Three days after obliterating Salernitana in their Coppa Italia meeting, Juventus headed south for an instant rematch in Salerno.
Things did not go as well.
Just like Thursday, last-place Salernitana actually took the lead. This time it came at the end of the first half, after Juve dropped their guard on a quick counterattack. But whereas in midweek Juventus responded by completely overwhelming the worst team in Serie A so far this season, Sunday’s Juve found itself largely unable to make much happen in front of goal. Even when Salernitana went a man down when their own goalscorer saw a second yellow card, Juve weren’t so much as sniffing a shot on target.
To their credit, Juve did manage to dig out two goals — one in the 65th minute and then a winner off a towering header by Dusan Vlahovic just as stoppage time began — to pull out a 2-1 victory. But to come that close to a game that would slide into the Monza and Maccabi Haifa level of unacceptable is of serious concern, as is Juve’s continued inability to get themselves past a set defense. As the first half of the season closes, Juve in a great position in the standings, but there are still problems that this club needs to fix.
Massimiliano Allegri made seven changes to his 3-5-2 formation from Thursday’s win, some enforced and some not. Three of the players that started out weren’t even in the squad, as Manuel Locatelli was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, Federico Chiesa had a minor knee flare-up (again), and Andrea Cambiaso was ill. They joined Alex Sandro, Mattia De Sciglio and Moise Kean as the unavailables, as well as the two suspended midfielders. Wojciech Szczesny reclaimed his spot in goal after his midweek rest, defended by the back three of Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo. Timothy Weah and Filip Kostic started the day on the wings, bracketing the midfield of Weston McKennie, Hans Nicolussi Caviglia, and Adrien Rabiot. Vlahovic and Kenan Yildiz tipped the spear up top.
After getting keelhauled on Thursday, Filippo Inzaghi changed both players and tactics, switching from the 4-2-3-1 he ran in the Coppa to a 3-5-2 of his own. Three players, including top striker Boulaye Dia, were at the Africa Cup of Nations, and three others on the treatment table. Benoît Costil started in goal, with Federico Fazio, Flavius Daniliuc, and Norbert Gyömbér. Junior Sambia and Domagoj Bradaric were the wing-backs, while Antonio Candreva, Giulio Maggiore, and Mateusz Legowski Played in midfield. Loum Tchaouna joined Simy capping things off up top.
The home team came out looking for another early lead when Sambia latched on to a defensive header in the fourth minute and fired low on goal, but Szczesny got down to stop and hold it. Juve fired back within the first 10 minutes as well, with Danilo’s header off a corner was blocked by Fazio and then McKennie was called for a push when he called Costil into action with a bullet header.
There followed 30 minutes of football that reflected the weather the game was being played in: dour. The big point of interest in this period was a yellow card picked up by Maggiore in the buildup of a counterattack — a booking that would have consequences later.
It was Maggiore that woke the game up in the 39th minute. The move started when Gyömbér hit a long ball over the top for Sambia, who pulled it back to Tchaouna at the top of the box. Bradaric was waiting nearby, and Tchaouna’s layoff might’ve been for him, but it got past him and perfectly into the path of Maggiore, who had tons of space in the area. He controlled it with his first touch and then fired a bolt to the opposite post with his second, leaving Szczesny no chance.
Through the first half, Juve had only generated five shots, none of which were on target. Allegri’s first attempt to change that came right out of the break, sending Samuel Iling-Junior to replace an ineffective Kostic. Four minutes into the second half, Juve really should’ve been level when Yildiz sent Rabiot down the left. The Frenchman’s cross was perfect but McKennie, who had made a great run through the box, only managed to glance the ball wide with the far post gaping.
Two minutes later. Juve really ought to have been given a penalty when Gyömbér planted his shoulder into Vlahovic’s back, preventing him from jumping for a cross. There wasn’t even a VAR review, which wasn’t a good look for a refereeing system that has had some serious issues this weekend.
Two minutes later, though, referee Marco Guida did do his job, showing Maggiore a second yellow card when he took out Rabiot as he charged toward the box. That left 37 minutes for Juve to turn the game around against 10 men.
But things weren’t looking all that positive. Yildiz headed the ball over, and Vlahovic tried to force a shot between a pair of defenders and likewise skied it. Allegri sent on Arkadiusz Milik to put three forwards on the field, and he registered the team’s first shot on target when he loaded up from distance but put it right to Costil.
It’s appropriate that Juventus got back into the match on a play that very nearly went down as an enormous mistake. Taking a free kick quickly, they worked the ball into the box on the right hand side, with Milik flicking it on for Weah toward the byline. His low cross went into a good position, but Vlahovic completely scuffed it. Luckily, said scuff went right to Iling-Junior, who took a touch to settle before smashing it into the roof of the net from 6 yards out.
Juve had 25 minutes to reel in all three points, but they looked like they breathed a little bit too hard a sigh of relief after equalizing.
Salernitana nearly stole their way back into the lead. Szczesny had to deliver a diving parry on a good long-range shot by Bradaric, a warning shot that prompted Allegri to remove Yildiz for Fabio Miretti to give the team a little more balance. But while he was settling in Candreva dropped in an excellent cross at the back post for Simy, but the Nigerian couldn’t redirect it on target from point blank range.
Juve managed to direct the flow of the game back toward the Salernitana goal for the most part after that, but the closest they came to scoring was an attempt by Iling-Junior to bend for the far post, but hit way too far wide.
But just as the clock ticked into stoppages, the moment Juve needed finally came. It came from their captain and their superstar. Danilo stole the ball from Chukwubuikem Ikuwemesi and measured up a perfect cross for Vlahovic, who rose between Gyömbér and Fazio to bounce a bullet header into the net to give Juve three badly needed points as the andata came to a close.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Didn’t have to make a ton of saves but the one on Bradaric’s long-range bomb was impressive, and he kept the box relatively clear throughout.
FEDERICO GATTI - 5.5. A little bit off-kilter this evening, might’ve been fatigue setting in. The yellow he got was, in my book, a little absurd, considering he won the ball, and it’s not like he could’ve just disappeared after doing so. Still, it puts him over the suspension threshold and it might not be bad for him to kick his heels for a week.
BREMER - 7. Four clearances, good passing out of the back. A solid game as usual.
DANILO - 8. Another do-everything day for the captain. He led the team in touches (119), key passes (3), and tackles (4), was second amongst the starters with a 94.2 percent pass completion rate. His assist for Vlahovic was pitch-perfect. He continues to lead this team by example.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 6. Two key passes and a solid overall day on the right side. Still not getting to show his whole game, although in a game like this he couldn’t take full advantage of his speed.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Tied with Danilo for the team lead in key passes and was generally involved in building up close to the box. This would’ve been higher but for that missed sitter early in the second half.
HANS NICOLUSSI CAVIGLIA - 5. A rough day for the youngster. His passing was a little scattershot farther than a few feet out, and he bears the brunt of the blame on Salernitana’s goal. There was no need to join Danilo in double-teaming Tchaouna, and he left the middle of the field wide open for Maggiore to run through.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Another game in the “very solid” category for the Frenchman, who contributed a key pass and buzzed around the attacking third. Should’ve had an assists had McKennie not botched his header.
FILIP KOSTIC - 4.5. He’s just not contributing right now. He didn’t connect on a single cross, completed less than 70 percent of his passes, and generally failed to get moves going. Deservedly withdrawn at the half.
KENAN YILDIZ - 5.5. Led the team in dribbles but wasn’t able to get things going in the final third against a parked bus. It’s only his fourth league game, so obviously there is a ton of room for growth, but these are the kinds of games the team will need his skills to help break these defenses down.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. Credited with the least intentional assist in the history of mankind on the equalizer, and rose up when it mattered most for the goal. Beyond that, he was actually playing pretty poorly, but it’s the mark of a great striker to be able to break through with a goal even when you’re not having your best day.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 6.5. Took his goal excellently, and also had a pair of tackles defensively. Changed the nature of the attacks down the left with his dynamism.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Solid in the back after coming on for Gatti. Made two tackles and two clearances, aong with an interception. Brought most anything that came close to his side to a halt.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. Again became the fulcrum around which Juve could operate in the attacking third. An underrated part of the game was his forcing the foul that Juve subsequently turned into the sequence that led to the equalizer.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Had a pair of tackles in midfield as Allegri tried to re-balance the squad after putting on three strikers for the first time in a long time.
JOSEPH NONGE - NR. His Serie A debut was nothing to write home about, but it wasn’t a disaster either. I’d love to see what this kids has got.
Let’s start with what Max did well in this game. Chiefly, that’s his subs. He only had five outfield players available to him on the day, and used them all to great effect. Removing Kostic was a no-brainer, and Allegri should think hard about how many more starts he gets in the near future. Getting Gatti out of there, who was turning into the defender’s edition of LeRoy Jenkins, was a good idea as well.
It was the timing of the changes that mentions special notion, as it very much bucks his unfortunate habit of waiting far too long to make changes until the sub has very little time to make an impact. These changes are ultimately what won Juve the match — Iling in particular — and deserve praise.
However, this game exposed a serious weakness in Allegri’s current approach, and it’s one that’s going to increasingly come into play as the season progresses. Allegri still doesn’t have a real plan when it comes to breaking down a low block. While a lack of players with that kind of creativity is certainly one problem, it still feels like Allegri is just waiting for someone to have a massive individual moment to break the impasse, rather than finding a tactical solution ot the problem.
Breaking teams down is going to be essential as the season goes on. Yildiz may go a ways toward fixing the problem, but he’s still young and needs developing, so heaping that all on him from the start is probably unwise. Individual brilliance will only go so far in a long season, and Allegri needs to find some way to counter a low block.
Juve take on Frosinone on Thursday in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals, then welcome Sassuolo — the only team to have beaten them this season — to the Allianz on Tuesday night (I know, weird schedule in the extreme).