In a season dominated by misery and woe, Saturday evening proved an overdue moment of respite and pleasure.
Juventus were measured and controlled in their 2-0 victory against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, snapping the Biancocelesti’s 19-game unbeaten run on home soil. Two penalties from a clinical Leonardo Bonucci were enough to see the Bianconeri home as Maurizio Sarri’s side barely laid a glove on a resolute but comfortable Juve.
For Sarri, the defeat will come as a bitter disappointment considering his recent but short history with the Old Lady. The chain-smoking idealist enjoyed just one season at the helm in Turin, helped Juve to the Scudetto despite the rising threat of Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, but was hounded out following a humiliating Champions League exit to Lyon.
This was his first shot at earning a little bit of redemption, but, as so often is the case, Massimiliano Allegri’s pragmatism prevailed over his stubborn idealism. Allegri has now won eight of the 12 meetings with Sarri.
Stifling Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
Juventus have so often been deployed in a 4-4-2 by Allegri this term, but on Saturday we saw them in a 4-5-1. Instead of Federico Chiesa partnering Alvaro Morata up top, he was used on the left, while Dejan Kulusevski (after he was brought on for Danilo) operated down the right with Juan Cuadrado dropping in at right-back.
This configuration was clear to see in the defensive phase, with the Bianconeri typically passive without the ball, happy to surrender possession and block space in their mid-block. With Adrien Rabiot utilised on the left of the midfield three as opposed to the hybrid role, Juventus matched up with Lazio’s midfield three and Rabiot was given a specific function.
The Frenchman was tasked with tracking Biancocolesti mezzala Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who frequently manoeuvred in the right half-space before darting into the penalty area. Rabiot’s performance was excellent in this regard as the towering Serb had little influence on proceedings. The Juventus midfielder combined for a team-high six tackles and interceptions, as Milinkovic-Savic racked up a mere 0.1 xG (expected goals), 0.0 xA (expected assists), zero key passes and one shot-creating action. When Rabiot passed on the Lazio star in the box, Matthijs de Ligt and Bonucci dominated the aerial battle. The Juve centre-backs won five of their seven aerial duels in the match.
Rabiot’s performance resembled his diligent displays in the two-legged Coppa Italia semi-final against Inter and, more specifically, Nicolo Barella last season. Andrea Pirlo tasked the midfielder with tracking Barella’s darts through the right half-space in those bouts after he had torn Juve apart in that zone during Inter’s 2-0 league victory.
The Frenchman played like he had something to prove on Saturday and, hopefully, this is a step in the right direction.
Ciro Immobile’s absence proved costly for Lazio
With Ciro Immobile ruled out thanks to a calf injury, Sarri opted to utilise Pedro as a false nine with Felipe Anderson and Mattia Zaccagni operating as a pair of narrow inside forwards. Ideally, the close proximity of Lazio’s front three would’ve encouraged rapid combinations, a more effective counter-press and the advances of their full-backs to overload Juve’s defensive line.
However, Sarri’s ploy failed miserably. Juve did a great job of condensing the middle of the park, thanks to the presence of three midfielders, and Lazio struggled to play through the Bianconeri’s lines. The hosts were lifeless in possession. Their build-up was slow and their movements were predictable. Pedro did little to draw the Juve defenders out of position, with Zaccagni and Anderson failing to drag Cuadrado and Luca Pellegrini infield to open up space for full-backs Elseid Hysaj and Manuel Lazzari.
Once they fell a goal behind, their task was made even harder with Allegri even more content to sit deep and shut Lazio out. Sarri said after the game that his side “ran into a brick wall” after Bonucci slotted home the opener from 12 yards in the first half.
Without their all-time leading goalscorer, Lazio had no answer to Juve’s resistance and according to Understat, they accumulated an xG of 0.25, their joint-lowest haul in Serie A this season.
Why did this feel more comfortable for Juventus?
Ceding space and control has come back to bit Allegri at times this season, but it worked a treat against Lazio. Why?
Well, we’ve already touched on the hosts’ own deficiencies, but ultimately, it was Juve’s work with the ball that allowed Juventini to sit more comfortably on Saturday. Lazio pressed well in the opening exchanges but their intensity quickly faded as Juve began to bypass Biancocolesti pressure.
After Danilo went off, Juventus’ structure in the build-up phase looked like a 4-2. The full-backs remained deep with width provided by Chiesa and Kulusevski, while Rabiot dropped in to help Manuel Locatelli in the pivot. The Frenchman’s presence provided the Juve defence with more angles as they frequently overloaded Lazio’s first pressing line to retain and progress the ball.
Weston McKennie attempted to operate between Lazio’s defence and midfield as much as he could to provide a progressive passing option, while Morata effectively withdrew from his position to create a passing option as well.
Their improved build-up play was apparent before they took the lead. After going ahead, it was their ability to counter that ensured they never succumbed to periods of sustained Lazio pressure. Juve’s threat in this phase manifested thanks to the drive of Chiesa, who carried the ball a progressive distance of 219 yards (a team-high) on Saturday and won his side their second penalty following some woeful goalkeeping from Pepe Reina.
The home side couldn’t live with the exuberance of Chiesa, who also registered two key passes in Rome, but the Italian’s great work on the breakaway was often undermined by the indecisiveness of Kulusevski. The Swede struggled to assert himself on the contest despite his early arrival and he appears to be totally bereft of any self-belief.
On another day, Juventus are more efficient on the counter and they end up with three or four against a Lazio side who eventually ditched their trivial short passing combinations in favour of hopeful deliveries into the box. Sarri introduced Vedat Muriqi late on in a last-ditch effort to destabilise an immovable Juve backline, but the physical forward never got a sniff of Wojciech Szczesny’s goal.
According to Understat, the Bianconeri produced their highest xG haul of the season against Lazio (2.77, including two penalties) in a performance littered with positives. Allegri deserves a ton of credit for successfully altering his plan after Danilo’s injury to stifle the hosts.
This was a vintage Allegri-led Juventus win.