Juventus’ 2-0 victory over Udinese on Saturday isn’t going to be remembered for the on-field play. Frankly, it was a pretty drab game. Udinese was decimated by COVID-19 and suspensions, and aside from a 10-minute period early in the second half they looked like they had shown up to the Allianz Stadium because they had to. The fact that Juve only won this game 2-0 — and had to wait until the 79th minute to put it away —was actually something of a disappointment.
But this game will be talked about for a while yet, thanks to the actions of one man.
When Paulo Dybala opened the scoring in the 19th minute, he didn’t celebrate in the fashion we’ve become used to seeing in the last six years. Instead, he acknowledged his teammates before fixing an icy stare in the direction of the box that Juve’s directors were sitting in. Despite his assertion in post-game interviews that he was looking for a friend in the stands, it was pretty clear what this was: an emphatic statement about the state of his contract negotiations with the club, which have now stretched on for almost two years and took another turn this past week when it was reported that Juve were trying to alter the deal that had been struck with him before the new year.
It’s not something that comes out of nowhere, either. Two years ago, after Dybala stubbornly resisted a swap move with Manchester United for Romelu Lukaku, Dybala made his preseason debut in the team’s final friendly against Triestina and scored a lovely goal at the end of the first half. He responded by pointing to the back of his shirt, a pointed indication of his intention about where he’d be going.
With reports (admittedly from sometimes questionable sources) swirling that Dybala is supremely upset at Juve’s eleventh-hour attempt to alter their deal with him, it was naturally all anyone was going to talk about in the aftermath of such a relatively drab match.
While relatively uninteresting from a gameplay standpoint, the game did have some major implications. With Atalanta playing Inter Milan on Sunday night, the victory represents a major chance to gain ground on La Dea and put pressure on the rest of the top four. Atalanta will still have a game in hand after their tilt with the Serie A leaders, but they could well see their lead shrink to two points by the end of play tomorrow.
Massimiliano Allegri made a ton of changes to the starting lineup that went 120 minutes against Inter in the Supercoppa on Wednesday. Wojciect Szczesny, finally in possession of a Green Pass, returned to start in goal sitting behind what ended up looking most like a 4-4-2 setup. Juan Cuadrado and Matthijs de Ligt returned from suspension, joining Daniele Rugani and Luca Pellegrini in defense. Dejan Kulusevski, Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, and Weston McKennie formed the midfield strake, with Dybala and Moise Kean joining forces up front.
Udinese had made a coaching change since they shocked Juve to earn a 2-2 draw on opening day. Luca Gotti had been replaced by Gabriele Cioffi. The former defender cut an absolutely terrifying figure on the touchline, standing 6-foot-5 while barking out instructions in a deep voice that sounded like one of the OP henchmen from an early Bond movie that no-sell’s 007’s offense in their fight scenes. He is squad was still riven with COVID, missing nine players overall, but he sent out a makeshift 3-5-2 to counter the hosts, although some of the players were real fringe pieces. Goalkeeper Daniele Padelli was playing in just his eighth Serie A game in six years, while Marvin Zeegelaar, a nominal wing-back pressed into service in the back three, had played just 57 minutes in the league this year. He was joined by Nehuen Perez and Bram Nuytinck in the back, with Brandon Soppy and Iyenoma Udogie as wing-backs. Tolgay Arslan, Walace, and Jean-Victor Makengo played in midfield, with the potent strike pair of Gerard Deulofeu and Beto setting up at the top.
Juve quickly established themselves as the dominant force in this game, with Udinese completely unable to get themselves any sort of a foothold and showing no inclination to press on defense. The problem was Juve was hardly able to come up with any end product of their own, only mustering a single shot in their first fifteen minutes. It was looking like it would be one of those nights where Juve would slog their way through with an own goal as the difference, when in the 19th minute Arthur took a backwards pass from Dybala actually—get this—sent a good ball forward into the box toward Kean, who squared the ball over to Dybala, who had continued his run after feeding Arthur. Dybala had a step on his defenders and he was essentially one-on-one with Padelli. It didn’t matter how much rust a keeper may or may not have, coming out on top in this occasion against Dybala was a losing proposition, and the Argentine duly tucked it away before the death stare came out for the executive suite.
Juve continued to dominate the game. By the 35-minute mark, they had 73 percent of possession, but still weren’t exactly doing much with it. Padelli, for all his rust, was hardly challenged again, with the closest Juve came to a goal was two minutes before the break, when Bentancur won the ball far upfield and charged forward, setting Dybala up for a long-range shot that flew over the bar.
Things changed a little bit as the second half gent underway. Arthur, who was still feeling a moment when fouled heavily toward the end of the first half and was on a yellow card, came off for Manuel Locatelli, while Federico Bernardeschi came on for a decidedly underwhelming Kulusevski.
It looked for a moment like Juve took the ease of the first half for granted, and for the first 10 minutes of the second period Udinese looked like they were going to climb back into the game and really make Juve stuffer for the points. Fortunately, Udinese was too depleted to truly work out the final touch, and Szczesny wasn’t tested in goal while Juve eventually picked up the intensity again and started to smother their visitors again. Mattia De Sciglio also checked into the game before the hour mark, and he was immediately stuck in to working balls up the left-hand side on the overlap.
Juve slowly took back control, although it was still Udinese who asked the questions with a long-range effort by Beto that was easily smothered. In the 65th minute Juve finally got themselves a sight at a second when Dybala and McKennie interchanged at the top of the box, but the Argentine pulled the shot wide.
By now it was clear that Juve needed a second goal just in case, while equally clear that Udinese was starting to grow in confidence. A header on a corner by Zeegelaar was dug out by De Light before it caused trouble, while at the other end McKennie completely missed a cross coming in from the left, bouncing it off his shoulder and out for a goal kick.
But that turned out to only be a sighter for the American midfielder. In the 79th minute, Dybala switched the ball out wide left to De Sciglio, who fired in an excellent cross that this time found McKennie completely alone for a free header. This time he didn’t miss, and the strike put the game away.
Udinese threw the odd attack forward to try and set up a grandstand finish, but hardly managed to threaten Szczesny at all, and as the minutes ticked by, talk was very much more about Dybala than about the game and its result. When the result finally did come, it put Juve a level on points with Atalanta in fourth place, with Atalanta still holding two games in hand.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Udinese actually outshot Juve 16-14, but only three of those 16 shots gave Szczesny any action and he dealt with them quite easily.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Put a couple of good-looking balls into the box, but they were always slightly ahead of behind their target. He’s set an impossibly high standard for himself the last few years, and this one just dropped below that.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Has quietly put together four pretty darn good games, this one being the best of the lot besides a single mistake late that he ultimately managed to recover from and fix himself. Also managed a key pass and completed 96.4 percent of his passes overall, and five of five long balls.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. He loves to work against big physical strikers like Beto and he did his job again today, keeping the Portuguese striker relatively quiet while working well with Rugani.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 6. Far more effective on the left than Alex Sandro was in the last game. Racked up a key pass and was solid defensively as well. Constantly available on the overlap.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5. Wasn’t able to get himself going at all, constantly ending attacks at his feet. The game is going a little too fast for him right now, with his decisions coming a couple seconds too late. Deservedly pulled at halftime.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Easily his best game of the season. Led the team with five tackles and three clearances, and tied for the lead in interceptions. More than that, though, was the fact that he was constantly winning the ball in advanced positions. He was buzzing around the field today and rolled back the years to when we were all expecting him to make the next step. Got a little ragged as the game went on.
ARTHUR - 6. LOOK WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PASS THE BALL FORWARD! Udinese didn’t press, and Arthur was one of the chief beneficiaries of that, because he didn’t have to indulge his usual instinct to pass laterally or backwards under the pressure. He triggered the opening goal with a nice ball forward, but tailed off after taking a heavy challenge late in the first half, and between that and a yellow card he got for a stupid challenge 23 minutes in Allegri saw fit to pull him for the second half.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7. All over the place (in the good way) as usual. He was the co-leader in interceptions with three, adding in three tackles and a key pass in addition to his goal. He’s started making tons of runs into the box to act as an extra attacking outlet, much the way Sami Khedira did before his body betrayed him. He’s very much grown into what Allegri wants for him and is a vital part of this midfield.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. At his absolute best Saturday night, working to keep possession with some fantastic footwork and buzzing dangerously around the top of the box. His goal was superbly taken and he came close to a second a few other times. Just give him the damn contract.
MOISE KEAN - 6. Didn’t get credit for an assist, which means some official scorer somewhere thought that an Udinese player got a touch to his pass. But the ball he did play was excellent, and he made a couple of really good runs that pulled defenders out of position for his teammates. Also tracked back very well, registering two tackles as he continues to show a Mario Mandzukic-like work rate in that regard.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Completed 94.6 percent of his passes after coming on at the half, and helped the team solidify after a wonky opening 10 minutes.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Second on the team in dribbles, and he stung Padelli’s gloves once cutting in from the right.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. Someone give Sergio a paper bag to breathe into. His assist was an absolutely superb cross, and he showed offensive acumen on the left side that he doesn’t often show. This is the kind of player everyone thought he’d be when Allegri first gave him his debut as AC Milan.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. Made a key pass and a lot of runs into the box in the second half. Played slightly different than Kean did.
ADRIEN RABIOT - NR. Completed every pass he attempted, although he did make a bit of a weird decision with the ball at the byline on defense.
One of my biggest pet peeves about Max Allegri is that he’ll often make the right substitution five or 10 (or more) minutes after he should have. That wasn’t the case Saturday night. While at least one of the changes (Locatelli for Arthur) was enforced because of injuries and yellow cards, Allegri also saw the momentum of the team sagging at the beginning of the second half and took proactive measures to stop it. It was at the same time seriously satisfying and crazy frustrating, because he needs to start doing that in other games as well.
The one thing that did puzzle me was just how many of the players who played significant chunks of minutes against Inter were thrown on for relatively long sub appearances. There wasn’t much reason to throw Rabiot on when a guy like Kaio Jorge could have spelled Dybala for the last few minutes of the match. But really we’re poking at pinpricks here. Allegri handled this game quite well, and here’s hoping he can do the same against bigger opponents as the season progresses.
Speaking of bigger opponents, Juve’s next league match comes Sunday at AC Milan. But before that, they welcome Sampdoria on Tuesday for their first Coppa Italia match of the season. Then comes a potential revenge game against Hellas Verona the first week of February.