Juventus went into the game looking to continue the run of form they were enjoying, against their rivals Fiorentina, who themselves had shown us some of the best football in Serie A this season. The home side lined-up with a familiar three at the back, with Evra and Cuadrado deployed as wing-backs. Khedira came into midfield alongside Marchisio and Pogba, with Dybala and Mandzukic up top. Fiorentina had a similar looking back three, with Bernardeschi and Alonso occupying the wings. They effectively had an extra man in midfield with Vecino and Badelj holding in the centre, but then Valero and Ilicic also deployed around that area, with more license to go forward to link with Kalinic.
The game started at an incredible tempo, pushed by Juventus’ obvious desire to hunt down the ball in Fiorentina’s third. We knew that Sousa’s team would try and keep the ball in their half and attempt to dominate possession, but Allegri’s trick was clearly to disrupt this from the start and put immense pressure on the opponent’s defence and midfield on the ball. This instantly left gaps in midfield and into Juve’s half where they looked to push up, as they almost dared Fiorentina to try to play through them and take advantage. It backfired when the away side won a penalty just minutes into the game, as Bernardeschi charged into the penalty area and went down after claiming contact from Chiellini. Replays suggested light contact, if any, and it appeared that the Viola winger had gone down dramatically to steal his team an advantage early on. Either way, the penalty was converted well by Ilicic – hard to the keeper’s left.
The electrifying intensity to the game continued, mostly through Juve’s pressure and willingness to challenge their opponent’s philosophy and intent to keep the ball in their half to control the tempo. Allegri was effectively challenging Fiorentina to play their usual game, and to their credit the away side stuck to their guns. They backed their technical ability in players like Vecino, Badelj and Valero to play the ball around, use width and direct play at their own volition. An early feature of Juve’s play was Pogba’s willingness to go forward and drift out to the left, combining with Evra, which in turn lead to the equaliser after just another couple of minutes. Pogba released Evra from a nice back flick and Bernardeschi lazily letting him get towards the byline and cross the ball unopposed. Cuadrado met the cross with his head and (possibly unintentionally) looped it back over Tatarusanu into the far corner of the goal. You could see Sousa shaking his head on the touchline as the goal went in, most likely partially because of the ease that Evra could get the cross in and partially because of how easily Cuadrado has walked in at the back of the box to header at goal unopposed. It was a bit of a nothing goal to concede after taking the lead so early.
Both teams were still at high tempo and urgency somewhat after the second goal, with Juventus still pressing high-up the pitch, particularly Mandzukic who charged at the goalkeeper and defenders on multiple occasions. Pogba continued to go forward and looked to act as a number 10 at times, linking the play and also sticking to his midfield duties. Tomovic was forced to play it long a couple of times, where his team would then lose possession, albeit winning it back in midfield. Borja Valero was covering ground through the middle, running back to help offer himself as an extra body to keep possession, and then trying to move the play up the pitch when necessary. He, along with Ilicic, became Viola’s main men on the counter, as those two were generally the ones that the ball went through on its route to goal through the centre of the pitch – and they did a good job in the first half of keeping this fluidity and transition in attacks. Juve could identify the danger of their opponents on the ball, and Chiellini wasn’t averse to literally running out of his defensive line to engage the ball when Ilicic gathered it (pic below). He probably didn’t do this just because he was getting bored standing next to Bonucci. Bernardeschi saw Chiellini become fixed on Ilicic and looked to run into his space, but Ilicic gave the ball back to Tomovic in favour of keeping possession instead of facing up Chiellini.
Fiorentina also used the width of the pitch pretty well to keep possession and buy themselves more time on the ball, although they rarely used it as an area in which to penetrate the Juve defence. Alonso sometimes pushed up high on the left to pressure the man on the ball, but didn’t show much adventure compared to Cuadrado for example, who was trying to run down the right – won a dangerous free-kick and looked to trouble the defence on a couple of occasions. Bernardeschi was probably a more accurate counterpart to Cuadrado, and played the role of traditional winger more appropriately, whilst also cutting inside from the right and demonstrating confidence and ability on the ball. Neither side really used crossing overly effectively, but it was virtually non-existent in Fiorentina’s play (pic below). They looked to work the ball through the middle and relied often on players moving in and out of central areas to create space, rather than feeding the ball down the channels or looking to get to the byline. Conversely, Mandzukic and Dybala did get into wide areas, and as we saw within the first 10 minutes of the match, Evra and Pogba caused trouble down the left toward the byline. You can’t really say it was an area lacking that cost them the game, but it was a dimension that could have been exploited for Viola if they wanted to break through more effectively.
The contrast between the attacking players on both teams was interesting, especially in the opening 45 minutes, as they looked to try and open up the defences and work through the lines. The most revealing phase of play is when space opens in central midfield, and the ball is turned over. When this counter-attack opportunity is initiated, Valero and Ilicic often come deep to search out the ball and drive the team forward. Bernardeschi will offer width, but also roam around to try and provide an option. The two holding midfielders can lurk inside their own half and be there ready to receive any passes if the opportunity breaks down and they decide instead to just retain possession. Tomovic also provides this link at times too. For Juve, Dybala is often the one that picks up the ball around the halfway line to start the counter-attack moving into dangerous areas, with the support of Cuadrado out wide if he can make up the ground, sometimes Pogba powering through, and Mandzukic ahead. Their build-up is often more based on running – usually Dybala – on the ball to cut open the defence and move them around, whereas Fiorentina’s is more measured and reliant upon clever movement and good anticipation, sometimes with a spontaneous change in tempo from Bernardeschi. This makes the connection between Ilicic, Kalinic, Valero etc much more impressive and central to Viola’s play this season, because the link-up is crucial in converting their dominating possession into meaningful attacks. Dybala has been equally impressive for Juventus, with all the talk of him needing to step into Tevez’s shoes, he has actually demonstrated that he can orchestrate the change in pace of the transitions similar to how Carlos did so effectively. The link-up with Mandzukic that Tevez had with Llorente at times isn’t quite there yet, but Dybala’s success in injecting forward momentum into Juve’s attacks at times is key in bringing others into play and opening up a route to goal.
The second half took on an increasingly relaxed tempo, without becoming stale, but with neither team particularly successful at breaking through. Pogba continued to show his willingness to ‘get involved’ and gave away the ball a couple of times, then proceeded to chase it down. He irritated referee Orsato, who had a difficult game to manage as it was, and showed glimpses of petulance but desire and determination to win the game. Fiorentina’s midfield were trying to dictate the tempo and retain the ball, pretty successfully. They are aided by the ability of Vecino and Badelj to tidy up loose balls and ‘clean up the play’ by redistributing the ball to less congested areas of the pitch after making sure their team retains possession. They are one of the best partnerships in Serie A at doing this role, amongst other facets, this season. However, Juve never really seemed agitated or desperate to overcommit for the winning goal. They weren’t worn down by Sousa’s side’s relentless attempts to manipulate the ball to their own rhythm. Juve’s patience seemed to pay off, as eventually they managed to threaten the opposition’s goal for a period of play before the 60 minute mark, unlike Viola who struggled to involve Kalinic in the game in the second half. Mandzukic had a good chance to take the lead with a header from Dybala’s free-kick, but missed the target. The Argentinian striker himself had an opportunity with a first-time shot from Evra’s cut-back that just missed the near post. By this point, both teams seemed to be getting slightly frustrated by Orsato’s persistence in stopping the game and giving free-kicks. He booked Vecino and Mandzukic for a tussle off the ball, blowing up mid-game. Valero was slightly lucky not to be on a final warning after getting booked and pushing his luck with fouls and an overblown reaction.
At this point in time, it was starting to get surprising that neither coach had made a meaningful sub to try and affect the game. Sturaro had come on for Khedira, who was probably still getting back to fitness and was always going to struggle to play more than 60 minutes. Sandro had also come on for Evra in which seemed a straight swap as Evra had stopped making marauding runs forward recently. Both defences appeared to be coping quite well. Rodriguez was helping Alonso by coming across when necessary to deal with the threat of Pogba. However, then came the major breakthrough – Juve’s second goal on 80 mins. Orsato to his credit played a decent advantage, Pogba came driving through midfield and put a sweet ball through into Dybala’s path, who poked it at an onrushing Tatarusanu. It fell to Mandzukic on the rebound who knocked it in. A lot of credit has to go to the Croatian who could have ambled around the halfway-line or eased off his run at the edge of the box, but he followed it into the area and got his reward when the ball came off the keeper and he was there to pounce. The problem for Fiorentina came when Astori dived in on Mandzukic on the halfway-line, but didn’t get the ball, then he was out of position and Pogba was quick enough to play the ball into his space where Dybala had run. Badelj couldn’t get back fast enough to effect Pogba, and Vecino wasn’t jogging back particularly quickly, but probably wouldn’t have been able to get back onto Dybala in time to cover for his mate Astori anyway.
Then the subs came – questionably late it seemed, although you can see why Sousa didn’t really want to effect the balance of his team too much up to this point. Pasqual replaced Alonso in a straight swap, Matias came on for Ilicic, and Rossi for Vecino. Allegri also replaced Mandzukic with Morata. They had 5 minutes to change the game. Even after this, Viola struggled to create chances, Bonucci intercepting well on one occasion to deny a pass reaching Kalinic. Then the killer blow came and Juve ensured the 3 points through Dybala’s goal in injury time. It came from a simple long ball over the top, into Astori’s territory. It went over the Fiorentina defender’s head as he ran back towards goal and stuck a leg at it, missing the ball under pressure from Cuadrado’s run alongside him. Dybala raced onto the loose ball, knocked it around Tomovic and then slotted it into the net. The game was most likely already won, but it sealed the points for Allegri and put a dampner on Astori’s evening – as the goal really had to be put down as an individual error by the Italian defender.
In general, Sousa will be relatively happy with the performance of his side, as they matched the champions for the majority of the game. They played the way they set out to, controlled the ball well, and demonstrated the technical passing and interplay which set them apart from other sides in Serie A so far this season. However negatives could be drawn from the lack of chances Fiorentina managed to create in the second half, and the lack of penetration they enforced at certain stages of the game. Juve will be pleased to continue their great form and title chase, coming through what was probably their biggest test so far, and great indicator of their temperament and confidence. Dybala and Pogba were again notable performers. Both sides, in their own way, proved their title credentials in this match, and the managers can look forward to slightly easier fixtures on paper next Sunday.