As Sunday night’s Derby d’Italia approached its final act, those watching on were well aware of the trump cards Massimiliano Allegri had up his sleeve.
The tinkering Juve boss had seen Plan A blow up in his face. The attempt to match up with Inter Milan’s 3-5-2, a system the Nerazzuri have mastered since Antonio Conte’s 2019 arrival, was typical of the master pragmatist, but it failed miserably.
An unstructured, disjointed and fearful opening period saw Inter seize total control of the contest. The Nerazzurri weren’t at their very best, but their flexible build-up, technical proficiency and superiority in the middle of the park and down the flanks allowed them to dominate. The champions were a level above the Old Lady, but chances came at a premium for Serie A’s most potent attack.
Thus, Inter merely led 1-0 by the time Allegri had made his imperative systematic alteration. Juventus went back to basics: 4-4-2.
Suddenly, the Bianconeri appeared functional again. Organised and competent after a toothless first half. A foundation had been laid for a come back in the second period, although Inter were set in their ever-deepening 5-3-2 block.
But then came the trump cards.
Many thought the arrival of Federico Chiesa would prove to be the turning point. Surprisingly left out of Allegri’s starting XI, the stage was set for Chiesa – Mr Showtime – to put the Bianconeri on his back and salvage the Bianconeri. But it wasn’t the Italian who galvanised Juventus at the San Siro. Instead, it was the returning Paulo Dybala who proved why he should still be regarded as the Old Lady’s frontman in the post-Cristiano world.
While Chiesa offered thrust and guile from the right, Dybala – brought on with Chiesa in the 65th minute – added a distinct poise and serenity to Juve’s possession play. The Argentine sought to influence proceedings from various zones, and he played with a swagger that helped shift the momentum in Juve’s favour despite Inter’s stubbornness at the back.
However, for all of Dybala’s mastery in tight spaces and effervescence in the final third, Juventus failed to test Samir Handanovic. Between the 65th minute (Dybala’s arrival) and 89th minute (the penalty), the visitors amassed an xG (expected goals) haul of 0.11 – improving to a measly 0.58 from 0.47. Nevertheless, Dybala’s arrival had a major influence on Inter, who failed to increase their xG haul in the final 25 minutes of the contest.
The hosts were penned in, hoping to retain what they had. We saw Conte do it plenty amid the Nerazzurri’s Scudetto charge, but he had elite transitional players who could counter-attack effectively, offer some respite and perhaps add to their lead. Inzaghi didn’t possess such talents on Sunday night, he didn’t have a Romelu Lukaku or an Achraf Hakimi to take advantage of a more enterprising Juventus as the game progressed.
Instead, they ceded too much territory, too much control and eventually succumbed to periods of sustained Juventus attacks. While they looked comfortable in their deep block, Inzaghi’s conservatism gave the visitors, led by a determined Dybala, a route back into the contest. Eventually, Juve’s sustained pressure (even if it wasn’t overly threatening) told as substitute Denzel Dumfries rather unluckily kicked Alex Sandro in the box to gift the Bianconeri a penalty.
Of course, it was La Joya who stepped up and, of course, he calmly slotted the spot-kick beyond Handanovic. By scoring the 89th-minute equaliser, Dybala became the first Juventus player to score in three consecutive matches against Inter in Serie A in the three points per win era (since 1994/95). The Argentine also moved to joint-12th in the Juventus all-time scoring charts with his 104th strike. He’s now level with Michel Platini and just a goal behind John Charles in 11th.
Dybala’s legacy in Turin can be discussed at a later date, though. For now, it’s about appreciating just how imperative he is to the success and sustainability of Allegri’s second project. Not only is he the creative hub of the side, but he’s also maturing into an invaluable leader. He grabbed the contest by the scruff of the neck late on Sunday night, ending the game with three shot-creating actions (second-most among Juventus players) and two key passes (joint-most on the team) despite performing a mere cameo.
In the end, Dybala teased his innovative best to lift a one-paced Juventus on Sunday night, but as the Argentine alluded to post-match, Juventus “have to improve in the offensive phase” if they’re to mount a serious title challenge this season.
Against Inter, they played like a side who, after keeping four clean sheets on the spin, didn’t expect to fall behind and didn’t know how to react once the seemingly unfathomable occurred. Following Dzeko’s opener and Dybala’s introduction, Juventus endured a prolonged period of indifference.
If Allegri’s pragmatism is to survive and thrive over a sustained period in Serie A, he needs players of Dybala’s ilk capable of producing the invaluable but rare moments of magic in the final third. Let’s just pray the Argentine stays injury-free the rest of the way.