Juve were flying high coming off of their best game in years, but were headed into a stadium that has brought them struggles in recent times, against a Sassuolo team that had lost three of their first four games and needed points if they wanted to avoid falling into the relegation fight early.
As trap games go, this one was classic. It was basically dancing naked on a table wearing a sign that said “I AM A TRAP GAME,” while Admiral Akbar’s iconic cry of “IT’S A TRAP!” from Return of the Jedi boomed through the speakers.
And Juventus fell right in.
It was a truly miserable showing from everyone on the pitch, save Federico Chiesa, who was integral to the team coming from behind not once, but twice to even the score. Unfortunately, the man couldn’t be everywhere at once, and his teammates were so off-kilter that they handed Sassuolo their 4-2 victory on a plate. Two of Sassuolo’s goals came off awful goalkeeping errors by Wojciech Szczesny, another via a bad giveaway, and the last was one of the more comical own goals you’ll ever see in the sport.
On the other side, Chiesa was seemingly the only man who could get anything going. It wasn’t until he leveled the game at 2-2 in the 78th minute that Juventus put a shot on frame (their first goal was an own goal). That continued a frankly crazy trend of Juve failing to provide much of a test to a second-choice goalkeeper (although, to be fair, Alessio Cragno is as good a No. 2 as you’ll find this side of Mattia Perin). Everything about the win against Lazio that was good was inverted Saturday as Juve deservedly fell to their first defeat of the season.
When Massimiliano Allegri’s team sheet came out an hour before kickoff, it was clear a miracle had occurred. For the first time in 112 Serie A matches, he had named the same team twice in a row. Szczesny started behind the usual 3-5-2 formation. Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo screened him in defense. Weston McKennie and Filip Kostic manned the wing-back spots, while the trio of Fabio Miretti, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield. Chiesa was joined in the front two by Dusan Vlahovic.
Alessio Dionisi’s starting XI was also identical to the week before, although there was less logic in that move than there was for Allegri, as this same group of players blew a 2-0 lead to eventually lose 4-2 to newly-promoted Frosinone in their last game. He was still without Agustin Alvarez and starting keeper Andrea Consigli, so Cragno started in goal behind a 4-2-3-1 formation. Jeremy Toljan, Ruan Tressoldi, Martin Erlic, and Matías Viña made up the back four. Matheus Henrique and Daniel Boloca formed the double pivot, while Domenico Berardi, Nedim Bajrami, and Armand Laurienté made up the supporting attack line behind striker Andrea Pinamonti.
Juventus employed their usual press — damn it’s good to say that — in the opening minutes, and as it has for most of the season, it created some good early chances. Rabiot put an early header over, then Chiesa latched on to a well-placed throw-in from McKennie and delivered an excellent cross that Vlahovic misjudged, allowing it to float just over his head. Rabiot then wasted some good moves by McKennie, hitting a first-time shot off a final layoff by Locatelli well wide.
Early indications looked good for the Old Lady, but the first big self-inflicted wound quickly blew that to hell.
It looked like a relatively simple scenario. Pinamonti had headed a throw-in down to Laurienté, and the winger decided to take a shot at the near post from just above the left corner of the box. It looked like a routine save that Szczesny makes hundreds of times — except this time. Maybe he misjudged the flight of the ball, or the power of the shot, but the ball clanked off the heel of his hands, over his shoulder, and into the net. It was such a massive howler that Laurienté took a few seconds to realize what was happening and start celebrating.
Juve took a moment to get themselves back on an even keel after the shock concession, but soon found themselves putting on some pressure for an equalizer. Vlahovic pushed a low shot harmlessly wide in the 17th minute, and Kostic had a shot blocked before Chiesa unleashed a gorgeous cross from the left corner of the box that arrowed toward McKennie at the back post. Cragno stayed home rather than attack the cross, putting Viña in a bad spot. Sliding in to beat McKennie to the spot, all he could do was tip the ball into his own net just before the American could do the same on purpose.
Juve immediately kept the pressure on, but there were again some missed connections that killed promising moves. Vlahovic simply mishandled a great cutback from the right by Chiesa in the 24th minute, then Locatelli passed up the opportunity to shoot and tried to pass the ball to Gatti in the box, only to see the defender foul his man. He almost made up for it moments later with a worm-burner after a blocked Rabiot shot caromed back to him, but the shot skidded wide.
By the half-hour mark, Juve had attempted twice as many shots as their hosts, but hadn’t put any of them on target. As halftime approached, Szczesny, looking to atone for his earlier mistake, made a fantastic one-handed diving save on a header from Ruan, while Vlahovic got a head to the ball while he was falling fown, popping it over the bar.
Just as it looked like Juve were sending the ball toward goal at an increasing rate, Sassuolo took advantage of another mistake. This time the guilty party was Gatti, who tried to break the lines with a pass but only managed to put the ball on Henrique’s foot. He charged forward and made Miretti look rather silly before passing the ball to Berardi, whose sweeping one-time finish was quite pretty indeed.
Changes were needed, and Allegri immediately made two of them, sending on Nicolò Fagioli and Samuel Iling-Junior for Miretti and Kostic. Chiesa came close to fooling the Sassuolo defense in the 53rd minute when he sent a free kick under the wall, but it slid wide. Five minutes later, Juve really should’ve gone a man up when Berardi planted the entire set of studs into Bremer’s shin. Referee Andrea Colombo immediately showed a yellow card, but it was clear to most that something more was needed. Unfortunately, VAR official Michael Fabbri somehow decided that it didn’t rise to the level of clear and obvious error, and didn’t even call Colombo to the VAR screen. Having been given a huge reprieve, the Neroverdi started attacking, putting three shots wide of the frame in the span of three minutes, two of them by Laurienté.
The 65th minute saw a huge miss by Vlahovic, who pushed a shot wide of the goal after Fagioli sent him clear. It’s entirely possible he would’ve been flagged for offside on the play, but it’s still a shot he needs to put on target, especially since Sassuolo kept on coming for a third goal to seal the game. Iling-Junior made an absolutely fantastic sliding challenge to keep Laurienté from completing a counterattack, keeping Juve in it.
It was just as well, because with 12 minutes to go Chiesa’s moment finally came. A cross from Timothy Weah was nodded backward by Iling-Junior at the far post, and Fagioli laid the ball off to the No. 7, who had hung back and found himself in a pocket of space. His shot took a slight deflection, throwing Cragno off as to the angle it was coming in at and flying past him to tie the score.
It looked like the momentum was undoubtedly with Juve for the last 10 minutes—but momentum only lasts as long as a mistake in this sport, and four minutes later Szczesny made another one. The team picked the absolute wrong time to sag back in defense, allowing Laurienté to take another powerful shot from above the corner. Szczesny again seemed taken by surprise as to just how much pace was on the ball and misjudged its trajectory. He seemed to overrun it, and could only parry it directly at Pinamonti, who calmly headed the ball past the keeper to reestablish Sassuolo’s lead.
Stoppage time would be eventful. Chiesa forced Cragno into his first save of the night with a low angled shot. Szczesny then followed his second howler with a second excellent save, just tipping a powerful effort by Gregoire Defrel onto the underside of the crossbar.
But any chance Juve had of a dramatic point was dashed by one of the most ludicrous losses of focus you’ll see on a soccer field. Szczesny had run to the left corner to take a free kick that had been won by Iling. He kicked the ball to Gatti, who was immediately pressed by Henrique. Gatti then passed the ball back to where he thought Szczesny was—only he was still nowhere near his line, and the ball simply rolled into the net. From there, it was simply a matter of waiting for the final whistle to end the misery.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 3. The only reason this isn’t lower than this is that he actually did produce a couple of world-class saves amidst all the chaos. This was not a good day for him, and is sure to start a tsunami of calls for Perin to start, but everyone needs to calm down with those. It’s one game.
FEDERICO GATTI - 3. The own goal was really just the nadir of a pretty awful performance on Gatti’s part. He gave the ball away repeatedly in bad spots, including the errant pass that led to Berardi’s goal. This is one he’ll have to file away quickly and move on.
BREMER - 6. His stat line is deuces wild: two apiece of tackles, interceptions, clearances, and blocked shots. Kept Pinamonti relatively quiet in open play throughout the match.
DANILO - 7. Covered everything on his side, especially with Iling-Junior getting upfield as much as possible in the second half. His statline is pretty dang crazy: four tackles, eight interceptions, six clearances, and a block. He perhaps sagged a little too much on Berardi on his goal, but overall he was far and away the best player on the back line.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Another solid performance off the right side, creating some dangerous play in the first half before fading a bit in the second. Would’ve certainly had a goal to his name had Viña not tapped into his own net in front of him.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5. Got bamboozled by Henrique in the lead-up to Berardi’s goal, and did little in either phase of the game before he was replaced. Expect him to give way to Fagioli in the starting lineup on Tuesday.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5. A really poor followup to one of his best games in a Juve shirt. He just couldn’t get the midfield going, and when he isn’t on, the team can’t really function. And with Nicolo Rovella at Lazio, there isn’t a whole ton of alternative to him at the regista position.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Missed a couple of good chances early on, and while his numbers look fairly good on paper, there was little substance to them in terms of his contribution to the game.
FILIP KOSTIC - 4. Felt like a passenger for the entire first half. He did make a pair of tackles, but there was none of his typical runs to the end line to set up players in the middle. Another candidate for a seat on the bench on Tuesday.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7. One of the only players who was really present all day. He set up the first equalizer and scored the second, making a key pass and drawing four free kicks. If he’s in this kind of form he’s going to be tough to stop all year. The question is whether the rest of the team will keep up with him.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. Got into some good positions but just felt off all day long. His control let him down a few times in promising spots, and you simply never see him misjudge a header the way he did early on from Chiesa’s cross. He’s a player who thrives on confidence, so he’ll need to put this behind him quickly.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6. Had three key passes in only 45 minutes of play — no other Juve player had more than one. Connected on three of five crosses, and completed 89.3 percent of his passes overall. He’s looking much better than he did in the Bologna game and probably deserves another start.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 5.5. Didn’t really have the offensive impact one hoped when he came on, although he did make three tackles, including an absolutely massive one on Laurienté that prevented the game from being put away much earlier than it was.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 5. Only touched the ball 16 times in half an hour of play and didn’t really have a ton of influence with it. He did deliver the cross that started the move for Chiesa’s goal, but never really got his pace into play.
MOISE KEAN - NR. I usually give players a number if they’ve played 15 minutes or more, but Kean only touched the ball four times, and it’s hard to make a rating out of that sample size. There just wasn’t anything for him to do.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - NR. A desperation throw after Sassuolo took the lead for the third and final time.
The players were, generally, bad. There’s no doubt about that. The lion’s share of the blame for this fiasco goes to them, without question.
But then you have to ask yourself why they were this bad in the first place. Why did some of them look checked out and dropped to the level of their competition?
That’s a coaching issue, and one that Allegri has repeatedly had problems with in his second stint with the club. He even said in his post-match press conference that he had seen “warning signs” over the week that the club might be dropping its focus. He said he attempted to nip them in the bud, but clearly whatever he tried didn’t work.
When one or two individual errors cost you a game, that’s a player issue. When the entire team shows up lacking clarity and focus, the question has to be asked about how the manager let it get to that point — especially when he admits he’s seen it coming. Between now and Tuesday’s match with Lecce he’s going to have to nail down what happened here and fix it — and quickly.
On another note, here’s the punch in the mouth I’ve been talking about for the first month or so of the season. Now it becomes a question of how Allegri responds. If he takes this to mean that the way they’ve been playing the first five games of the season is too dangerous and sinks back into the corto muso ways of the last two years, this season is going to take an early turn for the worse. If he screws his courage to the sticking place and stays with the new tactics, then we can truly say that he’s started to change once again as a coach.
Back in the high days of the Streak, a game like this would often be followed by an appearance from Angry Juve — and woe betide the team that unfortunate enough to be next on the schedule. It’s time for Max to find Angry Juve again.
It’s the first midweek fixture of the year as Juve welcome Lecce to the Allianz on Tuesday, followed up by another big test in a trip to Bergamo to face Atalanta on Sunday.