No one, including myself, would have thought a month ago that Juventus would be in the position the are right now.
While the team’s European failure stings quite a bit, the domestic side of things is looking up in a way that no one expected when Juve lost to Monza before the last international break arrived in mid-September. Going into Sunday’s game with Lazio, they had won five straight games — including a major victory against Inter last weekend — catapulting themselves from eighth place into the top four. Another win against the Biancoceleste in the final game before the World Cup break began would leapfrog their opponents and put them into third.
Not only did Juve produce the win they needed against former coach Maurizio Sarri’s side, they did it with a style that they haven’t had even during their now-six game winning streak.
Juve played undoubtedly their most complete game of the season. They completely neutralized Lazio offensively, not allowing a shot on target until just after the hour mark. They ceded the lion’s share of possession, but unlike in games earlier in the season, their counterattacks were swift and decisive, aided by a more active midfield that regained the ball quicker and sent it into transition faster. Moise Kean was the benefactor of two of those counters shortly before and after halftime, turning in his best game since returning to Turin to put Juve far in front before Arkadiusz Milik put an exclamation point on the 3-0 victory late. It was, in short, the kind of game that we’ve wanted to see all year, one that Juve controlled pretty much from start to finish against a team that will be a direct competitor for the Champions League places come the end of the season.
Massimiliano Allegri was still missing a fair few players going in. Chief amongst them was Dusan Vlahovic, who continued to feel discomfort in his groin area and was not risked. Paul Pogba, Weston McKennie, Mattia De Sciglio, Samuel Iling-Junior, and Kaio Jorge were also out, as was Mattia Perin, who was suffering from a stomach bug. Alex Sandro was suspended after his red card against Hellas Verona on Thursday. The coach made two changes to the team that won in Verona midweek. Wojciech Szczesny returned to the lineup after his rest day, starting behind a 3-5-2 formation. Federico Gatti replaced Leonardo Bonucci, joining Danilo and Bremer in the back line. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic played as wing-backs, bookending the midfield of Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot. Kean and Milik served as the strike pair of up top.
Sarri was dealing with a couple of key absences of his own. Chief among these was Ciro Immobile, who re-aggravated a muscle injury in his sub appearance midweek. Manuel Lazzari was also injured in that game against Monza, and Mattia Zaccagni has been out multiple games with a muscle injury, as was defender Patric. That left Sarri a little short of options to fill in his 4-3-3. Ivan Provedel started in goal behind the back four of Elseid Hysaj, Alessio Romagnoli, Nicolo Casale, and Adam Marusic. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Danilo Cataldi, and Toma Basic made up the midfield. Up front was where Sarri had to seriously improvise. As he has been in most of Immobile’s absences this year, Felipe Anderson was deployed as a false nine. In place of Zaccagni, Sarri entrusted 17-year-old Luka Romero, the match winner against Monza, with his first Serie A start, with wily veteran Pedro on the other wing.
The opening phases of the game were cagey and probing. Juve’s early plan was clear, trying to get behind the Lazio defense with long balls and switches. They stated their intentions early. Kean nearly opened things after just six minutes, charging downfield on his own and firing across goal from the left corner of the 6-yard box, only to see his effort spin wickedly past the post. Five minutes later, it was another of the youngsters trying to make a mark when Fagioli found Kostic down the left side with an excellent switch and then trailed play. He got a pull-back from the winger and hit it low first time, and it very nearly snuck by Provodel, who looked to be slightly unsighted and then very nearly spilled the ball right into the path of Kean. He just kept control of the ball, but it was a bit of unfortunate foreshadowing for the Lazio keeper.
The chances kept going Juve’s way. In the 19th minute Milik took a long ball from Danilo down like a magnet and fashioned a shot for himself from the top of the box. The ball whistled past the post and the flag shot up, though if he had put the ball into the back of the net VAR might have come into play, as Milik looked very much onside.
Meanwhile, Lazio struggled to get any sort of attacking play going.
Their best opportunity of the half came from a free kick on the left wing, but an attempted set play to Romero was quickly snuffed out. Without Immobile, there was little reference point in attack, and with the 5’9” Anderson going up against a pair of sequoias in Bremer (6’2”) and Gatti (6’3”) there was no way to get him the ball except on the ground. Lazio was forced into a lot of what we saw Sarri’s Juve do: pass the ball laterally in the hopes of finally probing a hole into the defense — only Juve was not giving them anything in the way of openings. The closest the visitors came to any sort of danger was a long-range effort by Pedro that was deflected by Locatelli and narrowly missed the top corner.
The question was whether or not Juve would be able to do something at the other end to make their efficient defense pay off. Just before the half, they managed to do just that with a lightning-quick counterattack. It all started with some uncharacteristically loose play from Miliknovic-Savic, who showed too much of the ball to Rabiot. The Frenchman immediately launched the ball upfield for Kean. The striker had a defender running stride-for-stride and two more trailing him slightly, but for some reason Provedel decided to charge out of the box to meet the ball. The pass fell into the perfect spot for Kean to reach up and flick it millimeters over the keeper’s head, producing a 25-yard lob that bounced on the goal line and into the roof of the net.
It was a gut punch to Lazio heading into the break, and Juve took full advantage of that momentum coming out of the break.
Just minutes into the second period, Provedel had to get a hand down to stop a good shot from Milik in the left channel, as well as a long-range follow-up by Locatelli. But the next time the ball came at him his luck was out. After some industrious work by Milik forced a turnover in midfield, Locatelli launched an excellent first-time pass over the top to Kostic, who had all kinds of space to run into. He took one touch and fired for the far post from just outside the box. Provedel made a diving stop, but pushed it right into the path of Kean, whose marker had gone wandering. The striker made no mistakes from 6 yards and easily swept the rebound into the net to double the lead.
Sarri had few options to go to on his bench that could move the needle, but one of the few that was there, Luis Alberto, came on four minutes after the second goal. He finally got Lazio a shot on target when Pedro found him with a square ball from the right side, but his shot was tame and easy for Szczesny to catch on the dive. Within seconds Kean nearly had his hat trick, intercepting a pass deep in Lazio territory and driving into the box only to scuff his shot and allow Provedel to make a save to his left.
Kean’s day was done shortly thereafter, as he was replaced by Angel Di Maria. Federico Chiesa was introduced shortly thereafter, while Juve continued to stymie Sarri’s side defensively. They continued to try the same thing over and over, but simply couldn’t make it past Juve’s organized defense. Any hopes Lazio might have had of setting up some kind of grandstand finish was snuffed out with a minute to go in regular time, when Chiesa found a huge hole on the left side of the Lazio back line and ran on to a through ball from Di Maria. He measured up a first-time cross for Milik, who held up his run behind Romagnoli, who again overran the play. Milik stroked an easy tap-in from seven yards to remove all doubts.
Lazio looked for some sort of consolation in stoppage time, and nearly got it when Anderson finally got some space to shoot and fired a shot destined for the upper 90 that Szczesny flew to parry over, and after a series of ill-fated corner kicks referee Davide Massa finally put Lazio out of their misery and sent the teams into the World Cup break in very different moods.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Didn’t have much to do until the very end of the game, when he made a flying save to deny Anderson a consolation goal. He kept the defense supremely organized and executing their game plan all game long.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6.5. Easily his best game of the year. Lazio clearly keyed on him as a weak link but he stepped up every time he was attacked.
DANILO - 7. Strong defensively and a big part of the early game plan trying to get behind Lazio’s high line. He finished the day having launched 20 long passes, completing 13 of them.
BREMER - 7. A rock in the back, he is quickly returning to the form that won him defender of the year last season at Torino. He intercepted a game-high three passes and posted a pair of clearances as well. At the end of the day, he and his mates in the back simply executed the game plan so well that they didn’t need to rack up a lot of counting stats.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Ran the right side well and actually beat a man to force Provedel into a kick save, but his major contribution was on defense with a pair of tackles, two interceptions, and his constant attention kept Pedro from making much trouble down his flank.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6. Worked hard in midfield and kept things moving when Juve were in possession. Forced Provedel into a great save and also notched a key pass.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 8. This game has his fingerprints all over it. He launched balls over the top of the Lazio defense all night long, completing 12 of 15 long balls, including the exquisite trigger pass for the second goal. He also made a game-high five tackles and blocked two shots. He’s returning to form at a key time.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7.5. Instrumental again, making a pair of key passes including an excellent assist off an equally good steal for the opening goal. He made four tackles in midfield and generally outplayed Milinkovic-Savic.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6.5. Made four key passes and had the shot that forced Provedel to spill the ball to Kean. He heads to the World Cup on a high note.
MOISE KEAN - 8. A complete turnaround from his midseason form. His positioning was excellent all day, putting him in the perfect spots to take advantage of his teammates gaining the ball and feeding him service. His flick over Provedel is going to be replayed a lot this season, and his second was a poacher’s finish that came of perfect positioning and a perfectly held run. Hopefully this form survives the break.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 7. Ran his tail off again. His pressure upfield led to the move that triggered the second goal, and he deserved his goal, which he engineered with an excellent run in the box.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 6. Worked the attacking phase well and triggered Chiesa’s run for the final goal.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7. That assist was a thing of beauty, and well deserved after all the work he put in to getting back from his knee injury. Hopefully it’s only a sign of things to come.
LEANDRO PAREDES - NR. Had an interception and two clearances in only a few minutes, defending a couple of corners at the end of the match.
My praise for Max Allegri has been sparing this season, but he got things right in this game. Allegri didn’t produce any breathtaking attacking football in this game. What he did was somehow get his players to play his defend-and-counter game the right way.
It is possible to play a defensive game and be proactive at the same time. The problem for much of Allegri’s second tenure is that the team hasn’t done that. They’ve been reactive, waiting for opponents to do what they want, hoping to stop it, then trying to build things themselves. That allowed opponents, especially good ones, to simply walk all over them. Today’s Juve was different. They still relied on the counter, but they were far more proactive in their pursuit of the ball. They didn’t press the ball all the time, but did so opportunistically and gained the ball in advantageous positions, allowing their counters to be that much more effective. While it was perhaps fortuitous that Lazio was without their attacking reference point in Immobile, the way they played would likely have shackled him too.
If Allegri is going to play the way we’ve always known him to, this is how the team needs to do it. They have to dictate the game with their defense, as opposed to allow them to dictate how they defend. If they do that, they might have a chance to make some noise in the second half of the season after all.
It’s time for the World Cup. Yay?
Eleven Juve players will head to Qatar for the World Cup: WoSzczezny, Arkadiusz Milik, Danilo, Bremer, Alex Sandro, Adrien Rabiot, Weston McKennie, Dusan Vlahovic, Filip Kostic, Angel Di Maria, and Leandro Paredes.
There won’t be another club game for 52 days. Juve’s next match will be on Jan. 4, 2023, at Cremonese.