The opening day of Serie A brought together two rivals who had very different starts to last year’s campaign. This time around, Allegri would be looking to get out of the blocks quickly, and without certain big names or new recruits in the starting line-up. Higuain and Pjanic were left out, although Dani Alves made it in at right wing-back. The back-three plus Buffon remained unchanged from the usual defensive set-up, but ahead of them we saw Lemina, Asamoah and Khedira in the centre. Alex Sandro occupied the left, and Mandzukic started up-top with Dybala. Sousa couldn’t have expected a tougher game to begin the season with, and would go into the match with a familiar starting eleven. Tomovic, Rodriguez and Astori formed the defence, with Alonso and Bernardeshi wing-backs. Vecino and Badelj paired up in the holding roles in the centre, with a front three of Ilicic, Kalinic and young debutant Federico Chiesa on the left.
Juve dominate and control
With no new signings in the starting line-up, Sousa’s only surprise (and it was a big one) was the introduction of Chiesa in the eleven. Juve, on the other hand, had to try and replace Pogba in midfield, and as the match progressed it was clear that they had gone some way to doing that with Asamoah. Lemina could act at times as the ball player in midfield, not replacing Marchisio, but dropping into space around the middle in his own half, and Khedira occupied spaces on the right as well as surging through the middle as we will discuss later. Vecino and Badelj operated what appeared to be a similar mechanism to last season, with Vecino the more passing-orientated and Badelj maybe the more combative. However, Juve’s dominance in the first half meant that the transitional phases for Viola were basically non-existent – they couldn’t find a way out of their half. The energy of the Juve midfield in particular was an overriding feature when the ball came into the middle third. The defence was able to hold a high-line and Fiorentina spent periods of time pinned back. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world for Sousa’s side because they organised reasonably well to contain opposition attacks and not gets opened up, but they had absolutely no attack. Tatarusanu really didn’t help either, with his kicking being extremely poor, handing Juve back the opportunity to apply pressure on multiple occasions.
Last season, when Fiorentina played exceptionally well, they were fantastic at dictating the ball in their own half, with almost the double-pivot of Badelj and Vecino, they manipulated the play with quick passing and good movement – creating routes up the pitch. Right from the very kick-off this evening, they gave the ball away from the right, and Badelj had to bring down Asamoah on the edge of the area. It wasn’t a great start, and Viola never picked up any momentum or tempo from that point on. Tatarusanu chipped a horrible clearance straight to Khedira who should have scored, and Juve applied pressure in the away team’s half to compound Viola’s vulnerabilities early on. It was a common theme that a Juventus player would win the ball in the middle of the pitch with greater numbers and energy, and then Fiorentina would retreat to try and contain the attack. Then when/if they won the ball back, Juve were high-up and the purple shirt on the ball had no route to initiate an counter or to slow the tempo and retain possession. How could Sousa’s side had countered this? Options would perhaps have been to have a distinct out-ball on the wing – Bernardeschi for example, to try and run and also stretch the play. Another would be to hold a higher line as well, and force more of a battle around the centre-circle using Vecino and Badelj, allowing their front three to maintain a high position ready to receive a forward pass. Amongst all this, I think Fiorentina really missed Borja Valero, who would have been the equivalent of Asamoah with additional ball-playing qualities.
Alonso vs Alves
As we’ve said before, a lot of forward thinking from these two sides last season has come from wing-backs. Alonso was great at making overlapping runs and making his way into the space down the left last season, as was Lichtsteiner. Tonight, Alonso was up against Dani Alves, and there was a noticeable lack of forward movement down that wing – mainly because the battle between these two was quite attritional – they would attempt to pin each other back and contain them. If we look at the second-to-last two full league game Marco Alonso played in, it was against against Juventus in May, in which he was in the opposing half far more than his own. If anything, in that game he was more attacking than Lichtsteiner, and made 21 more passes than tonight. This demonstrates the pressure that Sousa’s side had to soak up, particularly in the first half, unable to really gain any headway down the flanks or have a link-up. That’s not to say Alonso didn’t play well, it was just symptomatic of the team’s shape and mentality. Dani Alves, on the other hand, managed to get forward on his flank, link-up well with Dybala on separate occasions, and surprisingly played the most amount of passes out of anyone on the pitch. On the opposite flank, Sandro basically mirrored Alves, but Bernardeschi (perhaps as you would expect) was all over the pitch, and Tomovic kind of covered. When Fiorentina were set and in shape, it wasn’t too much hassle for them, but as soon as they got stretched they could be exploited (below).
Aside from Alonso’s efforts, Fiorentina were largely reactive in defending their half, sitting back and letting their opponents move forward with the ball, which eventually compacted the space. Juve on the other hand were much more proactive in winning back possession and stopping Fiorentina making progress into their half, having someone engage the purple shirt on the ball straight away almost every time. Asamoah was a perfect example of this, he had a great game, as he chased back as well as covered a lot of space, just to ensure that Sousa’s side couldn’t settle and were rushed into decisions and passes. He also had effect in the final third, as we saw in the first half, where Tomovic just allowed him to drift into the box unfollowed and Chiellini slipped a pass through to him. In terms of Fiorentina’s attack, we saw one moment around the 17 minute mark, where Badelj picked up the ball off the defence and played a short pass to Chiesa in the middle of the pitch. Chiesa had a great touch to knock it round Lemina and open the game up a bit. Kalinic made a diagonal run towards the middle, but Chiesa’s through ball was overhit and that was the end of the chance. Later in the half Chiesa linked up well on the edge of the area with Bernardeschi, but couldn’t wriggle through on goal. As a Viola fan, you would have hoped to have seen Bernardeshi do this more, opening up space to create chances, but he was restricted to just a couple of chances to break in the second half. Last season Fiorentina relied a lot on clever movement and interchanges between players in the opposition half – Ilicic/Kalinic/Valero/Bernardeschi etc, but as we saw at times when they don’t get this going, it can be very difficult to have any meaningful goal threat. Juve punished them for this by not allowing the ball to stick in their half and applying constant pressure, plus a high-line.
For all Juve’s positional dominance in the first half, the breakthrough came after 37 minutes, through Khedira. The home side’s spell of possession came from a goal-kick that Tatarusanu put straight out of play. Asamoah played it down the left to an area that Bernardeschi was half covering, the ball came back to Asamoah who played it into Dybala as he dropped off the defender. When he layed it off to Chiellini, the Juve defender had plenty of space to whip the cross in straight into Khedira’s run to head home. It was slightly predictable, and lazy from Fiorentina, as the German was able to run through on goal and power the header in. Chiesa was most at fault, as he just left the goalscorer, without tracking him into the box at all, and Rodriguez wasn’t particularly switched on as he was covering the front space and watching the ball, unaware of anyone running in behind. They got caught out from a simple ‘late’ run into the box by a midfield, with men to spare in the area. Juve had another decent chance at the end of the half, as a sloppy clearance fell to Lemina in space, who passed it into Mandzukic’s feet on the edge of the box, back to goal. The Croatian turned and was able to play in Sandro bursting in down the left, who touched it into the box and shot over from an angle. The chance came about with the defence being set on Mandzukic, but then Bernardeschi not there covering Sandro (being quite narrow, allowing Sandro to just run down the outside). It was situations like this that kind of negated there being much point in trying to play Bernardeschi in any kind of defensive role – if he wasn’t there, the defence was too narrow to cope.
A change was needed for Sousa, and one came in the form of Tello who was introduced for Chiesa. The idea, presumably was to add some more direct running as an outlet and a route down the channel to the final third. Bernardeshi played more central. There was a notable effort from Fiorentina to press more into Juve’s half after the break, and were generally better off the ball. However they still looked static and devoid of many options in possession as the half got underway. Juve set up well to cut off passing lanes and cover space efficiently when they needed to in defence. Sousa’s side finally got some opportunity to break and work through the middle. Chiellini’s poor touch allowed Bernardeschi to play a one-two with Badelj and set up a run through the middle of the pitch, but it came to nothing as Kalinic didn’t have the pace to quite get onto the end of the Italian’s through ball, with Chiellini coming across. Minutes later, Bernardeschi had another chance to break, this time on the left, but as he cut in he slowed up and was eventually caught by Juve’s midfield as they caught up with play. It was a period of the game, around 60 minutes, that Juve really tried to hold their defensive line on the halfway-line, and almost knowingly risked being countered when they gave the ball away. Bernardeschi ran on to a long ball down the left once more minutes later, but again couldn’t get a pass in before he was tackled. It became a bit of a routine of Juve understanding that there was a chance of allowing a counter, but knowing that Fiorentina’s men were pinned back so much that they wouldn’t be able to get forward in numbers – thus the counter-attackers became isolated and Juve could win the ball back. This would have become slightly mentally draining for Sousa’s team if it continued.
Major substitutions occurred at this point, with Carlos Sanchez being brought on for the away side and Higuain for the hosts. Sanchez went some way to providing the required energy in midfield, and Fiorentina, despite still lacking pace in the build-up and taking too long to switch the play, looked for another gear. On 66 minutes, Viola had a bit of a spell on the ball inside Juve’s half, and they moved it around reasonably well – notably because of the men they had forward who were able to move in and out of space to provide options. Juve were narrow at times and, like we discussed before, if Fiorentina had looked to quickly switch play then they might have benefited. Their play was kind of summed up when Sanchez kicked the ball out of play carelessly to relinquish possession. Despite this, there was a glimmer of hope for the away side as they had a period of possession and pass-and-move beforehand, albeit without too much penetration. There was one noticeable moment where Tello got isolated one-on-one with the left-back, but he chose to cut inside and it came to nothing. A couple of minutes later, Tello did get in behind Sandro to the byline, as a result of a quick long switch of play from Sanchez, but his low cross was cut-out by Bonucci. It highlighted the necessity of pace and width in Fiorentina’s attack. Alonso was closed off on the left, but they shifted it quickly and Tello got his chance on the opposite flank.
Fiorentina’s equaliser came at this point, where you would say that Juve perhaps took their foot of the pedal a bit and allowed the away side some reprieve. Whether Allegri’s side were suffering a bit mentally or physically was hard to tell, but the goal came from a corner. The ball was whipped in perfectly to the back post area by Ilicic, and Kalinic was there to jump above Sandro and power the header home. Sandro’s efforts to stop Kalinic were perhaps lacklustre, as the striker made a quick movement to pull away slightly from his marker, and Sandro was left leaning back and unable to attack the ball in the air. The question also may be asked as to why Sandro was marking Kalinic, and not someone more proficient in the air. Either way, Viola were level with their first shot on target, Kalinic had his first goal since the teams last met, and Juve needed a response. After a brief break in play with an injury to Tomovic, and loss of momentum, Higuain popped up to convert the chance he was waiting for. The ball came along the ground from the left to Asamoah, in behind Tomovic who had let him drift in behind (he’d only just come back on to the pitch), and Asamoah could turn to play the ball into the area. His short pass was, I think, meant for Higuain running by, but instead it went straight through to Khedira who was able to wander in to the box and shot from the penalty spot after taking a touch. His shot was blocked but it eventually fell to Higuain on the rebound who tapped it home despite attempts to block on the line.
From my point of view, the crucial aspect of this goal is the role of Marcos Alonso and Bernarschi. I shall refer up to my picture earlier of Alonso pressing Alves right up to the halfway-line and thus being out of position when Juve attack, leaving two men at the left-back area free. That time it came to nothing. This time it didn’t. Khedira continued his run and Asamoah’s ball found him, before Alonso or Bernardeschi were able to get back goal-side. In short, Khedira had so much time and space coming into the box because Bernardeschi was lazy and didn’t track back enough, and Alonso had pushed so far up on Alves that he didn’t get back in time to defend and left him exposed. If one of them makes a mistake and is out of position then maybe they get away with it, but when they both abandon the space it ends up in a goal.
After Higuain’s goal, Sousa took off Ilicic and put on Rossi up top. However, Juve still created chances, with Khedira again involved to put in a nice cross, but Higuain stretching just out of reach in the middle. Again we Viola had this problem of Alonso getting caught high up the pitch, Astori had to cover Khedira but also had to watch the space further inside because Lemina was running at him with the ball. Leaving Khedira to face up Lemina meant that Khedira found the space to receive the pass and have time to whip in a cross. This is where you could see Fiorentina suffering with their defensive approach – the full-back areas get exposed when their opponents break on them and stretch the game. It sounds like a common potential problem for a 3-5-whatever formation, but Fiorentina seem to exacerbate it with Alonso’s pressing and Bernardeschi’s indiscipline/defensive inexperience. When they hold a high back-three line, it can put them in trouble more than it should if they don’t get men around the ball quickly. Its something that Juve do very well, having their centre-backs covering wide as well as getting midfielders (usually Khedira/Asamoah) back to crowd out the space.
Dybala moved out to the right more in the second half, and was eventually subbed off for Evra. Lemina had a decent volley from the edge of the box that was pushed around the post, allowed a worry area of space from the away side’s point of view. The defensive set-up from the resulting corner was also quite strange. They operated what seemed to be a zonal marking style, but there were three Juve men running in around the penalty spot, and had the ball reached them there would have been no Fiorentina player able to get near it. They were sort of in an ‘L’ shape, with Vecino sort of in the near post area at the corner of the six-yard box, and Bernardeschi a few yards to his right. The ball was more than likely to go over their head, and that leaves Bonucci, Barzagli and Sandro free to attack anything near the penalty spot. It may be well rehearsed, and the defence could run out quickly, but it looked risky and counter-intuitive to the point of marking an area.
Juve dropped off a bit with 5 minutes to go, and it could have been a slightly risky move after what happened for the equaliser. Fiorentina pushed forward to try and break through their opponent’s structured defence. Tello received the ball out wide on the right and got to the byline twice in quick succession and managed to pull it back to Vecino, who fired first-time over the bar. Asamoah tried to take advantage of Fiorentina’s slightly more attacking mood by running down the left, only for Vecino to come across well and block off the route of attack. There was still time for Tomovic to get booked and Barzagli to win a header inside his area, but the game drew to a close with Juve taking the points. Sousa will be slightly disappointed with the first half, and will re-assess his attacking options for the upcoming games against Chievo and Genoa. To pick out some areas to highlight from tonight – the vulnerabilities down the wing-back areas show when the opposition break, that’s when they are most exposed. The lack of ball retention and ability to work the ball in to threatening areas was concerning, but their use of width (quick switching of play) is useful/necessary going forward – Tello helped when he came on. From Allegri’s point of view, it was an easier game than their last encounter with Fiorentina, but they performed well and will be happy to get the opener out of the way. Asamoah was brilliant. Dani Alves did quite well also, having a good battle with Alonso and linking up pretty well. Higuain got his goal and didn’t get too much of an opportunity to moan at his team mates. Not an end-to-end game, but an interesting one to being the campaign with nonetheless.
* * *
Juventus 2-1 Fiorentina
(Khedira 37′, Higuain 75′; Kalinic 70′)