We just need to learn by now, don’t we?
After two straight wins coming out of the international break, there was hope that things were starting to trend up ever so slightly. They came into one of the biggest games of the year, against a wounded AC Milan team at the San Siro, with an opportunity to try to consolidate some momentum moving forward.
Instead, they fell flat on their faces.
With Milan missing seven players, including a number of key starters, there was never going to be a better opportunity to get a result of some kind at the San Siro. Instead, Juventus forgot that they had a game to play. They had a moderately good 15 minutes to start the game, then completely folded. While the team aimlessly tried to simply conjure something out of the air with individual effort, often ending their own attacks with elementary mistakes in simple passing, Milan worked as a team — all the more impressive considering the fact that so many reserves were playing that hadn’t often played with each other before.
The result was a commanding performance that totally controlled the game for the final 75 minutes, despite Juve having a significant edge in the possession stats. While the first goal never should have happened thanks to some ridiculous officiating, the second was a self-inflicted wound on an Arthur-against-Benevento level, and Milan were unlucky not to have more goals. The 2-0 score doesn’t really speak to just how poorly Juve played.
Massimiliano Allegri got Arkadiusz Milik back from a minor injury, but was still missing long-term injured parties Federico Chiesa, Paul Pogba, and Kaio Jorge. Mattia De Sciglio was a new addition to the injured list, while Angel Di Maria was serving the second game of his two-game suspension for violent conduct. Without the Argentine, Allegri went with a flat 4-4-2 formation that, while basic, actually put every player on the field into a natural position for once. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal behind the quartet of Danilo, Bremer, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. Juan Cuadrado, Manuel Locatelli, Adrien Rabiot, and Filip Kostic lined up in midfield behind the strike pair of Milik and Dusan Vlahovic.
Milan manager Stefano Pioli’s injury list looked a lot like what Allegri had been dealing with in September. On the treatment table were Mike Maignan, Simon Kjaer, Alexis Saelmaekers, Junior Messias, Davide Calabria, Alessandro Florenzi, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Pioli put the team into a 4-3-3 as opposed to his usual 4-2-3-1 setup. Ciprian Tatarusanu started in goal for the injured Maignan, with Pierre Kalulu, Matteo Gabbia, Fikayo Tomori, and Theo Hernandez forming the defensive line. Ismael Bennacer, Sandro Tonali, and Tommaso Pobega played in midfield, while Brahim Diaz and Rafael Leao flanked Olivier Giroud in the trident.
The game started out open and quite entertaining. Juve got out to a couple of good attacks, starting with a nice counter that ended with Cuadrado squaring the ball for Kostic, who badly scuffed his attempt at a shot. In the ninth minute Juve found themselves on short-field run when Locatelli leaped to win a high bouncing ball, but Cuadrado got selfish and tried to fire the ball across goal instead of playing the ball into a quartet of runners to his left, flashing it wide. Three minutes later, Johnny Square did play the ball into the box, where Vlahovic made an excellent dummy for Milik, who made an equally good turn, but the shot didn’t live up to the rest and he put it tamely at Tatarusanu.
It was the last time the backup keeper would work until the game’s late stages.
As Juve failed to take advantage of their early opportunities, Milan started to get themselves into the game. In the 20th minute, Leao was inches away from a truly spectacular goal when he reached back with his trailing foot and back-heeled a loose corner delivery off the bottom of the post. Juve went right back the other way, and Cuadrado managed to put a move on Kalulu to overcommit him and give him room to meet Kostic with a centering pass, but his fellow wide man tried to run over the ball to get his left foot on it and allowed Tonali to get to him to block it.
It was the last shot Juve would register for 50 minutes of game time.
Juve’s attacking buildup began to break down as Milan continued to carve out more control in the game. In the 34th minute, Leao hit the post a second time, this one on a long-distance curler that thumped off the base of the far upright. The Portuguese winger then slammed another one from distance that was blocked, whether he wanted to or not, by Bonucci’s head, sending the veteran to the turf for a few minutes with a dazed look on his face. The game was consistently starting to flow toward the Juve goal, and eventually Milan opened the scoring thanks to some frankly unacceptable officiating.
The mistake came in the final minute of the first half, when Hernandez went straight through the legs of Cuadrado to try to gain the ball. The foul was clear as day to everyone except referee Daniele Orsato, who was looking right at the play but somehow waved play on. Hernandez’s subsequent cross was blocked by Danilo, and on the ensuing corner the initial delivery bounced around to Giroud, who volleyed the ball goalwards right into the chest of Tomori. Sandro was keeping the center-back onside, and he turned and slammed the ball past Szczesny, who in that situation could do little but pick a spot to dive for and hope.
It was a crappy time to give the ball away, made worse by the fact that the corner should never have happened in the first place. Cuadrado was clearly irate, and having already picked up a yellow card for a tactical foul he was withdrawn at halftime for Weston McKennie.
We got an early preview of how Juve would perform in the second half within two minutes, when Danilo took advantage of a collision between two Milan players to pick up a loose ball and run with it, but his attempt at a cross missed Milik by a mile.
Such was pretty much the entire half. Juve continually made elementary passing mistakes that snuffed out even the most rudimentary attacking moves. Players seemingly had no idea where to go with the ball once they got it, leading to even more mistakes, or to delays in decision-making that led to dispossessions. The most egregious of those mistakes came in the 54th minute and helped Milan put the game away. The culprit was Vlahovic, who overhit a back pass intended for Milik to a ridiculous degree, leaving it for Diaz to latch on and charge the other way. Bonucci made quite possibly the weakest attempt at a tackle anyone has ever made in a Juventus shirt, and the Spaniard then charged forward. Milik tried to catch up but his slide tackle caught air, and Bremer’s sliding attempt arrived too late to interdict Diaz’s powerful shot, which peeled back Szczesny’s hand on its way into the net.
Allegri’s reaction was somewhat awkward. He sent two midfielders, Fabio Miretti and Leandro Paredes, onto the field in place of Locatelli and Kostic, but the bumbling passes continued, and Szczesny had to come off his line to try to do something when Hernandez got behind the defense, managing to put him off just enough to force him to sail the ball a little bit high.
Juve finally managed to get a shot away in the 71st minute, but Milik’s free header off a cross from Danilo was soft and right at Tatarusanu for an easy hold. Allegri rolled the dice with his last two subs in quick succession just before the 80-minute mark, sending in Moise Kean for Vlahovic and even throwing in Matias Soule for the last 10 minutes.
Ironically, it was Kean who came the closest to scoring for Juve. In the 84th minute, he played a one-two with Millk and and forced an excellent block out of Kalulu, then just before stoppage time began he loaded up from long range and forced the keeper to tip his shot over the bar. But ultimately it was Milan who came closest to adding a third in stoppages when Divok Origi was played clean through, thanks to another pathetic tackle attempt by Bonucci, only to go it alone and force a 1-on-1 save out of Szczesny as opposed to squaring it for a tap-in from Ante Rebic.
The full time whistle couldn’t come soon enough, and when it did, Juventus had dropped a crucial game in dismal fashion, barely putting up a fight against a team that had an injury crisis bordering on the absurd.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Little he could do on either goal, and did his job properly beyond them, including a rather good save one-on-one in stoppages against Origi.
DANILO - 4. An uncommonly awful game from Danilo. He was dismal going forward, and made a couple of misplays at the back as well. A bad time to have a poor performance.
BREMER - 6. The only defender to get a passing grade today, Bremer led the team with seven clearances and generally made the right plays around teammates that were flailing.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 3. What the hell kind of defending was that? When Diaz came through, what he did was just power the ball downfield, meeting absolutely no resistance, from Bonucci, who was either concussed by that shot to the head he took or completely out of his depth at his age. Maybe both.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Offered little going forward and wasn’t much better on the defensive end.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5. Couldn’t help keep Theo and Leao on his side quiet, and going forward things were problematic. He did lead the team with three key passes, but he also had several instances where he shot when he should have passed, and he once again proved unable to beat his man one-on-one, especially depressing because Hernandez isn’t exactly known for his defending.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5. Led the team with three tackles, but needed to do more on the offensive end to help spring the front two. The choice to play him with Rabiot also locked him into defensive duties that weren’t necessarily beneficial to him.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Tied for the team lead in dribbles (only two), but wasn’t able to make a massive impact on either side of the ball. Depressing that he was one of the better players on the field.
FILIP KOSTIC - 4. Didn’t get into any sort of rhythm against Kalulu on the right, playing a couple of crappy shots and being devoid of his usual crossing abilities.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. Worked hard up front and ended the game dropping deeper to try to pick it up and do something with it further afield, but he can’t do it all by himself.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 4. A forlorn figure up top, compounded by several awful passing errors, including the one that led to Diaz’s goal. Sulked on the bench after being subbed and one wonders whether he’s reconsidering his decisions in January.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Tried to play as a wide mid, which didn’t work to his strengths. He did make two tackles but was also made to look silly several times by Leao, although Leao can look the greatest of players look bad,
LEANDRO PAREDES - 5.5. Completed 94.6 percent of his passes, but it often didn’t feel like it. Some of his misses, especially toward the end of the game, had me openly thinking “We loaned out Nicolo Rovella for this?” Made two tackles and two interceptions defensively, but overall this wasn’t all that great.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5.5. Tried his best to try to get the ball forward and into the box, but was too often closed down.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Might’ve been Juve’s best player, especially from an attacking perspective. The shot that Kalulu managed to block was destined for the goal, as was his long-range strike in the 90th minute.
MATIAS SOULE -NR. Looked lively and had a key pass in the 10 minutes he was on the pitch, completing all eight of his pass attempts. With Cuadrado clearly waning, he needs to start getting more minutes.
“This is a virtual Juventus. Try taking away five starters from Inter or Milan, and we’ll see if they struggle.”
Those words were uttered a few weeks ago to a journalist he was friendly with. It was also the only excuse he had left to excuse his poor performance this season.
Welp, Milan was down six or seven starters on Saturday night, and even in that depleted state they beat Juventus handily. Blaming the injuries, however significant they might be, is no longer a valid excuse.
Just how did Pioli succeed where Allegri failed while shorthanded? Simple: he outcoached him to an absurd degree. Pioli has a plan for his teams, and everyone on the team knows that plan, even if they’re the fourth-string center-back like Gabbia. Milan’s players knew what to do with the ball the instant they gained possession, which made their possessions infinitely more dangerous than 90 percent of what Juve could do.
Allegri, meanwhile, has no such plan. His philosophy seems based on “you’re all good footballers, now go out there and do something cool with your talent.” And while he does have some good footballers in there, the fact of the matter is that they have little to no idea what they’re doing and are basically playing a glorified version of sandlot football, just going with the flow until they either pull off something special or fail badly while trying. That kind of play requires good individual creators, leaving the attack at the mercy of the form or fitness of players like Di Maria, who wasn’t able to play in this game because of his suspension; Without him, the Juve attack can’t create anything like what they did against Maccabi Haifa. They simply pass the ball aimlessly waiting for an opening that never came.
Allegri is not the only problem facing Juventus these days, but he is the most fixable. Nothing — NOTHING — he has done since his reappointment has made the team or any individual players better than they were before he arrived. He is routinely being outcoached by younger coaches who actually impart an idea of how to play to their players. Unless there is a change here, he’s going to continue on that trend for quite some time.
Two more big games ahead, as Juve travel to Israel for the return leg against Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League before bussing across town to face Torino.
Perfect for a team that hasn’t won an away game all year!
Thank god for the Phillies right now (a thing I rarely ever thought I’d say).