Analyst Lee Scott (@FMAnalysis) joins These Football Times to break down the biggest tactical battles of the season from around Europe. Providing coverage of key games throughout 2016-17 campaign, join him this week as he looks at Juventus manager Max Allegri’s tactics in week two against Fiorentina.
The Serie A season kicked-off over the weekend with the renewal of one of the most fierce rivalries in the country: Juventus versus Fiorentina. While Turin and Florence are not necessarily close geographically, there is still a real animosity between the two sets of fans. This ill feeling came when Juventus tempted the mercurial Roberto Baggio to leave Fiorentina and move to Turin.
This season promises to be an interesting one for fans of Italian football. There are new coaches for Inter Milan, AC Milan, Roma and Sampdoria while players have moved between clubs creating new dynamics.
Juventus have lived up to their status as a domestic super club and have moved in the transfer market to sign Gonzalo Higuaín and Miralem Pjanić from rivals Napoli and Roma respectively. These moves served not only to strengthen the champions but to weaken their closest rivals.
These additions may have added depth and options but Juventus also have to deal with the loss of their talismanic French midfielder Paul Pogba who became the most expensive player in the world. The loss of Pogba leaves a gap structurally in the midfield that coach Max Allegri will have to fill quickly.
There are still questions surrounding the system that Juventus will use this season, with Higuaín used to performing as the central striker in a 4-3-3 system. Where then would that leave the likes of Pjanić and the rapidly developing Argentine striker Paolo Dybala?
Against Fiorentina we saw Allegri remain faithful both to the system and the personnel that was so successful last season. There was no space in the starting lineup for either Higuaín or Pjanić.
Both Juventus and Fiorentina lined up in variations of the 3-5-2 system, with slightly different positional slots in the midfield and the attack. The Pogba role was taken by the powerful Ghana international Kwadwo Asamoah who moved infield from his previous left wing-back position. There was a surprise in the deepest of the three central midfielders with young Gabonese midfielder Mario Lemina gaining the trust of the coach to play as the controlling midfielder.
Fiorentina were without the Spanish Midfielder Borja Valero and had a youthful look with Federico Chiesa (Enrico’s son) making his debut as one of two narrow attacking midfielders behind the lone striker.
The game was largely dominated by Juventus, with their aggressive and powerful pressing structure coupled with the dreadful distribution from Fiorentina’s Romanian goalkeeper Ciprian Tătăruşanu, meaning that the away side struggled to build play in any coherent manner.
All three central defenders for Juventus were calm and comfortable in possession, easily bypassing the high press from Fiorentina and bringing the ball out into the middle third of the pitch before playing into the final third.
Juventus play out under pressure
When Max Allegri first took charge of Juventus he experimented with a number of tactical and positional changes as he sought his optimal line-up and strategy. There were games in which they moved away from the three-man defensive structure that was favoured by previous coach Antonio Conte and towards a four man defence.
This experiment, however, was short-lived as Allegri realised that he needed a way to fit the qualities of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini into the same side. This led to a move back towards the back three.
All three are Italian internationals who are vastly experienced both in domestic and European competitions. All three players are also perfectly comfortable bringing the ball out of the back and stepping in to the midfield strata.
With Pogba having departed and been replaced by the more physical Asamoah, we also saw the central defenders take more of a playmaking role as they quickly identified the free man who was able to step forward and play the vertical pass in to the feet of either the wing-backs or the central midfielders, who had advanced in to the final third of the pitch.
This example shows Juventus trying to play out of the back, with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon shifting the ball to Barzagli deep inside his own half on the right side. Fiorentina were continuously trying to disrupt the Juventus build-up by pressing with their three advanced players to hassle the man taking possession of the ball.
In this specific example the normal progression would be for Barzagli to move the ball centrally to Bonucci, who spent the majority of the match as the central of the three defenders. The press from the two nearest Fiorentina players disrupted this progression.
This is an image captured a matter of seconds after the first. Andrea Barzagli has been caught taking too long with the ball and the press has closed in to try and win it. Instead of panicking and trying to play a low percentage pass, however, Barzagli waits, confident that he will be supported by a team-mate.
Bonucci identifies the danger and moves horizontally and vertically to take up a position beyond the press which allows him to connect with Barzagli for an easy pass through the two pressing players. At this point we see Bonucci’s game intelligence come in to play as he is able to turn and drive into the space, opening up the middle third of the pitch.
This vertical movement from the centre-backs for Juventus was a constant part of their attacking game plan. All three spent time stepping forward and moving through the press of the Fiorentina side.
Juventus comfortable in a deep defensive shape
The structure of Juventus in the defensive phase was interesting. In the modern game, the tendency is for teams to counter press high up the field when they first enter the defensive transition. This pressing strategy can leave teams open, with spaces in their defensive structure that the attacking team can exploit.
Juventus, on the other hand, are exceedingly well-drilled defensively. For the first third of the match we saw a more aggressive medium to high block employed as they effectively overpowered Fiorentina and stopped the Tuscan side from developing any attacking momentum.
As the match progressed, though, we saw the defensive strategy of Juventus change. While the initial press in the defensive transition was still evident, the pressing players were quicker to drop back into a settled defensive structure when the rest of the side was set.
The initial press was being used as a method to slow the Fiorentina transition down and prevent them from playing into the final third before the Juventus block was set.
In this example we see the Juventus block deep inside their own half. Mario Lemina is the controlling midfielder who sits between the two defensive lines to disrupt any Fiorentina players that are looking to move in to the pocket of space to receive possession.
Dyabla had been playing in a number of roles, moving around the pitch both to find space and create space for other players to move in to. In the defensive phase he became an auxiliary midfielder and split Asamoah and German international Sami Khedira. This provided more flexibility for the midfield three.
Here you can see that Juventus have dropped in to a deep defensive structure. Once again Dyabla has joined the midfield line to provide an extra layer of cover and depth, and on this occasion Lemina has joined the midfield structure.
As a result of the positional slots taken up by the Juventus players in this movement, Fiorentina will be forced to either play the ball back towards their own goal or out to their right hand side. The positioning of the Juventus players suggests that this is a pressing trap and that the pressing will commence as soon as Fiorentina look to play out to the right.
Juventus positioning and movement
In the final third of the pitch we saw the Juventus superiority show in full. The movement of the midfield players and forwards was excellent, continuously shifting in and out of space to pull apart the defensive structure of Fiorentina.
This is the lead up to the first goal for Juventus. The ball is played in by Chiellini who has moved into the left half space and finds the advancing Khedira, who has made a well-timed run from deep. The movement to create the environment for that final pass was interesting.
Asamoah initially had possession in the left half space, in the same zone that Chiellini would enter to make the cross. He played the ball centrally to the feet of Dyabla on the edge of the penalty area and then made a vertical run towards the touchline. This movement forced the defensive player to shadow him, opening a space.
Chiellini was then able to move in to that space and play the final ball.
As previously mentioned, Dyabla was constantly moving in and out of positional slots looking to create overloads in certain zones and space for others.
On this occasion he has moved out to occupy the right half space and left the central zone unoccupied. As Chiellini moves out of defence and into the middle third of the pitch, he can switch the ball to Dyabla in a large pocket of space.
At the same time, Khedira has picked his moment to advance centrally into the space that Dyabla had emptied. Players running into zones from deep are extremely difficult for defensive players to pick up.
This is the movement that led to the second Juventus goal. The Fiorentina back line has been stretched, with the right-sided centre-back being attracted to the ball on the near side. As soon as he moves out he stretches the connection that he has with the others in the defensive line.
Both central midfielders for Juventus then advance vertically, attacking the spaces between the central defenders. The ball is clipped over the near side central defender and eventually, as play progresses, the ball reaches the substitute Higuaín who scores the second Juventus goal on his debut.
It was a relatively straightforward 2-1 win to the Serie A season for Juventus over a side that many predict will be challenging for a Champions League spot at the end of the season. The scoreline may appear to be close but in reality the gap in class and ability was abundantly clear. Juventus dominated large parts of the match and should have made the victory more comfortable.
There are still questions to be answered by Allegri, most prominently where he will fit the creative talents of Pjanić into the structure of the side. One thing is for sure though – Juventus are going to be one of the leading sides in the domestic league and European competition.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis