This was not what most people were thinking was going to happen when Juventus brought Massimiliano Allegri back into the fold.
Allegri was supposed to right the ship after two years of experimentation and relative disappointment. He was supposed to bring the team back to some semblance of order, and at least start the process of bringing the team back to their place at the top of the table.
Instead, we’ve gotten this — a team that can barely put together an attack, that can barely make the goalkeeper of a solidly mediocre team work. And a team that continues to make ridiculous defensive mistakes that allows their opponent to score off the limited chances they managed to create for themselves.
Such was Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Bologna, a game that deserves to be consigned to the toxic waste dumps of history. In the presence of a returning Alessandro Del Piero, who made his first trip to the Allianz since making his lap of honor 10 years ago, Juventus laid one of the most epic eggs they’ve laid in the last 15 years. Said boneheaded defensive mistake came seven minutes into the second half, gifting Marko Arnautovic a free run into the box to round Wojciech Szczesny and put Bologna into the lead. Juve only managed to come close to drawing level twice in the next 30 minutes, and Bologna often saw extended stretches of comfortable possession. It was only after a chaotic sequence in the 81st minute that saw Bologna lose two players to red cards in a matter of seconds that Juve looked to be remotely threatening, but even with a two-man advantage it too five of the eight allotted minutes of stoppage time for Dusan Vlahovic to head the ball home after an acrobatic assist by Alvaro Morata to rescue a point and minimize the potential damage in the chase for the top four, which now has the door kicked wide open for the chasing pack to come through.
Allegri was once again hampered by injuries. Along with long-term absentees Federico Chiesa, Kaio Jorge, and Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli continued to rehab from his knee sprain, Leonardo Bonucci was fit only for the bench, and Arthur twisted his ankle in training in the run up to the game, leaving a severe selection crunch in midfield. He did have Alvaro Morata and Mattia De Sciglio back, which suggested a return to the 4-2-3-1 that he had been experimenting with in previous games this month. But Max decided to get a little weird Saturday night, and ended up throwing out a crazy 4-3-3 formation that had players out of position all over the place. Szczesny lined up behind the back line of De Sciglio, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Luca Pellegrini. The midfield was where the crazy started. Adrien Rabiot was an obvious starter, but Allegri left a healthy Denis Zakaria on the bench and instead started Juan Cuadrado and Danilo alongside the Frenchman, with Paulo Dybala played on the right wing of an attacking trident beside Vlahovic and Morata.
Bologna were coming off two good results against AC Milan and Sampdoria, and were playing with the added inspiration of playing for their coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, who is in treatment for a recurrence of his leukemia.
(On that note, I believe I speak for all of BWRAO’s writers and readers in wishing Sinisa the very best, and f$&# cancer.)
Mihajlovic’s assistants set the team up in a 3-5-2, with Lukasz Skorupski screened by Gary Medel, Adama Soumaoro, and Arthur Theate. Aaron Hickey and Michell Dijks served as the wing-backs, sandwiching the midfield of Roberto Soriano, Jerdy Schouten, and Mattias Svanberg. Former Juve prospect Riccardo Orsolini joined Arnautovic in attack.
With the crowd white-hot after Del Piero’s return, Juve looked to make a quick start, Vlahovic had a shot blocked within the first 60 seconds of the game, and Dybala blazed over from extreme distance just four minutes in. But the errors were already creeping in, and Orsolini really should have at least hit the target in the 10th minute after a cheap giveaway by Dybala deep in his own half.
A minute later Juve had one of their best chances of the entire game, with Vlahovic heading just over off a nice cross from Morata on the left. Dybala put a free kick a yard or two wide, while at the other end Orsolini again missed high after a Juve giveaway. Morata was twice in quick succession denied the opportunity to shoot by very good marking on right-sided crosses, and Danilo dragged wide with Juve’s last opportunity before the half.
Juve were doing what they’d done all month: create shots but not chances, and it left the Rossoblu an opportunity to play in the second half. In the first two minutes after the restart Svanberg and then Arnautovic put sighters on goal, and after Rabiot somehow turned a gorgeous cross by Pellegirni wide of the target, Bologna struck.
It was, of all people, de Ligt who was responsible for this one. Tasked with marking Arnautovic, the center-back abandoned the Austria international to close down Soriano, clearly expecting one of De Sciglio or Chiellini to take over. But neither did, giving the Austria international a free run in the box, and he promptly rounded a stranded Szczesny to put the ball into the net with a relatively simple finish.
Juve had something of a response as play resumed, with De Sciglio loading up from distance and having his deflected shot palmed over, and Danilo headed the ball off the post on the ensuing corner. Two minutes later De Ligt fired a header right at the keeper. A triple change came on the hour mark, including the withdrawl of an ailing de Ligt, but the move seemed to have the opposite effect of what was intended, and for the next 20 minutes Juve was almost completely toothless, often letting Bologna possess the ball for large stretches as Juve tried to chase the game.
It was the red cards that changed all that.
The play in question started with a smart through ball by Vlahovic that put Morata clean through on goal, evading one tackle from Medel before being brought down by Soumaoro. Skorupski ran out and punched the ball away, but only as far as Cuadrado, who somehow hit the crossbar with an open net gaping at him. The play was certainly a foul, and Juve were screaming for a penalty kick that would have potentially equalized, but on review referee Juan Luca Sacchi determined that the contact had been initiated just prior to Morata entering the area — which is debatable. However, had the penalty been given. Soumaoro was given his marching orders for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity, while Medel completely lost it, earning a pair of yellow cards within seconds of each other as he protested the decision.
But even two men to the good, Skorupski stayed a relatively bored presence between the sticks. It wasn’t until the keeper faced a shot, which turned out to be Vlahovic’s equalizer. Two minutes later, Rabiot got his head to a Cuadrado cross, but Skorupski covered it well and held it, maintaining his team’s point as Juve’s failure completed itself.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. One of the few Juve players that really did everything he was supposed to today. Faced down the only non-goal shot he saw hit the target with ease, and he wasn’t at all at fault for the goal.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Shared the team lead in tackles and almost equalized in the minutes after the opener.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5. A rare mistake allowed Arnautovic in, and then he came off looking injured, although Allegri later clarified that he was feeling ill. Still, that mistake was a big’un, and one Juve really couldn’t afford.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Deuces wild on his counting stats, and he was the only Juve player to block a shot. Removed later on for offensive purposes.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 5.5. Made a couple of good tackles upfield and put in a few decent crosses, he just needed more of everything today.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Led the team with six key passes even though he was playing out of position. The man’s a machine.
DANILO - 6. Hit the post with a header and amassed two key passes in another creditable display as an emergency midfielder.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Co-led the team in tackles but didn’t do enough to add dynamism on the attacking end. He was the only natural midfielder in the team today and was relatively outshone by the converted full-backs/wingers.
PAULO DYBALA - 5. Dybala is not a winger. Allegri learned this himself during his last season in charge. It was puzzling that he was posted in a position we know he doesn’t succeed in when there were other tactical options. Still, two key passes doesn’t make up for a relatively anonymous display that foisted all the creative work on Cuadrado.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. Another “there by the grace of goal” rating for him, although his instincts to get to his spot and redirect Morata’s bicycle kick were superb. But that was his only shot on target in seven, which is simply not good enough.
ALVARO MORATA - 6.5. Made a couple of really nice crosses, and his acrobatic bike set up the salvage operation points-wise
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4.5. Just can’t push the needle anymore, his main contribution was set piece delivery. That included the one on the equalizer, but he needs more than that.
DENIS ZAKARIA - 5. Only completed 57.1 percent of his passes and didn’t provide the oomph in midfield that he usually does.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Picked up a key pass and just missed a shot late, relatively solid defensively.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Hard to tell where exactly he was playing along the back line, but didn’t really do anything going forward.
MOISE KEAN - NR. On at the last minute as a last-ditch attacking sub but didn’t touch the ball.
There is a lot to unpack here, but the main takeaway for Allegri is that he got far too cute.
This exact same personnel group would have worked very well in a 4-2-3-1, which I would wager have been a much better overall play, as it would’ve put more players in position to succeed. Dybala doesn’t belong out on the right wing and Allegri should know better than that, while using a three-man midfield with a healthy Zakaria on the bench and Cuadrado buried as a mezz’ala, which is an absolute waste of him, is beyond comprehension. This game was a slog, and perhaps the nature of this team right now lends itself to such slogs, but this needn’t have been this way, and Allegri’s team selection was a big part of the reason why.
His post-match press conference is another thing that has me doing spins. Allegri is prone to toxic positivity in his pressers, but he took the cake when he insisted that one should look at the glass half-full after the match, as earlier in the season Juve would have perhaps lost a game like this. Allegri obviously has far more experience and coaching badges than I do myself, but when you only create four shots on target against a mid-table team and need them to have to players sent off before you look remotely threatening, the glass doesn’t even have anything in it. It’s just an empty glass.
With Juve’s top four place now relatively precarious pending Monday’s results, things are going to have to change.
Juve’s failure has opened the door for Roma, who with a win on Monday could close to within three points of fourth. Fortunately, that game happens to be against Napoli, so Juve could well end up gaining ground in the standings if the Partenopei cooperate. It’s also important to note that Juve own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Roma.
Juve’s next match comes on Wednesday, as they look to protect their 1-0 aggregate lead in the Coppa Italia semifinal against Fiorentina. Then comes a potentially tricky away game against Sassuolo on Monday.