You can talk all you want about Cristiano Ronaldo.
You can talk all you want about the state of the squad.
You can even talk all you want about the fact that Juventus should have been awarded a penalty on the half-hour mark that could’ve changed the face of the game.
But none of that will push aside the fact that Juventus was abjectly awful in Saturday’s home opener against Empoli. Playing in front of a substantial crowd at the Allianz Stadium for the first time since lockdown, the Bianconeri put forward a performance that had all the attractiveness and appeal of a wet fart. The responsibility for that performance rests solely with the man in charge of the team.
Massimiliano Allegri made so many puzzling decisions in this game that Sherlock Holmes would’ve had trouble teasing out just what the hell he was thinking. Players were scattered about into positions that they had no business being in. Any semblance of a plan was unidentifiable. The players just kicked the ball around trying to do ... something, I guess. They were probably guessing, too, because few of them looked like they had any idea what they were supposed to be doing.
The result was predictable: a 16th straight game in Serie A without a clean sheet and a 1-0 loss to the newly-promoted Tuscan outfit. It was the first time Juve had lost to Empoli in league play since 1999 — also the year Juve last lost back-to-back games against teams that had been promoted the season before, a feat they achieved in coupling this loss to last March’s flop against Benevento. It was a truly putrid display, and it doesn’t make things look promising for the coming season.
With Ronaldo gone and Aaron Ramsey (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) injured, Allegri was looking at a relatively thin squad, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse some of the decisions he made in his starting XI. It became increasingly difficult to actually tell what player was playing what position (or if any players had actually been given any positions beyond the back four), so I’m gonna call it what most of the media called it, a 4-3-1-2. Wojciech Szczesny was given a vote of confidence with a start after his horror show last week, with Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro in front of him. Without Ramsey and with Manuel Locatelli still deemed unfit to start, Danilo was placed in the regista position, flanked in midfield by Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot. Weston McKennie was back from suspension and looked to put the late transfer speculation behind him, but was slotted into a trequartista position behind Federico Chiesa and Paulo Dybala as a strike pair.
Empoli brought Aurelio Andreazzoli out of retirement after the coach that brought them to the Serie B title, Alessio Dionisi, decamped for Sassuolo this summer. He countered with a 4-3-1-2 of his own, with Guglielmo Vicario in goal behind the back line of Petar Stojanovic, Ardian Ismajli, Sebastiano Luperto and Riccardo Marchizza. Filippo Bandinelli, Samuele Ricci, and Nicolas Haas played in the midfield, with Nedim Bajrami in the hole behind Patrick Cutrone and Leonardo Mancuso.
As if this night wasn’t infuriating enough, the first 15 minutes or so were actually really, really good for Juve. Bentancur fizzed a cross across the face of goal within the first 60 seconds, and in the fourth minute Chiesa took a pass from Alex Sandro and, with little support forthcoming, sped past his defender and fired a tight-angle shot from four yards out that Vicario didn’t so much save as he happened to be in its way when it hit him in the chest. Four minutes later, it was Cuadrado’s turn to whip one in on the byline on the right, just eluding the outstretched foot of Chiesa. Four minutes after, that Chiesa made another solo effort, slaloming down the middle and drifting right, evading two defenders before cutting his shot back against the grain, only to see a diving Vicario deny him a special goal with one hand on the dive.
As good as things were looking, Empoli hadn’t come to play sacrificial lamb, and in the 14th minute, the first sign of danger appeared when Cutrone got behind de Ligt and to the byline on a long ball over the top. His cross was interdicted by Bonucci, but fell awkwardly for the Dutchman and he was unable to clear it before it bounced out for a corner. The Juve defense didn’t learn their lesson, and in the 21st minute paid the price when Empoli pulled out a similar passage of play that started further up the field. The initial pass had Cuadrado ball-watching, allowing Bandinelli to get behind him and bring Bajrami’s one-time pass to him downfield. The midfielder returned it to him on a pullback. Danilo blocked the initial shot, but the deflection bounced to Mancuso, who had gotten free of some rather lax marking from Alex Sandro. The Empoli captain flipped the ball up into the air and then half-volleyed it through the legs of a charging Szczesny, who was trying to make himself as big as possible, giving Empoli the shocking lead.
Chiesa very nearly responded within 60 seconds, forcing his third save of the day out of Vicario with a first-time curler from outside the box. Cutrone came close after a Juventus giveaway gave him the opportunity to run toward the box and fire, but he put it just wide. Then, at the half-hour mark, Dybala was tripped up by the heel in the Empoli penalty area, but both referee Davide Ghersini and VAR official Marco Guida skipped over the obvious infraction and the play didn’t even go to a review.
As the half wore on, Juve sank deeper and deeper into a quagmire. For the last 15 minutes of the period Empoli were clearly the bigger threat to score, eliciting a couple of blocked shots and, in the last minute of the half, were nearly given a boon by Chiesa when he tried to cushion a header back to Szczesny only to ping it toward the upper part of the goal and force his keeper to tip it over the bar.
Changes were clearly needed at the half, but only one came in the form of Alvaro Morata. He took the place of McKennie, who had a rough first half in a position whose role seemed ill-defined and certainly not tailored to his strengths. Morata immediately tried to make an impact, pressing high and gaining the ball upfield, only for his square ball from the left channel to be dug out. He then held play up nicely before delivering the ball for Dybala, who streaked downfield only to hit a shot right at Vicario.
But Empoli weren’t going away, and indeed still seemed to be the side with the better chance of scoring during some phases of the second half. Szczesny had to tip a shot over (from the other team this time) just after Dybala’s effort, while Juve’s midfield continued to fail to create any meaningful chances. The game was crying out for Locatelli’s presence, and Rabiot, just coming off injury, was indeed withdrawn in the 55th minute ... for Federico Bernardeschi, who was put into the side like-for-like as a mezz’ala — which, for those of you who are new to the blog and Juve as a whole, is not his natural position.
Someone had to step up and make things go, and Dybala began dropping deeper to try to get the ball and create something. He turned and ran with a pass from Cuadrado in the 58th minute, just missing the top corner from 23 yards, then nearly found Morata at point-blank range with a good cross but Vicario stepped in front to claim it before it could get to the Spaniard. He had another go from range a little later, but missed by a much bigger margin.
Locatelli was finally introduced for Bentancur with 25 minutes left to go, along with Dejan Kulusevski, who came on for Chiesa, who had been Juve’s most effective player by a long margin but was likely spent by that point. Almost immediately he traded a series of one-twos with Morata that got him in position to shoot, but Ismajli was in the way of the shot. The newcomer then had a golden opportunity to open his account in front of the home fans after some fantastic footwork by Kulusevski on the left side, but pushed his sliding effort wide of the near post.
But that was the last serious threat Juve would make until stoppage time.
Things definitely improved with Locatelli on the pitch, but by this point the team was so discombobulated that his work largely went for nothing. Bernardeschi, out of position with few natural instincts as to how to play as a midfielder, looked like a chicken with his head cut off, whacking wayward passes and losing the ball along the touchline under minimal pressure. There were times when Juve would pin Empoli back for a minute and you thought they’d finally gotten the bit between their teeth, but then Empoli would make a run into the Juventus half and threaten again forcing a scramble to get back and defend. Locatelli had one last chance to equalize in the fourth minute of stoppage time when Morata found him with a square in the left channel, but his left-footed effort was always rolling wide.
Sixty seconds later, Ghersini blew the final whistle, adding Empoli to a list of visiting winners at the Allianz that is rapidly becoming a little less exclusive.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. A little wonky here and there, punching one or two balls he might’ve caught, but he also came out with authority to clear a ball in the first half before an Empoli player could run clear on goal, and didn’t make any of the mistakes he made against Udinese. Yes, the goal went through his legs, but in that situation a keeper has to make himself big and hope for the best, the defense had him stranded.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Quite amazing how important he is to the Juve attack even when he’s having a bad game. Despite four key passes, his crosses were often inaccurate and having to play as a full-back again divided his attention. His ball-watching helped Empoli initiate the move they scored on.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5.5. A relatively solid day defensively, leading the team with six clearances, although he did let Cutrone get behind him once early on and gave the ball away too many times
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Like de Ligt, he gave the ball away far too often (both had pass completion rates of 80.7 percent), though he defended well enough when facing down Empoli’s attackers and blocked two shots.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Had a pair of key passes, but also played a critical role in the winning goal, allowing Mancosu to get free for the strike.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. His numbers make his day look better than the eye test — but the eye test was still pretty darn bad. He made a couple of giveaways in his own half, but did end up making a pair of key passes and three tackles.
DANILO - 5.5. Did his best, but at the end of the day he’s not a regista and the team’s buildup play suffered as a result. When you only complete 84 percent of your passes out of that position, you’re not going to go very far. Did play relatively solid defense in front of the back four.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Likely on a minutes count after coming back from a training camp injury, Rabiot was fairly anonymous, gaining possession a few times but other than that failing to make any kind of impact going forward. Hopefully he’s just knocking the rust off after missing the entire preseason.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5. I said last week that I wasn’t sure what instructions Federico Bernardeschi had been given by Max Allegri. That goes doubly for McKennie on Saturday, how was playing a weird cross between a trequartista and a winger that simply didn’t work. That kind of position doesn’t get the best out of him and his work rate, and it’s not something that ought to be tried again. He only touched the ball 15 times — three fewer than Mattia De Sciglio did in 10 minutes.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7. The only guy in the starting XI who was worth a damn today. Of the five shots Juve put on target, he had three of them, and all of them were really damn good saves by Vicario. Add in a pair of key passes and led the team in dribbles, as well as recording two tackles. He ran everywhere and was the only player with any grit or determination.
PAULO DYBALA - 5. A pretty good game followed by a pretty poor one to start the year for Juve’s new centerpiece. Only put one of his three shots on frame and couldn’t get started as a creative force up front, although he was also the victim of a couple of really good plays by the Empoli defense, first by Vicario when he nabbed a cross destined for Morata, and then late on he was stoned by a good last-ditch tackle in the channel. Still, this is the kind of game he’s going to have to pick up now.
ALVARO MORATA - 5.5. Made three key passes and played some decent holdup sequences, but couldn’t actually get into position for a shot himself.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. The only reason this isn’t lower is because he should never have been in this position in the first place. He showed none of the instincts a midfielder has, because he isn’t a midfielder. This has been tried by multiple coaches and it simply doesn’t work. Let him be a winger like he’s supposed to be. What’s so hard about that?
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. The game changed for the better — albeit only slightly — when he came on. In 25 minutes, he took three shots, one of which he really should’ve put in. Also picked out a key pass and made the midfield work slightly more efficiently. He should’ve been on the field way earlier.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Had a couple of nice moves in the box, especially his dribble through traffic to set up Locatelli in the box.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. Not really sure what to say about this one. Maybe Cuadrado was just gassed? Maybe Allegri thought he should just use the sub and see what happened? He’s not the kind of guy you would expect to turn things around when you’re chasing the game. I think everything you need to know about the game as a whole is that he came on with the team trailing 1-0 in the 81st minute and his only real counting stat was two clearances.
When I read over Allegri’s post-match press conference, I saw red. Two things in particular pissed me off.
The first: “We must have the patience to take it calmly, play as a team and not try to resolve things as individuals.” Gee, I wonder why? Maybe because the team went out in an ill-defined formation with hardly any real idea about how they were supposed to play? Cause that’s sure as hell how it looked from here. There was no plan, no idea about what they were supposed to do. It looked like they’d been sent out to play sandlot football.
The second: “The things we really did badly were technical errors, because we were frenetic.” Gee, I wonder why? Maybe it’s because a bunch of them were playing in unfamiliar positions they don’t have any instincts for and were trying to work out how to play them on the fly. McKennie was wasted as a weird trequarstisa/winger hybrid, Danilo simply isn’t a regista, and the Bernardeschi-as-mezz’ala thing had proved a bad idea while Allegri was still here the first time. Is it any surprise that the game sped up on these guys and spread to the rest of the team?
This performance was 100 percent on Max. It was his game at its absolute worst. He grabbed a bunch of square pegs and tried to repeatedly jam them into as many round holes as he could find. The team looked like it did at the end of the 2018-19 season before Allegri left the club — completely lacking in identity and with nothing in the way of ideas other than to hope that someone comes out with a piece of individual brilliance to get them back into the game.
His subs were also mystifying. Morata coming on was a proper move, but there was no sense that he, Dybala, and Chiesa knew how they were supposed to interact positionally. Sending on Bernardeschi as a midfielder was, as has been pointed out, completely ineffective. I frankly completely reject the notion that Locatelli was only fit enough to play 25 minutes — he’d been training with Sassuolo for two weeks before the transfer finally went through and, unlike Harry Kane, hadn’t decided to take his ball and go home until it did. It was clear by halftime that the midfield needed him, but he wasn’t put on the field until things were getting desperate, and he was put on without any actual mids around him as support. No one was put in the proper position to succeed.
In a league that’s better overall than it was three years ago, doing things the way he did back then isn’t going to cut it this time. Allegri has to figure things out and shape up — fast. Otherwise, this return is going to look a lot more like Roberto Mancini’s second stint at Inter than Marcello Lippi’s second stint at Juve.
The team will split up and head to their national teams for the first international break of the season. After that, Juve will face off against **checks notes**... Napoli away and AC Milan at home, with a trip to Malmo in the Champions League in between. Needless to say, improvement is going to have to happen very quickly, or else things are going to get really ugly REALLY fast.