Cristiano Ronaldo’s late show papered over another terrible performance

It was a display that would’ve had Andrea Agnelli frantically dialling Massimiliano Allegri’s mobile, Pavel Nedved ready to boot an advertising board or two and worthy of giving Andrea Pirlo the sack. But, it was a result that offered salvation, perhaps a new lease of life for the rookie boss and celebrated the Bianconeri’s inherent resolve.

Juventus‘ 2-1 triumph over Udinese thanks to a late Cristiano Ronaldo brace may prove pivotal in their bid to secure a requisite top-four finish, but one that also succinctly depicted Juve’s incompetence.

Another systematic alteration

Pirlo’s somewhat evolved into a tinkerman amid Juve’s indifferent run of form since the end of February, with subtle tweaks to his favoured 4-4-2 system becoming commonplace with each passing week.

After utilising an asymmetrical iteration of the formation for much of the season – one that started to manifest its flaws at the start of Juve’s recent decline – Pirlo adopted a more traditional 4-4-2 for imperative victories over Napoli and Genoa. The alteration facilitated fluidity and aided their positional play down the flanks. 

A return to the dreaded asymmetry failed to pay off against Atalanta and Fiorentina, leaving Pirlo with little choice to return to the system that prevailed in the aforementioned triumphs. However, on this occasion, the switch proved trivial.

Juve’s penetrative struggles

While the balanced functions of full-backs Danilo and Alex Sandro ensured Juve’s positional play was once again harmonious down both flanks, the Bianconeri were distinctly bereft of penetration against a well-drilled 5-3-1-1 Udinese block.

The wily Zebrette have already taken points off Milan, Inter, Lazio and Atalanta this term, and looked destined to add Juventus to their list of scalps this term for the opening 80 minutes of the bout.

Juve’s primary issue lied in their staticity. Rotations and interchanges, crucial in manipulating and disorientating a deep block, were rare. Paulo Dybala was ubiquitous in the right-half space between Udinese’s compact lines, both wingers held the width, while Cristiano Ronaldo frivolously floated across the final third, rarely looking to dart in behind and occasionally rotating with the inept Federico Bernardeschi on the left flank.

It was only Weston McKennie who excelled without the ball. The American’s a superb space interpreter and his excellence in this regard was on full display in the opening period. Utilised in the double pivot, McKennie frequently gained positional superiority over Udinese’s midfield three between the lines – typically in the left half-space.

McKennie’s positioning forced centre-back Rodrigo Becao to step out of the defensive line. The aggressiveness of the hosts’ exterior centre-backs has been distinct this season, especially in the stalemate with Inter in which a concerted effort was made to nullify Nicolo Barella. Nevertheless, Becao’s aggression unbalanced the stringent Udinese backline as a gaping void appeared in the Brazilian’s absence.

Juve, however, through Ronaldo’s lack of desire and Dybala’s insistence on operating in one zone and one zone only failed to exploit such space.

Regarding an attacking plan, it was hard to see what Juve and Pirlo were trying to achieve. Udinese defended the wide areas astutely, forcing Juve to penetrate through the congested centre. As personnel alterations were made in the second period, the Bianconeri’s configuration proved incredibly tough to depict.

It was disjointed and lacking harmony but somehow, someway, they were able to turn it around.

Pirlo’s relief

Emotion is a psychological construct that you’d hardly associate with Andrea Pirlo. Typically entrenched in tranquillity, Ronaldo’s late header totally altered the suave Italian’s archetypal behaviour.

Simone Scuffet had handed him a get out of jail free card. Pirlo has shown promise and naivety this season, but Sunday afternoon was one of his poorer coaching performances, no doubt.

His trust in Rodrigo Bentancur as the lynchpin in Juve’s build-up continues to bewilder, with Arthur Melo seemingly cast aside following his costly error in the Benevento defeat and breaking of COVID-19 restrictions. Juve’s build-up was shoddy when Udinese sought to win the ball high, with Bentancur’s flaws in this regard so obvious. His body orientation when receiving is usually erroneous, while he lacks the requisite technical security to function as the metronome.

Overall, Juve’s build-up was inefficient, solutions escaped them in the final third – eventually being bailed out by a penalty and a fine Adrien Rabiot cross – and their press, a protagonist amid their stellar start to 2021, has evolved into a tepid attempt to win possession back in the opposition’s third. Collectively, this culminates in a lack of control over proceedings.

While the inconsistency of players has undoubtedly played a part in Juve’s demise this term, the Bianconeri’s recent indifference has starkly depicted coaching and systematic issues. Sunday’s display was a microcosm of such woes.

So, while some may view Ronaldo as Pirlo’s saviour, there’s a sense that the forward’s clutch gene may well have delayed the Juve boss’ inevitable departure. A top-four finish may not be enough to save his soul.