As Juventus headed into the break for
Bribeland Qatar 2022, they were rounding into the first really good run of form we’d seen in a long time. Juve won six straight league games, kept clean sheets in all of them, and climbed up to third in the table heading into the break. As the players either embarked on vacation or joined up with their national teams, the biggest question being asked about Juve would be whether they could keep that momentum going after the sportswashing exhibition World Cup ended and Serie A picked up 52 days later.
After Wednesday’s game at Cremonese, the answer was a resounding “errrhuuummmmmehhhh??”
This was not a good game. Both sides looked exactly like two teams that had spent more than six weeks not playing competitive games. It was the kind of match that could put you to sleep for long stretches, punctuated by short spurts of action. Juventus looked discombobulated, devoid of ideas, or both for most of the game. It seemed they were going to come out of the gates with yet another clunker that dropped points against a team they should be beating handily.
Then Arkadiusz Milik did a thing.
After three seasons of a certain someone providing us with a never-ending loop of Wall Time, the idea of scoring from a direct free kick is still somewhat novel. But the feat Milik pulled as the clock ticked into stoppage time was truly remarkable. From 30 yards or more, the Poland international curled a beautiful free kick around the wall, skipping it past Marco Carnesecchi and into the net off the inside of the post.
It’s true that Carnesecchi made a couple of critical errors in this sequence. Chiefly, he set up his wall with three players rather than four. Perhaps he assumed that was all that was needed given the degree of difficulty of the kick, but the ball ended up flying right through the space that would have been occupied by a fourth man’s head. He then looked to have beaten the ball to the spot, only to fail to get any meaningful touch to it.
But it was still an incredibly difficult kick to execute, and Milik did it to an absolute T, sparing Juve an embarrassing result to kick off the second part of the calendar and spurring a 1-0 win. After Inter beat Napoli by the same score later in the night, the Bianconeri pulled to within seven points of the Serie A leaders, injecting a fresh layer of meaning into next week’s match in Naples.
Massimiliano Allegri was still missing several key pieces to his team as the season resumed. The biggest misses were Dusan Vlahovic, whose troublesome groin injury refuses to go away, and Paul Pogba, whose recovery from his torn meniscus has officially become interminable. They were joined by Angel Di Maria, Leonardo Bonucci, Juan Cuadrado, Mattia De Sciglio, and Kaio Jorge. Allegri kept to the three-man back line he’d used to key Juve’s six-game winning streak during the run-in to the World Cup, deploying them in a 3-5-1-1 setup. Wojciech Szczesny recovered from a stiff neck to start in goal, protected by Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo. Matias Soule got a rare start in place of Cuadrado in the right wing-back position opposite Filip Kostic. Nicolo Fagioli faced the club he had helped lead to promotion on loan a season ago, joining Manuel Locatelli and Weston McKennie in midfield. Fabio Miretti played as a trequartista in the hole behind Milik.
Cremonese began the day in 18th place, and were the only team to go into the World Cup break without a win. Coach Massimiliano Alvini was missing center-back Vlad Chiriches, as well as Ionut Radu and Christian Acella. He countered with his own three-man defense, but used a slightly different 3-4-1-2 shape. Carnesecchi marshaled the defensive line of Luka Lochoshvilli, Matteo Bianchetti, and Alex Ferrari. Leonardo Sernicola and Emanuele Valeri were the wing-backs, sandwiching the double pivot of Soualiho Meite and Michele Castagnetti. Charles Pickel sat in the hole behind the strike duo of Cyriel Dessers and David Okereke.
The hosts were the ones who came out of the gate first. Okereke sprang the offside trap just two minutes in and forced Bremer into a block, In the 13th minute the Nigerian got on the end of a good free kick delivery but bounced a tame header right at Szczesny. Two minutes later, Szczesny nearly made a critical error when he came out to try to claim a long ball, but misjudged the bounce and saw Valeri soar over him to head it on goal. Bremer scampered back to try to clear it off the line, and it looked like it may have gotten over by a fraction, but the flag went up, rendering everything else moot.
Juve finally got their first sights at goal in the 18th minute, when Bremer got behind a Kostic cross but pushed it wide. Less than 60 seconds later Miretti found Soule with an excellent pass, and the young Argentine cut inside and fired for the far post, forcing Carnesecchi to push it wide.
But Cremonese had the ball back in the net only moments later, but referee Giovanni Ayroldi had already whistled Okereke for pushing Danilo before putting it in. Soule did his best to make something of the reprieve, again cutting inside and this time hitting a curling worm-burner that Carnesecchi just managed to tip around the post.
Juve had two more near misses via Miretti and Kostic, both shooting from quite a ways out only to flash just in front of the crossbar and far post, respectively, while Sernicola and Castagnetti both missed the target on the other end. As the teams reached halftime Juve had taken more shots, but all of them had come from outside the box, while Cremonese had come the closest to scoring with their two disallowed goals. The visitors clearly needed some kind of spark.
But that spark was still lacking as the second half kicked off. The Grigiorossi started the period running even or better with the Bianconeri, chiefly because Milik was isolated up top, leading to a difficult time keeping possession.
Allegri is usually notoriously slow with his subs, but it took very little time for him to realize that a change was in order on this night. Federico Chiesa was on by the 55th minute, the longest chunk of playing time he’s had since his return from injury in November. He was introduced with Moise Kean, shifting the team into a more conventional 3-5-2 and giving Milik a much-needed partner up front.
The move produced immediate results. Miretti got himself into a good pocket of space to receive a through ball from Danilo and fired a shot that was a little central for Carnesecchi, but powerful enough that he could only parry it. The ensuing corner kick was only partially cleared and landed at the feet of Gatti, whose snap shot flashed inches wide. Kostic then again missed by a hair when he rifled a short corner just over, and Chiesa ripped a shot into the side netting.
The momentum was definitely with Juve, but with 23 minutes left Allegri made a move that undid the good effects of the first. He replaced McKennie and Miretti with with Leandro Paredes and Adrien Rabiot. The latter eventually grew into the game and would’ve scored late on if he’d gotten solid contact with the ball, but Paredes was an absolute disaster from the word go. Two minutes after the substitution, while the team was still working itself back out, Dessers latched on to a headed pass from Valeri and hit a ferocious shot that banged out ooff the inside of the upright. Two minutes later a terrifyingly stupid back pass by Paredes led to a Cremonese break that could’ve caused major problems, but Juve just thwarted the attack and stopped fouling the ball carrier outside the box.
The midfield subs had completely discombobulated the passing and robbed it of any rhythm it had gained at the end of the first half. Cremonese clearly took down the idea of taking that momentum back to heart. After being forced into another big save by Rabiot, the home side caught a slight break when Bremer headed the corner down to Kean, whose roundhouse shot hit Carnesecchi in the chest. Paredes tried to smash the rebound goalward but only succeeded in hitting it hard off his nearest marker, leading to a swift Cremonese counterattack through Valeri, who tried to take it all the way and was denied by Szczesny.
Carnesecchi was called into action once more with three minutes left on the clock when Kean shook free and unleashed a powerful drive that the keeper had to punch away, But as the clock ticked to midnight, it became clear that something special would be be needed to happen in order for one of the teams to break the deadlock.
Milik duly obliged, and after a large chuck of stoppage time the game was over, and Juve had launched — barely — to the tune of three points.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. Solid in his return to action after a star turn at the World Cup. Did everything right on this shift, and sure enough good things happened.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. Read the game well, although he was ball watching a bit when Dessers hit the post. Overall a good game as he looks to establish himself more in 2023.
BREMER - 5.5. Led all players with eight clearances, but he was vulnerable, presenting Cremonese with several chances in the first half. Hopefully it was just knocking off some rust after going to Qatar but only playing one minute.
DANILO - 8. Perhaps the best player on the pitch. Made a whopping SIX tackles, several of which were of the bone-crunching variety. He’s really turning into the true leader of this squad.
MATIAS SOULE - 6. Skipped through traffic pretty well, although Valeri found him out eventually, But he was promising in a role he’s not used to playing, forcing two saves out of Carnesecchi and added in a key pass for good measure.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 5.5. Completed 95.5 percent of his passes , most of any Juve outfield player, but didn’t create much threat, although he did notch a pair of tackles.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6.5. Played tenaciously on defense, notching four tackles and four clearances. The course of the game pinned him back in front of the defense for large stretches, limiting his ability to contribute in attack.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. Couldn’t maximize his skill set, completing only 76.8 percent of his passes, but he ran like crazy.
FILIP KOSTIC - 7. Led the game with five key passes and put in a massive shift on defense against Sernicola as well. He’s in his element in this formation and looks to be loving every second of it.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Came really close to scoring and added in a key pass as well, but you take something away from him when he’s playiing in this position as opposed to deeper.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 7. That free kick takes the grade up several notches. He was unfortunately quiet for most of the game, as Juve found him difficult to serve, but he saved a lot of blushes Wednesday night.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this game is that Chiesa looked good physically for more than 35 minutes. He had a key pass and very nearly scored in the 66th minute.
MOISE KEAN - 6. Coaxed two excellent saves out of Carnesecchi and was generally a menace up front.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Started slowly but grew into the game and was unlucky not to contact Kostic’s cross cleanly, cause if he had he probably blasts it in.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 4. Statistically a decent game (WhoScored ludicrously rated him a 7) but the eye test shows a much different story. Paredes was a liability from the word go. Every other action was leaving Juve open to counterattack and he didn’t really create much danger up front.
SAMUEL ILING - NR. On late to try to add some lasty-second attacking omph.
Where do we begin with this one? At the beginning, I guess.
Allegri got this game wrong from the start. His obsession with playing Miretti as a trequartista behind the lone striker has caused some problems early in games. The striker (usually Milik while Vlahovic is out) ends up painfully isolated, unable to hold the ball up long enough for younger players. Miretti is much better as a mezz’ala than as a trequartista.
His quick realization that it wasn’t working is commendable, and his first round of subs hit the spot quite nicely. The second round was a completely different story. The introduction of the World Cup finalists in Rabiot and Paredes thoroughly disrupted the team’s flow. Rabiot was able to climb out of it, but Paredes was a mess. Allegri should’ve had a better idea of where he was in terms of preparedness before putting him in in this situation.
Allegri’s penchant for experimentation is what garnered him the Mad Max labeled all those years ago. But he has to realize that his job is to put the players where they are the best positioned on the field, but he has spent so much time tinkering with players in other spots despite all evidence to the contrary about it working. While it’s not a terrible idea to have Kean in reserve for in-game adjustments, the 3-5-1-1 just doesn’t work, and Allegri needs to realize that.
Juve are back on the field on Saturday as they welcome Udinese to the Allianz Stadium. Then comes one of the biggest games of the year against Napoli the next Friday in Naples.