This article is translated from the french article which has been published the 14/02/16, then some facts might be wrong when you read it. Thanks to @flyingwingback for his help for translation!
Antonio Conte left Juventus during summer 2014 to become the coach of the national team. This ended a successful cycle which saw the club reach the top of Serie A for the first time since the dark years.
Surprisingly the club decided to sign Massimiliano Allegri. Indeed, Allegri was tagged as an AC Milan man and arrived with a few titles in his luggage. However doubts were soon forgotten after an amazing 14/15 season with 2 titles (Calcio and national cup) and a Champions League final. No one dared to question the Allegri signing anymore.
But the summer transfer market was rough with departures of Vidal, Pirlo and Tevez whom were three key players in the team. Fans feared an end of a cycle, and the following months did nothing to kick away that feeling as Juventus were stuck at mid-table in Serie A.
That feelings lasted until winter when the team seemed to come back as the Best Italian team and a real contender in Europe.
Is this rebirth a kind of football magic or is there rational explanation behind it?
Juventus’ magic system
Antonio Conte built the Old Lady around a back three which was perfectly mastered by the time he left.
First Allegri decided to keep that system in order to smooth the transition, then he settled on a 4-4-2 diamond which led to the aforementioned success.
With the departure of Vidal, Tevez and Pirlo, Allegri couldn’t rely on his proofed recipe which greatly relied on those 3 players. Then he tried many shapes (3-5-2 / 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond) to work out the best solution. That period lasted until the 25 november, since that day the Bianconeri plays in 3-5-2 [actually Juventus plays recently with a back four because of several injuries]
I’m not a fan of systems analysis as I rather speak about motions and movements (as Guardiola said: those are phone numbers). However in this case I couldn’t let it aside as Juventus’ motion is enhanced by the back three.
Building from the back
If you play with a back four then centre-backs have quite a rigid positioning: they both stay relatively close, barely on the same line and with limited freedom in width and depth because they must be prepared to protect centre in defensive transition.
Things are different if you play with a back three since each part of the defensive line has more freedom in its positioning.
These possibilities make it harder for the opponent who don’t face a rigid and predictable duo anymore. Its block can’t just stay in his preferred height and slide from right to left since Juventus vary their width and depth from their build-up line. And there’s no way to create spaces more efficiently than making your opponent solve problems.
Let’s consider a team with a back four who are building-up from their centre-backs. The ball circulates quickly from left to right to reach free spaces in a block which is not compact enough anymore. But as the ball is circulating for 2 minutes, you can notice that free spaces are not popping up. Why?
In a rigid duo, both players have symmetrical positioning. In front of them, the opponent have prepared their mid-block to react to the ball position. The team shape varies according to the height and width of the ball carrier. When the ball travels from one centre-back to the other, the opponent’s block has just to slide to adapt itself to the ball position. They can use the same solution as centre-backs have symmetrical roles.
It’s unlikely to see the block disrupted while having only a basic problem to solve (sliding). Then you don’t create any space. By playing with a back three and giving more freedom to his centre-backs, Allegri is giving problems for the opposition to solve. As each centre-back can be in a unique position compared to the 2 others, they can force the opponent to use different solutions. Now if you circulate the ball with those 3 players, you’ll see a block who have to leave their comfort zone, and spaces will be created.
Luckily Juventus has a top-notch player to find spaces.
With Pirlo moving to New York, Juventus lost one of the best regista. However they still have a player able to break any line from a deep position with his passing range. This magic guy is none other than Bonucci. Skeptical?
Bonucci, tout simplement.
Donnez lui le ballon, il vous montrera où sont les espaces. pic.twitter.com/bingQLfiJw
— PEZE Thomas (@Analysport) 8 Février 2016
His ability to reach a free player from seemingly impossible angles allows the Bianconeri to often break the opponent. Obviously Italian teams are well aware of Bonucci’s abilities, then they usually decide to pressure him to not allow him enough time to adjust his passes.
However, remember that Bonucci earns freedom with Juventus playing a back three: he’s allowed to move deep to ask the ball. Thereby if the opponent’s first line of pressure wants to press him, they need to leave their comfort zone by going high up the pitch. Then their teammates have to make a choice: do they follow them or do they stay in position? Whatever their choice, new spaces will be created from those that the block initially agreed to let.
If the block stay compact, then spaces will be created in depth. If the defensive line is reluctant about spaces in behind, then they’ll not follow the press and spaces will be created between midfield and defence. That’s quite simple but terribly efficient.
Until now I’ve only mentioned Bonucci as he is the Juventus master piece to exploit free spaces, but it must be noticed that Chiellini and Barzagli don’t mind about leaving their initial positioning in order to do so. Those runs are less efficient than Bonucci’s passes, that’s why I won’t describe it more in-depth, but you’ll see some examples in the following video. You’ll be able to notice the collective positioning intelligence with players rotating fluidly to compensate the centre-back carrying the ball up the field (especially on the right flank)
Juventus are building from the back by relying on their centre-backs’ abilities to give the ball to the forwards, therefore the midfield is regularly skipped during the build-up. Dybala is amazing between the lines with his intelligence and his finesse while Pogba excels as a target on the opponent’s defensive line.
Those mechanisms are well mastered by Allegri’s men which often allow them to unbalance opponents. Mechanisms to create spaces rely on the opposition’s aggressiveness. They could also decide to stay deep in front of their box. Juventus struggle to create opportunities against such a low block, and this is the main limit of Allegri’s team.
Nonetheless they can rely on a top-notch defensive structure which is built around the back three to lose hardly any games.
Football or chess, you need to control the centre
If the shape isn’t that relevant when you look at offensive structure, it’s far more interesting while the team hasn’t got the ball since the team is in the shape announced in pre-match. It’s then obvious that Allegri’s system changes have a huge impact on defensive performance.
Juventus’ defensive structure is quite passive, space oriented, and looks to prevent the opponent playing in the centre of the field thanks to the 2 first line (forwards and midfielders). These 5 players have to control the 3 central corridors.
They’re controlling the space passively because they don’t make many runs to get the ball back, however they need to adjust themselves constantly to coordinate movements and slide cleverly. Plus centre-backs don’t mind to help them by following forwards who drops deep for the ball. They can follow forwards because of back three, then when one push high they’re still 2 centre-backs who remains behind and ensure balance.
The work made by the 3 lines forces the opponent to play on the wings in order to get around the Bianconeri block.
If you used to read articles on this website, you may remember an old one about defending with 3 forwards (in French). This article analysed issues faced by a line of 3 players to cover the full width, which make quite easy for the opponent to run over the midfield with a quick switch of the play.
As you’re clever readers, you’ve noticed that Juventus is defending with 3 midfielders and yet they allow the opposition to play on the wings. How do they deal with diagonals balls on the wings in order to not be outflanked?
Again the flexibility between its lines allows Juventus to defend in 5-3-2. Fullbacks are willing to push up to add themselves into the midfield line, then they still have good access on weak side without requiring that midfielders slide from one touchline to the other during 90 minutes. I the defensive line slides in order to keep balance and cover of the midfield. Then Juventus is almost in 4-4-2.
Frankly I love that movement. That’s clever and beautiful.
Moreover with a 5-3-2 shape, Juventus is perfectly covering the width on its defensive line. Then they can cover the opposite side winger and prevent diagonal balls (well known as the “Xabi Alonso”).
Obviously the pendulum movement aforementioned can’t be done on every action, especially if the switch is perfectly made. In that case fullback don’t push up because he may be passed if he arrives late. He rather stays back and prevents runs down the flank. That’s obvious that fullbacks must not be eliminated as sometimes they are willing to let the winger cross rather than risking to be dribbled past. A choice justified by the 3 centre-backs in the box who are able to win aerial duels.
This defensive work is remarkably coherent and efficient. Indeed since 25 November, the Bianconeris have play 18 games in Serie A and they ended with 14 clean sheets. That’s impressive.
This action summarise what the team does to neutralize the opponent: closing the centre with the 3 lines to push on the wings, fullbacks marking strictly on the wings, centre-back who follows forward when dropping deep and defensive line which slides well if fullback joins the midfield line.
Does the Old Lady have a bright future ?
After a bad start the Bianconeri are now undisputed leaders in Serie A, despite nice Napoli’s performances. However their lack of creativity limits their ability to create big chances. The game against Roma represents well what Juventus does:
xG map for Juventus – Roma. A "cagey" match. Paulo Dybala is the truth. pic.twitter.com/uOSFPYSFAs
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) 24 Janvier 2016
I can’t end that article without mentioning the amazing positional intelligence of Juventus’ players. Playing football with such guys is undoubtedly easier, even if we must congratulates Allegri for letting them enough freedom to express.
La fluidité de la permutation est très belle. Bonucci / Marchisio s'échangent leur place sans jamais s'inquiéter. pic.twitter.com/OANLuYGZM8
— PEZE Thomas (@Analysport) 14 Février 2016