The seven-game league winning streak that Juventus rode into Saturday night’s game against Udinese had seen its share of late victories.
It started with Dusan Vlahovic’s winner with 16 minutes to play against Torino, and continued with Nicolo Fagioli’s 73rd-minute Alessandro Del Piero impression against Lecce. But the team hadn’t taken things truly into Zona Cesarini until midweek, when Arkadiusz Milik’s outrageous 30-yard free kick nestled into the net in the first minute of stoppage time.
The Bianconeri left things late again in their first home game of 2023, though not quite so late as that.
In a game that was once again a grind from start to finish, Juve created a number of half-chances but few major ones, and couldn’t convert those until there were four minutes left, when Leandro Paredes lobbed a ball over the top for Federico Chiesa. Juve’s new No. 7 had burst through the Udinese defense completely unmarked but had some things to do with the ball, namely controlling it with his chest and hitting a cross on the half-volley to a similarly unmarked Danilo, who smashed it into the roof of the net to clinch a 1-0 victory.
It was a huge goal that sealed three points heavy with implications. The win heaped pressure onto the two teams ahead of them, with a huge contest against leaders Napoli approaching on Friday. The result of that game could truly vault the Old Lady into the title conversation — a concept that would have sounded silly as recently as Halloween.
Massimilinao Allegri still had a fairly lengthy list of absences to deal with heading into the game. The newest on the list was Gleison Bremer. The big center-back had a minor knock and, considering the fact that he was also one yellow card from the suspension threshold, it was decided it was prudent to keep him out with Napoli looming. He joined Paul Pogba, Dusan Vlahovic, Juan Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, Mattia De Sciglio, and Kaio Jorge on the injury list. Allegri remained wedded to the 3-5-1-1 that has employed through much of this winning run. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, while the back line was made up of Danilo, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro. Weston McKennie was moved out wide to the wing-back position opposite Filip Kostic. The two sandwiched the midfield trio of Adrien Rabiot, Manuel Locatelli, and Fabio Miretti. Angel Di Maria finally returned to the starting lineup to partner Moise Kean up front.
Udinese manager Andrea Sottil didn’t have so long an injury list, but had one very impactful absence in Gerard Delofeu. He too employed a 3-5-2, with Marco Silvestri in between the sticks. He was protected by Nehuen Perez, Rodrigo Becao, and Jaka Bijol, with Roberto Pereyra and Destiny Udogie acting as wing-backs. Sandi Lovric, Walace, and Jean-Victor Makengo formed the midfield, with Issac Success and Beto pairing up in attack.
It was close to a full house at the Allianz, likely a dual product of Juve’s good form and the opportunity to say goodbye to Gianluca Vialli, who passed away a few days earlier after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. There was a touching tribute to the legendary striker before kickoff, but the tears likely turned to frustration in the game’s early phases when Juve predictably set themselves up in a low block at home straight from kickoff.
The good news was that that low block was extremely effective. Udinese were completely stymied in attack, forced to take long-range pot shots when they were able to take any shots at all. The bad news was that Juve was rarely able to get out of their own half, often misfiring on passes or getting dispossessed as Udinese sensed Juve going soft and ramped up their press.
The first real action came in the 18th minute, when both keepers were tested within 60 seconds of each other. Szczesny had to use two hands to punch away a header by Walace after a short corner, while on the other end Di Maria sent in a beautiful free kick that Rugani rose to meet with a powerful header, but Silvestri got his hands up just in time to parry away.
Juve started to finally push their way into the game shortly after, keyed in part by the interplay between Di Maria and Kean. The old hand and the young striker seemed to have good chemistry, and the Italy international was making good runs, but not getting a ton of service. When he did get the ball, he was dangerous. In the 27th minute, he tried to bend a ball in at the near post from 24 yards but just missed the top corner, clipping the guide wire behind the net. Ten minutes later, a fantastic passing move between Miretti and Di Maria sent Kean clean through in the right channel, but he couldn’t get the ball past Silvestri from point blank range — although a look at the replay shows that if he had scored it’s entirely possible he would’ve been hit with a VAR call for being fractionally offside.
The defense, meanwhile, was doing its job impeccably. The oft-maligned Rugani was keeping Beto, one of the league’s underrated strikers, in his pocket, and all that the visitors could muster in the last part of the first period was a 24-yard strike that was smothered and briefly spilled by Szczesny, but with no attacking players to pounce the keeper was able to easily recover and get on top of the ball for good.
Kean’s bad luck continued as the second half started, as he roundhoused a dinked pass from Miretti just over the bar. Four minutes later Kostic came driving into the goal and decided to go it himself from a tight angle rather than put the ball across to a runner in good position, leaving Silvestri a relatively easy save.
Juve had control of the game, but needed some extra oomph to move the needle in attack. That brought Chiesa off the bench. Paredes entered the field with him, replacing Locatelli, who had had a rough night and had been lucky to escape a second yellow card in the opening moments of the second half. Milik followed a few minutes later for a cramping Di Maria, right after he dropped a gorgeous ball into the box for his countryman only to see the midfielder miscontrol it and then go to ground far too easily.
The next 20 minutes saw the ball move up and down the field a fair bit, but with neither team working the ball into place for a major scoring opportunity. That is, until Paredes took a layoff from Sandro and went to work, producing one of his first meaningful positive contributions since his loan from PSG started. Chiesa very nearly sealed things in stoppage time, only to be stopped by a desperate block by Bijol. When the whistle blew, Juve had another cardiac win and another three big points in the standings.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. A little bit spill-prone, but otherwise a very good performance on a day where there wasn’t a ton of serious stuff for him to do.
DANILO - 8. His immense play continues. He led the team with five clearances and added a pair of tackles to boot, and his positioning on the goal was flawless, finding all kinds of space to leave himself an easy tap-in. He seems to have already jumped Juan Cuadrado in the captain’s hierarchy, and frankly he should be at the top of it.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Beto is not an easy striker to deal with, and Rugani completely smothered him for most of the night. He made more tackles than anyone on the back line (3) and added three clearances and an interception to boot. It was an excellent day.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Had one major malfunction in the second half that forced some teammates to cover for him, but overall had a solid day in the back. Playing in this role seems to play better to his skill set at this stage in his career.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. McKennie’s versatility just barely covers the job at right wing-back, but it’s clearly not his best spot. He did what he could defensively against a difficult assignment in Udogie, but his passing was all over the place, even after he moved back into the middle.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7.5. An absolute beast in the middle with a game-high five tackles to go along with three key passes going forward. His play continues to be exceptional.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. He had two key passes, but his performances so far have lacked the pep he had going into the World Cup break. He’s often made up for that with defensive work, but he didn’t make a huge impact there either, likely because of the yellow card he picked up midway though the first half. Frankly, he was very lucky not to get a second early in the second half, which is probably why he was hauled off so early.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Made four tackles, and while he wasn’t credited with any key passes he was a part of some of Juve’s best team moves, combining well with Di Maria to play the striker into the box.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Didn’t make the impact up front that he usually does with his crossing, and the one time he really could have he made the uncharacteristic decision to get selfish. A down game.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 6.5. Made a game-high five key passes and was constantly active in the final third trying to link up with anyone he could. Left the game after reported calf problems, but Allegri assured the media after the game that it was just a cramp.
MOISE KEAN - 6. Unlucky not to score a goal tonight. He was constantly making good runs and getting into the right position, he was lacking the finishing touch by that much. But he’s been looking constantly dangerous since the middle of this run, which is going to be a major boon to Allegri as the season goes on.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7. That assist was unreal. The body control to control the ball with his chest, then volley the ball across for Danilo is simply unbelievable. If he’d done it any other way, he’d have been closed down. He also came very close to finishing the game off himself but for a desperation block.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 6. His first positive contribution in a very long while, and a good way to bounce back after a shambolic performance on Wednesday. His pass for Chiesa was spot-on. If he wants to stay at Juve, he needs a lot more of that.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. His night was emblematic of the Juve strikers in general, as he only had seven touches in 25 minutes (Kean had only 18 in 79). He did make some good runs and would’ve had an easy goal had it not been for some good marking on a Kostic cross.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - NR. Attempted only six passes in the game, but one of them turned into a shot.
MATIAS SOULE - NR. Switching Chiesa over to the left wing turned out to be a very good thing.
I’ve been critical of Allegri’s use of the 3-5-1-1 before this, mainly because the man in the hole has often been Fabio Miretti, who simply isn’t a trequartista. But with Di Maria playing the role, the formation becomes far more effective. Di Maria is far better suited to flitting around in that layer of the defense just in front of the box and connecting things. He dovetailed well with Miretti, who coming out of his real position in midfield was far more effective than he was against Cremonese. What do you know, players play better when they play in their proper positions!
Which brings us to Weston McKennie, who had his worst game in a while on Saturday night while out in the right wing-back position. This is a position that isn’t out of the realm of possibility for McKennie to play, but it’s certainly not where he’s at his best, and that showed today. Granted, I understand the why of putting him there today. Juan Cuadrado is still out, Danilo is needed in that center-back spot, and given the news that came out over the World Cup break it might not be a good idea to play Mattia De Sciglio even if he’s healthy. Matias Soule would’ve been an option, too, but it could be that Allegri didn’t want him playing on short rest.
The point is this team needs more players that can play as wing-backs — specifically on the right, as the left is pretty well locked down by Kostic. This transfer window is unlikely to see much in the way of reinforcement unless it’s a super-cheap move, but if the team can spend any type of money this summer, full-backs/wing-backs need to be high on that list.
Juventus head south to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradonna in Naples on Friday. It is easily their biggest league game of the season. Should they win, they will be anywhere from four points to one point back, depending on Napoli’s result against Sampdoria on Sunday.
After that, Juve get their campaign in the Coppa Italia going as they host Monza in the round of 16 in what they hope will be a revenge game. Then they get a trip from Atalanta before hosting Monza once again in the league.