Back-to-back defeats prompted a wrong turn down memory lane for Juventus supporters. In Naples, they had been completely outfought, outthought and outmanoeuvred after they lost 2-1 to Luciano Spalletti’s resurgent Napoli. It triggered a stark warning from Leonardo Bonucci in their press conference prior to the midweek trip at Malmö.
Bonucci told the Italian media, “Only as a team can we resume the path that belongs to us. Tomorrow, we must feel responsible for what we do, without holding back.”
That they did, and finally, there were signs of life in Massimiliano Allegri’s comeback after two years away from Turin. The Old Lady dismantled their Swedish opponents on course to a 3-0 victory in the opening game of the Champions League group stage. At some points, they were purring; at other times, they were coasting.
And it is the latter trait for which the credibility of the opposition must be acknowledged. Malmö have proved to be a formidable outfit under the guidance of Jon Dahl Tomasson. Nevertheless, they have a squad market value roughly a twenty-fifth of Juve’s.
However, this game became more about what Juventus could do rather than their opponents. Football should not be so one-sided in its analysis of a game, but circumstances dictate, and in Juventus’ case, there had been little evidence of them producing anything positive in Allegri’s opening three league games.
In fact, the solitary hint of a pulse in their Serie A season so far came in the opening 45 minutes versus Udinese. Travelling to the north east of Italy, the Bianconeri raced into a two goal lead by half time. Come the second half, rattled by the resolve of their opposition, Juventus (and Wojciech Szczęsny, whose errors led to both goals) succumbed to a 2-2 draw. Ever since, they have continued to crumple in the league with defeats to newcomers Empoli and, most recently, Napoli.
Despite their loss to Empoli, it was their most recent defeat which was perhaps most alarming. Allegri implemented the traditional Catenaccio system as Juve tried to grind out a win at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, mustering only 33 percent ball possession. Just like they had in their previous away encounter in Udine, Juve led at half-time, albeit by the more slender margin of merely a goal. Yet, even with a change in tact, Allegri’s plot failed again as Napoli recovered to emerge victorious, with another fumble from Szczęsny leading to the Parthenopean’s equaliser.
This leads us to the tasks Allegri has at hand. From the outside, his number one priority appears to be fixing the goalkeeper position. Three out of the five goals conceded by Szczęsny this season have occurred directly through his own blunders. Two of those have been spillages whilst Udinese’s equaliser was the result of the Pole getting dispossessed when he tried to play out from the back.
The latter cause in particular can be partially attributed to a team welcoming pressure upon themselves, a deadly ploy when you have a goalkeeper bereft of confidence. Those invitations have come freely to the opponents. This season, Juventus have allowed the most crosses to come into their box in the Serie A – with 35 in only three games. To make matters worse, Szczęsny has only claimed one of these crosses.
Although these may be symptomatic statistics of a team trying to deploy a Catenaccio system, even with the presence of Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini to prevent Szczęsny from leaving his line, such methods of defending have never been the Allegri way. During the final two seasons of his first spell in Turin, Juventus were in the bottom three Serie A teams for crosses faced. Moreover, this has not been successful – the winning goals for both Empoli and Napoli came from crosses.
A final word on the goalkeeping situation would be that the alternative to Szczęsny is Mattia Perrin, a fine Serie A shot stopper. However, the problems Juventus have defending their goal are as much systematic as they are of the player in question.
So how is a goalkeeper protected by Euro 2020’s outstanding centre-back duo of Bonucci and Chiellini so exposed? The answer to this derives from the next layer of their armour, one so porous that the last line of defence is understandably overwhelmed.
When Allegri returned, his central midfield consisted of Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, Arthur Melo and Aaron Ramsey. In the case of Rabiot, Arthur and Ramsey – for all of their qualities one may describe them as being elitist without being elite. Over the past few years their careers have circulated around some of the world’s biggest clubs without any of them making neither a collective nor individual impact worthy of their employers’ stature.
The toxic culture this has cultivated in Allegri’s absence is one of passiveness and at times, sheer laziness. This season, Juventus have demonstrated this by featuring in the bottom three for tackles in the midfield and attacking third. In addition, they are also in the relegation zone for pressures in the midfield third.
For the centre-back duo, that represents a considerable departure from what played in front of them on those heavenly nights at Wembley this summer. With that being said, some light has been shone following the arrival of Azzurri member Manuel Locatelli. The 35 million euro signing from Sassuolo brings some of the much-needed tenacity and drive.
Whilst the midfielders who yearn to find their feet to become slightly more mobile have a perpetual pair of colossuses behind them, their eternal attacking threat in front has ever-so-humbly departed for the red side of Manchester. Admittedly, the financial burden of having the all-time record international goalscorer possibly outweighed his contribution to his side’s fortunes in Italy. Nonetheless, Juventus have still lost a fundamental force to their front-line.
Trying to fill his shoes will be Álvaro Morata and the returning Moise Kean, flanked by Federico Chiesa and eventually Dejan Kulusevski. Unlike the midfield, all four have shown their ability to deliver on the biggest of stages but have continually struggled to shrug off inconsistency to date.
Last but not least there is the man tasked with pulling the attacking strings so that their offensive play comes together – Paulo Dybala. A player who has often shirked the responsibility required from him by Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo, only offering glimpses of his magic. Despite this, his creativity is there for all to see. Dybala has featured in the top five percentile for progressive carries and passes over the past year in the big five leagues.
For all that, a player of his quality should be delivering higher numbers in terms of goals and assists. Allegri will be well aware of this, having managed to get Dybala in the top three players for both of these outcomes during seasons within his previous spell in Turin.
In light of the woes Juve have been enduring, Dybala’s display versus Malmö offered hope of a resurgence. He was deployed in the free-roaming position in which he once flourished, providing excellent link-up between the midfield and Álvaro Morata. The performance was topped off by Dybala dispatching a penalty himself.
There were causes for optimism elsewhere, too. Bonucci was allowed to continually spray passes to a rampaging Alex Sandro down the left-hand side. The Brazilian will hope this link-up will aid his likely quest to reestablish himself as one of the world’s best left-backs. On the right, Juan Cuadrado was a sight to behold, a player once so reliant on pace nowadays seems more threatening with less of it – giving himself time to think and improve his distribution in the final third.
That victory has lifted spirits ahead of this weekend’s massive clash versus fast starters AC Milan. But, regardless of the game’s outcome, it is now clear that Allegri’s sobering return has highlighted some huge problems at the Bianconeri. Given his past achievements with the club, time is a necessity, not a luxury, that Allegri should be given to fix Juventus.
This post was written by Michael Jones. Michael discusses Italian football every second Friday on the Road to Nowhere European Football Podcast. You can find Michael on Twitter – @Michael_I_Jones. Michael obtained his statistics from the excellent fbref.com.