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New era, same problems as Juve are held by Udinese in opener

Self-inflicted wounds were again the theme as Juve blew a lead and again dropped points in a game that should’ve been simple.

Udinese Calcio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

For 45 minutes, it looked like things were going to be better.

For 45 minutes, Juventus looked phenomenal, controlling the game and building a two-goal lead over Udinese.

But as the sunlight waned Sunday, so too did the bright start, and the Juventus we were left with in Massimiliano Allegri’s first match back was the same one that we saw far, far too often last year under Andrea Pirlo and they year before that under Maurizio Sarri. Self-inflicted wounds were the theme once again. The spotlight will be on the two startling howlers committed by Wojciech Szczesny in goal, but it would be a mistake to reduce the game to those. The attack died out in the second half, producing only one shot on target, and that came in stoppage time. Not counted in that tally was the disallowed goal scored by Cristiano Ronaldo, who had come off the bench and thought he had a winner at the death only to see the goal chalked off for the most ludicrously marginal offside call you’ll see all year.

It’s telling, by the way, that the way Juve melted down in that second half was indeed so crazy that it drowned out the fact that Ronaldo started the game on the bench, reportedly by his own request — which won’t get the media going crazy in the slightest.

It was a kooky and convoluted formula to come up with a 2-2 draw, but the main takeaway is clear: simply putting Max back in the manager’s office isn’t going to be the magic bullet so many — Andrea Agnelli included — were hoping for when he was reappointed.

In the hour before kickoff the Ronaldo situation did indeed dominate all discussion, with the unexpected news that he wasn’t in the starting XI followed quickly by the equally surprising news that he had asked out. Federico Chiesa was also curiously left on the bench to start before word came out it was due to a slight physical issue, leaving the trio that had played so well against Atalanta a week ago absent save for Paulo Dybala. Allegri therefore started a 4-4-2 setup that was anchored by Szczesny at the back. Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro were arrayed in front of him. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi played as the wide midfielders. Weston McKennie was serving a yellow-card suspension triggered on the last day of last season, Adrien Rabiot and Arthur were injured, and Manuel Locatelli wasn’t yet fit to start, so Rodrigo Bentancur and Aaron Ramsey were the only central midfielders available. Dybala wore the captain’s armband, joining forces with Alvaro Morata up front.

Luca Gotti countered with a 3-5-1-1 formation. Marco Silvestri started in goal behind the trio of Samir, Rodrigo Becao, and Bram Nuytinck. Nahuel Molina and Iyenoma Udogie played as the wing-backs, with Wallace, Jean-Victor Makengo, and Tolgay Arslan in midfield. Former Juve player Roberto Pereyra played slightly behind Ignacio Pussetto up top.

Juventus’ season started about as well as you could possibly asked for. Juve forced a corner within a minute and a half, and with 2:05 on the clock their vice-captain fired them into the lead. The move was simple but lethal, with Cuadrado tapping the ball into the right channel to meet a run that Bentancur made from deep in midfield. The Uruguayan immediately turned and squared it into the path of Dybala, who was running inside of him. La Joya beat the defenders to the spot and flicked it past Silvestri without any wasted movement whatsoever, and Juve were on top of things early.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-UDINESE-JUVENTUS Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Udinese had their first shot in the ninth minute after a series of quick passes between Pereyra and Pussetto, whose shot went right at Szczesny for an easy save. Beyond that, the home team had a decent amount of possession but weren’t able to figure out how to use it. Juve had a few more probing attacks before Dybala sent a gorgeous diagonal pass across the field to a streaking Cuadrado. The Colombian pulled the ball down and faced up Nuytinck. He feinted a cut inside then burst forward on the same plane, freeing himself up to fire across the goal and into the net to double the lead on 23 minutes.

Juve were playing well as the game headed for the break. Silvestri wasn’t exactly under siege, but he was certainly the more concerned of the two goalkeepers. Morata swung a loose ball in the box past the post just after the half-hour mark and on the stroke of halftime smacked one into the side netting from a tight angle after Ramsey redirected a wayward Dybala cross. But Juve were by far the better side, connecting with each other as they attacked and completely stymieing their opponents, who were clearly missing the creative talents of Rodrigo De Paul. It looked like clear sailing to their first three points of the season, the first step toward possibly regaining their title.

Then, the second half happened.

Udinese came out of the gates looking better, and five minutes after the restart a total team failure in defense was punctuated by the first of Szczesny’s brain farts. Arslan had taken a pass from Udogie and cut inside, leaving it off for Pereyra. De Ligt had come up to pressure the Argentinian, and Ramsey up and stopped tracking Arslan after he dumped the ball off, leaving a huge hole for the German to run into and shoot. The shot was right at Szczesny and wasn’t particularly venomous, but the Poland international spilled it back into Arslan’s path, then took too long to recover and took the midfielder down as he went back for a second bite. Szczesny’s error was calamitous, for sure, but just as bad was Ramsey standing there throwing his arms into the air as he wondered why no one was doing his job.

Pereyra converted the penalty easily, but Juve very nearly put the lid back within three minutes, when Morata went up in a crowd and met a cross from Sandro, looping a header toward the far post and bouncing it off the stick. Udinese, knowing they had gotten away with one and smelling blood, Gotti sent on former La Masia product Gerard Deulofeu, and the Spaniard very nearly earned his team a second penalty minutes after coming on, but the VAR check revealed that while he may have been fouled by Danilo — it would’ve been a ticky-tack call — there was also an offside in the buildup, negating anything that had come after it.

Allegri made a triple sub while the VAR review was in progress, sending on Giorgio Chiellini, Dejan Kulusevski, and Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar was given an immediate chance on a set piece, but missed a sitter as he headed Dybala’s delivery wide. He nearly picked up an assist three minutes later, laying the ball back for a waiting Bentancur, whose first time shot from the top of the penalty arc slammed into the post for the second time on the night.

The triple sub changed the formation to a 3-4-3, with Danilo moving into midfield. It was a classic Allegri move to secure a game, but it also muddled the attack, and Juve struggled to put the ball forward in order to extend the lead. Udinese weren’t exactly forcing them to man the barricades, but one moment would be all it took to complete Udinese’s comeback — and that moment was duly gifted to them in the 83rd minute.

It was an inauspicious enough back pass from Bonucci that turned into a calamity, as Szczesny took the ball and then for reasons only known between him and the Lord decided to try to dribble through the pressure of both Deulofeu and fellow substitute Stefano Okaka. Instead he ended up in even deeper trouble, poking the ball off of Okaka and to the feet of Deulofeu, who slotted the ball into the empty net. He was initially flagged offside, but a VAR check determined he was even with the ball when it came off of his teammate, and the game was tied.

Udinese Calcio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Manuel Locatelli’s Juventus debut came in a far less auspicious manner than everyone had hoped, with Allegri throwing him out with a minute left on the clock with his final substitution. With multiple VAR stoppages, referee Ivano Pezzuto added six minutes of stoppages, and Juve generated a pair of excellent chances. The first came from Dybala, took down a long ball from Chiellini, gave some ground, then unleashed a sweeping 24-yard strike that was denied by a diving, one-handed save from Silvestri. Then came Ronaldo’s effort, rising high over Becao to head home a gorgeous cross from Chiesa, only to have the goal disallowed by VAR for what had to be perhaps an inch’s worth of his shoulder. It was a call that adhered to the letter of the offside rule but once again highlighted the need to reform it. There simply wasn’t any way that Ronaldo actually gained an advantage on his defender from the position he was in.

There was another minute tacked on after that to account for the review, but it did neither team much good, and when the whistle started, Juve had dropped points on opening day for only the second time since 2011, and there were still far more questions than answers on the day.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCEICH SZCZESNY - 3. Easily the worst rating I’ve ever given to a keeper on this site. Szczesny’s been on a rough run of form since the beginning of 2021. Last season could be considered a blip for a keeper that has been otherwise eminently competent since taking over the starting gloves in 2018, but as the bad starts to stretch into the new season it starts to become concerning. Both goals were ultimately his responsibility, although the defense does share some blame for the first. Szczesny needs to get right, because if he stays this shaky it’s going to be a real problem.

DANILO - 6. Recorded more clearances than anyone on the team (3) and was steady from the full-back position, although things broke down a little as he moved into the middle of the park.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Blocked a pair of shots and completed 91.3 percent of his passes. Had a good game overall but was a little out of position when Arslan burst into the box early in the second half.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Tied the team high with four interceptions, and generally stayed strong in defense.

ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Made two key passes from the left flank and generally kept his side of the field on lock. Would’ve had an assist were it not for the post.

JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Despite his relatively successful transition to full-back the last few years, it was fun to see him focusing on the attack today. He was, as usual, his fingerprints were all over the attack. He initiated the move for the opener and his goal 20 minutes later was gorgeous. Oh, and he led the team with three tackles too.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Easily his best game in a year. Assisted on the opener and very nearly put the game away in the middle of the second half when he tried to shape one in but hit the post. Defensively he racked up two tackles and four interceptions. Playing as a mezz’ala simply suits him better. If he can do this for the rest of the year, it will be a much-needed boost to the midfield.

AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. His defensive mistake on Arslan’s run was a major mistake, but he was otherwise relatively inoffensive playing as a makeshift regista. That said, Locatelli in this spot will bring everything up a level.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Only touched the ball 16 times in an hour, posting hardly any counting stats at all. Tough to see what exactly his instructions were on the pitch.

PAULO DYBALA - 8. At his sublime best in this game. His goal was an excellent poacher’s flick, and his assist to Cuadrado was simply fantastic. He faded in the second half, but still came a fantastic save away from putting Juve back in front in stoppage time. If he plays like this all season, good things will result.

ALVARO MORATA - 6. Did a lot of dirty work making runs in the box to stretch the defense, and came oh-so-close to re-establishing Juve’s lead when his header bounced off the pipework. Overall, a good shift.

SUBS

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. I was frankly going to make this grade slightly lower, because he didn’t have the best of games, including a missed sitter right after he came on, but he deserved that goal at the end. His benching at the start is going to toss out a ton of rumors over the next week, though, so buckle up.

Udinese Calcio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. A great long ball nearly sprung Dybala for the winner in stoppage time, picking up a goal and an assist over his half-hour on the field.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5. Made little impact going forward as Allegri tried to freshen things up up top.

FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Should’ve had an assist at the end. It was a surprise to see him on the bench, but one has to assume he’s still not at full fitness after his extended vacation after the Euros. Playing him as a wing-back, though, isn’t where you want to see him after such a great tournament.

MANUEL LOCATELLI - NR. Frankly should’ve been on a lot earlier than this, and didn’t have time to do much of anything.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Talk about bold to leave Ronaldo out of the starting XI your first game back — whether he asked out of the lineup for not. But Allegri’s fingerprints are also all over this game in a less great kind of way.

This game was a billboard for one of the worst qualities of an Allegri team — the tendency to disappear and start dropping too deep when holding on to a lead. The signs were already cropping up before Szczesny’s first big mistake, and it’s something that Allegri is going to have to stamp out quickly if this season is to be more successful than the last. His change to a 3-4-3 also muddied things, came far too early, and contributed to the lack of cohesion that the team would suffer as the game wore on. Last season was derailed by dropping far too many points to teams Juve should be beating, and this was one of those games—an inauspicious start to say the least.

One other issue was with Allegri’s substitutions. He mentioned in his press conference, this was his first time coaching an official game with five subs, and he didn’t quite use them effectively. A change was needed around the hour mark, but his triple change was a little too drastic and muddied the waters tactically. His frustrating tendency to make the right decision far too late was also on display, as Locatelli really should have been on 10 minutes earlier than he was to try and establish a little more control in midfield. If you don’t think he’s fit to start yet, fine, but he can go 10 minutes. It was a weird decision to throw him on right at the end when he could’ve stabilized things if he’d come on before the equalizer.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve will come back to a home crowd for the first time, against newly-promoted Empoli. Then, usefully, the team will split up for the international break before coming back on September 12 for a big game against Napoli in Naples.