That was not what I expected.
I was expecting the kind of grind that we’ve seen over the last two years. The heart-in-your-mouth-for-90-minutes type of game that we’ve basically been conditioned to expect over the last two years.
I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw instead. What we saw was a massive change from the passive Juventus teams that have been the hallmark of Massimiliano Allegri’s second tenure at the club.
Indeed, Juve pressed the crap out of Udinese for 45 minutes at the Dacia Arena on Sunday night, creating complete havoc for the hosts. They were in front before there were two minutes on the clock, and by the end of the half it was 3-0 — a scoreline that we barely ever saw over a full 90 a season ago. With the game safely put away, and likely in deference to the sweltering heat, the team went into cruise control in the second half. That led to Udinese getting a few more chances to score, but a combination of a defense that forced them into long-range shots, some bad finishing, and Wojciech Szczesny kept the clean sheet intact, and Juventus brought the 3-0 game home to start the season.
Allegri had only two players genuinely unavailable in Mattia De Sciglio and Moise Kean. Leonardo Bonucci was frozen out as he searches for a new club, and Kaio Jorge was also off the first team, perhaps a harbinger to a potential loan to come before the transfer window closes. Allegri sent out the 3-5-2 formation that had become the standard last season. Szczesny began his sixth season as Juve’s No. 1 goalkeeper, protected by the Brazilian trio fo Danilo, Bremer, and Alex Sandro. Timothy Weah and Andrea Cambiaso both made their Juve debut at the wing-back spots, flanking Fabio Miretti, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot in midfield. Federico Chiesa joined Dusan Vlahovic up top.
Udinese manager Andrea Sottil had more injuries to work around, missing Gerard Delofeu, Simone Pafundi, Enzo Ebosse, Kingsley Ehizibue, and Adam Masina. Somehow, he still fielded a squad of 26 players. Marco Silvestri started in goal behind a mirror 3-5-2. Nehuen Perez, Christian Kabasele, and Jaka Bijol formed the back three. Festy Ebosele and Hassan Kamara were the wing-backs. Star midfielder Lazar Samardzic sat after his transfer saga with Inter, leaving Sandi Lovric, Walace, and Oier Zarraga to start in midfield. Florian Thauvin and Beto paired up on top.
Juventus were ahead before everyone could get comfortable in their seats. The home team were trying to advance the ball after a long spell of lateral passing, but Zarraga coughed the ball up under minimal pressure and Vlahovic pounced on it. The big striker passed it forward to Chiesa, who let fly just inside the penalty arc. He drilled the ball through the legs of Bijol and into the net past a frozen Silvestri. Juve’s season was only 1 minute, 48 seconds old.
If the last two years was anything to go on, one would be forgiven for expecting 88 minutes of defense from Juventus after taking such an early lead. But a strange thing happened. Juve kept pushing. And pushing. And pushing. They pressed hard and gave Udinese no room to breathe. Within just four minutes Cambiaso had forced a save out of Silvestri with a low angled drive. Ten minutes later, Miretti and Weah traded passes in the box and put the former in position to shoot in the 6-yard box, but the ball was tackled away by Bijol just before he could let it go.
But, moments later, Juve had been handed the means to double their lead when an attempt at a cross by Sandro met Ebosele’s arm, which he had left out behind him. Referee Antonio Rapuano pointed to the spot immediately, and Vlahovic stepped up to the spot, ready to open his own account for the season. Open it he did, hitting a low, hard shot to his left as Silvestri went the other way.
After play restarted, Thauvin was screaming for a penalty of his own after Rabiot poked a foot into his dribble in the box, but the challenge had been totally fair, and Rapuano waved play on. Udinese’s first shot finally came in the 25th minute, when Walace loaded up from distance and whistled the ball just over the bar.
The hosts started to find some level of footing in the match, but Juve’s counters pushed the ball upfield quickly the moment they recovered the ball. Udinese’s first shot on target came in first-half stoppage time when Szczesny parried away a long-distance strike from Thauvin, Juve responded to that annoyance with their third goal. The strike came three minutes into f the five minutes of stoppage time, and was set up by an absolutely delightful piece of play by Chiesa, who charged down the side of the box only to flick a back-heel perfectly into the path of Cambiaso. The youngster had it lined up perfectly and fired a perfect cross to the back post, evading Silvestri’s ill-conceived attempt to punch it away and coming down at the perfect spot of Rabiot, who buried an easy tap-in with his head.
Sottil needed to do something to spark his charges, and did so at the half by sending on Samardzic as part of a double change. Juve made a double sub of their own, sending on Nicolo Fagioli for his first action since injuring himself in Seville in May, as well as Weston McKennie, who filled in on the right for Weah, who had had his ankle stepped on in the waning moments of the first half.
Juve put things into cruise control following the break. That’s understandable considering the newness of the season and the severity of the heat in Udine, which required multiple cooling breaks. Still, they held Udinese to mostly long-distance shots. One of these was hit well by Samardzic and forced a diving parry out of Szczesny, but most of the others were either blocked or off target. On the Juve end, any of their attacks were mostly the product of Samuel lling-Junior, who headed a nice cross from McKennie over before a fourth goal was chalked off when the Englishman was a step offside before putting a cross in for Vlahovic.
Szczesny kept Udinese off the board with a fantastic double save late on parrying first the initial shot from Perez off a corner before Lorenzo Lucca fired off the rebound only to hit Szczesny square in the face. The rest of the match slipped by without incident, and soon Rapuano brought it to a halt, leaving Juventus with a lot to build off as the season opened.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made some really good saves in the second half, including a brilliant double stop. A little more active than he’d like to have been after the break, but a very good start to things for him.
DANILO - 7. Led the team with five clearances and had the most tackles and interceptions amongst the back three. An excellent first day as Juventus captain.
BREMER - 7. Kept the dangerous Beto without a shot and overall was stout in the center of the defense.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. The fact that I didn’t say his name much is one of the best compliments I can give him, because it means there were no monumental screw-ups to drag his day down.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 6. Got into the game a little more later in his shift, but Juve organized a large majority of their attacks on the left-hand side, giving him far less to do. Hopefully that ankle knock is just a knock.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5.5. Was more aggressive in the final third than we’ve seen him in the past, but struggled with his decision-making and execution once he got there. Still, the good was a showcase of why people believe so much can come from him.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Led the team with three blocked shots, also had three tackles and a key pass. Did well keeping things moving once Juve transitioned to the attack.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7.5. A team-high four tackles and three dribbles, Contract Year Rabiot picked up right where he left off. Made a good run for Cambiaso to find for his goal and was generally excellent in midfield.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 8. The best player on the field. Gave a whole new dimension to the attack, cutting inside and combining with Chiesa and others on the left side. His cross for Rabiot was beautiful. One hell of a Juventus debut.
FEDERIO CHIESA - 8. This was the kind of Chiesa we saw under Andrea Pirlo and needed so desperately. He was all over the place in the attacking third, his goal was excellent, and he had Udinese players on their heels the instant he took possession.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 7. Penalty was taken with aplomb, and while that was his only shot of the day, he worked his tail off to press and to pull defenders with him when he didn’t have the ball.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Solid job in relief on the right, making a couple of good crosses and generally holding everything down.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6. Looked a little rusty but also showed his skills in traffic. Looks like he’ll be fine in the long term.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 6. Solid defensively and dangerous going forward. Just a little bit eager on his offside play, but he’s going to be fine out wide. Once again killed with his technique and looked more comfortable with his right hand.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - NR. Completed all his passes but wasn’t in the game much.
KENAN YILDIZ - NR. Loved seeing him make his debut in this game. He showed that he’s got some talent ready to spill out.
Boy, was this a surprise. A pleasant one, to be sure, but still very unexpected to see Allegri deploy a press like this for the fist half. If we see this from the team all the time, it could be a very interesting year indeed.
It’s no surprise that they took their foot off the gas after going 3-0 up going into the second half, especially in that heat. What will be interesting to see is whether or not Allegri carries that posture through a whole game if it’s closer at the half. More interesting still will be whether Allegri sticks to this kind of play once the team gets hit in the mouth. It’s entirely possible that he’ll shrink back into his shell once something adverse happens.
But for now, we can bask in the glow of a proactive team that actually went after the game as opposed to letting it come to them. All we can hope is that it stays this way.
The hope opener against Bologna comes next Sunday, followed by a trip to Empoli the week after that before the international break.