While Juventus finally bounced back after the break, mostly thanks to the returns from injury, the unnecessarily nerve-wracking final minutes of the Maccabi Haifa game dismissed the notion that the team has turned the corner in a somewhat definitive way. When most of the top contributors are there, the squad can measure up against anybody. On the other hand, the opposite is also true because, if the mentality isn’t the right one, they can be outplayed by any adversary with more intensity and tenacity. In that regard, they can’t flip the switch or pull the plug too early because they don’t have many certainties to lean on, and the coach has to avoid moves that suggest matches have been sealed.
The first two fixtures of the new chapter of the season weren’t super challenging, and the Milan clash will be more telling and potentially a key turning point. Even though the Rossoneri are depleted, they are still reigning champions, and a win would do wonders in terms of self-esteem. Considering that the poor attitude and the psychological frailty have been two of the main flaws thus far, taking home the three points could easily generate positive momentum that lasts for a few weeks. The first element shouldn’t be a problem considering the magnitude of the contests, and the Bianconeri have generally been competitive, or at least not flat-out awful, in crunch matches, even in their worst stretches. Instead, the second one remains to be seen, as the environment will be heated and the tilt obviously arduous, despite some favorable factors.
With Angel Di Maria finishing up his suspension Saturday, the primary tactical conundrum is postponed to the next game. Massimiliano Allegri seems fine with just changing the scheme every time, depending on whoever is available and 100 percent, and that’s risky. Formations can grow and prosper to their fullest only through continuity, as the players get increasingly comfortable and get to know each other’s tendencies in their respective positions. That can’t happen if they don’t have a fixed role. On the other hand, it’s not easy to find a solution that features all the top attackers together. It exists, but it’s dubious whether the Bianconeri can afford to play with a lighter midfield and a host of offensive players on the pitch together without conceding too much.
While that’s a matter for another day, one of the main takeaways of the last two successful fixtures is that the Old Lady should definitely try to play with pace and space as much as possible. There will be opponents that just park the bus, but that won’t be the norm. The opportunities to counter have to be exploited rather than constantly relying on a plodding rhythm and convoluted actions that generally end with an imprecise cross from the flanks. It’s just a minor adjustment that has no drawbacks. Given the quality of the forwards and their natural proclivity for such part of the game, it’s not even necessary to attack en masse and affect the overall balance. Turning up the volume and uncorking more through passes or long balls would suffice.
The best possible lineups would probably be a 3-5-2 if Arkadiusz Milik is fully ready to go and a 4-3-3 if he isn’t. So naturally, the latest reports indicate that the choice will be a 4-4-2, with either Leandro Paredes or Manuel Locatelli initially on the bench and Juan Cuadrado or Weston McKennie, who’s in a groove, manning the right flank.
4-4-2: Szczesny; Danilo, Bremer, Bonucci, Alex Sandro; Cuadrado, Locatelli, Rabiot, Kostic; Milik, Vlahovic.
Di Maria (suspension), Pogba (meniscus tear), Chiesa (ACL tear), De Sciglio (thigh strain), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear), Aké (malleolus fracture).
Facing Milan will never be a walk in the park, but there are worst moments to do it since they are currently ravaged by injuries. While they have been able to survive that in Serie A, collecting a pair of gritty wins, they reached the breaking point versus Chelsea, as they hadn’t been that submissive in years. They lost once in Serie A as well, versus Napoli, but that had more to do with the quality of the opponents than with their own problems.
Things will get a little better for them as Theo Hernandez will return from a thigh strain, although Fode Ballo-Touré has been the backup thrust into the lineup that has fared better. Still, there’s obviously a gulf between the two, and the left flank, which is already their main source of offense thanks to the pure dominance of Rafael Leao, will be even more potent with the Frenchman. But the issues remain elsewhere, as Mike Maignan and Davide Calabria are out with muscular problems, and Alexis Saelemaekers with a knee one. Ciprian Tatarusanu has been okay and avoided blunders so far, he always seems on the verge of making one.
Instead, the right flank has been a massive headache. Sergino Dest has been awful in his first few showings and might not be good enough defensively to play as right-back for Serie A standards. They have the option of moving Pierre Kalulu there, but with Simon Kjaer hurt as well, they would have to use Matteo Gabbia centrally rather than another starting-caliber center-back. It might be less treacherousbecause the Barcelona loanee has been a liability, while the Italian youngster isn’t great but generally doesn’t make messes. Having Saelemaekers would have helped them defensively as well, given his work rate, while Junior Messias isn’t as proficient in that area, and Rade Krunic is adapting in a pinch and not well-versed in the specifics of the position.
They are paying the price for a summer window that has been busy but hasn’t paid immediate dividends yet. It starts at the top because Charles De Ketelaere quickly faded after a strong start. His struggles have been a little overblown, but that’s normal, given the price tag and the hype. Despite the lack of raw numbers, he has been very involved in their offense, and his playmaking chops are evident. On the other hand, they probably hoped he would be more impactful in the box, considering his production at Club Brugge. But the attention to detail and physicality of Serie A defenders have often engulfed it. His tendency has been to shy away from crowded spots and to be content with setting up teammates rather than fighting in the trenches. But he’ll probably get there once he builds up some nerve and muscles.
Other newcomers like Malick Thiaw and Aster Vranckx have been non-entities, which has shortened the rotations in their respective roles, plus Divock Origi has spent more time in the infirmary than on the pitch. They need him because Olivier Giroud can’t go to distance in every game, and they have already put a lot more mileage on him than likely envisioned. The error was to give a big role to a player so unreliable from the injury standpoint.
Despite all the difficulties they have endured, they are right in the thick of the title race and fully positioned to advance in the Champions League. Just what has been quite clearly the best team in Serie A so far has been able to best them, and that bout was very tight. Leao had already become a star in the final two months of last season, and everything clicked for him once he began looking for his teammates more. His assist tally has been through the roof, and that is keeping defenders on their toes because they are constantly guessing about what he’s going to do, while beforehand, he mostly used to seek his patented curled shot. There’s no way to stop him, at best, you can try to contain him, and it’s advisable to load up that side of the pitch. Rather than send a ton of help his way, the better idea might be to cut off the other Milan players that are nearby when he has the ball, hoping he gets stubborn and tries to do things on his own. Given how he dances between multiple opponents, it becomes all too easy for him to find the open man.
While the attack has been humming, thanks to the dishes of the Portuguese star and the clutchness of Olivier Giroud, their defense hadn’t been at stellar levels even before some of its key members started to go down. Fikayo Tomori has been imperfect, which is odd given his progression last season, and Kalulu has actually been the one carrying the department. Combining that with a backup goalie and at least another reserve in the XI, they have trouble when challenged. The posture should be more aggressive than the standard cautious one Juventus use in big games.
It doesn’t look like Messias will be back from a small calf issue, so Stefano Pioli will once again have to scramble to come up with a solution for the right flank, where they won’t have their top two options. He has deployed Rade Krunic as a tactical weapon in the past two matches, and the results have been mixed, to be kind. The alternatives could be to adapt either Dest, which would be better than using him in the back, or Ante Rebic, although the lineup would be extra offensive. A switch to 3-5-2, with either Krunic, Brahim Diaz, or Tommaso Pobega completing the midfield, isn’t a far-fetched proposition. The Spaniard could unseat De Ketelaere in their standard scheme too.
4-2-3-1: Tatarusanu; Kalulu, Gabbia, Tomori, Hernandez; Bennacer, Tonali; Krunic, Diaz, Leao; Giroud.
Ibrahimovic (ACL tear), Florenzi (thigh tendon rupture), Maignan, Kjaer, Calabria (thigh strains), Saelemaekers (knee sprain), Messias (calf pull).