One of the biggest questions about Juventus early in the season has been what Massimiliano Allegri would do tactically after the team’s first real setback.
After showing renewed tactical gumption early in the season with a new-look press that at times have Juve looking a little more like the teams of the last decade than the current one, it was still uncertain how Allegri would react when the team got punched in the mouth. Would he stay the course and keep the new tactics? Or would he revert to his default of the last two years — passive corto muso football that caused games against even the lowliest opposition to spike a person’s blood pressure.
Based on Tuesday’s game against Lecce, the needle is, unfortunately, tilting toward the latter.
Juve were booed off the field at halftime after failing to create much of anything on offense. Lecce played football in the middle of the pitch and were barely hassled by any players clad in this year’s snazzy grey third kits. Despite the fact that they were held without a shot, they at times looked the better side going into the locker room at the break.
Fortunately, Juve’s second half display was better, although still a little too passive at times. An ugly goal by Arkadiusz Milik just before the hour made all the difference, and while Juve pursued a second goal, they lacked the aggression in doing so that we saw against Lazio 10 days ago, and seeing out the 1-0 victory had more to do with a defense that didn’t allow a shot on target for the entire game than the attack looking to seal things with another goal.
Allegri had a relatively full compliment of players at his disposal, missing only Moise Kean and Alex Sandro to training ground muscle injuries, Mattia De Sciglio and his long-term knee rehab, and Paul Pogba for being really [redacted] stupid. He made four changes to the 3-5-2 that had laid an almighty egg against Sassuolo on Saturday. Wojciech Szczesny was sent out to make amends for his horror show performance in Reggio Emilia. Daniele Rugani made his first appearance of the season in defense, joining Bremer and Danilo. Weston McKennie started at wing-back for the third consecutive match, this time pairing with Andrea Cambiaso on the left. Nicolo Fagioli was given the nod in midfield next to Manuel Locatelli and Adrien Rabiot, while Milik was given his first start of the year alongside Federico Chiesa.
Lecce coach Roberto D’Aversa had his outfit in a surprising third through the first five games of the year. Lamek Banda was the only absence, and D’Aversa deployed his usual 4-3-3. Wladimiro Falcone started in goal behind the back four of Lorenzo Venuti, Marin Pongracic, Federico Baschirotto, and Patrick Dorgu. Frenchmen Remi Oudin and Alexis Blin joined Ylber Ramadani in the middle of the park, while Pontus Almqvist and Gabriel Strefezza flanked Nikola Kristovic in the attacking trident.
At first glance it looked like the press might be staying in place, and within the first two minutes Adrien Rabiot took at long-distance shot that was easily saved, then Fagioli laid the ball off for Cambiaso, whose shooting lane was closed down at the last second by a good block from Venuti.
But the press never materialized the way that it has in previous games. When they did touch the ball, it often resulted in a bad touch or a missed pass. When thus gifted the ball, Lecce’s players were hardly ever closed down, allowing them to pass the ball with relative impunity in the middle of the park. It was only by the grace of their players’ being, well, the quality of a team that fights relegation every year, that Juve was able to generally shuttle them harmlessly away from creating any real danger.
But the lack of danger extended to Juve as well. Falcone had a few saves to make as the half wore on, but all were relatively easy — a flicked header by Rabiot on a long throw, a long-distance shot from Milik that curled in between two defenders but was easily held.
The one real chance Juve made came in the 27th minute. It was set up by the best passage of football Juve produced all night, starting with Chiesa on the left side. He played the ball to Locatelli, who exchanged quick passes with Fagioli before feeding it back to Chiesa again. The forward then played a deft one-two with Danilo, who fed him perfectly into the left channel. He was clear on goal and beat Falcone to the far post, but elected to use his weaker left foot and pushed it just in front of the post instead of curling it inside.
That miss was pretty much the high point of the half, as there was a distinct lack of action by either team for the remainder of the period. The second half started much the same way. Cambiaso started having trouble with Almqvist on his side, but Juve finally managed to get their noses in front with their first chance of the half.
The genesis of the goal was slightly controversial, as referee Antonio Giua pointed for a corner kick on a ball that Lecce were convinced had come off Rabiot’s head just after Venuti’s. D’Aversa protested vociferously enough to get booked on the sideline. The corner delivery met McKennie at the near post, but his header hit Rugani and was cleared by Oudin. Fagioli chased it down and sent it back toward the Lecce goal. Chiesa’s cross in was too deep for anyone except Milik, who took it down and pushed it wide to McKennie. McKennie sent a cross to the back post that Rabiot headed back across the grain, where Milik was waiting to tap in from two yards out. Lecce appealed for both offside and a handball call against Rugani on the initial header, but the former was checked and cleared by VAR, and the latter was non-reviewable because Lecce’s clearance had begun a new passage of play.
The rest of the half felt more stressful than it looks in hindsight, given the slim margin. Juve came closest to doubling their lead in the 74th minute when Chiesa jinked his way to the byline and put the ball across the face of goal, but it was just too fast for Milik to get his foot to it, while McKennie was covered at the back post by Dorgu, who cleared the ball away.
The final minutes were marked by an unfortunate call by Giua. Lecce substitute Mohamed Kaba had been booked in the 85th minute for accidentally cleating Fagioli in the foot, and as the clock ticked into stoppage time he drove to the byline. He was shadowed by Chiesa and tangled with him as he tried to cut the ball inside. There was some hand checking by Chiesa, but it looked like Kaba simply lost his balance as he went around and fell. Giua interpreted his fall as a dive, and showed him an extremely harsh second yellow. The game ended shortly thereafter, an unpretty affair that posed a lot of questions about what direction the manager was taking the team as it approached a tough stretch of games.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - NR. No point in giving a rating here after Lecce was held completely without a shot on target. Szczesny was barely even called upon to deal with a cross.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. A very good season debut. I almost forgot he was there at times — in the good way.
BREMER - 6. Got physical with Kristovic and committed a bunch of fouls early, but eventually kept the young Montenegrin completely under wraps.
DANILO - 7. The kind of captain’s performance we’ve come to expect. Pushed up a lot in the second half, and ended up tied for the team lean wtih three key passes.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7. Three tackles and three interceptions defensively combined with some good work offensively, including the hockey assist fo the goal and his own key pass a while earlier. He’s really taking to playing outside, although he doesn’t quite have the “blow your man away” speed he sometimes needs to create room for himself.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 7. This is more like his usual self. Completed 88.1 percent of his passes, three of which were key passes. When Juve did get themselves into position to do something offensively, he was usually in the middle of it.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 7. This is more like it from him. Completed passes at a 92.7 percent clip, including two key passes, and was a wrecking ball defensively. He had six tackles, twice as many as anyone else who stepped on the field Tuesday night.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. His assist on the game-winner gives him some shine on what was again not quite the level we’re expecting to see out of him after last year. But the assist was a huge one, so he gets a passing grade.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 5.5. Lacked the impressive offensive capability he showed in his first two matches, although he did still set up one shot. Better defensively, with a pair of tackles and an interception.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Didn’t put any of his four shots on target and seemed to be starting to put the team on his back too much as the game wore on without a goal. On the bright side he did complete all of his crosses.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. Largely anonymous before the goal, he put himself in perfect position to time hi run and bury that finish. Also had two key passes and held the ball up pretty well when he had his back to goal.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. Nothing like the horror show from the weekend. Helped seal the win after coming in for a less-than-90-minutes fit Rugani.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Got a shot off in his time on the pitch but it largely anonymous.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - NR. Relatively quiet after coming on for Milik.
FABIO MIRETTI - NR. On to keep the midfield fresh and ready to go as the numbers dwindled.
TIMOTHY WEAH - NR. Never had much of anything to work with on the right challenge.
That was not encouraging.
The direction Allegri would take the team after its first real setback was one of the big questions early in the season. So far, though, it only needs and the needle points a lot more toward the things that caused the team to struggle the last two years as opposed to the new tactics that saw the team look a lot more exciting early in this campaign.
With Atalanta looming over the weekend, it won’t take long before we figure out exactly whether we continue on this slide back to full-on corto muso football or continue to play a more proactive game that has been the story of the year so far. Any regression could have a serious impact on Juve’s ability to make the top four this season, and we can only hope that the back room staff is able to coax him back out of his shell, because when Allegri coaches scared, the team looks it too, and it struggles.
A big three-game stretch is coming up, starting with the weekend’s trip to Bergamo to face Atalanta. The first Derby della Mole of the season follows that, then, after the international break, comes a trip to San Siro to face AC Milan.