Juventus and Lazio are two of the stingiest defenses in Serie A. While you expect that from a Massimiliano Allegri-coached Juve side, saying the same thing about a Maurizio Sarri side is a little more surprising. Regardless, the two teams came into Saturday night’s match tied for the league lead in clean sheets, which meant that in all likelihood the team that scored first was going to have a major advantage.
As it turned out, neither side would add to their tally of clean sheets. After some shambolic defending allowed Lazio to put what seemed like the capper on a dominant first half late in the period, Juve responded almost immediately to go into the break even. But more defensive mistakes led to Lazio retaking the lead early in the second half, and this time there was no response, even after a change of formation allowed for a much better performance after the halftime interval — not that that was all that difficult to achieve considering the issues of the first 45 minutes.
The 2-1 loss was Sarri’s first against his old club since he was fired after the 2019-20 Scudetto-winning season, and it marked a serious missed opportunity for Juve, who had seen all but one of the teams they were chasing for European slots drop points before the game kicked off. It left them four points off Atalanta in sixth and eight behind AC Milan in fourth, albeit with the 15-point penalty appeal still very much in play.
Allegri didn’t make the trip to Rome after coming down with flulike symptoms, so Marco Landucci took charge for the night. He had a relatively full roster to work with, missing only Paul Pogba, Mattia De Sciglio, and Kaio Jorge due to injury, as well as Moise Kean, who had scored a brace against Lazio in the return fixture on a yellow card suspension. The team was deployed in its usual 3-5-1-1 setup with Wojciech Szczesny starting in goal. Danilo was given a rare but well-deserved off day, so the back three was made up of Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Alex Sandro. Juan Cuadrado captained the side from the right wing-back position, with Filip Kostic on the other side. Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield, while Angel Di Maria floated behind Dusan Vlahovic in attack.
Sarri stuck with the 4-3-3 he’s been synonymous with for the better part of a decade. Ivan Provodel started between the sticks, protected by Adam Marusic, Alessio Romagnoli, Nicolo Casale, and Elseid Hysaj. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Danilo Cataldi, and Luis Alberto made up the midfield. Ciro Immobile made his first start in a month after coming back from injury, joining Felipe Anderson and Mattia Zaccagni in the attacking trident.
Lazio announced their intentions early when Alberto hit a long-distance shot with some power after only four minutes, but it was right at Szczesny who made a catch that wasn’t quite as simple as it looked. The visitors responded within three minutes, with Rabiot sending in a nice-looking cross that Vlahovic couldn’t get over top of, and he glanced it wide.
For Juve to drop into a defensive posture was predictable. For Juve to do so in the passive manner that has been the harbinger of some of their worst performances perhaps wasn’t, especially given how they had played the exact opposite with great success in the home match against Lazio in November. That allowed Lazio to set the kind of quick passing tempo that plays to their strengths, and it kept Juve disjointed and pinned back for much of the first half.
The issues quickly started showing themselves. Milinkovic-Savic ended up seeing two almost identical free headers on set pieces within two minutes of each other, but blazed both of them over, then punched a free kick into the wall. Juve, meanwhile, couldn’t get anywhere with the ball, constantly giving it away and having to retreat to defend yet another attack.
Those attacks were coming closer and closer to bearing fruit. Just before the half-hour mark Immobile ran under a beautiful chip by Alberto and hit a sweet volley, only to be met with a flying save by Szczesny. The striker hit wide from a training ground play on a free kick three minutes later, then Immobile was stopped by a fantastic last-ditch tackle by Fagioli as he loaded up to fire in after fielding a layoff from Anderson.
The one-way traffic finally paid off in the 38th minute, thanks in large part to some awful defending on Juve’s part.
Zaccagni was the trigger man, cutting backward and floating a ball to Milinkovic-Savic at the far post. The Serbian was being marked by Sandro, who rather than standing his ground and defending, felt the Lazio man’s hand on his back and threw himself dramatically to the ground. That left Milinkovic-Savic completely free to control the ball and slam it past a completely stranded Szczesny. Juve’s players were up in arms and surrounded referee Marco Di Bello demanding a foul be assessed on Milinkovic-Savic. Leonardo Bonucci was booked on the bench for his protests, and a member of the Juve support staff was shown a red card.
But both Di Bello and VAR official Massimiliano Irrati judged the incident for what it was: a comical dive. Frankly, had Sandro been booked over the incident I wouldn’t have argued.
To their credit, Juve responded to the punch immediately. They gained their first corner four minutes after falling behind, and Di Maria’s delivery was fantastic, meeting Bremer for a powerful header. Provodel managed a kick save, but the rebound bounced off Vlahovic’s shin and right to Rabiot. The Frenchman’s first attempt was rather miraculously stopped by Provodel, but he kept at it and used his head to stuff it past the keeper and level the score.
Juve had an opportunity almost straight from the second-half kickoff when Cuadrado’s cross bounced through to Rabiot, but the midfielder scuffed his attempt from a tight angle. Juve looked like they were taking more initiative in the second half, but got sucker-punched eight minutes in.
It was a beautiful move that was Sarrismo to the core, with Milinkovic-Savic sending Anderson down the right side. The winger laid it off to the Alberto in the middle of the box. The entire move had sucked the Juve defense to the right side, and Cuadrado had left Zaccagni completely alone. The Colombian instead tried to close Alberto, but the midfielder fed Zaccagni with an outrageous back-heel. and he curled it into the bottom far corner.
He nearly doubled his tally, and Lazio’s lead, within three minutes, opening his body to tap home a great pass by Milinkovic-Savic, but Cuadrado had pushed up just far enough to catch him offside by a step.
Vlahovic finally got some decent service just after the hour, but again mistimed his header and popped it over the bar. He was hauled off moments later, part of a triple change by Landucci that introduced Arkadiusz Milik, Federico Chiesa, and Leandro Paredes and shifted the team into a 4-3-3 shape. A further change came seven minutes later when Danilo replaced Cuadrado following the latter’s nasty challenge on Zaccagni that was very lucky not to produce a second yellow card.
For his part, Sarri began to slowly dribble some more defensive players like Matias Vecino and Toma Basic into the mix. Juve pushed forward for more of the latter phases of the game, but failed to test Provodel beyond some good punches on corner kicks. Juve’s best chance came with six minutes left, when Chiesa showed some his pre-injury burst, collecting a switch from Danilo and charging down the left wing before pulling it back for Fagioli, who volleyed just over from 12 yards out.
Nothing else came remotely close, and after a stoppage time period that was extended a few minutes by an injury to Casale, Di Bello blew the final whistle, closing the book on a massive win for the home team and a huge missed opportunity for the visitors.
WOJCIEC SZCZESNY - 6.5. Left completely stranded on both of Lazio’s goals, but did his job well in all other phases, including a smart first-half save to deny a really nice volley by Immobile.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. Got beaten for pace a few times, but was generally solid. He was one of the defenders who got sucked away from Zaccagni on the second goal, but he was covering a potentially dangerous run by Immobile, so it’s hard to blame him for the positioning errors.
BREMER - 6.5. Completed 98.5 of his passes and made four tackles on defense, including a great stop on Milinkovic-Savic in the first half. He flew over everyone to get the initial header on the corner that led to the equalizer.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. His counting stats were the best among the back three, making seven clearances and two tackles as well as leading the entire team with three dribbles and a key pass. But for the love of God, what the hell kind of defending was that on Lazio’s first goal of the night? It was borderline shameful simulation when he actually had position to keep the ball away from Milinkovic-Savic.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Got really lucky not to be sent off for a second bookable offense, and struggled to produce much of anything going forward. He’s really lost the burst to go with his skills.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6. Worked his tail off and came so close to tying the game in the dying stages. Made a couple of big tackles in his own box too.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. Completed 92 percent of his passes and made a pair of tackles to go along with three clearances, but the passes he did misplace created some dicey moments and he was taken out playing with a booking.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Contract-year Rabiot continues to reign. His determination to put the ball over the line on the equalizer was a joy to see, and he added a team-high three key passes.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Attempted only 12 passes all game and his usual crossing was completely absent. Without him joining in the attack was pretty toothless.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 5.5. Aside from the corner delivery that provided the equalizer he was really lackluster until the formation change, at which point he started producing some much more dangerous moments.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. He got absolutely zero service — he touched the ball a grand total of 14 times — but the few moments he did have were really weak and mistimed headers. His confidence right now is around the level of Miracle Max after Prince Humperdink fired him.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Hey, look, put Federico Chiesa on the wing where he belongs and you start to see the old Freddy! Had a couple of runs on the left that were reminiscent of him before the injury, which is all the better because when he played on this field against Roma last month he looked petrified of the turf getting him again.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5. Did his best but only got eight touches all game, although he did put one shot on frame.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 5.5. There were some actual positives from Paredes, which is more than you can say about the majority of his play this year. He tallied two interceptions, provided a key pass, and was generally OK in the middle.
DANILO - 6. Sturdy defense on the flank and pushed up to join the attack as much as possible.
FABIO MIRETTI - NR. Picked up a key pass in only five minutes of work, but was clearly pressing to do something having come in so late in the game and gave it away a few times because of it.
In this day and age, if a manager isn’t on the touchline, whether it’s to do with a suspension or an incapacitation like on Saturday night, he can still be relatively active in the decision-making through cell phones and the like.
It would be fascinating to know whether or not the second-half switch from the 3-5-1-1 formation that has been the team’s default since November to a 4-3-3 was something that Allegri had input on from afar or something Landucci did on his own initiative. Whatever the case may be, it was a significant moment, because it was the first time in months that the coaching staff showed any willingness to shift away from the three-man back line under any circumstance whatsoever.
It also made the team a lot better. It put the team’s two best playmakers, Di Maria and Chiesa, into the roles that suit them best, and they played better than they have in recent weeks because of it. I frankly felt really bad fo Vlahovic, because it was the kind of setup that could actually have given him the kind of service he needs, but him being hauled off was part of the change.
The coaching staff, and Allegri in particular, now has a decision to make. The 4-3-3 makes a lot of the team’s best players better, but it also exposes some major weaknesses — in particular the full-back spots. The 3-5-1-1/3-5-2 can cover that problem, but takes the attackers out of the roles that suit their skill sets best.
For my money, the attacking shine has started to fade from the three-man system, and it might be time for a change. That won’t be happening next week against Sassuolo — Sandro is suspended for yellow card accumulation, and it’s up in the air as to whether or not Mattia De Sciglio will be healthy enough to replace him at left-back — but a switch needs to start being seriously considered, because the difference in the attack between the two setups on Saturday night was pretty stark.
Juve head back into European competition on Thursday, welcoming Sporting for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal tie. They then meet Sassuolo on Sunday before the return in Portugal.