After an offseason that took the fan base on a massive roller coaster ride from high optimism to deep despair, it was impossible to predict with any type of accuracy what Juventus might actually do when they stepped onto the field against Sassuolo for the 2022-23 season opener at the Allianz Stadium on Monday night. A high-flying start was equally as likely as one of the clunkers we’ve become all too used to seeing over the last two or three years.
The actual result ended up being somewhere in between. Juve started out brightly before fading a bit, allowing Sassuolo to take the game by the teeth for about 10 minutes and forcing Mattia Perin into several saves that were as important as they were eye-catching. Even missing several big pieces — either to injury, suspension, or being raided in the transfer market this summer — it looked like the Neroverdi were about to make it one of those games again.
Fortunately, it being August in Italy, it was hot as blazes, and a cooling break was called for midway through the first half. Massimiliano Allegri used that break to make a tactical adjustment, and the team came out firing once the drinks had been quaffed. Within minutes, they had the breakthrough on a fantastic strike by the debuting Angel Di Maria, and Dusan Vlahovic fired in a brace on either side of halftime to provide the margin in what turned into a comfortable 3-0 win.
Allegri had a couple of selection headaches coming into the game. Adrien Rabiot and Moise Kean were both suspended due to hitting the yellow card threshold in the final game of last season. Federico Chiesa and Kaio Jorge were still their respective knee injuries from last year, and Paulo Pogba was “rehabbing” his injured meniscus. Wantaway midfielder Arthur wasn’t even called up. Wojciech Szczesny was also out due to a muscle problem, giving Perin the gloves behind what started out as a 4-4-2. In front of him was the quartet of Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, Gleison Bremer, and Alex Sandro. The midfield was made up of Juan Cuadrado, Manuel Locatelli, Denis Zakaria, and Weston McKennie, who pulled a John Cena to recover for the game in half the original estimated time. Di Maria and Vlahovic started up top, with the Argentine free to roam behind the big Serb.
Alessio Dionisi had a lot of big parts to replace, and he went with a 4-3-3 instead of the 4-2-3-1 that he used last year. His top striker, Gianluca Scamacca, had gone to West Ham United in the Premier League, and Giacomo Raspadori started the game on the bench as negotiations for his move to Napoli proceeded apace. Hamad Junior Traore was out with a broken foot, and midfielder Maxime Lopez suspended. Andrea Consigli started in goal, protected by Mert Muldur, Kaan Ayhan, Gian Marco Ferrari, and Rogerio. Matheus Henrique, Davide Frattesi, and Kristian Thorstvedt manned the midfield, while Domenico Berardi (in his shiny new No. 10 shirt), Gregoire Defrel, and Giorgos Kyriakopoulous formed the attacking trident.
The game took off from minute one, when Sandro pulled a nifty spin move on the left sideline played a give-and-go with McKennie, and charged into the box, where he tangled with Muldur. The ball ran out for a goal kick and referee Antonio Rapuano waved away strident penalty appeals — rightly so, as Sandro finished his excellent move by going down a little too easily. Muldur very much came off the worse in the crash between the two, injuring an ankle and having to be stretchered off only seven minutes into the game.
Juve remained on the front foot in the game’s early moments, with Sandro turning back the clock and delivering a great cross to Vlahovic for a free header, although the striker was a step offside as well. For all Juve’s bright start, they weren’t turning it into shots, and after about a dozen minutes the visitors started to carve out a place in the game.
Sassuolo began to ever so slowly push the Juventus defense backward, and Juve started having trouble getting out of their own half. In the 20th minute Berardi hit a deep cross that found an unmarked Defrel at the back post. The Frenchman had to stretch out to turn it goalwards, and Perin pushed it off the line before claiming it. Less than a minute later, Defrel nailed a ball from range that forced Perin into a sprawling parry. Soon after, some terrible passing allowed Berardi a short field, but the defense managed to converge on him before he was able to take advantage of the turnover.
It was at this point that the Rapuano signaled for the game’s first cooling break. As the players were chugging whatever enhanced-hydration liquids the teams use, Allegri tweaked his tactical setup. The 4-4-2 morphed into a 4-3-3, with Cuadrado advanced into a left wing role.
The move paid instant dividends.
McKennie fired a cross through the box after a nice lofted pass by Locatelli, then Cuadrado dropped the ball back to Sandro, who put an exclamation point on the best half of football he’s played in two and a half years by lofting a perfect first-time cross for Di Maria, whose volley into the ground took a huge bounce and looped over the outstretched hand of a leaping Consigli. It wasn’t as if Consigli was out of position, either. It was simply a perfect shot, and Juve had a lead despite the run of play being decidedly against them in the preceding 10 minutes.
One of the biggest questions about Allegri in the offseason was whether or not he would close up shop with a one-goal lead the way he did last season or whether he would seek to kill the game off. Blessedly, the early indications seem to lean toward the latter. Minutes after the goal came the first close call for Vlahovic, who beat his marker after some superb work by Di Maria and Danilo on the right side, but pushed it wide. The man he beat, Ayhan, then tried to make up for it by unleashing a thunderbolt of a shot from range, forcing Perin to make a flying save.
But Juve were headed back for Consigli’s goal only five minutes later, with Vlahovic again benefitting from great work by Di Maria and Danilo only to whisper a shot past the post. At this point in the half Consigli was working in earnest, and he had to dive to tip a hard drive from Cuadrado past the post.
But there was nothing he could do to keep Juve from extending their lead just before the half. In the 41st minute Vlahovic latched on to a great ball over the top by Sandro (again!). He shielded the ball well from Ferrari as he took it down, but when he tried to turn the defender dragged him to the ground, then took his legs out as they were headed to the turf. It was a penalty three or four different ways, and Rapuano pointed to the spot immediately, a decision that was quickly confirmed by Marco Guida in the VAR room. Vlahovic stepped up to take the kick, and after a weird moment where the ref blew his whistle but then stopped Vlahovic mid-run up to deal with some encroaching players, the striker finally got to go, stroking the ball straight down the middle as Consigli dived to his right.
As the teams went into the half, Juve had a lot to be pleased with. The Neroverdi had taken eight shots in the first half, but the defense, led by the imposing presence of Bremer, only allowed one of them to come from inside the box. The attacking play had been incisive and both their shiny new acquisition and the new face of the franchise got off to fast starts.
In previous seasons, this would be the time that a Juventino would be watching with their heart in their throat, hoping there wouldn’t be a lapse in concentration that let the opponent back into the game. That threat loomed especially large after Raspadori was sent in at the half in place of Defrel. But on this day Juve did something that they had rarely done a year ago: they killed the game off.
Just five minutes into the half, Di Maria received a pass out of defense and charged downfield, just missing with a gorgeous lob to the far post. After receiving the ensuing goal kick, Ayhan had an epic brain fart and passed the ball right to Di Maria at the top of the box. Vlahovic initially dropped back toward the edge of the area himself before realizing that Ayhan was moving to try to interdict Di Maria and made a run into the channel. Di Maria’s through ball bounced off Ayhan’s hand as he slid in to stop the pass, so it would’ve been a penalty anyway, but the ball settled perfectly for Vlahovic, who smashed home first time to provide the final margin of victory.
The rest of the game was about playing out the string and holding on to the clean sheet. Frattesi got into decent positions in the box more than once, and forced a block out of Danilo and a save from Perin, but for the most part Juve continued to prevent any dangerous chances inside the box. Juve, on the other hand, didn’t completely turtle up even up 3-0. Filip Kostic made his debut at the hour mark, while Fabio Miretti had to replace Di Maria after he pulled up with an apparent groin injury five minutes later.
Perhaps the neatest surprise of the night was when Juve’s last subs came on in the 76th minute and Matias Soule came on to actually get substantial minutes in a first-team game. The trio of Soule, Miretti, and Nicolo Rovella all had chances at adding in a fourth goal, but all of their shots either eased off target or got blocked. Vlahovic looked like he might be in position to complete his hat-trick when Zakaria put him through, but Jeremy Toljan was equal to stopping him. Zakaria momentarily added to the injury concerns, but the post-match press conference insisted that it was nothing but a cramp.
Even in the best-case scenario, Juve can’t really afford to be dropping any of their best XI at the moment given the other injuries they’re dealing with. Stoppage time was negligible, and when the whistle blew for the final time Juve had kept their clean sheet and put themselves on the right track overall to begin the year.
MATTIA PERIN - 8. Made a couple of excellent saves, including a string of them when the game was still scoreless and the team under pressure. What a luxury to have a guy like him as your No. 2.
DANILO - 7. Ran like a crazy person to overlap with Di Maria on a couple of gut-busting runs, registering two key passes in the process. Defensively he was excellent, tallying a tackle, two interceptions, three clearances and a block. There was concern about him in the offseason, but he pulled out an excellent game to start the year.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Made some nice passes out of the back and was interrupting passing lanes throughout the contest. He also blocked three shots. A very good first game as captain.
BREMER - 7. A hulking presence at the back that would simply bulldoze anyone who got close. He finished with a game-high six clearances, and popped out a key pass to boot. An impressive debut.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Played some of the best football we’ve seen out of him in a really, really long time. He was especially excellent in the first half, popping in some dangerous crosses and registering the assist on Di Maria’s opener. I’m dinging him slightly for some shoddy defending on the back side as the second half wore on, including leaving Frattesi open at the back post for a header that was fortunately right at Perin. It was moments like those that Allegri may have pulled him off.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Didn’t do a lot in the setup but forced a save out of Consigli with a booming shot and made three interceptions defensively. Being on the left isn’t bringing out his absolute best, but right now the 4-3-3 is a much better system for this team and with Di Maria on the right, he needs to plug the holes he can plug.
DENIS ZAKARIA - 6.5. Quietly a force defensively, registering a game-high four tackles. He wasn’t a major offensive force, but the way everyone played around him he didn’t need to be.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. Made a couple of good passes, but not enough of them, only completing 81.5 percent of his passes and only attempting 27. If there is a regista incoming, getting moved closer to the goal would be a big help for him.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. His game changed when he was moved off the sideline and into a mezz’ala position. His runs into the box were crucial to creating some space for the likes of Vlahovic as well as for the wingers to cut inside for. He may not have put up big stats, but his presence changed the way the game played out.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 8. Dude was everywhere. A constant force on offense, and he pressed like a madman as well, even picking up two tackles. His goal was superb and his assist was cool and collected. This is what Juve picked him up for, and the hope is that that injury is minor.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 8. Two well-taken goals put the cherry on a great performance. His efficiency was off the charts here. He only touched the ball 26 times all game, but four of them were shots, two of them were goals, two more were key passes, and one of them gained the penalty. He’ll love this kind of service all year.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Blocked a shot and completed 93.3 percent of his passes, even busted out a couple of moves when he went on the attack. Generally locked down the left flank defensively.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. Five of his 23 touches were crosses, showing his propensity for getting the ball into the box early and often.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Had a shot blocked and a key pass in midfield. Always looking to get the ball upfield and into attacking positions.
NICOLO ROVELLA - NR. Completed all of his passes and had a shot at the end of a counter that flew over the bar.
MATIAS SOULE - NR. Nearly scored in the scrum after a corner kick. Otherwise looked poised for a kid his age.
Max almost got this one wrong.
His 4-4-2 with Di Maria roaming freely behind Vlahovic and McKennie out wide on the left wasn’t the answer. It caused problems trying to play the ball out of the back, and Sassuolo were overrunning the midfield. Allegri’s switch to a 4-3-3 salvaged things and ended up making the game rather comfortable. He gets major kudos for realizing what was wrong and fixing it immediately as opposed to waiting to see if anything changed on its own, which has sometimes been the way he operated.
The biggest thing about Allegri in this match, though, was his apparent deviation away from the direly defensive tactics of last season and into a much more open, proactive way of playing. Juve didn’t retreat into a shell even when the team was up 3-0, and they were searching for ways to kill the game off as opposed to just trying to bumble into it.
No matter who they’re playing, this is the kind of attitude Juve need to have this season if they’re going to be competitive on the fronts they want to be competitive in.
He also gave relatively significant minutes to younger players like Miretti, Rovella, and Soule, something he worked amazingly hard to avoid last year. Those minutes could dry up as injured players returned, but it’s important to integrate them into the squad as much as possible so that they get the minutes they need to develop.
It’s another Monday game next week as Juve take to the road to face off against Sampdoria in Genoa. Then six days later the team gets their first real challenge of the season as Paulo Dybala comes back to the Allianz with Roma.