It’s nice to know that the horseshoe hasn’t abandoned Juventus during the break. The late surge was decent enough to merit a goal, even if it came in a fortuitous fashion. The Bianconeri have been far from spectacular, but it’s always hard to put together a lengthy winning streak, no matter the style or the circumstances. The strong results have built self-confidence, and the squad tends to gain steam as the match progresses. There’s a palpable feeling that, if it survives the first waves of offense by the opponents, which it allows almost by design, it will eventually find a way to score.
The gambit works out if the defense wobbles but holds up; otherwise, it’s hard to imagine staging a comeback if they go down in the score given the slow pace and unimaginative offensive strategy. That puts a lot of pressure on the rearguard, especially in the first half. Wojciech Szczesny, Gleison Bremer, and Danilo have been in majestic form for months, but surely they wouldn’t mind if the game plan conceived more possession and territorial control. The former Torino star is fatigued, and it’d be a devastating blow and a major challenge if he couldn’t start, because he has often taken the chestnuts out of the fire with his heroics.
Now that there are no doubts about the scheme, the next step is to adapt players to it, not the other way around. Federico Chiesa has looked good out wide in his cameos, and that might be enough for the management not to sign anybody in January, unless Juan Cuadrado’s injury is worse than reported. Even though the role comes with significant defensive tasks, and that’s a work in progress for him and Matias Soulé, it does give him plenty of room to cook on offense. Given his skillset, he’s more at ease there than bottled up going through the middle. Fellow youngster Samuel Iling-Junior is also a real asset on the other flank at this point.
Since the tongue turns to the aching tooth, the right wing-back position will be a pivotal choice in this game since he’ll have to face one of the best Udinese players, Destiny Udogie. Soulé occasionally struggled to contain the peppy Emanuele Valeri, and the prodigy is much more physical. There weren’t many alternatives since Massimiliano Allegri decided to rest Adrien Rabiot and go with a no.10, so Weston McKennie was required in the midfield. He might be the best option for his one unless Chiesa is ready for more minutes. While he matches up better, his focus would have to be on point, and that’s a lot to ask a player that is far from 100 percent and whose priority is to do damage on offense.
Inter halting Napoli’s run did everybody a favor, and Juventus’ resiliency with a depleted squad must be pretty scary for the other contenders. The gap is still too wide to consider the Scudetto a realistic goal, but improvements will be naturally forthcoming once key pieces return from injury. On the other hand, it risks being a ‘Waiting for Godot’ situation. Plus, it’s not always necessarily the boon it is on paper; when the emergency eases up, it’s natural to abandon that ‘hunker down’ mentality that allowed you to overcome it.
That’s a matter for another day since Angel Di Maria is the only one returning compared to the previous match. While there’s no telling in what shape he is, it’ll be a decent boost since the coach preferred keeping one striker on the bench against Cremonese just to have an offensive weapon to sub in later on. Fielding El Fideo in a supporting role with plenty of liberty to pick his spots and no burdens is an alluring proposition and would help keep the offense afloat until Dusan Vlahovic is back.
3-5-1-1: Szczesny; Danilo, Rugani, Alex Sandro; McKennie, Miretti, Locatelli, Rabiot, Kostic; Di Maria; Kean.
Absences: Vlahovic (sports hernia), Pogba (meniscus tear), Cuadrado (knee soreness), Bonucci (thigh tendon injury), De Sciglio (thigh strain), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear).
Udinese had a terrific start and even seemed to be in contention for a European berth for a minute as they assembled an early six-game winning streak. They relented afterward, picking up a ton of draws and taking a step back compared to the fabulous early showings. Still, they have lost just twice in the last few months, against Torino and Napoli, and three total in the season, considering the defeat versus Milan in the opener.
A few factors have caused the downturn. The simplest one is that opponents, initially blindsided by the amped-up aggression and rhythm brought by Andrea Sottil, eventually figured it out and applied countermeasures to contain them. They have also run out of juice a little, as their style is very demanding, and they aren’t terribly deep. In addition, some of their linchpins missed time with injuries down the stretch in 2022, weakening their XI.
They haven’t completely fallen off but simply taken a step back that doesn’t erase their first run. They aren’t distant, but it’ll be tough to compete for a top-seven finish since none of the usual suspects are reeling this season, but you never know. They’ll put up a fight if they come out of the break re-energized, and they are almost whole thanks to several returns.
Their new coach didn’t touch their 3-5-2 scheme but spruced it up. They stumbled their way into an excellent solution to replace Nahuel Molina since they parted ways with his heir apparent Brandon Soppy too. Rather than going with unproven or more defensive options, they adapted Roberto Pereyra to the right wing. He’s been great as a creator and held his own defensively, which was the biggest question mark. And the role isn’t at all constraining in the final third considering how much they rely on their wing-backs.
The move opened up a spot in the midfield, which has been brilliantly filled either by Sandi Lovric or Lazar Samardzic, who take turns serving as the most offensive-minded cog there. The latter is flashier and a better shooter but also a bit inconsistent, which is the norm for talented youngsters, while the former is steadier and a great link between the lines, on top of a skilled cutter. The duo easily makes up for Pereyra’s missing contribution centrally. The rock-solid Walace and either Jean-Victor Makengo or Tolgay Arslan, who are more workmanlike but do a lot in the more obscure areas, complete a well-assorted line. They might eventually get to the most technical composition, but they aren’t there yet.
Rodrigo Becao is back, which is key for them, as they have been defeated just once with him on the pitch. Enzo Ebosse is okay, but he’s not as sturdy, and he’s a hybrid between a center-back and a fullback. Instead, the Brazilian has turned into one of the best braccetti in Serie A. The pairing with Jaka Bijol, who’s a giant that adapted very quickly to Serie A, and Nehuen Perez gives them a tremendous rearguard that forces enemies to go the extra mile to score.
They won’t have their main creative hub, and arguably outright best player, Gerard Deulofeu in this one. However, Isaac Success is pretty good too. Even though he doesn’t score much, really hardly ever, he’s a big nuisance with his technique, big body, and dribbling skills, and he constantly opens up lanes for his teammates. Beto is a force when he has room and in the box, and even if he’s been adequately successful already, he has many levels to go to once he improves his first touch and rounds out his game.
Their efficacy is easy to understand considering the amount of weapons across the formation, which have been fully activated by higher pace, more possession, and pair of proactive adjustments. If they resume firing at all cylinders after the lull, it’ll be tough for anybody to top them, but they sometimes get stuck and become vulnerable if things don’t go their way early in the game and they are forced to defend more than they like.
3-5-2: Silvestri; Becao, Bijol, Perez; Pereyra, Lovric, Walace, Makengo, Udogie; Beto, Success.
Absences: Deulofeu (knee sprain).