at one point and started operating out wide, cutting inside and causing some consternation on that side of the ball.
MOISE KEAN - 7.5. Came oh-so-close to getting a double after firing off the post. Only Bernardeschi had more shots, and his run and instinct on his goal was just special.
WESTON McKENNIE- 6. Held down his zone in the midfield well after coming on at halftime. He was far more helpful in the attack that Rabiot, and he held his own defensively too.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6.5. An excellent assist to go along with a tackle on the defensive end.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - NR. Completed all of his passes and did a good job holding things down defensively.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. On to play out the final minutes.
KAIO JORGE - NR. See above.
This 4-3-3 that Allegri has pulled out has been quite useful in the absence of Paulo Dybala, and it makes me wonder (again) why steps weren’t taken to ditch the 4-4-2 that we saw at the beginning of the year. The big problem of the game cropped up early, when Morata looked to be struggling a bit. He swapped the Spaniard with Kean and both seemed to flourish, with Morata cutting inside from wide to try to get something going while Kean was playing like a true No. 9 and could have (should have?) had a lot more than what he just showed.
Pulling Rabiot was a necessity, but Allegri may have brought on Kulusevski a little early, especially because Cagliari had really been starting to get a foothold in the game in the 10 minute period around the hour mark. Allegri’s continued lateness with his changes are always problems, but he keeps on doing them so there must be something good.
Allegri will now have a decision to make: does he keep the 4-3-3 or does he bounce back to the 4-2-3-1 once Dybala is back? Both options are better than the 4-4-2, but how he matches formations up — to say nothing of how he will re-integrate injured players like Federico Chiesa and Dybala into the side once they’re back.
Juve are about to enter an interesting phase of the season, and Allegri’s decisions will be critical.
It’s the Christmas break, and on behalf of all of us here at BWRAO we would like to thank you for your patronage over the course of 2021 and to wish you all a happy holiday season. We’ll have pieces going throughout the winter break, and we’ll see you on Jan. 6 for the first game of the ritorna against Napoli.