One of the fundamental aspects of sport is that no two games are ever the same. One day you’ll roll through the turnstiles or turn on your TV and watch a game that takes your breath away. Other times, you get a game so dull that you get the feeling that, if aliens ever visited Earth and demanded to be shown your chosen sport, only to see that, they’d start vaporizing the planet.
Saturday’s match between Juventus and Lecce was decidedly the latter. One team failed to register a shot on target. The other didn’t manage to do so until moments before the halftime break. Neither team looked capable of a serious threat, let alone actually scoring a goal.
Juve, who thankfully were the latter team, at least had the semi-excuse of coming into the game in yet another selection crisis. They came into the game at the Stadio Via del Mare with 10 players unavailable for various reasons. That forced Massimiliano Allegri’s hand into playing some of the young players that we’ve been hoping to see more of for a while now. That includes Nicolo Fagioli, who came on for his first appearance in more than a month at halftime.
Fagioli made an immediate impact, and with 17 minutes left to play injected a sparkling dash of quality into an otherwise dour match, hitting an absolutely gorgeous far-post goal that kissed the very top of the upright on its way in, a goal evocative of the stunners that marked Alessandro Del Piero’s early career. It was a shining island of quality in what otherwise was a completely stagnant match, and proved to be the margin of victory in a 1-0 game that kept Juve at least in their own spot in the standings. Entertaining and engaging this one wasn’t — it was a case of simply getting the job done any way they could.
Allegri was missing, for one reason or another, deep breath Kaio Jorge, Marley Ake, Mattia De Sciglio, Leandro Paredes, Angel Di Maria, Manuel Locatelli, Gleison Bremer, Paul Pogba, Federico Chiesa, and Dusan Vlahovic. Utilizing the players he did have available, Allegri settled on a slightly strange 4-4-1-1 formation. Wojciech Szczesny settled in in goal, with Juan Cuadrado, Federico Gatti, Danilo, and Alex Sandro arrayed in front of him. Matias Soule, Weston McKennie, Adrien Rabiot, and Filip Kostic formed the midfield strake, while Fabio Miretti played in the hole behind Arkadiusz Milik.
Lecce coach Marco Baroni countered with a 4-2-3-1 setup. Wladimiro Falcone started in goal, with Valentin Gendry, Marin Pongracic, Federico Baschirotto, and Antonino Gallo protecting him in defense;. Morten Hjulmand and Alexis Blin formed the double pivot, while Remi Oudin, Joan Gonzalez, and Gabriel Strefezza supported Assan Ceesay up front.
The first half was one of the most drab affairs one could watch in this sport. Juve created little, and Lecce created even less. The disciplinary situation was more noteworthy than anything either team could conjure up offensively. Four Juve players were booked within the first half hour, including one instance in which Miretti was lucky to stay on the field after catching Oudin high with his studs. Fortunately, he evaded a VAR review, thanks in large part due to the fact that he didn’t go in with too much velocity and had kept his leg bent.
The offensive output was paltry. The home side didn’t take a shot the entire half. Juve, on the other hand, didn’t record a shot on target until the 32nd minute when Rabiot loaded up and hit a tame shot from way out that Falcone had little trouble with. The Lecce keeper had more to do against the Frenchman with two minutes left in the half when he got to the end of a corner kick and hit a powerful header that he parried behind.
The introduction of Fagioli at halftime instantly started paying dividends. Within two minutes of the restart, he found Cuadrado with an excellent pass into the box, but the Colombian’s attempt to center it for Milik was interdicted by a defender. A minute later, Gatti put a header on target that was an easy save for Falcone, although Milik was a whisker away from redirecting it as it went by.
Juve had established some momentum, such as it was, and in the 53rd minute really should’ve scored, but Kostic, Miretti, and Milik all declined to take the final shot when the ball was played in near the 6-yard box, resulting in Falcone coming out to claim Milik’s attempt at a back-heel toward goal.
As the half wore on, there was a growing sense that Juve was trying to turn the screw, but even as they tried to ramp up the pressure, the attacks continued to fall flat. Milik found the target in the 64th minute after a nice dummy by Moise Kean, but the shot was at a good height for Falcone and the keeper beat the shot away, with a defender clearing the rebound away from a lurking Kean. Kean then headed a great Cuadrado cross wide, and the Colombian had a shot blocked behind.
Attacking options on the bench were few, but the one Allegri still had in his quiver was Samuel Iling-Junior, who had impressed so much in Portugal in midweek. The teenaged Englishman came on in the 72nd minute, and 60 seconds later Juve finally had the breakthrough. Iling grabbed a loose ball after Falcone punched a cross from Cuadrado and slipped a neat square ball to Fagioli. The midfielder controlled, set himself up with a single touch, and unleashed an absolutely fantastic curler toward the back post. It was placed absolutely perfectly, thumping off the inside of the upright just under the corner and into the net, with Falcone only able to watch.
Fagioli streaked toward the sideline, the emotions of finally scoring a first-team goal for the team he’s grown up with since 2015 overwhelming him to the point of crying in the arms of his teammates.
Lecce tried to claw themselves back in the last 15 minutes, but they continued to fail to come up with any meaningful chances. Allegri gave in to one of his demons as the clock wore on when Soule started cramping up, replacing him with Leonardo Bonucci and dropping back into a defensive shell. That gave Lecce a few more buildup opportunities, but the team simply wasn’t good enough to take advantage of the retreat. The lone exception came with a minute left on the clock in normal time, when a corner was headed out to Hjulmand, who fired across goal from the edge of the box only to bash it into the base of the post with Szczesny beaten.
That was the last of the excitement for the day, and after five minutes of stoppage time Juve had managed to record their third consecutive league win coming out the better of an intensely mediocre affair.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - NR. Didn’t feel comfortable giving him a number grade in this one. He didn’t have anything to do. Lecce didn’t hit the target and barely gave him anything to do in terms of dealing with crosses.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Still having trouble taking on his man, but he led the team with four key passes and tied for the lead with two dribbles. It was barely enough, but he’s got to figure out how to be productive against a higher level team.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6.5. A whopping 10 clearances to go along with a blocked shot. He showed the same good instincts here he did in midweek against Benfica, and he simply got punished less when those undeveloped raw skills failed him.
DANIO - 6. A comfortable day in the back for the Brazilian Swiss Army knife. Hardly challenged by the Lecce attackers at all.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. A pair of tackles, four clearances, and an interception in the back as he helped seal off Lecce’s attack.
MATIAS SOULE - 6.5. Understated but a really excellent day in his first start. He was really good taking on his man, consistently beating him with some nifty footwork. He’s making some of the types of dribbles that Cuadrado was doing a year and a half ago. Needs more playing time.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Made a pair of tackles in the first half but really struggled in possession despite a relatively high completion percentage. It might have been partly due to the tactical choices, but he just didn’t have a good day.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Hit the target twice and led the team with three interceptions, completing 90.4 percent of his passes. He’s really turned things on the last month or so.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Attempted 13 crosses but only completed three of them, and early on he seemed very much anonymous in the attack. He fell victim to whatever it was that dragged the entire game down.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5. This was a difficult game to evaluate for him. Playing as a straight trequartista in a 4-4-1-1 did not play to his strengths, which often saw him isolated instead of being able to receive a pass and then push it forward to the players supporting him. Did have a couple of chances in front of goal, but overall he wasn’t put into a position to succeed.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. Isolated up top for long stretches, but still came close in the second half to breaking the deadlock and also had a pair of key passes.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 7.5. His ball distribution was lively, creating more opportunities almost instantly. Oh, and that goal. Did you happen to see that goal? That goal was a good goal.
MOISE KEAN - 5.5. Put in an industrious shift but had some issues with his touch and only took one shot. That one shot was a header that he really should’ve scored. He did get credit for a key pass, though his finishing still needs work.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 6. Immediately set up the goal and added some impetus on the wing. Hopefully the nasty tackle he took to his ankle in stoppages doesn’t result in anything severe.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - NR. This was actually rough even over only about six minutes. Multiple times he tried to head a cross out of the box only to pop it into the air. Everything about his game seems to be deteriorating.
We can talk about the subs he made if you like, but the reality is Allegri screwed this game up (again) at the start. The selection crisis was very much a real thing, and he responded to it relatively well, actually giving some of the kids a chance to shine instead of trying to shoehorn other, more experienced players into spots they might not be at their best at.
But unfortunately, he did just that to one of his best and brightest when he put Miretti into a trequartista role behind Milik. The problem was that he often became isolated when he did receive the ball there, negating his passing ability because there simply wasn’t anyone to pass to, or if there was it was a really tough pass to make. Miretti is better when he can receive the ball and look to push it forward, but he simply didn’t have the targets to hit tonight.
With the front two situation clearly not working, Allegri really didn’t do anything to alter it until he sent on Kean to make it a more traditional 4-4-2. Why he didn’t shift gears before that change to a better formation — he had all the makings of a pretty decent 4-3-3 out there on the field but didn’t look to even consider it — is beyond me. With a better formation for some of his brighter players, things could maybe have brightened up sooner.
Juve have a big week ahead of them.
On Wednesday, they welcome Paris Saint-Germain for their final Champions League game of the season. They’ll be hoping that they don’t finish with a worse result than Maccabi Haifa so that they can assure themselves a spot in the Europa League. After that it’s a chance to finally perform against a big club in Italy when Inter come to the Allianz on Sunday.