It looked like a textbook Max Allegri story.
Heading into the Stadio Diego Armando Maradonna with a squad badly depleted by injuries and the ridiculous scheduling of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, Juventus headed into the locker room at halftime up 1-0 on Napoli, having controlled the game defensively and scored a surprise opener thanks to a major defensive mistake by the hosts. It was looking like a classic Allegri smash-and-grab, the kind we saw a lot in the early days of his first tenure.
But when the second half started, someone forgot to tell the dudes wearing the black-and-white shirts.
Juve were unable to effectively relieve the pressure on their goal, and while they still seemed in relative control of things, it wouldn’t be that way for long. By the end of the half, two more elementary mistakes, one by Wojciech Szczesny and one by Moise Kean, had gifted Napoli their third consecutive home victory over the Bianconeri by a 2-1 score. It extended Juve’s embarrassing string of games without a clean sheet, as well as the string of baffling, elementary errors that have plagued this team for 12 months now and can clearly no longer be placed at the feet of the inexperience of Andrea Pirlo a year ago. With one point from the first three games of the season and another very possible loss looming in a week’s time, Juventus are looking at an uphill battle to even be a factor in the race for the top four this season.
In fairness to Allegri, he came into this game in an awful situation. Every one of his South American players was left in Turin, having only just arrived from CONMEBOL qualifying, some in the last 24 hours. In addition, he was without long-term absentees Arthur and Kaio Jorge, and Federico Chiesa, who was held out as a precaution after picking up a minor muscle injury on international duty. Headed into one of the more difficult places to play in Italy, he only had 14 senior team outfield players available.
Faced with that selection crunch, he fielded about as good a team as he could have. Listed as a 4-3-3 (although it could easily have been a 4-3-2-1), it was anchored by Szczesny in goal, with Mattia De Sciglio, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Luca Pellegrini, who made his Juventus debut after two years on loan. Manuel Locatelli made his first start of the season in midfield, playing the regista position with Weston McKennie and Adrien Rabiot flanking him. Federico Bernardeschi, Alvaro Morata, and Dejan Kulusevski formed the attacking trident.
Luciano Spalletti countered with a 4-3-3 of his own. David Ospina worked around injuries and his own CONMEBOL travel crisis to make the game, and he was screened by the quartet of Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Kostas Manolas, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Mario Rui. Spalletti had a bit of an issue in midfield with Pitor Zielinski carrying an injury and not fit to start, and was forced to give Andre-Frank Anguissa, acquired on loan with an option to buy from Fulham on deadline day, his Napoli debut, joining Fabian Ruiz and Elif Elmas. The usual trio up front of Matteo Politano, Victor Osimhen, and Lorenzo Insigne rounded out the starting XI.
As expected against an under-strength opponent, Napoli started very much on the front foot. Politano had the opportunity to put Napoli up with 18 seconds on the clock, heading a neat cross from Insigne over the bar. Napoli proceeded to methodically take control, and they gained four corners in their first eight minutes. But they failed to make their early pressure amount to much, and Juve made them pay for that failure when Manolas made a costly mistake, falling asleep as he received a throw in and turned to try to pass it back to Ospina. Morata jumped him and charged into the box before lifting the ball over Ospina’s head to put the team up well against the run of play.
Napoli resumed their attack, but for all their possession — and they had nearly 70 percent of it in the first half — they weren’t able to muster much danger save for a couple of shots that went right at Szczesny with little venom on them. Unfortunately, Juve weren’t able to do much of anything, either, unable to get much going in possession when they were able to get it. They very nearly took advantage of another Napoli mistake three minutes before the half when Insigne tried to head the ball all the way back to Ospina from 25 yards away. Kulusevski pounced on the loose ball, but Ospina arrived at almost the same time and was able to block it when the Swede got a foot to it.
The teams went into the locker room with Napoli having been afforded 69 percent possession, but with Juve looking very much in control from a defensive standpoint. Napoli came out and immediately went right back to it, this time denying Juve most any opportunity to relieve the pressure. The Juve back four were still coping relatively well, but when Insigne cut inside and unleashed one of those back post curlers that have been in his arsenal for years. For some reason, the shot seemed to catch Szczesny off guard, and when he finally reacted to a very stoppable effort, he only managed to parry it directly into the path of Politano, who gratefully accepted the gift and tapped the rebound home to tie the score.
McKennie very nearly produced an immediate response when he dragged a shot just past the post, Napoli, invigorated by the goal started coming forward in waves looking for the winner. Matthijs de Ligt was pressed into service as a makeshift fullback when Pellegrini started cramping severely and had to be withdrawn, removing the right flank as an outlet to try to escape the pressure and intensifying the siege. Even when Juve did manage to get out toward Napoli’s end, they either gave it away with a bad pass or got themselves dispossessed. The team needed something to shake things up, but because of the roster crunch the options were limited to Aaron Ramsey, who was put on for McKennie, and Kean, who Allegri opted to hold out until there were only eight minutes left. Only just into the game, the young striker was for some reason positioned in the middle of the six yard box when Zielinski, who had come on for an injured Insigne, swung in yet another Napoli corner.
What was going through Kean’s mind is hard to say. The best guess I can come up with is that he thought he was heading the ball back to Szczesny for him to claim, not knowing that the keeper was anywhere close to being able to do that. Szczesny had to scramble to claw the ball back off the line, but Koulibaly was right in front of him and tapped in the rebound to give Napoli the lead.
Juve’s attempts at a response were anemic, and when the final whistle finally blew, the early-season crisis deepened.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 4.5. He was looking relatively put together until the major malfunction on the equalizer, at which point his game progressively broke down, looking less and less confident. He couldn’t do much about the winner — it was all he could do to claw Kean’s weird header off the line.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Was Mattia De Sciglio the best Juventus player on the field? It’s actually very possible. He led the team with three tackles, was second with five clearances, and was one of only four people on the team to register a key pass. Defended his flank quite well and flipped to the left side when Pellegrini had to come off.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Led the team with six clearances and, together with Chiellini, kept Osimhen relatively quiet in the middle. Could have maybe tried a few more long balls to get the team out of their own half.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. A tackle, an interception, and three clearances punctuated a night of the dark arts, refusing to let Osimhen get much in the way of clear opportunities.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 6. A solid debut. Contributed a key pass from the left side and defended very well, picking up two tackles as well. Cramping knocked him out of the match early, which was a shame, because he was having a good game and showed himself worthy of further time.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Underwhelming in midfield despite the near miss after Napoli’s equalizer. His attacking game is best when the team is on the front foot and he can make runs into the box, but he wasn’t even really visible defensively as a ball-winner either. He’s gotta pick up his game.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. He was pinging the ball around in the first half and made some really nice passes, before tailing off with the rest of the team in the second half. But he worked his tail off defensively and blocked five shots, definitively proving he can operate in front of the defense.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. He was second on the team with four dribbles, which is a surprise because he didn’t create much with it.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. First on the team with five dribbles, but only completed 69.6 percent of his passes and couldn’t create as much you’d think with that kind of number.
ALVARO MORATA - 6.5. Provided the big spark early on with a really good press and a really good finish. He also led the team with a pair of key passes and had a pair of clearances defensively. Deserved more service for his work rate.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Put two of four shots on target, made a key pass, and also had a pair of tackles. If he’d managed to beat Ospina late in the first half, this game could maybe have gone very differently.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5.5. Beaten for pace a time or two and wasn’t really able to push forward as they tried to break out. I don’t want to be too hard on him, because playing as an emergency full-back isn’t his bag, but it certainly wasn’t the greatest.
AARON RAMSEY - 4.5. Utterly forgettable. I literally can’t remember a single thing he did.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Regular readers will know that it’s my policy not to give a number grade if a player spent less than 15 minutes on the field, and that won’t change here. Still, that header ... I don’t know what kind of decision making that was. There will be better days for him, but this was bad.
Games like this are hard to parse when it comes to the manager. He only had 14 senior outfield players available to him, and (for once) he put the best of those players into the right positions to be as successful as possible. For 45 minutes, it looked like he was going to get away with a smash-and-grab win. Then everything else happened.
If there are any big criticisms for me, they both revolve around Kean. In the first place, he should’ve been on much earlier than the 82nd minute. Chalk that one up to Allegri’s maddening propensity to make the right substitution five or 10 minutes too late. Second, why put a young forward like Kean into that particular position on corner defense? That seams like like a schematic deficiency. He has little instinct in that position, and it certainly showed.
But what really bothered me was Allegri’s response in his post-match press conference. To actually utter the words “I cannot reproach my players for anything this evening” when there are two big errors to reproach is almost a disconnect with reality. The same with “The lads did everything the had to this evening.” Were that true, we’d be talking about a very different set of results. Frankly, I’m a little sick of the toxic positivity. Last year, Andrea Pirlo spent most of the year using the self-esteem approach to deal with these mental lapses, and they’re still happening. It’s time to change tack and rattle a cage or two. Otherwise, we’re going to keep seeing this team fritter away points with these ridiculous mental errors. Something has to change.
Juve start their Champions League campaign on Tuesday when they travel to Sweden to face Malmo. Then comes a Sunday primetime affair with AC Milan — which may or may not end up putting Juve into a really bad spot come this time next week.