Just before the international break, Juventus played an away game against a severely depleted AC Milan team. With a win, they could have seriously improved their chances at making the top four. They blew the opportunity, playing out a scoreless draw.
On Sunday, Juventus played an away game against a severely depleted Atalanta team in a six-pointer for the top four. With a win, they could have consolidated their hold on fourth place and made Atalanta’s game in hand irrelevant, at least for the time being. They blew that opportunity, too, only scraping out a 1-1 draw after picking up a stoppage-time equalizer from Danilo, of all people, who headed a beautiful corner kick delivery by Paulo Dybala.
There was one common thread between those two games: Massimiliano Allegri coached not to lose.
After having watched Atalanta put control of the game into a vise for the better part of an hour of game time, Allegri did ... nothing. Not a thing. The midfield was unbalanced and overrun, but Allegri sat there, a living embodiment of the “This is Fine” meme. It wasn’t until Ruslan Malinovskyi notched yet another goal against Juventus with an outrageous free kick from distance that’s gonna top most goal-of-the-year lists come May that he even contemplated making a move. The players who did come in had a maximum of 11 minutes to exert any influence whatsoever. It was an enormous bungle of a game that had huge implications as to whether or not Juventus would be playing in the Champions League next year.
Where Allegri was reactive, Gasperini was proactive, turning the screw in a game his team already had control of by the hour mark, one that nearly proved decisive when he installed Malinovskyi in place of Luis Muriel and moving to a striker-less system that saw Atalanta create a series of excellent chances before Malinovskyi finally broke through. He coached to win, and had it not been for the last second heroics on the corner it would’ve been decisive.
Fortunately, said heroics did happen, and Juve managed to escape the Gewiss Arena with a point that kept the race for the top four at the status quo. But it could have been so much more if the man on the Juventus sideline had decided to go for it.
Allegri deployed a team very similar to the one that beat Hellas Verona a week ago. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, protected by the back four of Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Mattia De Sciglio. Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot manned the midfield, while the super trident of Dybala, Dusan Vlahovic, and Alvaro Morata joined forces up front.
Gasperini had to make some major adjustments to his lineup. His starting goalkeeper, Juan Musso, was suspended after being sent off in last weekend’s shocking loss to Cagliari, while he was missing Duvan Zapata, Jose Luis Palomino, and Aleksei Miranchuk to injury and Josip Ilicic as he continued to address his mental health. Zapata was probably the biggest miss, having been decisive in the previous match between the two sides. Gasperini responded to his difficulties by deploying a 3-4-1-2 formation, with Marco Sportiello deputizing in goal for Musso. Juventus loanee Merih Demiral was in the center of the back three, flanked by team captain Rafael Toloi and Berat Djimsiti. Hans Hateboer and Davide Zappacosta were the wing-backs, with Remo Frueler and Marten De Roon between them in the midfield. Teun Koopmeiners played in the hole behind a strike pair of Muriel and January signing Jeremie Boga.
What stings even more is how well things started for Juventus. For the first 15 or 20 minute, they were bordering on dominant. Within three minutes, Dybala had found Vlahovic with a through ball, and the Serbian curled a shot around Demiral that Sportiello had to fly to parry. Just over 10 minutes later he turned an excellent cross just wide of the goal, then Dybala cut inside and released one of his trademark far post curlers, but it simply didn’t bend in time and flew a few feet past the post.
Atalanta finally came up with their first shot in the 16th minute, and from that point on Atalanta started turning the game around. In the 25th minute they had their best chance to date when a corner kick was flicked to the back post for an unmarked De Roon, who was leaning back and could only fly it over the bar. Juve, meanwhile, stopped completing the passes that had made them dangerous over the game’s early phases, and the Atalanta midfield gradually took over.
Things nearly got very thorny in the 31st minute, when Szczesny made the baffling decision to come 30 yards off his line to try to deal with long pass, only to be beaten to it by Koopmeiners. He tapped it past the keeper for Muriel, who somehow contrived to whack the ball well off target, with Bonucci putting the attempt behind. Atalanta screamed for the keeper to be shown a red card for handling Koopmeiners’ pass, but replays were inconclusive at best as to whether or not the ball hit Szczesny’s arm, and referee Maurizio Mariani and VAR official Gianluca Aureliano declined to act.
Atalanta continued to control things as the half wore on, and they created two dangerous chances right at the end of the period, the first when a mistake in possession triggered a three-on-two run that ended in a blocked shot when Boga got selfish and went for it himself. Koopmeiners found Boga with a neat back-heel a minute later that saw another block by De Ligt. The hosts were again up in arms over this play, insisting that de Ligt had handled it, but replays clearly showed it hitting his ribs and armpit.
Most Juventini were likely hoping that there would be some change coming as the teams broke the locker room for the start of the second half, but Allegri stood pat, and Atalanta clearly kept things in control, and Szczesny had to beat away a De Roon shot from the top of the box within three minutes of the restart. Juve had a small flurry of chances on the counter in a five minute period early on, but all went nowhere, the closest coming when a corner was headed out to Locatelli, whose shot was blocked into the path of Vlahovic, who forced Sportiello into another good save.
When Rabiot popped up in the right channel on the hour mark and just missed sneaking one in at the near post, Gasperini took action. On came Malinovskyi and Joakim Maehle, the former creating a system without a recognizable No. 9. The hosts immediately started creating chances, with Malinovskyi often at the heart of things. Koopmeiners and Boga showed a ton of chemistry for players who have only been on the same team for two weeks, often combining to create serious danger. The Dutchman saw one cross dug out of a dangerous position by De Ligt, then came this close to getting to a ball in from Boga for an easy tap-in.
Through all of this, Allegri stood on the sideline, clearly under the mistaken impression that all was fine and that there was no need to make any adjustments to his team. The midfield wasn’t performing as well as it should have, but Allegri made no move to use either Denis Zakaria or Arthur to rebalance it. With nothing to counteract their changes, Atalanta ran riot in the middle of the park, forcing Juve into counterattacks that weren’t landing, often missing the final pass or two to get into the right position.
As the half went on Atalanta started to look like the side more likely to score, and that’s exactly what happened when De Ligt made his only mistake of the game, allowing Malinovskyi to turn him and force him into a foul as he chased him. It got the Dutch center-back booked and set Atalanta up for a free kick. It looked a bit far out for a direct shot, but when you’re Ruslan Malinovskyi nothing is too far out, and when Freuler put the ball back into play with a quick flick he advanced with his left foot and unleashed a bolt of lightning that had power and a wicked late dip that Szczesny never had a prayer of stopping.
There were 14 minutes left, and Juventus were still playing with the same XI that had started the game. In fact, Allegri waited another three minutes before finally introducing Juan Cuadrado for Bonucci, pushing Danilo into the center of defense. Moise Kean quickly followed, briefly putting no less than five attackers on the pitch but still doing nothing to help the midfield. With six minutes to go in the game, Malinovskyi very nearly helped put the game away when he put in a fantastic cross from the attacking left, but Hateboer somehow contrived to hit the crossbar instead of the empty net from two yards away.
Allegri finally changed up the midfield somewhat by introducing Arthur in the 86th minute, as well as giving highly regarded U23 winger Marley Aké his Serie A debut. Still, things looked bleak as the board went up for only three minutes of stoppage time. In the second of those three minutes Dybala and Cuadrado played off each other on the right side of the box, eventually ending with the Colombian gaining a corner. Dybala ran over to take it and delivered it perfectly, finding Danilo unmarked to redirect it into the back of the net and steal a point out of a game that Juve may have needed so much more from than what they ended up getting.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Made a couple of good saves, but that sojourn out of his box on the half-hour mark could have cost the team very, very dearly and was a little too reminiscent of the mistakes he’d made early on in the season. Don’t do that again, Woj.
DANILO - 7.5. Came up huge with that goal, and overall had a really solid day, registering three interceptions, a key pass, and two blocked shots. It’s good to have him back.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. It’s unfortunate that the one mistake he made all night led to Atalanta’s goal. Before that point, he had been an absolute monster. His defensive stat line is a sight to behold: three tackles, two interceptions, six clearances, and four blocks. He also completed 7 of 10 long balls.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Made five clearances and kept Muriel very quiet. A solid day overall before he was pulled for offense.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Solid down the left side, registering a key pass and available on the overlap when Juve had the possession.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6.5. Not often thought of as a creative force, Big Mac registered six key passes Sunday night and was particularly in sync with Dybala, often working with him to set up some quick one-two passes.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. Only completed 80 percent of his passes and generally looked in a funk for the majority of the day. He really does need to be allowed further forward, and Allegri hasn’t put him in that position yet — despite numerous options for doing so. We’ll get to that.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Notched a key pass and came very close to opening the scoring on the hour, but all in all more lackluster play from the Frenchman, who only completed 73.3 percent of his passes (and he only attempted 30). He was on the field far too long.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Worked his tail off and had a couple of shooting opportunities you normally expect him to bury. Was smart with his passing, especially early on, and his corner delivery to Danilo helped salvage the points.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. Took nearly half of Juve’s shots (seven) and put four on target twice being denied by excellent saves from Sportiello, but he also struggled with the physicality of Merih Demiral and couldn’t hold play up the way he did against Verona. Hopefully that’s just a blip on the radar.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. Worked REALLY hard and had a pair of key passes, but he spurned a couple of really good chances, especially the one early in the second half when Dybala put him clean through. He simply has to shoot that and not go for unnecessary dribbles.
JUAN CUADRADO - NR. These will be the least controversial ratings I’ve ever had for substitutes, because none of them played long enough to satisfy my standards for getting a number grade (which, fort the record, is 15 minutes of time on the field). Cuadrado did well after coming on, though, and helped set up the corner that led to the goal.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Had a key pass in his 10 minutes of work, trying to find some attacking firepower once Atalanta wound up on top.
ARTHUR - NR. On for the last five minutes, could barely make an impact for himself.
MARELY AKE - NR. Barely touched the ball.
***BONUS LOANEE RATING***
MERIH DEMIRAL - 8. Kept Vlahovic out of the game for the most part all night, with a surprising amount of game-reading being blended in to his usual physicality. Unlike Sergio Romero, Juventus will make a profit off of him, but losing him is a decision that looks worse and worse by the day.
Massimiliano Allegri done screwed up.
Literally everything he did about this game was wrong, but the way he handled his substitutions was awful. He sat through an hour or more of gave time with a team on the field screaming for an adjustment or a change and sat there doing nothing. There were few ideas at work other than hit them quick on the counter. Grimly defending and countering when they can is all Allegri can seem to come up with, and in doing so he is badly misusing a team that has been beefed up considerably in the January transfer window.
It’s pretty clear from the balance of the season that Locatelli does his best work closer to the forwards. Allegri has two options to allow him to do so, and chose to employ neither of them from the start of this game. The fact that Denis Zakaria, who was literally bought for games like this, didn’t see the field is borderline fireable. If it was deemed that he needed rest after a busy week of fixtures, it begs the question why he was played for more than an hour in the Coppa Italia in midweek when this game was far more important. Atalanta were winning the midfield battle in a big way but Allegri simply decided everything was fine, and it cost the team dearly. Things could have perhaps changed had Allegri made the proper moves at the proper time in this game, but he eschewed every single one in an effort to not lose as opposed to an effort to win.
Allegri has not inspired confidence in me lately. The best lineup combination for this team is clear, but Allegri refuses to put it onto the field. Then he sends his team out to absorb pressure and counter regardless of what the situation is, in micro or in macro, in the hope that they’ll hit a goal before the opponent’s pressure breaks them. It’s a dangerous game to be playing, and it’s not something that’s really relevant in today’s tactics. Allegri needs to stop playing medieval football and get with the program, or else no matter what players he has at his disposal, this team isn’t going anywhere unless.
Two big games loom for the old Lady of Italian football. On Friday, a rejuvenated Torino side that has its first legitimate chance of making Europe since the days of Gian Piero Ventura comes to the Allianz for the return in the Derby della Mole. Then, on Tuesday, Juve kick off Champions League play the first leg of their round of 16 tie with Villarreal.