Juventus v Milan: Szczesny and defences in spotlight as Serie A history beckons

By Sports Desk September 18, 2021

For so long, Juventus dominated Serie A and Milan. 

Juve won nine successive Scudetti before being dethroned by Inter last season. Gianluigi Buffon was involved in eight of them. 

But it's a period of change in Turin, where Wojciech Szczesny is well and truly under the microscope after an error-riddled start to the 2021-22 season. 

As Juve struggle defensively, form could hardly be more contrasting heading into Sunday's blockbuster showdown in the northwest of Italy. 

Milan have continued to be a solid defensive outfit, winning their opening three league fixtures, and the resurgent Rossoneri could strike an early dagger to the heart of the Old Lady.

 

Woeful Woj as Allegri tries to avoid unwanted record 

"I think Juventus will regret not signing Donnarumma for a long time." 

That was Mino Raiola – the agent of Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma – speaking to Rai Sport on Friday. Based on what has transpired so far, he is right. 

The star Italy goalkeeper had been tipped to swap Milan for Juve in the off-season before moving to the French capital on a free transfer. Juve must be shaking their heads after watching Szczesny's torrid start to the season under Massimiliano Allegri. 

Allegri has had his hands full since returning to Allianz Stadium after two seasons away, replacing Andrea Pirlo. The title-winning boss is trying to navigate the exit of superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. If the departure of the almost-irreplaceable Ronaldo was not hard enough, Szczesny has made life even more difficult. 

The former Arsenal keeper has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, his two howlers against Udinese and Napoli the catalyst for Juve's winless start to the campaign. 

The Bianconeri could go without a victory in their first four Serie A seasonal matches for the fourth time in their history, after 1961-62, 1955-56 and 1942-43. In those campaigns, Juve did not go on to win the title. They have never lost three of the first four Serie A games in a season. 

They have conceded five goals in three matches and are yet to keep a clean sheet domestically, shipping goals in each of their past 17 league games – only twice have Juve conceded in more consecutive Serie A fixtures (19 in 2010 and 21 in 1955). That 17-game run is the worst of its kind across the top-five European leagues since March. 

 

Szczesny's numbers do not make for pretty reading.

Since 2018-19, the Poland international has conceded 90 goals in 90 Serie A appearances with expected goals against (xGA) of 99.88, suggesting he should have let in nearly 10 goals more. For some comparison, Buffon's xGA-goals conceded difference – goals he prevented, in other words –was 2.62 from 17 matches, so Szczesny holds his own there.

The numbers do not get much better, though. A maligned figure from his days at Arsenal, Szczesny has shipped 99 goals in 107 Serie A games for Juve. Since 1994-95, his average of 0.93 goals conceded is worse than ex-Juve goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar (0.70 from 46 goals conceded in 66 games), Buffon (0.76 from 373 conceded in 489 matches), Michelangelo Rampulla (0.85 from 33 conceded in 39 fixtures) and Angelo Peruzzi (0.85 from 120 conceded in 141 appearances).

Szczesny – with a save percentage of 72 and an average of 2.49 stops per 90 minutes – has committed three errors leading to goals during his time with Juve in Serie A. Since 2004-05, only Buffon managed more (13), albeit in 391 games.

This season, Szczesny's expected goals against is 5.86 through three matches. Milan counterpart Mike Maignan's figure stands at 2.33.

When Milan refused to meet Donnarumma's demands, they wasted little time turning to Maignan, who had just led Lille to a shock Ligue 1 title after upstaging PSG.

Maignan has been a steady presence in Milan with a joint-league-high two clean sheets, while the France international tops the list in save percentage (90), well ahead of Szczesny (66.67).

 

Kjaer spearheading Milan back to summit

While Juve duo Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt lick their wounds, Simon Kjaer and Fikayo Tomori continue to flex their muscles at San Siro.

In the era of three points per win, Milan have won each of their first four Serie A seasonal games only twice: in 1995-96 under Fabio Capello and last season with Stefano Pioli at the helm. The Rossoneri won the title in 1996, while they finished second to Inter in 2020-21.

High-flying Milan are on the cusp of matching that feat thanks to the help of Kjaer and Tomori and perhaps even more than that as the resurgent powerhouse dream of a first Scudetto since 2011.

Kjaer and Tomori have formed an unlikely but rock-solid partnership at the heart of Milan's defence. Pioli's side have only conceded one goal to start the Serie A season. Since last May, Milan have the most clean sheets in the big five European leagues (seven in eight matches).

The pair's form has left captain Alessio Romagnoli sidelined and considering his future – not something you would have anticipated when Kjaer arrived following a brief spell at Atalanta, initially on loan in 2020.

Kjaer has come into his own in Milan, establishing himself as a key member on and off the pitch under Pioli, tallying 178 clearances in the league since January 2020 – a number only behind Torino's Bremer (219), Omar Colley of Sampdoria (214), Fiorentina star Nikola Milenkovic (205), ex-Viola centre-back German Pezzella (191) and Lazio's Francesco Acerbi (190) among defenders.

 

The 32-year-old Denmark international has also provided security in the air, with his 93 headed clearances the fourth most among defenders since January 2020, after Milenkovic (122), Bremer (119) and Colley (103).

"It happens a lot with defenders that they kind of find their own style later on. That has happened with Simon," former Denmark international Jesper Olsen told Stats Perform.

"You're playing at a top team and expected to do really well. We know your last game played doesn't count anymore, it's the next one. He just seems very settled."

Tomori, who completed a permanent switch from Champions League holders Chelsea in July after impressing on loan, scored the last time these two teams met – a 3-0 victory in Turin in May.

Milan have won two of their most recent three Serie A matches against Juventus, as many as in their previous 17 (D1 L14).

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    The player of the year he may have been, but De Bruyne's 2020-21 season did not finish in the manner he would have wished.

    The former Chelsea man lasted only an hour of City's Champions League final defeat to the Blues last May, suffering facial fractures that impacted his preparation for Euro 2020. De Bruyne found form again at the finals, only to hobble out of Belgium's last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle issue.

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    De Bruyne's 11th game of this campaign was very different. In a 7-0 City win over Leeds United, the team's talisman doubled his seasonal tally by scoring twice, including a thunderous 25-yard drive for his second.

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    "There's been a lot happening this year, a little bit out of my control, so the only thing I can do is try to work hard and come back as quick as possible," he said.

    It was clearly a turning point for De Bruyne, who has scored 13 goals and provided seven assists in 19 matches from the Leeds game onwards. A goal involvement every 81 minutes over this period just beats his single-season best from 2019-20 (85 minutes per goal involvement).

    Yet De Bruyne's role has altered in the past two years. He will not match his outstanding 33 goal involvements from the year Liverpool won the title, but 15 goals already represent a career high with one game still to play on Sunday.

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    In 2019-20, six of De Bruyne's 20 assists were for record goalscorer Aguero – more than for any other player. Of course, Aguero has since departed.

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    'We have to move on'

    De Bruyne has either scored or assisted in 13 of his past 19 games, but he saved his best performances for when it mattered most – at least in the league.

    There were suspicions City's season might fall apart when Real Madrid's remarkable semi-final recovery eliminated Guardiola's side from the Champions League at the start of May. With Liverpool in hot pursuit in the Premier League, the leaders were afforded little time to regroup as they headed straight into matches against Newcastle United at home and Wolves away.

    "We are going to play against Newcastle thinking about [the Madrid defeat], for sure," said Guardiola in an enthralling news conference, revealing two days before the Newcastle match: "We didn't speak. No words can help what all of us feel. It's just a question of time."

    Time, and Tottenham drawing at Liverpool, as it turned out.

    A rare slip-up at Anfield on the eve of City's game against Newcastle eased the pressure on the champions. Then De Bruyne got to work.

    Briefly restored to his 2019-20 vintage, De Bruyne attempted only a single shot at the Etihad but created six chances in a 5-0 win – his most in a single game this season – including an assist for Rodri's goal.

    That performance prompted Jamie Carragher in the Sky Sports studio to declare De Bruyne "the greatest player to ever play for Manchester City", "the best midfield player in the world right now" and "the best player in the Premier League for the past three or four years".

    Yet better was still to come at Wolves, where City became the first team in English top-flight history to win five consecutive league games by a margin of at least three goals. De Bruyne alone outscored Wolves by three, netting four in a 5-1 victory.

    The first hat-trick of his City career was completed inside 24 minutes – the third-fastest in Premier League history – to blow away a Wolves team who had briefly threatened to cause their visitors some problems.

    "It should have been five, to be honest," De Bruyne told Sky Sports, before conversation turned back to the Madrid match.

    "It's very difficult to explain because it was just a mad five minutes," he said. "It's not that we played bad or something, it was just five minutes that you can't explain as a player. I don't know what happened. I was out of control on the bench anyway, so you feel a little bit in shock. It's not nice and the feeling is still not nice.

    "But you need to move on. We're trying now to win the title and whatever happened unfortunately happened. We have to move on."

    The Wolves display would have been fresh in Carragher's mind on Monday when he named De Bruyne his personal player of the season. Whether established individual end-of-season honours beckon for De Bruyne is another matter, though. He was nominated for the official Premier League prize, but many such awards are voted on well in advance of the final weeks of the campaign – before De Bruyne had done his best work.

    Mohamed Salah is the FWA Footballer of the Year; he has scored three goals in his past 10 games – fewer than De Bruyne managed on one night in Wolverhampton.

    A Premier League title, defined by his clutch performances, would not be a bad consolation.

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