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On Juventus’ 4-2-3-1 system and Max Allegri’s coaching philosophy

ACF Fiorentina v Juventus FC - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Massimiliano Allegri has recently implemented the 4-2-3-1 system at Juventus. Critics and media have praised Allegri for his tactical adjustment. Many fans are happy with the change while others criticize this change should be made earlier. Here I will analyze the features of this 4-2-3-1 formation and tactics. I will use Jose Mourinho's Treble-winning team at Inter as a comparison. I will also discuss some other tactics Juventus has utilized in the last few months and their overall performance this season. Hopefully, all of these discussions can help us to answer a question: What is Allegri's coaching philosophy?

The 4-2-3-1 formation

The 4-2-3-1 is most famously used by Mourinho, especially when Inter won the Treble in the 2009-10 season. Because it is necessary for us to understand Mourinho's tactics to appreciate Allegri's tactics, I will briefly discuss Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 formation.

The defense started with Julio Cesar in the goal protected by two center backs in Lucio and Walter Samuel. Douglas Maicon and Christian Chivu were the right and left fullbacks, while Javier Zanetti could play both positions (or any other position). The midfield double pivot consisted of Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta. Wesley Sneijder was the classic No. 10. The two wingers were Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto'o supporting Diego Milito.

Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 had several important tactical elements (not only Inter, but almost every team he has coached):

  1. The double pivots in the midfield. The two midfielders have overlapping but distinct qualities. One defensive midfielder should possess excellent passing range to dictate the tempo and was usually Thiago Motta while Cambiasso was tasked to facilitate ball carriers such as the center backs or the full backs to bring the ball upfield during the initial offensive phase. He also needed to maintain defensive solidity when the full-backs push up to create overloads. These tasks require a tactically intelligent player to handle, and Cambiasso was one of the few players at the time who excelled in this role. Julian Weigl has a similar function in the Thomas Tuchel's 4-2-3-1 system in Dortmund.
  2. The double pivots in the midfield could draw opponents players towards them, thus creating an opportunity for the Inter defenders to bring the ball forward. Therefore, Mourinho always prefers center back who is comfortable with the ball. In his Inter team, Lucio was tasked with such role.
  3. The two wingers often featured at least one inverted winger (sometimes two). Eto'o played this role perfectly when he was in Inter. He and Pandev often cut inside and shot.
  4. Mourinho's teams always featured a classic No. 10, and in his Inter team, he got Sneijder who played his best football in his career.

All of these above features make the 4-2-3-1 an excellent system at taking advantage of opponent's errors and minimizing their own. Mourinho has famously said that he believes that a winning team is a team which committed the least amount of errors. He will concede possession to the opponent so that his team will make fewer mistakes. His 4-2-3-1 formation is also built for one purpose: To punish the opponent's error in the fastest way. Starting with the deep defensive phase, the formation is a 4-5-1 park-the-bus type of defense. This is to minimize his team to commit any error and to wait for the other teams to commit an error. Once they caught an error, his team can quickly transform into 4-2-3-1 and then a 4-3-3. The inverted winger is critical to Mourinho's team because his cutting in will either create an opportunity to shoot or to assist. His choice to put Eto'o in this position represents everything he believes in: no tricks required, just try to score. If the ball is lost during the offensive phase, the 4-3-3 formations allow them to press immediately, and therefore, to force opponent;s to commit an error. The TRANSITION BETWEEN FORMATIONS and THE SPEED TO ACHIEVE TRANSITION are the keys of Mourinho's 4-2-3-1

Juventus' 4-2-3-1: The defensive phase

Juventus's 4-2-3-1  has very similar basic elements of a classical 4-2-3-1.

Lineup wise, Juventus features a center back who passes the ball well in Leonardo Bonucci and one center back who can bring the ball forward in Giorgio Chiellini. Offensively, the double pivots of Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira have similar quality as Thiago Motta and Cambiasso, respectively. But Pjanic and Khedira are far less defensively solid compared to the two Inter players. Juventus does not have a classic No. 10, but Paulo Dybala has the quality to do well there. Allegri also plays a traditional (Juan Cuadrado) and a seemingly inverted winger (Mario Mandzukic) in this system.

But the underlying concepts played by Allegri were different from that of Mourinho's.

As I discussed earlier, Mourinho's teams seamlessly transition from 4-3-3, then 4-2-3-1 and finally to 4-5-1 during the defensive phase. The 4-3-3 is used to press the opponents during the initial defensive phase. If the opponent can resist the initial pressing, Mourinho's team will quickly settle in the 4-2-3-1 with a double layer of midfield. The pressure exerted by this midfield arrangement is very high. If it is still unable to retrieve the ball, they then transition to a 4-5-1 park the bus type of deep defense.

Juventus does not defend the way Mourinho's teams defend. The advantage of the quick transition to 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 does not apply here because apart from the early few games of the season, Juventus exclusively defends in 4-4-2. No matter whether Juventus plays with four central midfielders in the 4-3-1-2, or with four attackers in the 4-2-3-1, or with three signature center backs in 3-5-2, Juventus always reverts into the most basic three-lines 4-4-2 formation in the defensive phase.

The 4-4-2 is the most basic formation, it is the easiest and simplest shape to implement. There are three lines of defense, and at any position, there is one player directly behind or in front of you. There are always reference points — your teammates — to relate to and therefore; it is the best strategy to never lose the defensive shape.

To play the 4-2-3-1 lineup, Allegri has to adjust the defensive strategy of the team comparing to when they play 3-5-2, 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-3. The double pivots of Khedira and Pjanic do not have enough physicality and defensive strength. Therefore, Juventus uses mainly two strategies to decrease the defensive loads of Khedira and Pjanic. First, if they lost the ball in the opponent's half during the offensive phase, Juventus’ attacking players will very quickly counter-press the opponents to retrieve the balls and to delay their transition into the offensive phase. I have covered it in a previous article, so I am not going to talk about it here. If they fail to retain possession, they then quickly settle into a 4-4-2 defensive shape (you can call it a 4-4-1-1 because Dybala is often behind Gonzalo Higuain). In this set-up, both Cuadrado and Mandzukic will occupy the winger positions. What is also different from Mourinho's team is that there isn't a defensive phase where the team applies intense pressure in the midfield. It is either a very high press, occasional counter- press or a very deep 4-4-2.

Their 4-4-2 is narrow and compact. This narrowness and compactness are necessary because Mandzukic, Cuadrado, Dybala and Higuain have to be able to support Pjanic and Khedira during the defensive phase. This shape is similar to Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid in the defensive phase. The major difference is that Athletic Madrid plays a very active defense where they use pressing to guide opponent's ball movements into areas (flanks) they want to defend. In contrast, Juventus 4-4-2 is passive. It is because none of these six players in front of the defense is a great 1-v-1 defender. If they are too aggressive in chasing down opponents, it will leave more space for other teammates to cover, thereby increasing the chance for the opponent to open up the defense if they can resist Juventus's initial pressure.

Juventus has been pretty solid in the four games when they use 4-2-3-1. There is no major crack shown during the defensive phase. There are some potential weaknesses. Because Juventus lacks the midfield resistance in this line-up and they have to defend so deep into their half, the opponents can carry possession deep into Juventus's half. It means that there are potentially more chances the opponents possess the ball in dangerous positions in Juventus's half. It is shown in this statistic:

When calculating the average percentage of the opponents' passes in different areas, there is ~6% more opponents' passes that reach Juventus's defensive third. 6% may not sound much. But the average number of passes for each team in Serie A is around 440. 6% translates to about 27 more passes. Therefore, Juventus faces about one more pass in their defensive third for every three and half minute comparing to when they play with other lineups. It can be an issue when you play European elites like Real Madrid.

Another potential problem is that because the attacking players have to put so much more energy in the defensive phase to help anchor the midfield, they become less sharp as the game progresses. This may (and only may because there can be many other reasons) be the reason why Juventus has been scoring a lot more in the opening minutes and fail to get the kill-the-game goal in the second half. You are just not as clinical when you are tired.

Finally, the extremely narrow and compact shape increase pressures to opponents, but it will suffer if a team can spread the ball between flanks. A prime example is the 2016 Champion League Final. Real Madrid used a lot of the cross-field switching passes to open up Athletic Madrid's compact 4-4-2 with significant effect.

Comparing to Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 formation that requires strict discipline to achieve transitions of different shapes in the defensive phase, the defensive phase of Allegri's 4-2-3-1 is a lot simpler, well, because it is not anything but 4-4-2. It is relatively easy and straightforward to implement. He uses extreme compactness, narrowness and passiveness to anchor the defensive and physical fragile double pivots in the midfield.

Juventus' 4-2-3-1: The offensive phase

Most people love the new Juventus's 4-2-3-1 formation because the most skilled and talented attacking players have all been deployed. I will discuss two other tactical aspects that work very efficiently in the new offensive lineup: the "inverted winger" and the double pivot.

The "inverted winger"

This inverted winger is a signature position in Mourinho's tactic. One genius move he made in Inter was to convince Eto'o to play that position. Eto'o excelled in this role. His speed, physicality, and skill allowed him to cut inside to shoot or to assist. And because of his striker instinct, Eto'o never perform unnecessary tricks.

In the Juventus' 4-2-3-1 formation, Allegri uses Mandzukic as the "inverted winger" on the left side. But Mandzukic does not play anything like an inverted winger normally does. He does not have the skill to cut in to shoot or pass consistently. In my opinion, "inverted winger" cannot describe what Mandzukic does in this system. A better term would be "striker in a winger's suit."

In this 4-2-3-1 system, Mandzukic is doing the stuff he does best — be physical and back-to-the-defender type of central forward/striker. The difference is that he is now doing it in a different area or he is playing against different markers. Usually, he is the front man. But because of his defensive position as the left wing, he is often found in the left flank area once Juventus makes the defensive-to-offensive transition. Therefore, he is often marked by right fullbacks of the opponent team. The opponent's center backs cannot follow him very quickly because they would have been dragged out of position. His new position is now giving opponents a lot of problems. Generally, center backs are usually at a similar physical level as him. But fullbacks are typically not like that. They are generally smaller because they have to be mobile and nimble enough to overlap. Therefore, they often cannot contain Mandzukic:

Here, Lazio right back Patric was backed down by Mandzukic in front of the box. He was just too small to challenge Mandzukic and he had all the time, space and freedom to assist Dybala.

Here, Sassuolo right back Luca Antei found Mandzukic in the left flank area so close to the midline. Mandzukic shielded the ball to allow an overlapping run by Alex Sandro. Antei plays center back before the return of Paolo Cannavaro so he has all the physical attributes to challenge Mandzukic. But he does not usually defend so far away from goal. And like more regular center backs, he does not have the speed to recover after Mandzukic laid off the ball.

Mandzukic's physicality in the new found wing position is so dangerous that in the Inter game, Stefano Pioli had to make a change in the lineup and play a three-man defense and use Jeison Murillo on the right side to counter him.

Most people praise his never-stop workman attitude but criticize that he is not clinical enough. These are all true, although I think that his less-clinical finishing is because of him spending too much energy running. But Mandzukic deserves more credits than he is getting. He is one of the key pieces to allow Juventus to play this kind of lineup. He is willing to slot into the left wing position to defend and give up the position a lot closer to the goal. He never complains, but fully embraces it. Think about how many strikers complain about not playing them closer to scoring. Mandzukic is a real professional.

The double pivot

The two central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 are critical for ball progression and to maintain defensive cover. This aspect is true for Mourinho's Inter or Tuchel's Dortmund. In Mourinho's Inter team, Cambiasso was tasked with surveying the teammates' positions. He dropped back to cover the position when the full-backs (usually Maicon) or Lucio pushed up. Wiegel plays the same role in Dortmund. his movements allow Dortmund's defenders to push up to attack.

In Juventus's 4-2-3-1, it is usually Khedira to carry these tasks, since he is better defensively and he has excellent tactical intelligence, just like Cambiasso or Wiegel. We can imagine Marchisio can also do this job in the future.

The double pivots in Juventus are very similar to those in Mourinho's Inter. Though there are some differences that result in different outcomes. We talked about how Allegri plays a narrow and compact 4-4-2 to protect the double pivots in the defensive phase. Offensively, both midfielders, especially Pjanic, have excellent passing ranges. Opponents teams want to pressure them early on to force them to give up the ball. It results in a rather interesting situation:

Lazio's players here have marked both Khedira and Pjanic. Because Lazio — and most Serie A teams — play three central midfielders, two of them will have to occupy them while the deeper defensive midfielder needs to track Dybala, who moves in and out of the between-line spaces. The two wings have to track Juventus fullbacks. Therefore, only one striker (here it is Immobile) is available to track the two Juventus center backs. This situation creates two problems for the opponent: When Higuain drops back to the midfield, no one is tracking him because the opponents' center backs do not want to move all the way out to the midfield. And because all three midfielders and strikers are occupied, there are a lot of space in the midfield, and it facilitates a lot of different passing lanes:

The two goals in the Lazio game were the result of that, where Chiellini could place the pass without any obstruction. Higuain and Mandzukic were able to control the entry pass behind Lazio's midfield with little resistance. And they were able to swing the ball to the right that eventually ended up two goals.

Another problem for the opponent is that because the above scenario, Juventus’ center backs, especially Chiellini is often free to roam up the field:

Chiellini's ability to surge forward is often overlooked. A run like this is very dangerous for the opponent, because of the speed and in the case of this Juventus's lineup, most of the opponent's midfielders and forwards will be occupied. It can completely slice open the defense.

Chiellini is very comfortable with the ball and eager to surge forward whenever he has the opportunity. This is probably because he started as a left back before he moved to become a permanent center back. (Fun fact: for those fans who are younger, Chiellini broke out when he was on loan in Fiorentina. He often did this type of powerful surge on the left flank. He did not want to come back to Juventus at first. He then played in Capello's team and then to Serie B. He was still a left back until Claudio Ranieri placed him at the center back position in the game against Roma. That was his first time to play as the center back in Serie A. The reason was that our center backs were just not good. In fact, it was Domenico Criscito who was supposed to play the center back, but he was too inexperienced and too fragile at the time to do so. Funny how they completely swap positions now.)

There can be some issues in the future. To have this advantage, either Chiellini or Bonucci has to play. Barzagli, Rugani nor Benatia can carry the ball like that. Even Bonucci does not do this kind of stuff as well as Chiellini, and Bonucci has not been the top of his game since his injury.

To counter this problem, a team can use pressing with cover shadow to eliminate the passing lanes to Pjanic and Khedira, thereby freeing up the teammates to not move out of the space. Lazio has done it pretty well in the second half of the game:

In that case, Pjanic and Khedira have to be more alert and smarter so that they can position themselves to keep the passing lanes open for the center backs.

Things to watch with this line-up in the future

What are the issues with this lineup? Juventus only plays four games with this new lineup. There isn't any major problem, but we can discuss and speculate the potential issues in the future.

There are several things they can do better. First is Dybala. I do not think that he is playing badly at all. He is playing very well. But our expectation for him is extremely high because most people believe that he can be absolute world class. One thing I feel is that Dybala is still not interpreting his role completely. I think he is too keen to score and sometimes he will do a few extra dribbles or runs to get himself free to shoot. And because of that, the opponents are easier to anticipate his move. In this lineup, he should play like Sneijder. Sneijder always moves in and out of the between-line space and looks for passes to open up opponent's defense before he dribbles or shoots. Like I said I think that Dybala is playing very well, but this line up can be explosive if his moves are less predictable.

Secondly, if Allegri keeps putting all these big guns up top, then the bench is a little light. The next-in-line attacking player is Marko Pjaca and primavera teenager Moise Kean. Allegri should speed up the development of Pjaca. I am not blaming Allegri. Pjaca was out for a long time. He is also raw, and Juventus is experimenting with several lineups by the time Pjaca fully recovers. But now Allegri will have to run a bit more risks in integrating Pjaca. He may also need to play Kean more. There can be a time we will be chasing a game while Mandzukic or Higuain is out or injured or too tired from defending in this lineup.

The third issue is that it is not possible to play like this two times a week when the Champions League is back. Allegri should play some 4-3-1-2. He may also want to use his substitution earlier when they play the 4-2-3-1. In my opinion, he should also increase the usage of Sturaro.

Many people don't like him. His lack of offensive skills and passing range is evident. But he adds one advantage that no other midfielders can. He is extremely physical defensively, but he also has excellent tactical sense. Consider this example:

When he takes that left-wing position in a 4-4-2 in the defensive phase, he is often tasked to press opponents. But he does not just press whenever a ball handler is around. He only presses when his teammates' position are close to the area. Once his teammates are in an ideal position (when they can cut off the passing lanes) he starts pressing. He does not always get the ball, but he pressures the ball handlers enough so that his teammates can easily trap the ball handlers.

Players with these kinds of tactical intelligence are hard to find. Just compare his positioning with Lemina, who has yet to find that tactical sense. It is also evident that Sturaro often finds himself free in the box — those several chances against Torino or Roma, the penalty versus Bologna. Granted he has not covered any of those chances. But to me, it is because of his lack of confidence and experience. It is shown from the fact that he always just tries to hit the ball very hard in those situations. He isn't bad technically he just needs experience and confidence.

But whether he will be better offensively isn't a major concern now, Allegri should use him more so that Juventus does not have to sit with all 11 players deep in their half the entire game when defending. Playing him and Marchisio together with Khedira and Pjanic increases the resistance in the midfield and alleviates the pressure of the back four. It also decreases the defensive loads of Higuain / Mandzukic and Dybala. There is also Tomas Rincon, but we have seen so little of him.

Allegri's performance so far this season

The 4-2-3-1 formation earns him a lot of praises. But there are also criticisms. Many of us think that he should have abandoned the 3-5-2 formation a lot earlier, he is too conservative, and his team is not performing well this year.

All four losses in the league happened when they play the 3-5-2. I compare the numbers of goal score/concede when they play with different formation:

In fact, when they play 3-5-2, they have the lowest number goal differential per game. It is, therefore, consistent with the argument that Juventus performs the worst in a 3-5-2. But one thing we should also notice is that all four losses in the league came after when they played a midweek game. They lost both games (Inter and Genoa) after playing Sevilla in Champion League. They lost to Milan after winning Lyon with 10-men. They lost to Fiorentina after playing the midweek Coppa Italia game against Atalanta.

Juventus has played 3-5-2 for almost six years. Every other Serie A team knows all the strengths and weaknesses of this formation. There is no surprising element. Therefore, Juventus needs to perform at close to perfection to compete with this formation. And after those intense midweek game, the players were just not always in the prime physical or mental condition to perform 100%. Not anticipating that is Allegri's fault.

But overall, Juventus is not performing badly. I compare the goal scored, conceded and points per game of this year Juventus with the last nine years Serie A champions:

If these patterns hold, Juventus is on course to get close to the 94-point mark. They will get more points and score more goals than any champion team other than Antonio Conte's all-conquering Juventus team in his third and final year as manager. They will, however, concede more goals than any teams other than Mourinho's Inter. Therefore, performance-wise, Juventus this year is not performing worse than before. Allegri's tactics are not that conserved neither. Otherwise, they would not score more and concede more. The only counter-argument is that with the players he has, his team should score more and win more. But this is almost impossible to test. And I think that it is a bit harsh to criticize a team that is on course to get the second highest number of points in the last ten years.

Should he deserve the praises for changing to 4-2-3-1? I think that he deserves praises, but not just because he changes the line-up. What is important is the work he did this season. I reflect on the progression of the team. At first, there is a straight 3-5-2. Then he slowly integrates all the new players and introduces different tactics: playing Dybala in the between-lines space, the 4-4-2 defensive formation, the occasional counter-pressing. Then he changed to a back four and introduced more tactics: the hybrid of back-three in the initial offensive phase, playing Mandzukic wide to accommodate Higuain...etc. And when we think about these, all these works allow Juventus to play this current line-up and I believe he deserves praises for these works.

Allegri's coaching philosophy

It is sometimes to characterize a coach like Allegri. The easiest way to illustrate his coaching philosophy is to compare him to other coaches. Our beloved Conte belongs to a type like Mourinho, Fabio Capello or Pep Guardiola. These coaches play a distinct type of soccer. Capello's teams use pressing to force transition. Mourinho's team plays with extremely quick transition to take advantage of opponent's error. Guardiola uses positional plays and all eleven offensive football to dictate the game. What is common between these coaches is that they demand discipline. Discipline is necessary because the players have very specific and complicated tasks to perform in different phases of the game. Conte's football is the same: the pre-determined movements that are carried out repeatedly during the match.

Allegri is similar to coaches like Marello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti. While they also demand discipline in defense — well, who doesn't when defending? — their offenses require more read-and-react. Therefore, for these coaches, simplicity is necessary for the team during the offensive phase. Lippi's and Ancelotti's teams play with different formations or tactics in different years. The pre-determined movements of players were limited. They always let their most creative players do the magic. The only pre-determined tactic in the offensive phase is to find these players the are where they can do the damage.

Let's all hope that Allegri can achieve what Lippi had accomplished in Juventus.