Juventus had started to trend in the right direction with the win over Lazio, but few could have imagined it would be followed up by one of the best performances of the season and a rare wire-to-wire victory. Dusan Vlahovic looked like a million bucks, and the team is now more equipped to cater to him than at any point during his stay in Turin. The multiple bouts with injury, the uncertain nature of it, the fact that he seemingly spared himself for the World Cup, and the constant transfer market buzz had shifted the focus on him away from the pitch, and that was a big-boy response in trying times.
It’d be better to field Angel Di Maria and Federico Chiesa together, but having one of them come off the bench to reenergize the squad in the second half isn’t too shabby, either. The main priority is to keep them healthy for a few months in a row rather than necessarily deploying the formation with the most potent strike force at all times. It’s a treat and not a go-to solution for now. It’s frustrating, but their minutes need to be watchful because the downside of losing them again is too harmful.
Whether it was just a product of the skillset of his teammates or a better-concerted effort to feed Vlahovic, the game plan worked out brilliantly versus Salernitana. Each fixture is different, and the blunders of the Granata contributed a lot, but that was the best way to use the Serb. He needs to be able to move around, and that’s a no-problem when he’s the lone center-forward, space to attack the offside trap, and the Bianconeri’s generally low center of gravity helps with that, and decent velocity in the actions, as he’s quite apt in taking defenders on. That’s a work in progress, as Juventus rarely have the opportunity to counter during matches. Contrary to popular belief, he’s more of a high-usage guy than a clutch one, so he needs a lot of touches and attempts to deliver. It’s unlikely that his presence will contribute to shifting to a more proactive mentality overall, but it’d only benefit him and the other forwards.
As usual in the last couple of seasons, no game can be completely satisfying, and the result was partially marred by Fabio Miretti’s injury. It’s not the worst-case scenario for an ankle problem, but the reports suggest he’ll be out for a month. Nicolò Fagioli is a better player at this stage, but the team needs all its pieces to cope with the busy schedule. The journey in Europa League will be long and treacherous, and there are several worthy competitors, but it should be the top priority since it’s currently the only avenue to qualify for Champions League.
We are at the moment where Paul Pogba’s presence is actually required, but there’s still no telling when he’ll be ready. Even though he wasn’t great, not replacing Weston McKennie quickly turned out to be an error, as the midfield is very depleted now. The fact that the Bianconeri weren’t even able to bring back a player they actually own, Andrea Cambiaso, pretty much explains their weakness at the management level following the resignations and the sanctions. He’s very raw, but another body on the flanks would have solved some depth issues and allowed to move pieces around or tweak the scheme. He even played as a box-to-box in a pinch in the past.
The rumors about using the three-headed monster are louder than ever, but not with a full-fledged schematic change, but rather with an Atalanta-style 3-4-2-1. It would make sense since the midfield is very depleted, but the buzz has been there for a while, and then it never happened. 4-2-3-1 would serve a similar purpose.
Juventus XI: 3-4-2-1 Szczesny; Danilo, Bremer, Alex Sandro; De Sciglio, Locatelli, Rabiot, Kostic; Di Maria, Chiesa; Vlahovic.
Absences: Pogba (meniscus tear/muscle fatigue), Milik (thigh strain), Bonucci (thigh tendon injury), Miretti (ankle sprain), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear).
Fiorentina have had a bizarre season as they have been quite good in the cups; as a matter of fact, they made it to the Coppa Italia semifinals and advanced past the group stage in European Conference League, which isn’t a given, but highly seesawing, to be generous, in Serie A. They have struggled to juggle multiple competitions. In addition, key injuries and the fact that they are targeted by their own fans whenever something goes wrong didn’t help.
They have paid the price for those two factors lately too, as they haven’t won in four rounds, where they have been defeated by Roma, Torino, and Bologna in lackadaisical displays, while they held Lazio to a tie, which was a bit surprising given their trend. Who knows whether focusing on trying to win a trophy rather than on league play was a mandate by the brass, but they surely haven’t progressed as expected and as natural in the second season with Vincenzo Italiano at the helm. It’d be easy to argue that they have the best roster out of any team outside the top six, yet they are languishing in 13th position.
They play a high-intensity style, and it’s hard to sustain it with multiple matches per week. Their squad isn’t super deep, and its quality dips behind the starters. It’s very noticeable when their energy level isn’t where it’s supposed to be. They also lack high-end talent, so they need the choral play to pick up results, but they have basically had just one good run throughout the season.
Juventus might face the unprecedented situation of a team rotating multiple starters against them, as they will take on Braga a few days later, and that would be a boon. Nicolas Gonzalez’s extended injury woes almost drove him out of town, but he quickly re-established himself as their top star once he got healthy. He’s electric because he combines pace and dribbling skills with excellent touch and gravitas in the box, and he can finish in a variety of ways.
They have deployed the Argentine across the trident, even as a false-nine, because their other options have been lackluster. They have taken multiple stabs, but they haven’t found the guy that could really succeed Vlahovic. Luka Jovic and Arthur Cabral have had their moments, but neither has had a multi-game streak where they were real menaces. They can both score when put in ideal conditions, but they can’t make a play out of the blue and need the rest of the team to work well to deliver, and that doesn’t happen often. In addition, they have routinely dealt with physical problems, and it feels like the coach has yet to learn how to use them correctly.
They had a good stretch with 4-2-3-1 right before and after the World Cup break, but they went back to their customary 4-3-3 lately, which was odd. A midfield with Giacomo Bonaventura and Antonin Barak is tempting for its technique, but it just doesn’t work from the work-rate standpoint. Both are better in the hole and closer to the goal. Perhaps the gaffer didn’t want to constantly exclude one of their top players from the XI for tactical reasons, as the backups fit better but aren’t at the same level skill-wise, but he should go back to the other scheme and just alternate them. Sofyan Amrabat is also much more comfortable in a two-man midfield, which is his bread and butter, while he sometimes has trouble finding the right position in the other formation. The Czech is a late scratch, so they could walk back the recent tweak. They’ll be more gritty in general, which might be serendipitous given the type of game.
They can go in a number of directions offensively, and they added Josip Brekalo in January. They weren’t short on options for the left wing, as Christian Kouamé has been pretty good, and Riccardo Saponara is still going strong, but he should easily be their best one once he’s integrated. The signing will allow them to use Gonzalez on the right wing more frequently, where he can cut back and fire with his left foot. Jonathan Ikoné will never be the most prolific forward, but he was a pretty steady playmaker when they were short-handed, and he has seemingly been cast aside in January.
Their defensive numbers don’t look great due to a pair of early games where they gave up four goals, but they have been more reliable there than up front. Pietro Terracciano had a rare blunder versus Bologna, but he was well-deserving of winning the starting job over Pierluigi Gollini. Nikola Milenkovic is a stud, and Igor and Lucas Martinez are decent second bananas for their grit and muscularity, even though they haven’t fully made the leap just yet. Cristian Biraghi is one of the most productive fullbacks in the final third, and he’s no slouch in the back. They were probably hoping for a smoother transition for Dodo, who has shown promise when venturing forward but has been a liability at times.
Playing at the Stadium takes away some of the animosity of this rivalry game, and it’ll be interesting to see how much emphasis Fiorentina will actually put on it. In many games, it felt like they fully intended to be as bold, ball-dominant, and vivacious as in the past season, when they were a minor revelation, but also that they didn’t have the juice or the horses to pull it off, leading to weird and subpar performances.
Fiorentina XI: 4-3-3 Terracciano; Dodo, Milenkovic, Martinez Quarta, Biraghi; Bonaventura, Amrabat, Duncan; Gonzalez, Jovic, Kouamé.
Absences: Mandragora, Igor (suspension), Barak (stomach bug), Sottil (back surgery).