Massimiliano Allegri has stuck with the 3-5-2 formation since the departure of Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo. The 3-5-2 is not popular in the modern era. Very few top teams in Europe play this formation. There are many reasons, but three of them are prominent: Firstly, very few teams play with two strikers, eliminating the need for three central backs. Secondly, the 3-5-2 formation cannot fit modern attackers, the inverted/hybrid winger/attacking midfielder, very easily. Third but not least, the requirement of a central defensive midfielder is not easy to fulfill. One needs a player who has an excellent passing range and positioning and is defensively sound.
Many have suggested that Juventus should abandon its 3-5-2 formation and return to a 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-3 formation. In this article, we discuss the adjustments Allegri has made since the Palermo game last month. We focus on the last three games — Palermo, Dinamo Zagreb and Empoli — because Allegri had used very similar tactics before these games (other than in the Inter Milan game when Juventus was chasing 2-1 deficit). His priority was to fit in Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic into the lineup in the first few games, and he did not want to confuse the team. Since the Palermo game, he has implemented bigger adjustments and new tactics into this Juventus team. Some of these "new" tactics have been used before.
Nevertheless, these new elements in tactics will add variability and unpredictability to Juventus.
One should also note that we only focus on the most extreme adjustments and tactics in this article. There are things that we have not included.
Mario Lemina vs. Hernanes
Offensively, Juventus struggled against Palermo. but thrived against Dinamo Zagreb and Empoli. A major problem is their inability to stretch their opponents through ball circulation between the flanks. Allegri tried to solve this issue by replacing Lemina with Hernanes in the line-up
With three central defenders and three central midfielders, the 3-5-2 formation promotes penetration in the central part of the pitch. In the defensive phase, their opponents often put a major emphasis to defend the center to prevent penetration. The result is that the first (strikers) and the second (midfielders) lines of the opponent's defense will form a block in the center, sitting above the defenders. It usually forces Juventus to initiate the build-up through the sided center backs and the wing backs. In response, the opponent's central block will often shift to the side according to the position of the ball.
All of these interactions end up with something like this:
The shift of the defensive block minimizes the space — and increase the pressure of the ball handlers — on one side while leaving the other flank very open. It is, therefore, crucial for Juventus to be able to utilize both sides efficiently, meaning that they can attack both sides equally. The goal is to take advantage of the open space on the opposite flanks.
Consider these heat maps where a player (or players) are in control of the ball:
The heat maps summarize where the sided center backs and the two wingbacks had processions. The most obvious pattern is that in the Palermo game, Juventus spent a lot more of the processions on the right side than the left side. In the Dinamo Zagreb and Empoli games, they spent a roughly equal amount of processions between the two flanks. These stats are consistent with their offensive performances — the more balanced the processions between the two sides (vs. Dinamo Zagreb and vs. Empoli), the more goals they score. This correlation also extends to most of the other games Juventus played so far this season.
There are several reasons for the differential distribution of procession of the two flanks between different games. For example, in the Palermo game, the ball loving (or hogging) style of Dani Alves is a key element of the greater procession on the right side relative to the left side. Dani Alves had 120 touches in that game while Andrea Barzagli — who mostly played as the left-center back — and Alex Sandro had 109 touches COMBINED. Due to Daniele Rugani's injury, he also played the right-center back for most of the game. Therefore, Juventus initiated most of the build-ups from his side in that game.
A tendency to initiate build-up should not necessarily be a problem, except that Juventus also failed to switch the ball to the opposite side.
Both Juventus's wing-backs received a lot more passes in the game against Empoli. But the most important thing is that the way these passes were carried out. Many of them were long passes originated close to the half-lines. These are very efficient switching passes because they could deliver the ball to the areas where there would be fewer defenders. The opponent's defense had to shift from one side to the other side diagonally to defend those spaces.
Many factors contributed to the better switching. Not having Paulo Dybala in the Palermo game is one factor. Juventus' and the opponents' tactics are another factors. Here I only discuss how the differential interpretation of Lemina vs. Hernanes in the central defensive midfielder role affects ball switchings.
One important thing that differs between Lemina and Hernanes is their passing ranges. Hernanes has a much better passing range than Lemina:
From a very similar position of the pitch, they both passed to Juan Cuadrado with a long switching pass. Hernanes' pass was perfect because Cuadrado could catch it with his feet and immediately started to attack the defender. Lemina's one is different, where he could only connect to it with a header. The difference in passing range results in very different passing patterns while playing the same central defensive midfielder role:
When playing as the central defensive midfielder, Lemina is often very cautious and does not place enough forward passes. When he puts the switching passes, they are mostly horizontal. These passes do not advance the ball. And its easier for the defense to handle because they only have to move horizontally. But switching passes placed by Hernanes are diagonal. The defense has to respond by moving both vertically and horizontally. These passes have higher chances to distort the defense and to advance the ball.
3-5-2/4-4-2 or 4-3-3 hybrid system
Since the Palermo game, Allegri has also introduced (or re-introduced) the 3-5-2/4-4-2 or 4-3-3 hybrid system.
During the build-up, Juventus plays their usual 3-5-2. They change to a back four during the initial defensive phase. The goal is to increase defensive solidarity (4 defenders are always better than three). Playing Hernanes, Pjanic and Sami Khedira together is great for the offense, but it also decreases the defensive strength of the midfield. (Allegri himself has also talked about it.)
Playing four at the back with Barzagli as the right fullback also releases Dani Alves or Cuadrado. It allows Juventus to press opponents a lot easier:
Cuadrado is not a natural fullback or wingback. He is a rare breed of the old-school winger, and he is not good at defending as a fullback (the usual way of backing down while facing the advancing attacker). During the defensive phase, Cuadrado is now given the freedom to press as hard as he can when he is close to the ball.
This one solution solves two problems. First, he does not have to carry the duty of defending 1-v-1 against the attacker. Second, if his press is successful, he will be involved in the counter-attack immediately. With his pace and skill, he can cause a lot of damages to the opponents. We saw from the Empoli game that his speed had caused so many problems to the Empoli's defense.
Playing presses isn't something that Allegri has not done before. We only have to remember the first half of the second leg against Bayern Munich. But one unique thing that this Juventus team did play is the counter-pressing.
Consider these three examples:
Juventus often presses high to disrupt opponent's build-up. But these above presses are different from the usual presses. These presses occurred after opponents intercepted their balls in various positions of the pitch. The trigger of these presses is the closeness of a player to the ball.
The goal of these counter-presses is to disrupt defensive-to-offensive transition. The faster and the harder you press the opponent when you lose the ball, the more difficult for them to transition to offensive phase. And if you are successful in intercepting the ball, you are in great position to initiate an attack.
One should not assume that Juventus is doing a Jürgen Klopp's type of counter-pressing. Playing that type of soccer will require a complete transformation of player movement and tactics. Juventus is not doing that, nor does Juventus rely on these opportunities to break opponents down. But having a weapon like this in your arsenal is only going to benefit them.
It is true that there is a level of predictability when you play with the same formation for a long time. Many have urged Allegri to switch to a new formation, especially one with a back four. Although he has resisted changing to an entirely new formation, as we can see he did make a lot of adjustments in the current 3-5-2.
Being able to play a 4-3-3 is going to be useful, especially when they are going to give Pjaca more and more playing time. Changing to a permanent back four can be problematic for Juventus when they no longer have players like Vidal, Paul Pogba and pre-ACL-torn Claudio Marchisio who could cover a lot of spaces to prevent counter-attacks.
Critics favor abandoning the 3-5-2 because by having three center backs, it takes away an additional attacking player. One notable thing is that Juventus transits to a back four mostly in the defensive phase. Allegri insists playing three center backs during the build-up. As some of us have noted, playing three at the back is always advantageous to facilitate procession.
It is always beneficial for a team to be able to play different formations. But what can be more advantageous is for a team to play multiple formations with the same players in the same game. One can use substitutions to adjust to the opponent when they change formations (and therefore tactics). But it is a lot more difficult for any team to handle an opponent that can switch drastically different formations constantly during the game. This is what a hybrid system can provide. Such flexibility may be what Allegri is trying to implement in this Juventus squad.