Roster changes, both players leaving and players arriving this past summer on the transfer market, and the internal development of remaining players have affected Juventus' tactics this season.
Paulo Dybala scored 13 goals in 17 games for Juventus this season. It only took him 12 Serie A games to score the same amounts of goals as he recorded all of last season. Is Juventus doing something different this season that allows Dybala to score so many goals? Or is Dybala developing into a better player?
Dybala's pass success percentage (2016/17: 85.1 percent vs. 17/18: 85.4 percent), key passes (1.9 vs. 1.8 per game), dribble success rate (73.3 percent vs 71.4 percent) and loss of possession (4.1 vs 4.2 per game) are all very similar in these two seasons. What differs the most is the number of shots: Dybala shoots 4.9 times a game this season, a 75 percent increase compared to last season (2.8 shot per game). The increased number of shots is the main reason Dybala is scoring so many more goals this season because he is only converting shot slightly better than last season (14.3 percent vs 18.5 percent).
Juventus' offense strategy has changed this season. Massimiliano Allegri has not implemented an offensive system as unique as Napoli, Inter or Roma. But Juventus' players have a better understanding of what is the most effective way for them to attack. Dybala is scoring more because Juventus is generating more effective attacking plays.
In the offensive phase, Allegri's team mainly tries to achieve two things:
- To find Dybala in the zone 14 preferably behind the opponent's midfield and allow him to face directly the last line of defense.
- If Dybala is marked tightly, Juventus will use the width to maximally stretch and distort the opponent's defense.
Dybala is very dangerous. He has a very powerful shot and he can pass very accurately with his left leg. He also has very quick feet and can dribble very well. If he can free himself from markers and receive the ball in the zone 14, the opponents will almost have to foul him before he elicits damages.
Dybala has one weakness: He can't dribble past defenders easily when there is not enough space or speed. In this way, Dybala is very different from Lionel Messi or Alessandro Del Piero. Those players can protect the ball, dribble past defenders and create chances even with limited space or at a slow speed. Therefore, it is easier for their teams to find them during the offensive phase, because they can operate even they position further away from the goal. For Dybala, the situation is a little different. He has the skills of a typical striker and finisher. He is most dangerous when he is running at full speed towards the opponent's last line of defense in a split-second. However, it is very difficult for him to create openings when he is crowded by multiple lines of defenses or when he does not have the momentum.
In the early stage of the last season, Dybala was not as dangerous as before, because he often dropped back to the midfield to help the build-up while the team did not know how to effectively released him. Therefore, Dybala often had to navigate multiple lines of defense.
This season, Allegri's men seem to be able to find the most effective way to utilize Dybala. Juventus is more aggressive at tackling the opponent or the loose ball in the opponent's half. The teammates are finding him closer to the goal and Dybala is combining better with Mario Mandzukic and Gonzalo Higuain.
Most importantly, Miralem Pjanic and Claudio Marchisio are now better at sending vertical passes to bypass the opponent's midfield and find Dybala in the zone 14, directly in front of the last defenders. At this current stage, either Pjanic or Marchisio must play, because they are the only midfielders with the passing range to send those vertical passes. Allegri has tried to use Rodrigo Bentancur in the midfield when Pjanic and Marchisio are not available. He is obviously supremely talented and may have the passing range to make those passes, but he is playing very conservatively and seems to play a lot of safe but harmless horizontal passes, and the team suffered from the lack of creativity in the midfield. Bentancur is so young and talented that hopefully his courage will grow as he gains more experiences and confidences.
For now, Pjanic and Marchisio are so important for the midfield because of their passing ranges. In fact, I think Juventus should play BOTH of them together in a 4-3-3.
But whether Pjanic/Marchisio plays or not, Dybala is almost always marked closely, and what we always see in Juventus' offensive phase is that they are always swinging the balls between the two flanks.
It is just simple logic. The opponents often jammed the center. When you don't have players — like, for example, Paul Pogba — that can consistently dribble and create openings, you have to stretch them to distort their defensive shape.
The combo of Alex Sandro/Kwadwo Asamoah is supporting the left flank pretty well. Alex Sandro is having problems with his crosses, but Asamoah is providing a lot of cover at that position. The right-hand side needs some work. Stephan Lichtsteiner is having a lot of problems when defending. Stefano Sturaro should only be used there in the emergency. Mattia De Sciglio should start, with the game against Benevento showing the problem he had but also hinted what he can provide in the future.
No matter how you rate his skill, his current problem is mental. In the first half against Benevento, like Bentancur, he played with minimal risk and rarely pushed down the flank to support Juan Cuadrado. In the second half, for whatever reason, he played with a lot more courage and surged down to the sideline a few times. His crosses created several chances, including the first goal.
He will have to do that constantly for Juventus. He does not have to attack like Maicon or Dani Alves. But those running down the flank and combination with Cuadrado (or whoever plays there) can help pulling defenders away from their preferred shape or off Dybala or Cuadrado.
Another weapon Juventus is playing a lot this year is the positional exchange between Dybala and Cuadrado. Dybala is a magnet for defenders, and he can often pull a defender away and it leaves a gap for Cuadrado to attack.
The defense changes slightly, too.
Juventus also holds a very high line for long segments of a game this season. They don't use an aggressive man-orientated press but rather an aggressive zone. The former aims to generate transitions. Juventus focuses on forcing the opponent losing the possession, whether it results in a transition or a ball going out of the line.
Some early defensive woes result from the high pressing scheme.
The three lines of defense don't move synchronously and it results in big gaps between the lines. Therefore, the opponents have the freedom to attack the defense without pressure from the midfield.
Juventus did look more aggressive in tackling the ball immediately following the loss of possession in the opponent's half. But as we discussed above, Juventus players position themselves very far away between each other to maximally stretch the opponent, meaning it takes longer time for the players to reach the ball, and generate less pressure to the ball.
There seems to be a balance that Allegri's men have not yet to achieve — how many men to pour forward to generate potent offense without losing defensive solidity. The two central midfielders are center to this consideration. When Sami Khedira starts, he likes to pour forward. But when they lose the ball in the opponent's half, it renders Pjanic/Marchisio and the two central defenders very exposed. And this problem becomes worse when you consider that very few Juventus' offensive players can dribble or protect the ball as well as teams like Real Madrid or Barcelona.
The experiment with 4-3-3 seems to fail miserably for the time being (3-0 loss against Barcelona on Sept. 12, 2-1 loss against Lazio on Oct. 14). But it is something Juventus should have in the proposal. Ninety percent of European teams play with a 4-3-3, and the defensive woe with the 4-3-3 is due to lack of practice:
The three midfielders do not hold a very tight line in the defensive phase. Think about this, from the above clip, there are three central midfielders but it only took Lazio one simple pass to completely penetrate them and left the defenders completely exposed. One would hope that the players will learn to play better as they get to know the system better.
This is Allegri's fourth year as Juventus' manager, but this is the first time that his most important player(s) didn't leave in the summer: Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez and Andrea Pirlo all left in the summer of 2015, while Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata departed the next year. All these players define how Juventus played in the offensive phase in the previous year. This summer all of the important attacking players stayed and the team seems to be able to continue to improve from the previous season. You can see from the last month that Juventus' players are far more comfortable and patient to pass the ball around to deal with the opponents' block. They circulate the ball between the flanks in order to shift the defense until they lose the shape or find Dybala free in the zone 14. This is as good as we will get in term of "a playing style.” It is not as distinctive as Napoli or Manchester City, but after four years, we should know by now that Allegri only looks for a style that he deems most effective.
Juventus is showing they are getting the balance between offense and defense better against Barcelona and Crotone and the timing is perfect because they will be playing against Inter, Napoli, Roma and that all-important match against Olympiacos in the Champions League in the coming weeks. After this month, we should have an answer to how good this Juventus is.