The debate between pragmatic football and beautiful football is likely to be eternal. Juventus fans have certainly been engaging in it for several years now.
Sunday’s game against Spezia was probably the nadir for the pragmatic side.
The 2-0 scoreline was probably one of the most deceptive we’ve seen in a long time. Both goals came decidedly against the run of play. Juve weren’t absorbing pressure in a controlled manner to try to unleash a counterattack. They were being out-and-out overwhelmed for long stretches of the match. In the early phases of the second half, every other clearance from a Juventus player looked like it was made in a panic, and they seemed incapable of possessing the ball for more than a few seconds.
It was starting to look like yet another game that Juventus was going to hock up to a decidedly lesser team. Then one of the few guys on the team in real form, Angel Di Maria, came off the bench and lowered everyone’s blood pressure with a fantastic long-range strike that doubled the lead. While Spezia were still spirited until the end, the extra cushion—plus some fine saves from Mattia Perin — kept the score where it was, leaving Juve, improbably, seventh in the table, pending Torino’s game against Cremonese on Monday.
Allegri was working with a squad that was both reduced and rotated in anticipation of Thursday’s huge game against Nantes. Gleison Bremer was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, while Federico Cheisa was out of the squad entirely to rest him after playing heavy minutes in two straight games last week. Arkadiusz Milik, Paul Pogba, Fabio Miretti, and Kaio Jorge were all injured, while Leonardo Bonucci was on the bench for the second time in as many games. Perin gave Wojciech Szczesny the day off, protected by the trio of Danilo, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic were out wide, flanking Manuel Locatelli, Leandro Paredes, and Adrien Rabiot. Dusan Vlahovic and Moise Kean partnered up top for the first time.
Dangerously close to the drop zone, Spezia had fired coach Luca Gotti in midweek. Former SPAL boss Leonardo Semplici has been heavily reported to be his successor, but he hadn’t officially signed on yet, so caretaker Fabrizio Lorieri was on the bench. He surprised Allegri by lining up Spezia up in a four-man defense for just the second time this season. Bartlomiej Dragowski was in goal behind a 4-2-3-1 formation. Kelvin Amian, Dimitrios Nikolaou, Ethan Ampadu, and Arkadiusz Reca made up the back four, Mehdi Bourabia and Albin Ekdal formed the midfield pivot, while Daniele Verde, Kevin Agudelo, and Emmanuel Gyasi lined up to support Eldor Shomurodov.
The Bianconeri got off to a terrible start when Locatelli was booked barely 20 seconds into the game, putting him over the suspension threshold for next week’s Derby della Mole.
The first few minutes of the game saw the two sides feel each other out, and in the sixth minute Rabiot had an opportunity to give Juve an early lead when Vlahovic broke into a huge space between the center backs, but his pass was behind the striker and the opportunity was missed.
That proved to be the last time Juve would see a sight at goal for a bit.
As has been the case against teams large and small this season, Allegri’s men began to cede more and more of the ball to Spezia, and the game’s first shot on target came in the 10th minute when Verde fired right at Perin from the right side of the box. Spezia kept up their edge, and Locatelli was forced to make a block on the edge of the box to deny Bourabia a chance at goal. Juve were having trouble geting out of their own end of the field, and the one time they did in earnest on a long ball by Cuadrado Vlahovic latched on and managed to roll one through the touch of Dragowski and into the net, but the Serbian striker was flagged for a close but correct offside call.
Spezia continued to have the better of play. The only negative for them as play went on was the loss of Dragowski, who seemed to injure his thigh on a goal kick. He attempted to soldier on, but after five minutes he was on the ground again and clearly couldn’t continue. This presented a problem for Spezia, as their No. 2 keeper, Jeroen Zoet, was unavailable for the day with an injury of his own. That left the next best option as none other than Federico Marchetti, the World Cup 2010 goat and a man who Juventus had frequently humiliated in the past during his time as the No. 1 at Lazio. Now 40, Marchetti hadn’t played in a Serie A game since May of 2021, but he was pressed into service for the remainder of this contest.
Marchetti had checked in right before a corner kick on a rare Juve foray forward, and he was nearly tested straight away, but Danilo’s header came down just wide of the post and the desperate lunge of Vlahovic. Spezia kept the pressure up, making some decent moves and taking advantage of some of Juve’s mistakes, but never quite rising to the level that would force Perin into action.
Marchetti wouldn’t be so lucky on the other end, and Juve would break the deadlock decidedly against the run of play just after the half-hour mark. Paredes started the move with a simple pass down the wing to Kostic, who hit one of his favorite first-time crosses. Kean’s movement off the ball was perfect, allowing Vlahovic to drag the defensive line forward while hanging a few steps behind. Ampadu had his eyes fixed to the ball and kept backtracking, thinking he was marking someone, when Kean was in fact a good six yards behind him. The Italy international’s attempt at a volley was slightly scuffed, but it was enough to skip the ball into the net at the far post to give Juve the lead.
Spezia responded almost immediately, with Shomurodov nodding a free header over, then a few minutes later glanced a header downwards on a cross from Verde. Gyasi was right next to him and missed the opportunity to tap in, but was likely offside as well. Toward the end of the half a comical collision between Kostic and Paredes allowed Verde the space to cross, just missing a sliding Gyasi.
Juve managed to slink into halftime with the lead, and within the first few minutes of the second period Sandro got the ball into the box only for Kean to badly fluff a free header. That missed opportunity was Spezia’s chance to kick things into gear. They pinned Juve back into their own half and refused to let them leave. Perin was called into action in the 50th minute with a relatively routine save on a Gyasi header. Three minutes later it was Shomurodov who had a huge chance when a poor clearance was teed up for him 11 yards away, but Danilo threw himself into his path for a critical block on what would otherwise have been an easy finish. Verde had the next chance less than a minute later, but his volley was tame and Perin managed to snag it easily.
A succession of further moves that ended in blocks prompted Allegri to make an early change, removing goalscorer Kean for Di Maria. On Spezia’s bench, they determined it was time for to make M’Bala Nzola to make his return from an injury, adding even more punch to the Spezia attack. Juve looked increasingly desperate as they tried to clear the ball and throw themselves in front of shooters. In the 62nd minute, Verde likely thought had a goal when he slammed a volley from the edge of the box that hit Shomurodov,
It was under this sustained assault that Juve finally got out of their own end and made Spezia pay for their profligacy. The Argentine took a simple feed from Danilo, turned, and unleashed a wormburner from 26 yards that snuck into the bottom of the net past the outstretched fingers of Marchetti.
There was a cushion now, but Juve still had 20 minutes or so to defend, and Spezia weren’t just rolling over. In the 72nd minute Perin had to make a fantastic reflex save against Gyasi, and 10 minutes later he was at full stretch to deny Nikolaou off a corner. Bur Juve were able to hold the line and keep the sheet clean, picking up one a victory that they very much didn’t deserve, but one they certainly needed right now.
MATTIA PERIN - 8. Made a couple of excellent saves late to keep Spezia from earning a grandstand finish. What a luxury it is to have him behind Szczesny.
DANILO - 7.5. Made some big defensive stops, none bigger than his big block on Shomurodov in the second half. Finished with three tackles and four clearances overall, plus the assist on Di Maria’s goal. He continues to be one of the most important and consistent players on the team.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7.5. It’s not exaggerating to say he might’ve been the best Juve player on the night. He recorded a whopping eight clearances to go along with three tackles and two interceptions. He stepped up when he was needed today.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Had a pair of key passes to go along with some solid defensive work. He cleared the ball five times and won a pair of tackles, plus adding in a block.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Made three tackles on defense and added in a pair of key passes on the offensive end. And did I mention that was all in only 45 minutes? Man was involved today.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. That early booking set the tone for a subdued night. Only completed 75.6 percent of his passes, although he was better on the defensive end, blocking three shots and and four clearances.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 5. Completed less than three-quarters of his passes and was again just all over the place. He has been a zero value add all year long.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Completed passes at an even lower clip than his midfield mates, at 68.4 percent. He did lead the team in dribbles, and he made some strong runs at times, but the midfield as a whole was a main component of why the team did so poorly.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. His assist on Kean’s goal was one of two key passes he made, and that bumps his rating up. But overall he was a little off, overcommitting badly on defense a few times and leaving his flank open.
MOISE KEAN - 6. His movement is so good. He always gets into really good spots, and his run to get in position to score was an excellent example of that. Unfortunately, he also showed where he still needs to improve when he fluffed a great opportunity early in the second half.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. There’s feeding on scraps, then there’s dumpster diving. Vlahovic did the latter in this game. He had absolutely zero service. taking his first shot in the 85th minute. Did what he could but man, he looks forlorn up there sometimes.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 5.5. I think this sums up Juve’s entire night: in 45 minutes Fagioli attempted only 10 passes. He did have a pretty good defensive day, but overall it was a forgettable night, as it was for most of the team.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 4.5. He had practically no counting stats in 45 minutes, which is one hell of a feat. The one that didn’t look great? He completed only 44.4 percent of his passes.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 7. That goal was insane, and it was deeply needed. He took more shots than any other Juve player, which is amazing considering he only played 35 minutes.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - NR. On to help close things out at the end for an exhausted Kostic.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - NR. On for the last minute of the match when Vlahovic seemed to tweak something last minute.
Did Max see Spezia wearing white shirts and think he was playing Real Madrid?
This game was an example of the worst-case scenario for the way Allegri plays the game. He was going for his usual defend-and-counter, but that quickly turned into a nightmare of Spezia completely dominating much of the game. His team was clinical when it counted, and that ended up being the difference, but Allegri’s timidity looms large in moments like this. He’s fortunate that he was able to bring on a player like Di Maria to eventually make a difference, but when you decide to play passive, defensive football against absolutely everyone, games like this are going to happen, despite the fact that they should NEVER happen to this degree against a team so bad and in such disarray.
Let’s not forget, Spezia had come into the is game in a bad way. They had lost four of their last five, and the fifth saw them blow a two-goal lead for a draw. They were operating with an interim coach, and finished the game with their third-string goalkeeper. Why Allegri didn’t think that this was a team to attack is a complete mystery. If there was ever an example of my assertion that he coaches out of fear, it was this game.
One of the big games of the season is coming next when Juve travel to France for the second leg against Nantes. After that come back-to-back big games in the league, first the Derby della Mole, then a trip to the capital to play Roma.