Sunday’s match between Juventus and AC Milan was being billed as the match of the round as kickoff approached. Both teams were coming in seeking to take advantage of major opportunities. Juve had the chance to leapfrog Atalanta, who had gutted out a shorthanded 0-0 draw against Lazio the day before, and get into the Champions League places (with the caveat that Atalanta do have a game in hand). Milan had the opportunity to keep pace in the scudetto race and stay two points behind Inter (with the same caveat for Inter).
With so much to play for, the expectation was for an intense, exciting game as both teams looked to take advantage of their respective chances in the standings.
We got the intense part, but unfortunately it was for all the wrong reasons.
Players in white stripes and red hacked the crap out of each other over the entire evening. Referee Marco Di Bello struggled to maintain control all game. He was shockingly lenient with his cards, and often allowed clear foul play to get off scot free. Both teams had somewhat legitimate penalty appeals waved away, on decisions that could have gone either way but also looked like they were looking for it.
Neither team did anything particularly stirring from an attacking point of view. Milan forced a few saves out of Wojciech Szczesny, but only one of them was a true test. Mike Maingan, on the other hand, had absolutely nothing to do in the Milan goal. Juve presented barely any attacking threat at all. It wasn’t a case of not getting the last ball right. An awful pitch didn’t help, but the Bianconeri weren’t even getting the third or fourth to last ball right most of the time. All the more frustrating was the fact that this came against Milan’s second-string center-back pairing.
The result was a worryingly toothless attack that couldn’t do anything to make that chance a reality, as the two Italian giants battered each other to a scoreless draw that left neither side happy.
Massimiliano Allegri set his team up in a 4-4-2 formation, which frankly may have been the first sign that things might not be wonderful from an attacking standpoint. Szczesny was screened by the quartet of Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Juan Cuadrado, Rodrigo Bentancur, Manuel Locatelli, and Weston McKennie set up in midfield, while Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata started up top.
Stefano Pioli was missing a bunch of players in his lineup, which he deployed in his usual 4-2-3-1. Franck Kessie was off at the Africa Cup of Nations, while top center-back pairing Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer were both out with knee injuries, in the latter’s case a season-ender. That left him forced to plug Alessio Romagnoli and converted full-back Pierre Kalulu into the middle in front of Maignan. Davide Calabria and Theo Hernandez flanked those two to complete the defense. Rade Krunic and Sandro Tonali formed the double pivot in midfield, with Junior Messias, Brahim Diaz, and Rafael Leao slotted in behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack.
Maignan probably had the most to do in the second minute of the match, when he had to punch away a Cuadrado corner that was curling toward the far post and very possibly could have ended up carrying into the net without the touch. Less than a minute later Calabria went down in the box as Sandro came up behind to challenge for it. The Milan full-back went down relatively easily, but it was still a risky challenge to make, but Di Bello waved it off and eventually called for a Juve free kick as the two continued to tangle for the ball. It wouldn’t be the first time Di Bello would be permissive.
The rest of the first half was marred by two big problems.
The first was the field itself, which had seen six games played on it in the last 11 days, including Inter’s game against Venezia just 24 hours earlier on Saturday night. The result was a pitch that looked like something you’d see in a lower-tier game in eastern Europe as opposed to one of the most famous stadiums on the continent, and it made it difficult for both teams to play the kind of passes they wanted. The other was a complete loss of control by Di Bello, who allowed the physicality of the game to quickly spiral out of control. There were 23 combined fouls in the first half, and by the end of the period both coaches were screaming at the referee to use his cards. He only did so three times in the first half and four overall, in a game that eventually saw 35 total fouls. The result was that neither team could get themselves into a rhythm, and the herky-jerky nature of the game only exacerbated what were turning into some clear problems for Juve on the offensive end.
Both teams created precious little in terms of real chances. Juve’s best — perhaps of the entire game — ended up coming in the 12th minute when Cuadrado put a spell on a long ball, controlling it brilliantly before cutting inside almost to the middle of the field. He tried to go against the grain and hit it to the near post with his left foot, but dragged it wide. Milan had their best opportunity of the entire game eight minutes later, when an excellent passing move between Messias, Ibrahimovic, and Leao allowed the latter to burst into the box, but Szczesny got down and parried his powerful shot. Four minutes later, Dybala skipped in from the right to find his favorite spot in the channel, but he lifted his shot too high.
A few minutes later, cameras spotted Olivier Giroud stripping off his warmups. By the 26th minute, it was clear that Ibrahimovic, who had dropped deeper into Milan’s midfield as the game went on, was struggling, and he was replaced just before he half-hour mark, depriving Milan of their talisman. Just after the change, Calabria — who had scored in this fixture last year — produced two near misses from long distance shots, both of which missed the top corner by inches. Milan was generally controlling the game at this point, with the rare Juve forays out of their own half ending in either bad passes or, in one case, Locatelli sending the ball into orbit. By the time the whistle blew to send the players to the locker room, the play up to that game had been a thoroughly unenjoyable slog.
Little changed in the second half. There were a few less fouls, but the same generally uninspired play. Milan generally kept control of the game, but never generated an attack that gave Szczesny genuine trouble. De Sciglio dropped a beautiful cross into the box to give Morata a free header, but he pushed it past the post.
Juve really only caught sight of goal with the odd header for the rest of the game. Milan had the better of the chances, but none of the shots they did get off were any problem for Szczesny, who was able to save and hold them all. When McKennie failed to get a Sandro cross on target with five minutes left, it was pretty much the end, and the late removal of Dybala from the field signaled that Allegri was content with the draw. After three uneventful minutes of stoppage time, Di Bello blew his whistle for time, and both teams headed back home unhappy.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7.5. Distribution was slightly wonky from time to time, but made a huge save on Leao early and was rock solid with anything else Milan managed to throw at him.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 5.5. Made two tackles and four clearances, and added a key pass on his great cross in to Morata, but he was also made to look foolish by both Leao and Alexis Saelemaekers on the dribble on multiple occasions.
DANIELE RUGANI - 8. The best Juve player in the pitch. Led the team with seven clearances and added two tackles and two interceptions. Was there every time Milan tried to put Leao through in his channel and was on the spot on practically every cross. He’s been huge this month with Juventus suffering a depth crisis at center-back.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Almost as good as his partner was on the day, clearing the ball six times and added a pair of interceptions. He was prepped for a day of battling with Ibrahimovic but got to tangle with Giroud instead and mostly got the better of him.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Had one nice cross but otherwise was unremarkable going forward and had problems with Messias defensively. Not sure why Pellegrini wasn’t given a shot here.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Apart from another near-Olympico Juan looked rather stodgy today. Couldn’t create much on his side and was charged with six unsuccessful touches. He did have that big opportunity early but pulled it wide.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. A second consecutive huge game for the Uruguay international. He led the team in tackles (5), interceptions (4), and had the highest pass completion (93.8 percent) of anyone in the starting XI. That included a key pass and three of four long balls. He’s suddenly come alive at the end of January.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. His passing was off Sunday night in a way we don’t usually see, and his early yellow card hampered him on defense. He started looking a little weary as the game went on, but between the international break consisting of nothing more than an extending training camp for Italy and him hitting the suspension threshold with that card, he’ll get a decent layoff between now and a huge match against Atalanta next month.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. Played really hard and defended well but didn’t have a lot of end product going forward. Had an opportunity late but couldn’t out-jump an out-of-position Kululu. Having him out as wide as he was is an interesting experiment, but it makes me wonder if it’s his best spot.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Worked his tail off, but wasn’t put into good positions enough by the midfield, and he was constantly forced to drop deeper and deeper, either to get the ball so he could start the attack or simply because he was trying to help out defensively, which he did to the tune of a pair of tackles.
ALVARO MORATA -5. His hold-up play suffered and that allowed for Milan to control a lot of the game, especially in the first half, and he directed an essentially free header wide of the goal. That said, that header was the only bit of service he had all game, so it’s hard to judge him too harshly.
ARTHUR - 6. Just seeing him pass the ball forward is a wonderful thing. He completed 95.7 precent of his passes and Juve perked up the tiniest bit while he was on the pitch.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. Didn’t make any impact around the attacking third after coming on. He needs to be better than this in the absence of Federico Chiesa.
MOISE KEAN - 5. Caught offside once while failing to add any spark with Morata going off. Like his teammate, he got precious little service from an attack that was floundering.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - NR. Late-game sub to burn some time and see the game out.
ADRIEN RABIOT - NR. Had nothing to do except avoid catastrophic failures while coming on, which he did.
In the past, it would be around now that Max Allegri found the right formation and combination of players and/or the right formation to make the team hum, and the team would take off. That was always how Allegri did.
Unfortunately, Allegri isn’t quite getting to that point. In fact, Allegri seems to be actively working away from things that have shown themselves to be really good ideas. The 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation simply gets more out of this team, yet Allegri has regressed back to his basic and predictable 4-4-2 he started the season with.
But the most egregious problem comes in midfield. It’s been conclusively shown over the last month that pairing up Locatelli and Arthur dramatically changes this attacking unit by allowing Locatelli to move further forward and orchestrate the attack. They didn’t even play together later, as the Brazilian was the one who replaced Locatelli with roughly 25 minutes left, although the withdrawal of Locatelli was justifiable given his yellow card early. And then you have the fact that Luca Pellegrini really does need to be starting at left-back.
The fact that Allegri is seeing things that work and actively declining to implement it in big games. That’s a nigh-on fireable offense, although Allegri’s big contract means Juve won’t be moving on from him anytime soon. But if Allegri doesn’t start using the positive things he’s finding, it’s going to be really difficult to see this team breaking into the top four by the end of the year.
Another international break is upon us. Juve return to action on Feb. 5-6 with a home game against Hellas Verona, followed by the Coppa Italia quarterfinal against Sassuolo before a huge head-to-head game at Atalanta that could well be decisive in the race for the top four.