12 games. 10 wins. One draw. One loss. To the naked eye, Juventus have been one of the most dominant teams in Serie A this season. To add to that, a tough draw away to Atalanta and a loss at home to Lazio could both have been avoided without late penalty misses from Paulo Dybala in each game. But, when looking towards the future, it is important to review previous matches through a lens in which wins, losses and draws do not matter; only performances.
When doing that, the weekend 2-1 win at home to a terrible Benevento side, still rooted to the bottom of Serie A with zero points after 12 games, was actually one of Juventus’ better performances of the season to date. The Bianconeri locked out Benevento and created chance after chance themselves. Cuadrado’s winner spared blushes at the Juventus Stadium, but unfinished chances from Blaise Matuidi, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain could have deservedly put them into a lead before the Colombian did. The performance bucked what has been a trend of poor performances by this Juventus team for much of the season.
Still coming to terms with life without the hugely important Leonardo Bonucci and still criminally underrated Dani Alves, a team once heralded for its defensive solidity has looked unable to cope with many of the more menial defensive tasks. This is with the exception of Giorgio Chiellini, who seems to have revisited the form of bygone years.
The balance is out. Alongside the stopper that is Chiellini, Benatia looks like an unsuitable partner incapable of playing the more reserved role that Andrea Barzagli played so proficiently in his glory years. Daniele Rugani has provided a better foil as a calming, sweeping presence; Allegri refuses to start him in big games though. It is perplexing.
The Juventus centre-backs certainly have not been helped by their full-back counterparts though. Last year, The Old Lady’s charge towards the Champions League final last season was sparked by the consistently scintillating performances by the Brazilian duo of Alex Sandro and Dani Alves. With Alves gone, and Sandro looking like a shadow of the 2016/17 version of himself, Juventus lack not only the defensive nous the pair provided, but also the attacking production of one of the top two full-back duos in the world last season.
Now, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Mattia De Sciglio are sharing the role on the right. Regardless of his commitment to the shirt and the club, the Swiss full-back has not been playing at a level worthy of starting for the Bianconeri since 2014. Lacking the pace to be a difference maker on both ends of the field, Lichtsteiner looks especially bereft of ideas going forward, with his technical deficiencies exposed on a weekly basis. Contrarily, in De Sciglio’s few appearances for the Italian champions so far this season, he has looked like a defensive liability. He looks loose in possession and seems to lack the concentration required for the role.
When utilising an expected goals against (xGA) model – one which measures the quality of shots the opposition has taken and weights them with a defined probability of scoring between zero and one – Juventus’ defence has conceded 12.72 (1.06 per game) expected goals this season in 12 Serie A games. In 38 games last season, it conceded 24.74 (0.65 per game). The oft-maligned Napoli defence has conceded 0.53 xG per game this season. In real terms, Juventus are conceding 0.21 goals per game more than last season.
On the attacking end of the field, Juventus have been better but are still benefitting greatly from some excellent finishing numbers. Max Allegri is still trying to figure out his best attacking combination as he continues to experiment with new signings Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi. He has been reluctant to use either of them in important matches, opting instead with the tried and tested duo of Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic to flank Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain. Worryingly, Douglas Costa in particular seems to be having some teething problems in Turin, with Allegri having criticised the Brazilian in early October for his lack of defensive work from out wide. Costa has one goal and three assists in 666 minutes this season; not quite enough in a team consistently relying on the individual brilliance of Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain to fire them to victory.
Dybala in particularly, before a slight drop in form in recent games, has been on a tear. His finishing in the early games of the season, combined with his move into a more attacking position, almost single-handedly won Juventus some of their early matches. Coinciding with his form drop though, Higuain has started to hit his stride and seems to have put his early season struggles behind him. The Argentinian striker looks like he is playing with a chip on his shoulder after consecutive omissions from the national team squad.
The connection with the midfield in general seems to be lacking though. Juventus seem to be lacking a midfield group with the technical quality required to dominate games against better sides. Pjanic aside, the two-man midfield does not seem to be having the desired effect it did last season when the Bosnian was paired alongside a red-hot Sami Khedira. That Khedira has not arrived in 2017/18. Instead, a slower, clunkier version of the German arrived, as did the faster, but no less clunky Blaise Matuidi. The Frenchman undoubtedly provides bite to the midfield, but lacks the technical quality to force some excellent interchanges with Dybala, Pjanic or either of the full-backs.
The shining light that is Rodrigo Bentancur has impressed in his handful of appearances, but still plays a little bit to safe for his role in the two-man midfield. He looks capable of breaking into the starting XI as we move into next season though.
What winning has done for Juventus is create a feeling of safety. A feeling that after six straight title wins, the ‘business as usual’ approach will be enough. Evidently, the club’s summer transfer policy has missed the mark though and said approach may not be enough to stop a barnstorming Napoli side from winning the title. Time will tell. Juventus fans do not have to wait for that to happen to demand change though. Poor performances cannot become the norm, and winning despite playing poorly will not remain the norm. A right-back remains a crucial winter priority, but beyond that, Juventus’ league and Champions League chances hinge upon Allegri striking a balance with a team completely lacking any semblance of it.