After the severe storms and flooding in Tuscany that have claimed the lives of at least seven people and left hundreds homeless, the calls in the 48 hours leading up to kickoff to postpone this fixture had been deafening. Even Fiorentina’s own ultras, disgusted with the Serie A’s decision to go on with the game when so many people are hurting and resources are needed to help them, boycotted Sunday night’s game, leaving 7,000 seats empty in the Curva Fiesole on a day that’s usually the biggest on their calendar.
But the game went on, and what resulted was ... well, it happened.
Action was scarce in a 90-minute grind that saw Juve take the lead early through Fabio Miretti’s first-ever senior level goal and then refuse to move forward for the entire rest of the match. Fiorentina ended up with 68 percent possession — 73 percent in the first half — and outshot Juve 25-4. They had more corner kicks than Juve had shots. Three Juventus players had double-digit clearances, and all but two of the starters had two or more.
This was a straight rearguard action against a team whose defense isn’t particularly great. Massimiliano Allegri choosing this way to go isn’t a surprise anymore, but the complete lack of ambition after the goal ... well, we’ll get to that when we get to it later on in this piece. Juve’s 1-0 win is, ultimately, what matters — at least from a sporting perspective. But it came yet again with an attitude that is concerning.
Allegri’s selection headaches continued. Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli were serving their long-term suspensions, Mattia De Sciglio was still a long-term injury, while Alex Sandro, Danilo, and Timothy Weah were all nursing muscle problems. He kept his 3-5-2 intact, making only one change from last week’s last-second win over Hellas Verona. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, protected by the trio of Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Daniele Rugani. Weston McKennie and Filip Kostic played on the wings, with Miretti, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot in midfield. Federico Chiesa faced the Florence fans for the first time since moving to Juventus three years ago, pairing with Moise Kean.
Vincenzo Italiano was missing both of his options at right-back, Michael Kayode and Dodo, as well as Gaetano Castrovilli, leaving him with most of his regulars to play in his 4-2-3-1. Pietro Terracciano started in goal, screened by Fabiano Parisi, Lucas Martinez Quarta, Luca Ranieri, and Cristiano Biraghi in defense. The double-pivot midfield was made up of two former Juventus players, Arthur Melo and Rolando Mandragora. Nico Gonzalez, Antonín Barák, and Christian Kouamé supported Lucas Beltrán in attack.
It was apparent within five minutes that Allegri’s plan was to hunker down and absorb pressure. In the eighth minute, we got to see the rather comical sight of Arthur loading up after a corner kick was headed out to him and he proceeded to completely shank a long-range shot that dribbled out for a goal kick.
Two minutes later, Juve broke open the score.
The goal came on what was probably the only real piece of team passing all day. Once it was finally sent into the Fiorentina half the play was broken open by an excellent layoff pass from Kean to Rabiot, who charged through the middle of the field. His rolled pass to Kostic on the left might have been ripe for an interception, but Parisi misjudged it, allowing the Serb to continue downfield and send in a low cross that was met by Miretti in the left channel, who struck it hard enough to beat Terracciano at the near post.
Given Miretti’s absolutely rotten luck over the years — he’s had at least two goals called back on VAR calls since he was promoted to the first team — you would have been forgiven for looking for any sign that this goal would be too (I certainly did). But no such thing came, and the 20-year-old finally had his first goal at the senior level.
Juve immediately dropped back into what can only be called a siege mentality.
There was little in the way of ambition to go forward the rest of the night, as Allegri hunkered down for 80 minutes to protect Miretti’s goal. Nine minutes after the goal a deep turnover nearly let Beltrán into the box, but Bremer matched him stride for stride and disrupted him enough to force the ball over the end line. It wasn’t until just before the half hour that the Viola produced their first truly dangerous moment, when Gonzalez latched on to a defensive header and unleashed a rocket across goal that Szczesny dove to parry away, Kostic there to help clear the rebound.
The last 15 minutes of the half were a cacophony of blocked shots and long-distance misses, until the very last moments of the period when Rabiot took Biraghi down in prime range for the full-back to bring his team level on the direct free kick. The set piece specialist did hit the target with a good strike, only for Szczesny to again parry the ball away and keep Juve in front.
Juve had a pair of early breakaways that looked dangerous, but gradually got completely pinned back. This led to a pattern: Fiorentina flinging crosses into the box, and Juventus — usually Bremer — heading that cross back out of the box. Rinse. Repeat.
By the end of the night, Fiorentina had put an astonishing 50 crosses into the box, but had only connected with a teammate on five of them. It got to the point where it became clear Italiano’s team had no other ideas. Even the one time they managed a shot on target in the second half, it was right at Szczesny for an easy save.
Perhaps their best chance came in the 78th minute, when substitutes Riccardo Sottil and Jonathan Ikoné nearly combined to find an equalizer with their first touches of the game, only for Rugani to shuttle the ball away from Ikoné with a last-ditch glancing header. The one time anyone in a purple shirt actually out-jumped a Juve defender for one of the many, many crosses that flew into the goal was in the 87th minute, when M’Bala Nzola got the better of Bremer in the air but got under it and hit it a few feet above the crossbar.
Juve nearly put a bow on the game in the first minute of stoppages, when a cross from McKennie flew just over the head of Vlahovic but met Andrea Cambiaso behind him. Terracciano parried the glancing header around the post and behind, for what was, incredibly, Juve’s first corner kick of the game. Juve saw out the last moments of the match in relative comfort, and when the whistle sounded they celebrated their first win in Florence in four years — although a muted one, given the tragic circumstances elsewhere.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made two really good saves in the first half and completely controlled the box throughout the match. Goalkeepers and their ability to marshal a defense are often overlooked in games like this — it’s what made Gigi Buffon so much better than the rest — and Szczesny was excellent there too, making sure no one was out of place.
FEDERICO GATTI - 7. We’re going to have a parade of players with absurd clearance stats, starting with Gatti on nine. He also blocked three shots, and generally did a good job in the low block. His one misstep came late when he let Sottil beat him for pace, but he got picked up by his teammate behind him.
BREMER - 8. Immense. Simply immense. He made 13 clearances in this match, also being credited with an interception and two blocked shots. Anytime the ball was in the air in the box, he was usually the one to head it away. Performances like this are why he deserves the number he’s inherited.
DANIELE RUGANI - 8. Eleven clearances — 11! — and made perhaps one of the most important defensive interventions of the game when he took the ball off of Ikoné’s head. He is playing some of the best football of his career, and it couldn’t come at a better time with Danilo still out injured.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7.5. He did little going forward — he only completed 50 percent of his passes — but he was superb on the defensive end. Finished with a game-high six tackles, three interceptions, and eight clearances. He was a huge help to the back three repelling the home side’s attack.
FABIO MIRETTI - 7. Converted his first career goal with aplomb, and proved to be one of the only people in a Juve kit to be able to dribble through Fiorentina. I’m just so happy he finally has his goal after being so unlucky for so long.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 8. Made 10 clearances and was constantly disrupting Fiorentina’s crosses and occasional runs through the middle. Also made three tackles and was the only Juve player with a significant number of pass attempts to have a completion percentage more than 76.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. A little scattershot going forward, but three tackles and three clearances made his night anything but dull, even after he was given a yellow card at the end of the half that will put him over the suspension threshold and keep him out of next week’s game against Cagliari.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. Got the assist with a good low ball, and was the only Juve player to attempt more than one cross. Helped Rugani seal off González well, hardly ever giving him a sniff. Still, he looked a little lost on some plays, and was absent except for his defense for large stretches.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5. All he could do for most of the game was stand there waiting for some kind of offensive ball to come to him.
MOISE KEAN - 6. Didn’t get too close to goal but played a key role in the opener with an excellent layoff to Rabiot. He’s playing very well at the moment, he just doesn’t have the goals to show for it.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 5.5. Played an unfamiliar mezz’ala role and it showed sometimes. He was often forced to foul and eventually came close to a late goal, but was denied by Terracciano. I do hope this positional tinkering isn’t long for the world, because Allegri has fried some people with it before.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. Hard to play striker when the ball is in the back forever, but he never really threatened to make an impact. Still, he whiffed on a ball at the back post that was mercifully (for him) called offside.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. Held the ball up well and ate four fouls, but still had nothing close to resembling a chance.
***BONUS LOANEE RATING***
ARTHUR - 6.5. Made a whopping six key passes — don’t know if he had that many his entire time at Juve — and completed 89.6 percent of his passes. By all accounts he’s happy in Florence, and hopefully he keeps playing well to block out any competition. Juve really could use that option Fiorentina has on Arthur for some spending money next summer, and if he keeps playing like this he just might convince them to exercise it.
Max is gonna do how Max do.
Unfortunately, how Max do is a far cry from how Mad Max did back in the day. Allegri had zero ambition to go after a second goal after Miretti scored, instead chosing to dance on a knife’s edge for 80-plus minutes while Fiorentina tried to break Juve down.
They ended up unable to do so, but that doesn’t mean Allegri played this properly. For one thing, the lack of the ultras in the wake of the floods and the decision to play the game, which changed the atmosphere tremendously. For another, a goal at any point during the second half would probably have finished the game. Juve showed either a lack of ambition or a lack of nerve in terms of going forward, and that attitude, while successful Sunday night, may not be when Juve face better teams.
The main point of contention I have with Allegri here is just how deep the team was defending. The team as a whole was so far back that the strikers were often only 30 yards from their own box. That makes it next to impossible to properly trigger a counter, given that the player trying to break out will be swarmed, needing to break through multiple waves of opponents just to have the opportunity to get the ball forward.
Playing on the counter is fine, especially given that Juve doesn’t exactly have a player who can break down a block, so attacking on the break is probably their best way to generate offense (unless they can come up with more moves like we saw in Florence!). But to take it to such an extreme as we saw against Fiorentina makes it more difficult for the team to actually get out on the counter, and that leaves you with an absurdly thin margin of error. If Juve make a single mistake, we’re talking about how they dropped points. Forcing the players in defense to be perfect will eventually fry them, and the mistakes will start to appear. Against a team like Inter in a few weeks, this defensive performance may not happen. Juve need to have the freedom to get forward a little bit more and score some insurance goals, otherwise they may face a situation where they have to spend excessive stretches of the season being perfect, that and their luck will not hold out all year.
Juve have a home tilt with Cagliari on Saturday before the international break starts Sunday. After the internationals, it’s the biggest crunch time of the year so far as league-leading Inter come sauntering into the Allianz in what may well be a game for first place in Serie A.