When Massimiliano Allegri and Jose Mourinho coach against each other, I’m always reminded of a scene from the Pokémon anime. It’s a scene that dates me tremendously, because it’s literally the fourth episode of the entire series, which was released for the first time in English in September of 1998. (I had turned 9 years old two weeks before.) In the episode, Ash Ketchum is challenged to a battle by a rival Pokémon trainer, only to end up battling his opponent’s Metapod with his own Metapod, a contest that devolves into which of them can use the Harden technique ... harder.
These are two coaches that we always know what we’re going to get from. Both lean toward defense, trying to smash a goal and then defend the rest of the way, perhaps picking up an insurance goal on the counter. It’s a style that can madden both fans and opponents, and when they clash it’s always a battle of wills to see which one will reach that objective first.
This time around, it was Juventus that checked off their list. After an even first half, a goal within two minutes of the restart by Adrien Rabiot — off a fantastic assist from Dusan Vlahovic — gave Juve the advantage, and they spent the rest of Saturday night’s match keeping their shape and absorbing Roma’s attacks. There were a few wobbly moments, but never any genuine danger, and when the game closed, Juve had taken yet another 1-0 victory to the bank to close out 2023.
The similarities between the two coaches extended to the formations, where each deployed a 3-5-2. Allegri was missing Alex Sandro, Moise Kean, and Mattia De Sciglio due to injury, while Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli were joined on the suspended list by Andrea Cambiaso — albeit only for the day for yellow card accumulation. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal behind the defensive trio of Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo. Timothy Weah started at right wing-back in place of Cambiaso, joining Filip Kostic on the other flank. Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Rabiot made up the midfield, while teenage sensation Kenan Yildiz again joined Vlahovic in the strike pair.
Mourinho’s injury list was far more significant. Tammy Abraham, Chris Smalling, Marash Kumbulla were all out, although Paulo Dybala recovered from an injury in time to start against his old club. Rui Patricio guarded the goal, directing Gianluca Mancini, Diego Llorente, and Evan N’Dicka in the back line. Rasmus Kristensen and Nikola Zalewski were the wingbacks, bracketing the midfield of Eduardo Bove, Bryan Cristante, and former Juve
failure reject midfielder Leandro Paredes. Dybala joined the hulking Romelu Lukaku up front.
The game nearly started with some unwanted fireworks when Cristante volleyed a defensive header back at the goal from 17 yards out, taking a deflection off Vlahovic that diverted it just enough to thump off the base of the post.
The first half began to take on a rhythm, in which each team traded spells of possession, each time quickly transitioning back to defense when their turn was done. The difference between the two was that Juve was able to catch Roma’s defense on the counter before they could get set a few times, something Roma never quite managed to achieve.
Those runs produced a pair of shots from Vlahovic that went wide, although the decisiveness with which he took them showed a level of confidence that’s been missing during most of his struggles the last 18 months. Roma had apparently come into the game thinking they’d seen something on tape, because they repeatedly threw back post crosses into the box from the right side of the field. These didn’t ever amount to much, as they tended to find open space and bounce behind.
The first real chance of the game came in the 20th minute, when Vlahovic received an entry pass from Gatti with his back to goal and, with Llorente hanging on to his back, managed to turn and get himself 1-on-1 with Patricio. You couldn’t imagine a better position to score, but Vlahovic was unlucky — Mancini desperately slid in and blocked the shot.
The Serbia international was undeterred by the setback, and if there was ever a show of confidence in a player it was in the 27th minute, when Vlahovic attempted an audacious bicycle kick from 20 yards away that, given the degree of difficulty of the attempt, didn’t miss by all that much. A few minutes later, Yildiz — who had started the game somewhat anonymous before adjusting his approach to get himself more involved — pushed an attempt wide after ending a long run by turning Llorente to get himself the shooting lane.
Roma, on the other hand, was having a lot of trouble creating anything, and Lukaku was essentially a bystander. Their only other true opportunity to score in the first half came off a mistake by Danilo, whose weak clearance was picked up in the box and squared to Dybala, who hit an outrageous shot with the outside of his boot that missed the goal by about a foot.
Just before the break, Juve thought they had broken through when a long throw from McKennie was headed into the path of Kostic, who hit a laser beam of a volley that looked certain for the back of the net — but Roma’s defense came up huge again. This time it was N’Dicka, who recognized what was about to happen and ran to cover the back post, putting him in position to head the shot off the line.
The teams went into the half goalless, but, in a deviation of the usual script between these two coaches, it felt like there was a goal coming. That feeling was right on the money.
The second half was less than two minutes old when the deadlock was broken. Rabiot started the move, passing to Kostic and continuing his run behind him. Kostic was interrupted by both Cristante and Kristensen, but the latter was only able to deflect the ball to Vlahovic, who executed an incredible first-touch no-look back-heel into the path of Rabiot in the channel. The Frenchman had plenty of time to set himself, then made Patricio look bad by slotting the ball past him at the near post. Roma appealed for an offside flag, and the margin for Rabiot was razor-thin, but the semi-automated offside system confirmed that he was just behind the line. Juve had their lead.
Juve proceeded to set up shop, and while Roma proceeded to have far more possession, for the next 20 minutes, they rarely if ever threatened. The first real moment of danger came in the 71st minute, and came courtesy of another uncharacteristically weak cross by Danilo. Rabiot was forced to get any touch he could on the ball, only moving it as far as Lorenzo Pellegrini, who laid it back to Dybala for a first-time shot that bounced toward the bottom corner but was well covered by Szczesny.
Cristante set up another powerful long shot with seven minutes to go, pinballing off two Juventus defenders before being cleared by Gatti. Less than a minute later came Juve’s best chance to put the game to bed.
Federico Chiesa bombed forward off a defensive header, charging all the way downfield and into the box. He put in a perfect square ball for McKennie, but the midfielder put his side-footed shot right at Patricio, whose kick save was enough to stop it.
Chiesa had the ball in the net two minutes from time, clearly coming from an offside position but claiming that a touch by the Roma defenders obviated that. The referee deemed it a block instead of an intentional touch, and there were no video angles that would’ve conclusively proved otherwise, so the game stayed poised on the edge of a knife.
Cristante’s flicked header just before the end of normal time was easily saved by Szczesny, as was a stronger one by Sardar Azmoun halfway through stoppage time, and Juve saw things out to the end, claiming their win and pulling to within two points of league leaders Inter.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Dealt with everything that got past the defense and controlled the unit in front of him well.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6.5. Had two key passes on the day and didn’t let the occasional Roma attack down his side amount to anything. He’s cementing himself as a sure-fire starter in the back line.
BREMER - 8. His counting stats were nothing to write home about — but that’s because he so effectively neutralized Lukaku that the ball wasn’t in his sphere of influence very much. Yet another high-level Serie A striker who managed nothing against the Brazilian.
DANILO - 6. Led both teams in clearances (8) by a significant margin, but he also had a pair of very weak attempts to clear that directly led to two of Roma’s best scoring chances. I think he should have a rest midweek.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 6. Wasn’t as influential in the attack as you’d perhaps like — let’s see that blazing speed we saw in preseason, Timmy-Jim — but very solid defensively with two tackles and three clearances. A solid performance to build off of.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Gave a huge effort, but should’ve scored late when Chiesa set him up. Still, his defensive work gives him a passing grade. Hopefully the injury he limped off with at the end of the game isn’t too serious.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6.5. Worked hard in all phases, including one key pass, two tackles, and, crucially, two blocked shots. No one’s mistaking him for Andrea Pirlo anytime soon, but he’s slowly growing into this regista position, especially on the defensive end.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. That goal was an absolute thing of beauty, and a quite difficult shot to get in near post. His passing was a little scattered, though.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Aside from the almost-goal that Ndicka denied, his play was pretty underwhelming. He was 0-for-7 on crosses and a had a couple of set piece deliveries that were simply bad. There has to be some consideration for benching him, right?
KENAN YILDIZ - 6. Was a little anonymous early, but made a nice adjustment midway through the first half and started getting involved in the counterattack a lot more. That was a high-IQ move to adjust on the fly like that. He’s looking more and more impressive by the game.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 7. Didn’t score, but that assist was incredible and he did a lot of other things very well. The biggest thing about this game for him was just how confident he looked. If he keeps that attitude going, the second half of the season could be very productive indeed.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Made a couple of strong counter runs and was denied an assist when McKennie couldn’t finish the best of them. As Yildiz emerges, it will be very interesting to see how Chiesa coexists with him.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 6. This game should clear up any lingering doubts about whether or not Iling-Junior can defend well enough to deserve significant time out on the left. He recorded a tackle, an interception, and two clearances in 15 minutes of work. Hjs defending was actually a good measure better than his offense today.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. His job was to be a large man that the defense could aim clearances at to hold up for them, and he did that job well.
DANIELE RUGANI - NR. Thrown on with seconds to go after McKennie couldn’t stay on the field anymore.
There was nothing unexpected about Max’s actions in this game. Juve attacked sparingly, and once they got their goal they closed up shop. That is a dangerous proposition when you’re playing against a team with strikers as talented as Roma’s top two. Dybala can break any defense down when his moment arrives, and Allegri should know this.
I’d have loved to see Juve actively go for a second goal early in the second half, especially with a keeper as shaky as Rui Patricio has been during his time in Rome. But Allegri’s unwillingness to put games away continues to put Juve on a knife’s edge, something that will eventually wear on this team when they have to do it every. Single. Week.
I also was mildly disturbed by something Allegri said during his post-match press conference, when he said, “The best thing is that after conceding straight after taking the lead, see against Frosinone and Genoa, the team has returned to being afraid of conceding a goal. When you are afraid of conceding a goal, you defend with greater concentration.”
That’s not a mistranslation, I checked it with friends who speak far better Italian than me. Unless there’s some sort of idiom in using the word “afraid” there that my pathetic language skills can’t understand, that’s a disheartening attitude. It speaks to Allegri’s unfortunate tendency to care about not losing before winning, an attitude that simply doesn’t belong at Juventus. This is one of the biggest reasons I’m still in favor of replacing him at, regardless of whether or not the results are good in the league.
Juventus start 2024 with back-to-back games against Salernitana, one at home in the Coppa Italia (Thursday) and one away in the league (Sunday).