There’s something to be said for symmetry.
On Oct. 22, 2016, Manuel Locatelli, then a 19-year-old kid out of the AC Milan academy, hit a second-half rocket from 30 yards out that beat Gianluigi Buffon and provided the difference in a 1-0 win for Milan over Juventus at the San Siro.
Seven years later, Manuel Locatelli, now an established veteran a few months shy of 26, hit a second-half rocket from 30 yards out that, with the help of a deflection, beat Antonio Mirante — Buffon’s former Juventus backup — and provided the difference for a 1-0 win for Juve over Milan at the San Siro.
As fun as that comparison is, Sunday’s match didn’t have much to recommend itself to Juventini other than the final score. The Bianconeri were almost unforgivably passive through the game’s first 40 minutes, and only an incredible save by Wojciech Szczesny in the early going kept the game scoreless.
The game turned on an inexplicable mistake by Milan’s Malick Thiaw, who rugby tackled Moise Kean to the ground after the Italy international turned him, earning himself a straight red card for denial of a goalscoring opportunity. The dismissal gave Juve a man advantage for 50 minutes, but even after that it looked questionable whether Juve were capable of taking that advantage and doing anything with it. Locatelli’s strike eventually provided the difference, but for a game a lot of commentators have referred to as Juve’s statement of intent in the scudetto race, it brought up just as many questions as answers.
Massimiliano Allegri was coming into the game in a selection headache, especially in midfield. With Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli serving hefty suspensions for doping and gambling, respectively, the unit was dangerously thin, and on top of that Danilo was out after suffering an injury on international duty with Brazil. Alex Sandro and Mattia De Sciglio were long-term absences, while Dusan Vlahovic and Federico Chiesa were only fit for the bench. Allegri sent out his usual 3-5-2, with Szczesny being protected by Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Daniele Rugani. Timothy Weah and Filip Kostic manned the wing-back spots, with Weston McKennie, Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot manning the midfield. Kean joined up with Arkadiusz Milik in attack.
Stefano Pioli had his own roster issues. Two of his best players, Mike Maignan and Theo Hernandez, were serving suspensions, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ismael Bennacer, and Samuel Chukwueze were all injured. Also hurt was No. 2 goalkeeper Marco Sportiello, leaving Mirante in goal behind Pioli’s usual 4-2-3-1. Alessandro Florenzi took Hernandez’s spot at left back, joining Davide Calabria on the other flank. Thiaw paired with Fikayo Tomori in the middle of defense. Yacine Adli and Yunus Musah formed the double pivot in midfield, behind the attacking like of Christian Pulisic, Tijjani Reijnders, and Rafael Leão. Olivier Giroud led the attack from the striker position.
Allegri immediately ceded the initiative to the opposition. By the time the game was 10 minutes old, all 10 of Milan’s outfield players were camped in Juve’s half. Ironically, it was one of the few counterattacks Milan had the chance to launch that produced the game’s first real chance, when Leao burned Gatti for pace and pushed forward, hitting the run of Giroud in the left channel. The Frenchman’s first touch carried him to the corner of the six-yard box, where he arrowed a low shot toward the far corner that Szczesny somehow got down to to push wide of the post.
Juve didn’t get an opportunity to threaten until the 23rd minute, when Milik took a direct free kick into the wall and Kostic rifled the rebound at goal but wide.
But with five minutes to go in the first half, things got very interesting indeed.
Juve hadn’t been able to get through Milan for counters very often, but Weah finally managed to unleash a pass that broke multiple lines. A slick touch from Kean set him up perfectly to run clean through on goal, but Thiaw pulled him down from behind before he was able to make the play. Referee Maurizio Mariani wasted little time in producing a straight red card for denying Kean a clear goalscoring opportunity.
Pioli sacrificed one of his most in-form players in Pulisic to send on Pierre Kalulu, who was just coming off an injury. Juve wasted little time in putting together a dangerous chance against their short-handed hosts, but Kean somehow tapped Rabiot’s cross wide at the far post.
Juve immediately began the second half by pressing Milan off the ball, although the early-season press pretty much lasted that one play before going by the wayside. Milan, on the other hand, spent some extended time in the Juventus, making one struggle to square Milan’s extended possession in the Juve half with their being a man down.,
Allegri sent on Vlahovic for Kean in the 55th minute, as well as a Andrea Cambiaso for a relatively ineffectual Kostic. But it took eight more minutes after that change for Juve to finally break through. A simple square pass from Weah to Locatelli ended a long sequence of passing, and Locatelli decided to load up and fire from 30 yards out. His shot took a big deflection off of substitute Rade Krunic, wrong-footing Mirante and sending the ball flying into the net behind the diving keeper.
McKennie wasted an excellent counterattack by ballooning the ball into the third tier, while Locatelli went for another long shot only to be blocked. With 13 minutes to go, Allegri made the surprise move to bring on 18-year-old Dean Huijsen for his Serie A debut to replace Gatti, who had been walking on thin ice after a booking. Milan immediately arrowed in on the newcomer, but the Dutchman and his teammates made a quick statement in defense and the attack was soon evened back out.
Vlahovic hit a rocket with four minutes to go that was parried over the bar by Mirante, and the 40-year-old again looked spry in stoppage time when he pulled an incredible double save out of his hat, parrying a strong shot from Andrea Cambiaso and then somehow denying Vlahovic when he tried to tap in on the followup. As Juve saw the rest of the game out, Allegri kept on seeing something he disliked, and eventually engaged in a rant on the sideline that included his trademark jacket-spike that eventually even included his tie being ripped off.
Thankfully the upset was for nothing, and Mariani soon brought the game to an end, and Juve scampered home with three points from one of their biggest games of the year to date.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Only had to make one save, but boy, oh boy, what a save it was. A goal that early completely changed the game. Commanded the defense well.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. Got torched a few times by Leao, but it’s rare to find a center-back that won’t against that kind of elite-level pace. He played well otherwise, making three clearances and a tackle and completing 90.9 percent of his passes.
BREMER - 7. A big day for the Brazilian, who made six clearances and a pair of tackles while holding Giroud to that single shot.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. An understated but excellent day in place of the captain, finishing the day in a three-way tie for the team lead in clearances and marking his opponents well while playing all over the line.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 6. Struggled at times, but worked in two key passes, including the assist on Locatelli’s goal, which bumps up the grade a bit. He looks like he’s still getting used to what he’s expected to do in this position under Allegri.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Wasted a good counter with a moon launch of a shot, but co-led the team in clearances, and completed 90.5 percent of his passes in midfield, which was a bit of a rarity on the day.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. One heck of a shot for that goal, which looked like it was going to test Mirante even without the massive deflection. Also defended very well, coming second on the team with five clearances and dropping back into his own box to stop up crossing lanes when needed.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. His first day as captain went OK, but he wasn’t able to make any of those big runs through midfield that make him so effective. He did make four tackles on defense, but struggled to make a big impact given how similar his game is with McKennie’s.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Here’s an example of the algorithms on the stat sites failing to take into account the eye test. Kostic got a 7.16 rating on WhoScored, largely on the back of a team-leading haul of five tackles (in only 55 minutes!) and three clearances. But apart from competent defense, Kostic is only really valuable when he’s crossing effectively, and he didn’t do that today at all, going 0-for-9 on the evening.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5. It was a rough day for him given the team’s tactics, and he pretty much disappeared as the game went along.
MOISE KEAN - 5.5. The kind of game that shows everything he does well and everything that’s still holding him back. The move he made that force Thiaw to bring him down was excellent, but a few minutes later he missed a high-profile sitter.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. Led the team in shots in only 35 minutes, hitting the target with two of three, although he really should’ve potted the rebound on Cambiaso’s shot.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 6. Completed 93.1 percent of his passes and brought something a little more variable on his wing. Denied a first Juve goal by a great save late on.
FEDERICO CHIESA - NR. Didn’t have much chance to make an impact by running with the ball?
DEAN HUIJSEN - NR. His only counting stat was a clearance, but don’t sleep on how good the teenager was in his debut. He completed all 18 of his passes and very much looked like he belonged on a top-flight back line.
FABIO MIRETTI - NR. On after Weah got hurt late on.
I deeply wish Juventus was managed by someone who wasn’t so risk-averse.
That’s really the only descriptor for the way Allegri approached this game. Depleted as he was, Milan’s roster was in similar shape, and with a third-string goalkeeper in, one had to think that the plan would be to pepper him with shots and see what happens.
Instead, Allegri set the team up in a deep block that made it almost impossible for the team to get out of their own half and test Mirante. The forwards, when they did get the ball, would be so deep that they had to either hold the ball up or break out with it while having to get past multiple lines in the opposing formation. It doesn’t matter who your forward is at that point, they’re the underdog in that situation.
What was nigh-on unforgivable was the fact that Juve hardly kept that timidness on display even when up a man for upwards of 50 minutes. There were spells of the second half where Milan set themselves up in the Juve half even while down a man.
It was clear that Allegri’s goal in this game was to leave Milan with a point, and the other two would be a nice bonus. If there was anything that blared to the world that Allegri was playing it safe, it was the introduction of Cambiaso. Now, I’m rather high on the wing-back, but with a man advantage and searching for the goal to put you ahead, Juve was in prime Samuel Iling-Junior territory. Instead, Allegri left one of his most talented attacking players on his bench.
Max Allegri has truly become a caricature of himself. He will defend until the bitter end with little in the way of regard for game situation or the fact that, you know, Juve need goals to win games. Instead, he’s turned himself into a modern-day Nereo Rocco, the 1960s-era Italian manager who is known to history as a man who believed a 0-0 draw was the epitome of football.
The problem there is that draws are worth less points. And while Juve are currently only two points off the leader in third place, that could change at the drop of a hat if Juve’s lack of initiative is starting to wear on the fans, especially after such a dire performance given situation in a game that became very winnable very quickly.
Juve clash with a struggling Hellas Verona at home on Saturday night, then a trip to Florence the following weekend to take on Fiorentina, who can move up into fourth place with a win over Empoli on Monday night.