The first round of Champions League group stage fixtures produced one of the most intriguing tactical match-ups of the season so far as Juventus hosted Europa League holders Sevilla.
The match would provide an interesting insight into the progress being made by new Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli as he looks to implement his unique football ideology. His direct opponent for Juventus, Max Allegri, is in the third year of his cycle as Juventus coach and is more embedded than Sampaoli.
Whilst with Universidad de Chile and with the Chilean national side, Sampaoli caught the eye with his relentless attacking style and high energy pressing. Questions remained as to whether this style of play and indeed his style of coaching would translate to the European game with Sevilla.
The start to the season has been largely positive despite a defeat to Barcelona, and Sevilla sit second in the league at this early stage. That said, there has been little in the way of attractive attacking play with Sampaoli instead preferring a more solid approach. This may well be a case of putting in place a base from which Sevilla will become more expressive in the future.
The most interesting selection from Sevilla saw the Spaniards’ line-up without a true number 9. Luciano Vietto had to settle for a place on the bench while his Argentine compatriot Franco Vázquez, who plays more traditionally in a withdrawn attacking midfield role, would be expected to act as the furthest man forward.
The key area of the pitch for Sevilla, though, would prove to be the midfield. Sampaoli elected to utilise a three-man midfield with all three players known for their defensive discipline and strong positional intelligence. Steven N’Zonzi and Vicente Iborra flanked the young Argentine star Matías Kranevitter, who would sit at the base of the midfield.
For Juventus fans, there was positive news as Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala continue to build their understanding as a striker partnership. The biggest surprise was the decision to drop Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjanić following his goalscoring performance the previous weekend, with Kwadwo Asamoah preferred to partner Sami Khedira.
Sevilla adopt man-to-man pressing
Jorge Sampaoli is a student of the Marcelo Bielsa school of football despite having never worked directly with his fellow Argentine coach. There are various aspects of Bielsa’s footballing approach that we can clearly see being mirrored in the work of Sampoli.
In this match we saw a clear defensive game plan from Sampoli, with Sevilla adopting a man-to-man defensive organisation and pressing in an extremely high block to make it difficult for Juventus to execute their normal transition methods in playing the ball out from the back.
Above, you can see an example of Juventus being pressed aggressively into the corner of their own defensive third. By ensuring that each passing connection is marked tightly they are forcing the man in possession to look for other solutions to play out from this area.
Allegri strongly favours systems with a three-man defensive unit in this Juventus team with the obvious strength of Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli. Generally, this means that the Italians favour building their attacks from the back with the ball being cycled between the three defensive players before a viable passing lane opens up to shift the ball into the middle third.
In this image you can again see the way that Sevilla set out to aggressively press Juventus and prevent them from playing out and building comfortable possession in more advanced areas.
Earlier this season I covered Juventus playing against Fiorentina for The Big Analysis. One of the key aspects in the build up was the ability of Juve to use either a free defender or Mario Lemina in the defensive midfield strata as an outlet to allow them to play through the defensive press.
Here we routinely saw Lemina covered as tightly as the three defenders, forcing Juventus to play a more direct pass into the midfield. This was a key component of the Sevilla defensive structure as they looked to funnel Juventus and force them to play into the midfield where the Spaniards would have a three versus two advantage in terms of numbers.
Juventus struggle to play through the defensive block
Another of the routines that we see from Juventus in their build-up approach is the use of one of the two wide centre-backs as a means to overload the central midfield area.
Typically, teams will press Juventus with only one or at most two players, meaning that through clever ball circulation Juventus are able to have the free defender step out from the defensive line and into the midfield. In this match, however, Juventus were still unable to create penetration against the Sevilla midfield block.
This is a typical scenario from the game as Chiellini steps into midfield with the ball at his feet. The aim should be to penetrate behind the next line of the Sevilla defensive block with a pass into Higuaín. With pressure being applied on the ball and the positioning of N’Zonzi, however, it is not possible.
The next priority in this situation should be to play around the defensive block. This would mean a pass to the left-hand side where Evra is advancing. Again, he is being marked closely and the pass is a low percentage one.
The final option for the man on the ball is to play a pass in front of the defensive block to tempt one of the Sevilla midfielders out of position and create space to play through. The pass to Asamoah is possible but with the body position of the man pressing the ball and the close proximity of N’Zonzi, this is again difficult.
Once again it is Chiellini who has stepped into the midfield to provide more depth in the attack. Once again the aim should be to feed the ball into the feet of the attacker to give him a chance to turn and either attack the box or look for the next pass. Once again, though, the defensive structure of Sevilla renders this pass unlikely to succeed.
The secondary option to play around the block is also covered, and the third option to play in front of the block is available but unlikely to provoke a significant reaction from Sevilla.
The solution would be to quickly switch the angle of attack over to the opposite side of the pitch to force the defensive structure to pivot over. For the entire match, however, Juventus were slow to utilise this switch, allowing Sevilla enough time to move over comfortably.
On this occasion, Barzagli has stepped out on the right side; we eventually saw Juventus enjoy success in playing a penetrative pass into the space behind the pressing line. The ball should be played into the highlighted area, and by moving out of the zone and creating space, the Juventus midfielder allows the ball to be played into the open gap.
Lack of movement or ideas from Juventus
When Pjanić was dropped in favour of Asamoah for Juventus it signified the importance Allegri was placing in remaining physically competitive with the midfield three from Sevilla. Unfortunately, this ceded the advantage to the Spaniards as Juventus offered little in the way of an attacking connection between their midfield and forward lines.
Time and time again we were confronted with the scenario above. Sevilla had such a high level of positional dominance in the centre of the park that Juventus found it difficult to create any sort of sustained pressure against the Spanish side.
There are times when it is still possible to manage the game in such a way that you can still create central superiority with fewer numbers. If Juventus were able to attack the central space with runners from deep or from wide, or even dropping off the forward line, then they would create the opportunity to build an attacking position in the final third.
Instead, Juventus were relatively static and bereft of creativity of ideas.
There is little doubt that Sampaoli will be the happier of the two coaches having come away from Turin with the 0-0 draw. His defensive strategy in the game worked perfectly and Juventus struggled to create any sort of attacking tempo. Whether Sampaoli can go on to create the attacking fluency to go along with the defensive side of this remains to be seen, but he is certainly making a positive initial impression in European football.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis