For regular viewers of calcio, it was a game that had an all too familiar feel about it. Paraphrasing a certain Gary Lineker, Italian football is a simple game, two teams chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end, despite being second best, Juventus always win.
The game started at a frantic pace. Milan’s early intensity prevented Juve from settling into any kind of rhythm, resulting in numerous turnovers of possession as both sides grappled to gain control. Stefano Pioli’s side deployed a high line, committing numbers to press and backing themselves to defend the space left behind. It worked, Juve threatened on occasions, but a disciplined defensive line meant any early forward runs were caught offside.
Cristiano Ronaldo went in search of a way into the game, his role in Maurizio Sarri’s team is becoming increasingly free-roaming, as he drifted into different areas in order to try to affect the attack. However, CR7 was having little effect on proceedings.
Gonzalo Higuain looked alert and appeared to be playing on Milan centre-back Leo Duarte. The Argentine made a couple of dangerous darting runs off the Brazilian defender’s shoulder almost resulting in chances on goal. Juve appeared to be targeting Milan’s left, focusing the majority of their attacks down that side.
As the first half developed, Pioli’s tactics came to the fore with his team looking increasingly confident and in control. The former Fiorentina boss had prepared perfectly, stunting Sarri’s Juve. In possession his favoured 4-2-3-1 had a couple of clever twists, causing the home side problems. Behind Polish striker Krzysztof Piatek, Milan’s attacking trio of Suso, Lucas Paqueta and Hakan Calhanoglu caused difficulties in Juve’s midfield with their clever spacing.
Playing as a narrow three with Suso centrally forced Miralem Pjanic and co to narrow up around them. It resulted in Blaise Matuidi, Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Bernardeschi pressing ineffectively. Rade Krunic would cleverly leave his role in Milan’s double pivot to step forward and take up a position outside of Calhanoglu, creating what looked like a 4-1-4-1. With Krunic stepping in and making a narrow midfield four, he opened up space outside of him on the left for the eager Theo Hernandez. On the opposite side, Andrea Conti chose to join the attacks later, opting to run from deep when Paqueta had the ball in half spaces on the right.
Out of possession, the visitors opted for a compact 4-3-2-1. Suso and Calhanoglu worked tirelessly to box off Juve’s midfield conductor Pjanic. The Bosnian could not find a way into proceedings, his every move was locked down.
Juve had no answers, there was a distinct lack of fluidity and quality to their play. Il Diavolo were just missing a goal that their first half display deserved. By the end of half, Juve would have been relieved to go in level with Polish stopper Wojciech Szczesny forced to pull off a number of fine saves.
The second half was dominated by substitutions. The tempo of the match had dropped off slightly as Milan understandably found it tough to match their efforts from the first period. Ronaldo was first to be withdrawn after signalling to the bench that his on-going knee injury would prevent him from continuing. Milan coach Pioli responded by calling on Giacomo Bonaventura, which saw a shift in his set-up. Returning to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1, Bonaventura played closer to Piatek with Suso wider on the right, Calhanoglu on the left and Paqueta dropping alongside Ismael Bennacer.
Midweek match-winner Douglas Costa then replaced Bernardeschi on the hour mark as Sarri looked to spark his side into life. Under Max Allegri, Juve often found ways to win as a result of individual moments and quality from the bench, it’s a tactic that’s currently working wonders for his replacement.
On 77 minutes, the Turin giants produced their one and only quality passage of play across the 90 minutes. Douglas Costa started the move before a neat combination on the edge of the box saw Higuain expertly divert the ball to Ronaldo’s replacement Paulo Dybala. La Joya sold Alessio Romagnoli a dummy as he dragged the ball onto his less favoured right foot before slotting home past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Milan went in search of the equaliser that their performance deserved, but found Szczesny in top form as he continued to thwart the Rossoneri.
Despite the result, Milanisti will take a fair few positives. Individually there were improved displays with the likes of Conti and Bennacer the standouts, but more importantly there was direction and cohesion to the team. This should provide them a platform to build on.
As for Sarri, on the face of it his Juve go into the international break top the league and with Champions League Round of 16 qualification secure. But with questions marks over the form of star player Cristiano Ronaldo and another sub-standard showing, pressure will be on to see more aesthetically pleasing football in the coming weeks.