Juventus has an immensely talented roster. It’s flawed in many areas, but its overall talent is undeniable.
It’s a coach’s job to take that talent and turn it into a cohesive whole.
Massimiliano Allegri’s greatest failure this season has been a complete failure to do that. Over the last two seasons, Juventus has looked disjointed, unaware of what teammates are doing, and overly reliant on defensive mistakes, set pieces, and individual moments of brilliance. They have, with precious few exceptions, been less than the sum of their parts.
That was on display in big letters on Sunday in Reggio Emilia, when Juve took on Sassuolo. Neither team played a sparkling game of football at the Mapei Stadium. There wasn’t a shot on target recorded until the 55th minute. But when a bad mistake by Nicolo Fagioli gifted the hosts the lead in the 64th minute, Juve were completely unable to respond. Despite having a ton of talent available on the bench, each player looked like he was in a vacuum, hoping that what they did would dovetail with what a teammate could muster to turn nothing into something.
Predictably, it didn’t, and the 1-0 loss was yet another wasted opportunity to close on the top of the table as they dropped points. Instead, the result put a severe strain on Juve’s place in the standings. It put them in striking distance of a red-hot Fiorentina team, who play on Monday against sixth-place Atalanta, and made it likely that the Bianconeri will need either a Europa League crown or a successful appeal of their point penalty (and no further ones to come) in order to make the Champions League next season.
Allegri made several changes to the team he sent out on midweek against Sporting. Mattia Perin started in goal while Wojciech Szczesny convalesced after his frightening tachycardia event on Thursday. Perin started behind a 3-5-2 setup, with Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo protecting him in defense. With Mattia De Sciglio injured and Juan Cuadrado in need of rest, Allegri pulled a surprise and gave Next Gen prospect Tommaso Barbieri at right wing-back opposite Filip Kostic. Leandro Paredes joined Nicolo Fagioi and Adrien Rabiot in the middle of the park, while Arkadiusz Milik started alongside Dusan Vlahovic up front.
Sassuolo coach Alessio Dionisi came into the game missing his biggest piece, winger Domenico Berardi. He still sent out his usual 4-3-3, with Andrea Consigli in goal behind Jeremy Toljan, Ruan, Martin Erlic, and Rogerio. Potential summer transfer target Davide Frattesi started in midfield with Maxime Lopez and Matheus Henrique. Nedim Bajrami played in place of the injured Berardi, joining Andrea Pinamonti and Armand Laurienté.
The first half was boring as hell.
There’s not much other way to describe it.
Neither team put a shot on target. Sassuolo’s best opportunity of the half came in the 20th minute when a mistake by Barbieri — one of the few he made on Sunday, it should be noted — let Lopez slip Bajrami into the channel with a diagonal ball, but the Albanian winger fired over the goal. Juve’s best chances were even less clear-cut, when a sequence of three consecutive corners produced a pair of blocked shots.
Dionisi made a change coming out of the locker room for the second half, swapping out Gregoire Defrel for Pinamonti. The first phases of the second period looked a heck of a lot like the first, until the 55th minute, when Lopez chanced a curler from distance that skipped toward the back post and forced Perin into the game’s first save. Two corners ensued, and on the second Defrel got off a powerful header in traffic that Perin somehow got his hand down to the ground to save.
Sufficiently warned by that passage of play that Sassuolo were edging closer to the breakthrough, Allegri turned to the significant reserve of talent he had on his bench, sending on Cuadrado and Angel Di Maria. Moments later, Danilo forced Consigli into his first action with a long-range effort that forced the veteran keeper to fly to parry away. It looked like Juve would start turning the screws, but the home side continued to push the advantage. Gatti had to clear the ball off the line when Bajrami’s cross squirmed past everyone and started rolling toward the net, then the big center-half got extremely lucky when his attempt to head clear a wayward Bajrami shot instead glanced backward and bounced off the post.
A sequence of mistakes gifted Sassuolo their goal. First, Paredes sliced an attempt at a clearance to give away a corner, which promptly turned into a second one. The first ball glanced back to Fagioli, who must have been trying to poke the ball to Kostic, who was in position to turn and run at the other end of the penalty arc. Whatever his intention, he scuffed the ball right into the stomach of Defrel, who controlled, turned, and hit a bullet along the ground past Perin.
Fagioli was replaced by Fabio Miretti less than two minutes later, crumpling into tears on the bench before Carlo Pinsoglio consoled him. Federico Chiesa entered in the same sub window as Juve started searching for an equalizer. A tame header by Gatti was the first real attempt on goal, then after Chiesa won a corner on the right side Rabiot made a fantastic near-post run and hit a fantastic header headed for the top far corner, but Consigli somehow got a hand up an clawed it over the bar.
And that was the best chance Juve had at tying the game.
A few minutes later, Di Maria was set up on a pull-back by Chiesa in the left channel, but he hit a toe-poke over the bar. For the next 15 minutes, Sassuolo were the team that looked the most like scoring. They managed to trigger several odd-man counterattacks that just lacked the final ball to put the game away. But by the end of the game Juve looked like a team that was over things. The only attempt at goal they mustered in the final 15 minutes was another corner-kick header by Rabiot, who drove the ball well over the bar just before stoppage time. The game was summed up in microcosm just before the final whistle, when Chiesa simply took his eye off the ball and completely missed the ball.
The final whistle was almost a relief, to put the game behind the team as a series of big games coming up in the next 10 days.
MATTIA PERIN - 7. Made some excellent saves, including the Defrel header, but there was nothing he could do on the Frenchman’s goal.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. Cleared a ball off the line and had a team-high five clearances on the day, but was really lucky that his header bounced off his own post moments before the goal. He tried multiple times to launch the attack forward with long balls out of the back, but with only moderate success.
BREMER - 6. Four clearances, a 91.9 percent pass completion, and a pair of shots made up his statistical line. He did an excellent job taking Pinamonti out of the game in the first half.
DANILO - 7. Typically excellent. Three tackles, four clearances, and all-around effort highlighted his defensive day, but — and we’ll get to this in the next section — there’s a real problem when he’s taking twice as many shots as anyone on the team.
TOMMASO BARBIERI - 6. Not a bad day for the 20-year-old debutant. He made a pair of tackles and completed 91.7 percent of his passes. He’s probably more suited to being a traditional full-back — he simply didn’t show the pace necessary to be fully effective as a wing-back — but with some development he could be a serviceable right-back, which is something that this team desperately needs.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 4. I hate to see my large adult son cry. The mistake was a bad one — like, really bad, frankly — and I wonder if he’s suffering from fatigue after such a big minutes load in the second half of the season. He’d been scattershot with his passing even before then, completing only 83.3 percent of his passes.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 4. Paredes’ stats are way better than this grade, but looking between the lines of those stats showed a bleaker picture. He had a 91.9 percent pass completion rate, but the vast majority of that came deep in midfield. The misses came when it came time to try to make an incisive pass in the attacking third, when more often than not he floated balls well over their intended targets in the channels. His two key passes both came off corner kick deliveries, which was pretty much the only thing he did well today. He had four clearances, but the one he didn’t make, a bad scuff, led to the sequence of corners that gave Sassuolo their goal. He should not be given the minutes that a young player like Enzo Barrenechea could use to develop.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Came agonizingly close to evening the scoring but for a fantastic save by Consigli. He also led the team with four tackles and pass completion at 92.7 percent. Easily the best outfield player that wasn’t a defender today.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Made three key passes and defended competently, but his pass completion was a putrid 47.8 percent and his control let him down in some promising moments.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5. Ran his tail off, but nothing to work with all day long.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. You just feel so bad for him trying to get some sort of purchase with so little service. His hold-up play was pretty good and he even made a tackle, but until he gets the kind of service he needs he’s going to cut a frustrated figure.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 5. Made two key passes and two dribbles in his 34 minutes on the pitch, but one of them was a corner kick delivery, and far more often looked just that tiny bit off from the magic he can usually put together. Should especially have hit the target when Chiesa set him up in the channel.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5. Had his own pair of key passes, but corners again augmented that number, and he just can’t beat his man on the dribble like he used to even the beginning of last season. Father Time has come up and whacked him in the face.
FEDERICO CHEISA - 6. He was defending as much as he was attacking, but did set up Di Maria for a shot he should’ve done better with, and earned couple of corners as well.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5. Nearly gifted Sassuolo their second with a risky back-pass, otherwise made very little impact trying to go forward.
PAUL POGBA - NR. Forced a few corners but looked a little slow, which is understandable since he’s been out since time immemorial.
In the introduction to this piece, I highlighted that the coach’s job is to make the team greater than the sum of its parts.
Max Allegri used to do that. For the vast majority of his first tenure at Juventus, he did. His first team, the one he took to the Champions League final in Berlin, was an ultimate overachiever. His third, the Cardiff team, took the “Five Star” setup and ran with it. That was the ultimate expression of the genius Allegri does possess.
But that genius has been buried since the loss in Cardiff. Since then, he has had high levels of talent on his rosters but has never done anything to bring that talent together into something more. The team is disjointed. No one knows what the others are going to do unless they pick up their head and see them. The tempo drags, the defense sets, and it’s impossible to get through unless one person does something amazing.
The criticism that Paulo Sousa leveled at Allegri in Portuguese media before the Europa League quarterfinals last week was not well received by the Tuscan, but it had merit. The 2023 version of Allegri has no ideas anymore. He tries to lock down the defensive end in the hope that the individual talent on his team does something brilliant to score enough goals to win. That leaves a huge window of opportunity for Sassuolo to do what they did on Sunday, or what Monza did multiple times (I still can’t believe I have to say that) earlier in the year. It simply doesn’t cut it anymore.
Alessio Dionisi is a good coach, but Juventus had no business losing to this Sassuolo team — especially one that didn’t have its best player on the field. Even Dionisi admitted as much in his pre-match press conference. But instead of taking a team with a high-level array of talent and taking it to an inferior team, we get this. Over and over. For two years.
This can’t keep going. Allegri needs to be replaced at the end of the season. Otherwise, this type of performance will be the ceiling of this team no matter who is on the field.
The next 10 days give no respite to a team that looks to be reaching the end of their rope. On Thursday, the team heads to Lisbon to face Sporting in the second leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. They lead 1-0 on aggregate, so they will advance so long as they don’t lose.
After that, they head back to Turin for a league game against ... runaway leaders Napoli. Then they head to Milan for the second leg of their Coppa Italia semifinal against Inter. The aggregate is 1-1 going into that game, so they must win in order to advance.