The comparison between the last time Juventus played Sassuolo and Tuesday night’s oddly-scheduled return fixture is whiplash-inducing.
The meeting between these two teams in late September was, from the Juventus point of view, a seething cauldron of suckage. Juve had somehow managed to battle back from a pair of deficits, but the second of two horrific mistakes by Wojciech Szczesny gave the lead right back in four minutes, and the comedy of errors was brought to its climax when Federico Gatti scored one of the most comical own goals you’ll ever see in your life. There were serious calls for Szczesny to be benched, and fears were stoked about how inconsistent this team could potentially be.
Fast-forward four months, and everything was turned on its head.
Szczesny made a pair of fantastic saves, while Dusan Vlahovic, who in September had been hauled off the field in the second half while the team was still chasing the game, concocted two moments of absolute magic — the kind you expect from a guy you spend €80 million for — to put Juve emphatically up at the break. Then they saw out the half, barely ever letting Sassuolo have a serious chance at getting back into the match, and topped things off with a capstone that saw them just as far on the front foot as they’d been as they assembled the lead.
It was a dominating 3-0 victory that extended Juve’s exciting start to the 2023-24 season. After finishing 2023 having only scored more than one goal in consecutive games once, a stretch of three back in September that concluded with that loss in Reggio Emilia. In four games to start 2024, the Bianconeri have scored 15 times in four games, a number all the more astonishing given their complete lack of attacking power — and, as it often seemed, attacking will — in the first half of the season. If Juventus manages to keep this trend going, the team could start to shift their view to higher goals.
Massimiliano Allegri was down a pair of important players, Gatti and Weston McKennie, due to yellow card suspensions. He was also still missing Moise Kean and Mattia De Sciglio due to injury, and the usual pair of long-term suspended midfielders. He sent out the standard 3-5-2 formation, anchored by Szczesny in goal. Daniele Rugani replaced Gatti in defense, joining Bremer and Danilo. Andrea Cambiaso and Filip Kostic manned the wing-back positions, flanking the midfield of Fabio Miretti, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot. Vlahovic was joined up top by Kenan Yildiz.
The 4-2-3-1 has become as synonymous with Sassuolo as any combination of formation and team in Italy, and Alessio Dionisi sent out his normal shape for this game, although he was missing several injured players, including Gregiore Defrel, Matias Vina, Jeremy Toljan, Agustin Alvarez, and Pedro Obiang. Andrea Consigli, who missed the first game between these two, was between the sticks, screened by the back four of Marcus Pederson, Martin Erlic, Gian Marco Ferrari, and Mattia Viti. Matheus Henrique and Daniel Boloca formed the double pivot in midfield, while Domenico Berardi, Kristian Thorstvedt, and Armand Laurienté supported Andrea Pinamonti in attack.
The action started somewhat slowly as the teams felt each other out. Juve’s plan seemed to be to attack Sassuolo’s depleted full-back corps, and in the first 10 minutes both Rugani and Danilo pinged multiple long diagonal switches to the wing-backs to try to isolate them. Those early attempts didn’t create much real danger — but then Vlahovic went and made himself the danger.
The game was only 15 minutes old when Rugani intercepted a pass from Ferrari and sent the ball to Locatelli, who immediately picked out Miretti running toward goal. After a few touches, he dished it square to Vlahovic, who stopped the ball with one touch, opened his body, and hit a blistering 19-yard shot that was unaffected by Consigli’s outstretched fingers and whistled just under the crossbar. It was the kind of goal that made Juve go out and get him in the first place — and it turned out the big Serb was just getting warmed up.
Sassuolo couldn’t muster up a response immediately, but eventually managed to test Szczesny in the 32nd minute when Laurienté — the man whose shot had sailed through Szczesny’s hands on that September afternoon — hit a swerving shot that bounced just as it got to the keeper. Szczesny parried it away and out of danger.
Only a few minutes later, Vlahovic set up his next trick.
This time it came from free kick, with the ball sitting about 23 yards out but well off to the right. Vlahovic gave it the perfect bend to get it to the top corner, and squeezed it into an impossibly tight space between the keeper’s hand and the crossbar, once again powering through Consigli’s fingertips before kissing the bottom of the bar and dropping into the goal.
From that point on Vlahovic looked like a man obsessed with matching Arkadiusz Milik’s Coppa Italia hat trick last Thursday. He was almost clean through on goal in the 42nd minute, but a sliding tackle by Boloca prevented him from taking his shot. But the tackle also ended Juve’s advantage after an earlier foul on Yildiz and play was pulled back for the infraction, giving Vlahovic another opportunity from a dead ball. He bypassed the wall and tried to surprise Consigli on his side of the goal, but didn’t get it quite wide enough and Consigli was able to block the ball on the bounce and then corral the short rebound. Almost immediately, Vlahovic won the ball high up the pitch and charged toward goal again, going himself when a layoff may have been the better choice and seeing his shot blocked, then Rabiot’s long-range effort after the ball was recycled was held by Consigli.
The first half had been all Juve, but they came out of the locker room for the second period a little less sharp than they had been in the opening stanza, and Sassuolo had their best period of the game. Berardi hit a low rocket from the top of the box that might’ve snuck past Szczesny had it been on target, then 10 minutes later came the best opportunity the Neroverdi had all night.
It was a textbook counterattack, with Laurienté bombing forward before leaving it for Berardi to take over. Sassuolo’s talisman charged toward the goal. He had support on his left, but went himself from 25 yards. The ball took a massive deflection off Danilo, forcing Szczesny to readjust. He somehow threw his right hand up and parried the shot, allowing Bremer to blast it clear.
That shot seemed to be the wakeup call Juve needed, and they began to reclaim the flow of the match. By the time there were 15 minutes left, Juve were firmly in control again, and Timothy Weah really should’ve killed the game dead when Chiesa redirected a cross to him, but he shinned it over from eight yards.
But the coup de grace was finally dealt with 100 seconds left in normal time, when Milik pressed the ball off Ruan Tressoldi deep in Sassuolo territory. Locatelli gathered the loose ball, moved into the box, then shuttled the ball to Federico Chiesa, who immediately fired a shot back against the grain that bamboozled Consigli, who could only look back as the ball rolled into the net to round out yet another high-energy display to start the new year.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. He only had three saves to make. One was a cupcake. The other two were world-class, especially Berardi’s, as he had to adjust to the deflection and address the powerful shot with just one hand. Talk about a redemption game.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Led the team with four clearances, and probably made more than a few jaws drop when he started regularly pinging long — and accurate — diagonal passes to the left wing. Another good game in what is becoming a banner season for him.
BREMER - 7.5. Added Andrea Pinamonti to his collection of Serie A strikers he has kept in his pocket the entire match. He co-led the team in tackles (4) and even threw in a key pass. None shall pass.
DANILO - 7. The other co-leader in tackles, and had two interceptions to boot. His positioning continues to be excellent, and he hustled his way to a couple of defensive interventions that won’t end up on a scoresheet.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 6. Continues to be a constant threat on whichever wing he plays on. He was a little more limited when Allegri moved him into midfield in the second half, and there were times when I thought he was missing McKennie to swing around with, but he’s still developing into the kind of under-the-radar signing that the team used to make all the time.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Assisted Vlahovic’s first goal and looked dangerous in the first half before fading a bit in the second. Still, his positive run continues.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 8. Man, has he been good lately. He was a rock defensively in the midfield (two tackles, three interceptions, two clearances) and his range of passing is starting to open up. He set up Miretti’s eventual assist with a really good pass, and he was calm enough in the box to know that the simple pass to Chiesa was the best one. His importance to this team grows by the day.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. A good return from his minor injury. Didn’t look off speed much, if at all. He set a high standard for himself last year, but games like this are what you want his baseline to be.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. For me, Kostic was the only real down spot in the starting XI. His stat sheet looks better than the eye test looked. His completion rate was the highest of any starter, but his final balls lacked edge, and he let Berardi get on the wrong side of him a couple of times. He wasn’t awful, but he wasn’t good either. He was meh. And meh shouldn’t be enough to hold down a starting spot at this point in the season — especially when a talent like Samuel Iling-Junior is sitting behind you.
KENAN YILDIZ - 6. Arguably his quietest game since he broke out, but he still occupied a lot of attention from defenders. Also, the nutmegs. Kenan Yildiz is a meg machine. Two Sassuolo defenders were on the receiving end of one in this game, but unfortunately both had help defenders immediately behind them that were able to clear the ball before Yildiz could do anything with it. That kind of flair is something this team hasn’t had in a long time and it’s good to see it on the pitch.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 8. Both of his goals were absolute bangers. Both were fitted into the tiniest of windows between Consigli’s hands and the crossbar, and the combination of power and bend on both of them was astonishing. Those goals are why he cost so much. Oh, and he was the only Juve player to have more than one key pass. His confidence is looking sky high these days, and it’s going to be fun to see how things shake out now that he’s feeling this.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Buzzed around the attacking part of the field and used his pace and dribbling ability to great effect. His goal wasn’t as crazy as either of Vlahovic’s, but there was real technique to pulling it back against the grain like that to catch an overcommitted goalkeeper.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 5. He made a bunch of mistakes after coming on. His passing was scattershot and he missed an absolute sitter with 15 minutes left in the game. With Kostic faltering the chance for him to reclaim a starting spot is there, but he’s not going to take it with performances like this.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - NR. His press caused the turnover that led to Chiesa’s goal.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - NR. Not a lot of touches and didn’t get too involved going upfield for the last eight minutes or so.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. A last-minute sub to bleed time, although a bit of a surprising one.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to discern a clear and active plan of attack in possession from Max Allegri. Juve’s possession game — when it’s been utilized, which hasn’t been often — has tended to go in the “let a guy with a lot of talent do a cool thing” direction.
Tuesday night, however, it was clear that Allegri had recognized that Sassuolo’s full-back position was down to bare bones — so much so that Mattia Viti, a center-back, was playing wide — and resolved to attack that weakness. Thus, the long diagonal switches that we saw a ton of early in the game and that always stayed as part of the quiver as the match progressed. It’s heartening to see that kind of thing, as it was one of the things that had really worried me about Allegri over the last few years. If we start seeing this on a regular basis, things will start looking much better from a coaching standpoint.
If I had to nitpick, the continued selection of Kostic in the starting lineup is really starting to bug me, as I don’t think he’s done enough to deserve to be an unquestioned starter. The use of Alex Sandro at the end of the game instead of someone like, say Joseph Nonge in a game where the result was firmly in hand, was also puzzling. It could be as simple as wanting to keep Nonge’s availability for the NextGen, but given that Sandro replaced Cambiaso, who had moved into midfield earlier in the game, it would’ve been an opportunity to get some more playing time for the young Belgian — and had a natural mid in there to boot.
Two more provincial sides are up next, Lecce (away) and Empoli (home) before the immense trip to San Siro at the beginning of February.