No striker production, no problem: behind goals from two center backs, Juventus are in first place in Serie A. At least temporarily.
The last two wins are the sort of wins that, a year ago, were not wins. That’s why, as unimpressive as Saturday night’s showing in the 2-1 win over Cagliari was in many respects, I think the team, the fans, and the coach should be generally happy with the recent run of victories. The five-game winning streak neither feels tenuous nor forged of steel — maybe somewhere in the middle. But three points is three points is three points.
Juventus opened the game on the front foot, generating two corner kicks in the opening five minutes, although nothing came of the early sustained pressure. As the game settled, however, Cagliari did a fine job man-marking Manuel Locatelli out of the build-up, leaving Federico Gatti and Bremer primarily in charge of developing play forward. Predictably, that did not turn out so well. A couple of turnovers led to a couple of half-chances for the visitors.
The following stretch was surprisingly open, with both sides looking fairly discombobulated. Corners on both ends, counterattacks both ways, little forays that didn’t amount to much. This is where the “broken record” or, if you prefer, “beating a dead horse” section comes in: the Juventus midfield struggled. Defensively, the midfield was as porous as Swiss cheese; Cagliari did not have too much trouble advancing possession either via the dribble or with longer passes, although their attacks fizzled once they reached the back line. Offensively, the midfield, with Locatelli marked, struggled for some time to make the necessary adjustments.
About 30 minutes in, Federico Chiesa (who else?) unlocked the Cagliari defense with a perfectly timed, perfectly placed pass to Moise Kean, whose first touch was — let’s just say — not delicate. To be fair, the pass did have a bit of mustard on it, and the striker was at full pace, but still you’ve got to give yourself a chance to put the ball to goal there.
The wasted Kean opportunity turned out not to be Juve’s only solid chance in the first half. A Weston McKennie cross flitted past Kean and out to Filip Kostic, who sent the ball back into the box to the feet of the attacking American, who directed the ball just wide. Kean might’ve been offside to negate the goal if it had been scored, but it was a promising movement. Thus ended the first half.
No subs at the intermission, but the second 45 minutes opened with a flurry of chances for Juventus. The closest came when Chiesa had a golden chance to stuff a rebound into the back of the net, but he sent the shot wide. On the ensuing corner, Kostic floated a lovely cross to Gatti, who skied above the defense but missed the frame.
Games like these are pressure cookers: the longer you don’t score, the more you feel the heat. And as the 60-minute mark approached, I wondered what Max Allegri was thinking in terms of how he’d get the ball across the line. Almost at that exact moment, things blew wide-open: three goals in 15 minutes of play made for a final half hour of nervy play.
The first goal came from a set piece, and while the placement from Kostic was excellent and the finish was excellent, the defending by Cagliari was some of the worst. Bremer had copious amounts of elbow room as he directed the ball into the far corner with his finely manicured head.
The second goal also came off a set piece, a corner kick, but that’s about where the similarities end. The corner was again placed very well, and the ball kind of bobbled around onto and, finally, off Daniele Rugani’s ... chest into the net. Not one for the highlight reel, but we’re Juventus: we’re not highlight reel divas at this stage of the game.
Just when you thought, for a moment, that Juventus would run away with this thing, center back Alberto Dossena rose above the Juventus defense on a corner kick to draw the visitors a goal away from level. The last 15 minutes and stoppage time were nervy stuff; this was not the insanely low block we might’ve thought we’d see from Juventus — although that might’ve been smart. Really for large parts of the game, including the end, the defense did not look as organized as it had the previous few games. Luckily for the Old Lady, the lads did just enough to hear that final whistle with the score still 2-1 in favor of the good guys.
Wojciech Szczęsny — 6.5. Not much he could do on the goal, and otherwise didn’t have a ton of work to do, but the Polish goalkeeper continues to be solid between the pipes. Good distribution per usual.
Federico Gatti — 6.5. A solid if unspectacular day for the Cat Man. It’s too bad he couldn’t have found the back of the net on the missed header to give each of the three center backs a goal on the day.
Bremer — 7.5. Was he perfect on the day like we’ve gotten accustomed to seeing? Nope. There were a few shaky moments, actually. But he was still solid defensively, and he scored a wonderful goal.
Daniele Rugani — 7. Overall another good display from the resurgent Rugani. He missed a mark or two early, but he settled well and, I guess, scored the game-winning goal. Is that right? You’ve got to be happy for Rugani.
Filip Kostic — 7.5. I didn’t think Kostic started the game well at all; in fact, one could’ve argued he might’ve been a good player to take off. Good thing I’m not the coach; the Serbian ended up producing the most chances and being a consistently dangerous threat. For me, it’s a split man of the match honors with Bremer.
Andrea Cambiaso — 5.5. Nothing terrible from the youngster, but nothing great. Juventus need Timothy Weah and Danilo back for some depth; if the Old Lady were playing midweek European games, the injuries would be exposing this team more.
Manuel Locatelli — 6. Locatelli was ... fine. He was relegated to just 57 touches all game, and for large parts of the game he was totally anonymous because of Cagliari’s marking. Allegri made nice adjustments in the second half to make things a bit better, but still he wasn’t heavily involved.
Fabio Miretti— 5.5. Along with Cambiaso, probably Juve’s least effective player on the day. Like Locatelli, mostly absent.
Weston McKennie — 6.5. The American continues to prove himself. The stats say he didn’t have a great game, but I thought he was the team’s best midfielder for his defensive contributions and hustle. He also had a couple nice long and accurate crosses, but mostly I remember him sprinting the full length of the field at least once or twice to single-handedly destroy a counterattack. The kid can run.
Federico Chiesa — 6. On another day, Chiesa leaves this game with a goal and assist, so maybe this is a bit harsh. But he did generally have a tough time getting terribly involved.
Moise Kean — 5.5. A whopping 19 touches for your striker at home against the 17th-place team in the league is not ideal. He had one great chance from the Chiesa pass and his touch failed him. He still does the little Allegri things well: hustle, pressure, etc. He works hard. Man I would like to see him get a goal.
Samuel Iling-Junior — 6. Not a lot of involvement from the Englishman, but I for one am a bit interested in seeing more of him in that midfield spot against weaker competition. Either way, he’s got jets and skills, so I think Allegri needs to try to field him somewhere more.
Dušan Vlahović — 6.5. He didn’t play much, but he looked spicy in a good way out there, with a key pass and a dribble. Would like to see him back on the scoresheet soon.
Arkadiusz Milik — N/A. When everybody is healthy, Juve do have decent depth at striker. Milik didn’t get super involved but did show some nice build-up connectivity, one of the best parts of his skill set. Somehow won three aerials in 10 minutes plus stoppage time of play.
Hans Nicolussi Caviglia — N/A. Four touches. But he saw the field, so that’s good!
Not a lot to say here: down his most consistently available player in Adrien Rabiot, Allegri chose the lineup that probably made the most sense and had the least built-in risk. It worked. What did seem a little off was the team’s defensive cogency; perhaps the team would’ve been even more vulnerable if Allegri hadn’t warned them so vocally about this as a sort of trap game. But he and his team got it done in the end.
This game might have been a best-case scenario: it was far from a stellar performance, yet the Old Lady got all three points. That means Allegri will have plenty to ruminate on over the international break, plenty to berate the players over when they return.
For now, though, Juventus are top of the table, and that’s never a bad thing. With Milan dropping points against Lecce earlier in the day, the Bianconeri can feel a little more comfortable in that top four. There’s still a long, long road ahead, but I think every Juventus fan on the planet would’ve taken this position at this juncture in the season.