We witnessed the passion, belief and grit that was largely absent from the mid-week skirmishes on the European front, and ultimately a thoroughly deserved victory which could truly kick-start the season. Unfortunately, I am speaking of Inter…
I was dismayed but unsurprised to find five changes made to the side which faced Seville. This was not due to a terrible performance, just simply in line with Allegri’s rotation policy. However, opting to bring in Mandzukic in place of Higuain and trialing Pjanic as a regista seemed too many questions to ask of the team when faced with our most hated of rivals, in their own backyard.
Unlike our preceding Serie A games, there was no period of dominance in the first half hour. Or beyond. In fact it was Inter who set out their stall early doors to attack, to truly take the game to Juve. Which they managed well enough during the opening 45 minutes. Which were tight, barely anything to choose between the sides. An adventurous and determined Inter running up against a resolute Juve rear-guard.
The best chance of the half fell to Khedira…Dybala swept a delightful cross field ball to Sandro who launched a perfect pass to the 6 yard box where Big Sami, free from a marker, produced a lame header easily saved by the keeper. He really should have done better.
The second period began with the home side very much in the ascendancy. Candreva went mightily close with a sumptuous volley, and we appeared on the back foot as waves of blue and black flooded forward in search of the breakthrough. Yet it was Juve who snatched an undeserved lead, with Sandro again blazing a trail down the left, flashing a superb pass across the goal for Lichsteiner to prod in from close range.
The joy was not to last though, as within two minutes Inter were level. A corner was flung in and Icardi wriggled free of Mandzukic to loft a header into the top corner well beyond the reach of Buffon’s upper paws. After the equalizer there seemed only one likely winner, and they were not wearing black and white.
Finally on 74′ Higuain was introduced to some optimism from the bianconeri faithful, yet we were undone soon after by an appalling pass from Asamoah which led to Perisic heading in for 2-1. This was one of many truly awful passes made by Juve players. At times it seemed like they had succumbed to some sort of disease, and it was spreading, player to player…
Pjaca was given ten minutes to make an impact which never came, and Higuain came close to leveling the tie with a glancing header from yet another superb Sandro cross.
The match ended 2-1. Inter emerging as clear and deserving winners of a game in which our midfield was non-existent from start to finish.
Buffon – Not at fault for either goal, fumbled a simple shot, other than which was fine. 6
Bonucci – Not quite as dominant as usual, yet marshaled Eder and Icardi well enough in the first half, then faded into obscurity in the second. 6
Barzagli – Entered the fray unexpectedly. Which is no excuse for what followed as his passing was rushed and poor, marking too tight on occasion and the emergence of faltering composure in the rock of our famous BBC could well be the first signs of a creaking ship. Either he is not yet fully fit or match sharp or his star is fading.5
Chiellini – The strongest showing of the back three. Pushed forward when possible, put in a few decent crosses and performed his defensive duties with typical zeal. However, as with Barzagli, a slither of sloppiness has appeared in his game thus far this campaign. 5.5
Lichsteiner – Unfortunate to find himself booked when pulling out of a challenge high up the field, then grabbed the goal with a gutsy burst into the box in the second period. His lack of playing time – perhaps aligned with the uncouth manner in which he has been treated by the club – proved a nuisance mainly in terms of his positioning. We saw very little of his forward foraging and he had very little support from Khedira in midfield. 6
Sandro – Showed good spirit, pace and technique to push up the left flank, beat his man and sent in a fair number of dangerous crosses, one of which was put away by Lichsteiner. By far our most adventurous attacking threat throughout. Was unlucky to leave the field with just the one assist. 7
Pjanic – My consistent fears of his lack of suitability to the regista role absent of a dog of war nearby to protect and shield and face incoming attacks head on were confirmed in this close to anonymous showing from the Bosnian. When he did find the ball at his feet, his passing was largely weak. He made barely any tackles, offered the defence and attack very little. Absent for large periods, we carried the midfielder, in a position which is of immense importance to our system. It is akin to removing the conductor from the orchestra…Out-muscled and out-played. 4
Asamoah – So much hustle and bustle yet technically atrocious. His pass to set up the second goal we conceded summed up his form this season; high octane yet technically inept. The lengthy period as a LWB, then injury riddled 15/16 has left him a shadow of the dynamic midfielder he once was. There is no place for him in our starting XI. Perhaps I am being harsh, and he needs more time to gain match sharpness, but we cannot afford to be gifting possession to the opposition in such vital areas. 4.5
Khedira – Guilty of a bothersome miss in the first half when played in by Sandro for a free header from 6 yards out. Other than which was playing too high, leaving Lichsteiner and Pjanic regularly exposed and huge gaps for opponents to run and play into. Barely seen in the second half, yet got close late on, only to be crunched by Handanovic. The experiment to play him as a support striker was potent against weaker foes, but the last two games have shown it won’t work against solid defences and packed midfields. 5.5
Dybala – Along with Sandro, Dybala did all he could to stretch the play, open up the defence, yet had little support or success. With Pjanic anonymous, half the side continually playing the ball straight to the opposition, Paulo toiled to glean little joy. This position of roaming deeper and wider than last year left Mandzukic isolated and often up again 2-3 defenders. It simply didn’t work. 5.5
Mandzukic – Difficult to judge given he was playing 1 v 2/3 with barely any cavalry. He grafted, won a few free-kicks, chased down lost causes and harried the Inter defence, yet with only Sandro showing any ability to penetrate, his was a lonely battle. If we are going to play a lone gunman it has to be Higuain. Big Mario has neither the technique or pace, and his only value in the role is to win high balls and lay the play off to marauding midfielders. We had no marauding midfielders today, hence…his game appeared listless. 5.5
Higuain – Given far too little time to affect the game, yet came extremely close to scoring with a superb header. 6
I have mentioned many times in the past that I am not at all a fan of rotation, especially at the start of a season. To rotate the side before a hugely important encounter to give old legs a rest or avoid a suspension is understandable, other than which I am a strident advocate of playing your best XI as often as possible. This is how to build momentum, how to give players the chance to fall into a rhythm, side by side, not though changing systems and personnel from game to game. That gives the players no chance to work on anything other than their fitness.
Allegri has form for focusing on the long haul and managing energy levels whilst attempting to bring the squad en masse towards match sharpness. It is a risk. For when players are rotated, just when they are picking up form, they take a break and lose their competitive edge.
Last season – due to the wretched injury crisis – the manager was forced to tread very carefully. It is not quite the same case presently. Yes, Marchisio remains absent and he truly is the key to our midfield. Many thought that Pjanic would slot in and prove a worthy replacement, yet I have long doubted this, given he played in a very different system at Roma. He was indeed often deployed successfully as a deep lying play-maker, but he had that beast Radja next to him, who ferociously locked horns with others in the midfield, screened the defence and drove the team forwards. Absent of that protection and muscle, Pjanic looks lost in that position in our side. He was markedly better last week when allowed to play higher up with Lemina as the pivot.
Higuain is 28 years old. Regardless of his price tag there was no obvious reason to rest him. None. It cannot have been to save him for Cagliari and Palermo. He did not need a break, if anything, he needs playing time. It is the only way for him to reach his peak.
The manner in which we played against Sassuolo suggested the best mix may have been stumbled upon in regards to the starting XI. Pjanic and Sandro were then removed and rested for the Seville game. In which we played considerably better than last night, and should really have won. However, Inter are not Seville; they have been in atrocious form and did not deploy an extremely defensive formation (as did the Spaniards). They came to win, played fluid, open football, with passion, determination and belief in abundance.
I disagreed with a chorus of lunatic squeals for Allegri to be dismissed last week, precisely because they were lunatic squeals. No real fan calls for the head of a manager who has won two doubles on the trot, four games into the season, when we have won 3 and drawn 1. And I am not going to ask for their song-sheet now.
The methods of Allegri will not change. We must accept the irritation which will continue to appear as this rotation policy churns players and formations every few days. This may well not end until Marchisio is back. It depends on how quickly Max feels the need for a settled first XI.
Perhaps more worryingly is that Allegri does not seem to know his best first XI. He does not even know where to play Pjanic. I am not suggesting he is devoid of ideas. More-so that he is tinkering with the players and their roles, trying to work out who fits best where. This may take some time.
Equally, we must understand that the options to change the midfield – where we very much lost the battle – were limited. He could and should have moved Pjanic back to the left of the central trio, brought on Lemina or Hernanes to add some physical presence in the middle. Once Perisic entered the game we were unlikely to see Cuadrado, even though Stephan appeared running out of steam. Other than which, we could only change our shape up top, which we did when Pjaca came on, and suddenly we looked a little more adventurous. Albeit late on, when Inter were tiring. Not enough to confirm that 4-3-3 would have made a huge difference from the start. Yet it might.
We now have two eminently winnable games to recover not just momentum but pride and form before our next European encounter. Inter deserve credit for the manner in which they played, for they were well organised and incredibly determined. However, a small but meaningful fact of the encounter is that despite the poor account of ourselves supplied on field, with one of the worst midfield performances I have seen for Juve since pre-Conte, we actually created 5 clear goal-scoring opportunities to the 4 of our opponents. It is fair to say that on the balance of chances created, we were unlucky to lose. Which is probably the only positive to come out of an otherwise dire display which I hope is not repeated until next pre-season.
I suspect that Rugani will be given some time in the coming two games, as will Cuadrado. With Benatia possibly injured as he pulled his abductor muscle in the derby, it is a great chance for the youngster to stake a claim. Only Bonucci of the BBC has been anywhere near impressive so far this campaign. Perhaps time is catching up with Barzagli. Chiellini has been hit and miss in turn, especially woeful for La Nazionale. This may well be the season when we move away from the triumvirate which has proven arguably the finest back-line on the planet for many years. All good things must at some stage come to an end. And with Benatia and Rugani in the squad, and the 3-5-2 presently bringing little joy, perhaps now is the time to try the flat back four. Cagliari and Palermo seem the perfect low risk occasions to roll such dice.
Another confirmation of our defence in disarray is that 3 of the 4 goals we have conceded have come from corners. This is something which needs to be addressed, with haste. The reasons are most likely linked to the changes in the squad and lack of cohesion and momentum which have come due to Max’s rotation policy. The defence functions at its best when playing with a settled side. For example, had Higuain been present, would he have been challenging Chiellini to thwart Icardi from the corner as did Mandzukic? I do not believe so.
This is not the end of the world. Yet it is proof in my own eyes that Allegri needs to find a settled first XI. It is plain ridiculous to feel the need to rest players aged 23 and 28 at this stage of the season. Once we have some momentum, an identity, then we can perhaps allow some of the mainstays of the side a rest now and then, but not 4/5 changes from game to game.
Still, despite my concerns, it worked for us last season and I remain convinced that this squad has staggering potential.
Sturaro will be back in contention for a run-out in the first team next week. Cuadrado and Rugani must be champing at the bit to make their season bow. Marchisio will return in October. Mandragora (our only natural DM) late November. And all being well, we can take Witsel in January.
Perhaps the loss last night will serve as a much needed wake-up call to not just the players but also the Boss. We win, draw and lose as a club.
Now is the time to stake stock of our situation. Yes, it has been an improved start on last year’s horror-show, but our form has been at best haphazard, our squad is not match sharp and we are nowhere near knowing our strongest starting XI. In too many ways this reads like pre-season.
A response to this forgettable showing is required. Beginning with Cagliari on Wednesday.