I’m just gonna come out and say this at the top: Juventus’ 3-1 win over Lazio on Saturday afternoon was the best full game they have played in years.
Juventus was in full control of this match from start to finish. They set the tone early with a ravenous press that quickly produced an early opener from Dusan Vlahovic, then broke Lazio’s first sustained period of possession with another strike by Federico Chiesa to extend the lead. Defensively, they didn’t let their opponents create much of anything in the way of quality scoring chances. The one time they did, off a poor turnover deep in their own territory that resulted in a fantastic goal by Luis Alberto, they responded immediately to maintain their advantage and seal the victory.
It was a fantastic game wire to wire, and it laid down a marker for the rest of the league. After facing relatively light competition over the first three rounds of the 2023-24 season, Lazio represented Juve’s first real test against a team that would be considered a direct rival for the top four places. That test was crushed. Aced. Passed with flying colors. Insert other metaphor for good test performance here.
It’s just one game, and in the last few years this team has had a habit of building up hopes only to come crashing down to earth the very next week. But given the opponent and the totality of the performance, there’s every reason to perk one’s head up and start thinking that maybe — just maybe — this team has some real oomph that can carry through the season.
Massimiliano Allegri had only two players unavailable: long-term absence Mattia De Sciglio and Paul Pogba, who this time was missing due to his provisional doping suspension as opposed to any injury. He made only one change from the 3-5-2 lineup that beat Empoli before the international break. That change was Wojciech Szczesny, who returned to the starting XI after missing the last two games with an injury. Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo protected the keeper. Weston McKennie and Filip Kostic manned the wing-back spots, bookending Fabio Miretti, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot. Chiesa and Vlahovic were the striking pair.
Maurizio Sarri was playing with a full squad, and he kept the same lineup that had surprisingly beaten Napoli in Naples before the break. Ivan Provedel stood in goal behind Sarri’s ever-present 4-3-3. Adam Marusic, Nicolò Casale, Alessio Romagnoli, and Elseid Hysaj made up the back four. Alberto was joined by Danilo Cataldi and Daichi Kamada in midfield, while Ciro Immobile led the forward line, flanked by Felipe Anderson and Mattia Zaccagni.
Juve’s new press was cranked up to high early on, and Provedel had to parry a shot from Kostic around the post with just three minutes on the clock, although it wouldn’t have counted had it gone in due to an offside call on the free kick that started the play. But Juve kept on coming, pressing hard in Lazio’s half and badly disrupting the short buildup play that Sarrismo is famous for.
The dividends came early. In the 10th minute Bremer pushed up hard to dispossess Immobile in the Lazio side of the field. Locatelli’s pass for McKennie was a little wide of him, but he just managed to keep the ball onside and played the ball laterally to Bremer, who laid the ball back for Locatelli. The Italy international, who was coming off an excellent game against Ukraine in Euro 2024 qualifying on Tuesday, hit a gorgeous first-time pass to Vlahovic, who had split the center-backs and fired in a powerful half-volley to open the scoring. Lazio argued vociferously that McKennie had failed to keep the ball in, but a VAR check — which, according to CBS rules analyst Christina Unkel is now augmented by the new semi-automated offside system — confirmed that a sliver of the ball had remained on the chalk, and confirmed the goal.
Juve kept the pressure going, and only four minutes later Provedel was forced to tip a wicked shot from Kostic over the bar after a set play on a corner. The ensuing set piece was flicked on at the near post into the head of Vlahovic, but it came at him with such pace that he couldn’t do much to keep the ball down.
After about 15 minutes, Lazio finally managed to get themselves into the match. Juve’s press slowed down, and Lazio were able to start passing the ball a little bit, but things didn’t get dangerous until 10 minutes later, when Luis Alberto laid a ball that was slightly behind him into space for Kamada, whose bolt of a shot was tipped over the bar by Szczesny.
But just as Lazio looked like they were starting to seriously threaten an equalizer, Juve brought the hammer down. The move began with an excellent diagonal switch by Locatelli for McKennie. The American cut inside, exchanged a one-two pass with Vlahovic, then passed square to Rabiot. Rabiot’s touch was a little heavy, but rather than chase it all on his own he left it to Chiesa, who was right next to him. The Italy international hit a rocket just inside the near post and past a despairing Provedel to double the lead.
It was all Juve for the rest of the half, and Miretti nearly made it 3-0 well before the break, but his looping effort at the far post didn’t quite bend the right way. Vlahovic did end up a little too isolated up top as the half reached its later stages, but all that Lazio managed to threaten with was a tame shot along the ground by Zaccagni, who fell down as he tried the shot.
Sarri looked to shake things up in the second half, and sent on both of his Juventus loanees, Nicolò Rovella and Luca Pellegrini, onto the field as the new period began. Juve immedaitely revved the press back up again, and Provedel was needed to keep the game close. He managed to parry a header off a good Chiesa cross around the post, then on the ensuing corner Gatti headed the ball back against the grain and found Rabiot completely alone about four yards from the goal. Somehow Provedel was able to parry the point-blank shot away, keeping the game at 2-0.
Lazio started to play the ball more after that, while Juve settled into a more defensive posture, although it wasn’t quite the turtle that Allegri’s second tenure has been known for. Still, Juve had to make three blocks in a five-minute span early on in the half. Provedel had to be smart to punch away an excellent cross off Nicolò Fagioli’s first touch of the game, and it kept Lazio in it long enough for them to take advantage of a mistake in the 64th minute.
The guilty party was Andrea Cambiaso, who had just come into the game alongside Fagioli five minutes prior. He waited for a pass from Bremer, but Kamada was all over him and forced a bad pass as he tried to drop the ball to Locatelli. Luis Alberto pounced on the ball, carried it forward, and hit a fantastic 23-yard strike into the upper corner of the net to halve the deficit.
It looked like Lazio were right back in things with 25 minutes to look for an equalizer, but those hopes were dashed only three minutes later. McKennie was once again in the thick of things, this time launching an inch-perfect long ball to Vlahovic. The Serb chested the ball down and was up against three defenders on his own, but he cut ever so slightly inside to find a shooting lane and drilled the ball across and in at the far post.
The amazing strike stopped any momentum Lazio had developed dead in its tracks. After Alberto’s goal, Lazio didn’t take another shot until stoppage time. For most of that time Juve looked more like scoring a fourth than Lazio did a second, and they very nearly did in the 90th minute when Moise Kean ran down the left sideline, and his deflected cross was headed to the far post by Milik. It hung up in the air in front of Tim Weah, but he had to reach just too high to get to it before Provedel and popped it over the bar.
Juve saw out stoppage time with little incident, a Rovella free kick into the wall being the one final chance to set up a scramble finish. As the game was brought to a close, the Allianz Stadium roared in approval after seeing some of the best football they’d seen their team play in front of them in a long, long time.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Didn’t have a whole lot to do, but the save he made on Kamada when it was still 1-0 was top class and helped set the stage for Chiesa’s goal a few minutes later. It’s also a testament to his marshaling of the defense that Lazio’s only truly dangerous chance besides that save was the giveaway that led to their goal.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6.5. This kind of pressing is the kind of football Gatti is made for. It plays right into his innate aggressiveness, and he has the ball-playing ability to bomb forward if he gets the ball back, and he had a key pass today as well. He also registered a pair of tackles to go along with two clearances in the later stages.
BREMER - 7. Completely pocketed Ciro Immobile, allowing only one shot on target, and that on a header so weak that I didn’t actually record it as a shot in my game notes. Finished the day with four clearances and a pair of tackles.
DANILO - 7. Had the rather thankless task of dealing with Felipe Anderson and did it very well. Finished the day with a stat line of one tackle, two interceptions, and three clearances to go along with a key pass going forward.
WESTON McKENNIE - 8. Absolutely everywhere against Lazio. He was directly involved in all three goals, including his assist for Vlahovic’s second with an excellent long ball. He led the team with three key passes, all while having to deal with one of the league’s best wingers in Zaccagni and managing to contain him more times than not. This was one of his best games as a Juventus player, and it came at an unnatural position. Really excellent.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. His day would’ve been pretty damn awesome had that shot curled a little more, but overall it was still pretty good. He made decisions quicker than he has in the past, although he was also a little bit off with some of the decisions he did make. That said, things look like they’re finally slowing down for him a little.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 7.5. If ever there was a man in need of a bounce-back game after the first three rounds, it was Locatelli, and boy did he deliver. His assist to Vlahovic for the opener was excellent and his switch to McKennie to start the buildup for Chiesa’s shot was just as good. He also led the team in tackles (3) and made a couple of other key interventions on the defensive side.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Intelligent to let his touch run to Chiesa rather than chase it down himself, which earned him the assist. He was also unlucky not to score himself, being denied by Provedel on back-to-back shots.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. Saw most of the attacking start on McKennie’s side, as evidenced by the fact he only attempted 14 passes in his 58 minutes of work. He made the most of it, though, recording a key pass and forcing Provedel into a really good save.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 8. That goal was an absolute peach, hit to the near post with the outside of his weaker foot. He also had a pair of key passes and looks every bit the player he was when Andrea Pirlo oversaw his breakout a few years back. He even had a tackle and two interceptions defensively.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 8. Clinical. Deadly. Just a superb day that saw him attack the goal relentlessly and justifiably reward him with a brace. Overall he put three of four shots on target and just looks worlds more confident than he did last year.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6. Completed all of his passes, including a pair of key passes. His very first touch produced a great cross that Provedel just managed to punch away. He’s starting to look a little sharper after his long injury layoff.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 5. Unfortunately the one downer of the day, as his really bad giveaway gifted Lazio their goal and could’ve made the game a lot more hairy than it otherwise was after Vlahovic bailed him out with another goal.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 6. Defended well on the right as Juve saw the game out. Unlucky not to score at game’s end.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Initiated a dangerous move at the end that almost resulted in an exclamation mark.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - NR. On to close the game out and give the primary starters a rest.
I legitimately wondered whether Allegri would continue to play with the press in this game. Backing off and letting Sarri’s charges pass the ball side to side in front of you has been a legitimate counter to the man’s system for years, and doing so fed into the tendencies Allegri has shown the last few years.
But Allegri stayed with the press instead, and it paid huge dividends. Lazio’s buildup was severely disrupted, and Juve started the game with some great opportunities on short fields. It’s plays into the strengths of so many players on this roster, and could be the start of a serious change in this game.
I didn’t think Allegri had this kind of change in him — shocking to all of you, I know — but the fact that he’s done it and continues to let his players loose instead of shackling them is a massive step in the right direction. The kind of thing that could take our expectations for this team this year and strap a rocket to them.
But we still have to keep our feet on the ground for now. While Lazio was very much the biggest test the team has faced so far, they’re still a few steps behind the biggest ones. A quick look at the Derby della Madonnina later in the day Saturday will tell you that. There will be a point where Juve are going to struggle, whether against those bigger tests or against something smaller. The biggest question remaining in the season will be if Allegri sticks with these new tactics when that happens or gets spooked and retreats to his shell. If that happens, a lot of the hopes we’re building up right now will be dashed. If he sticks with things, the future of this team will, eventually, be pretty bright.
Juve visit Sassuolo next Saturday, then get a rare (for this season) midweek fixture against Lecce the following Tuesday. Then the most challenging segment of the season so far begins with an away game against Atalanta.