Monaco started last Wednesday night’s first leg of the Champions League semifinals with two changes of their usual lineup, with Djibril Sidibé replacing Benjamin Mendy as the left back while Nabil Dirar, a right winger, played as the right back.
Juventus manager Maximiliano Allegri fielded the usual 4-2-3-1, but with Andrea Barzagli slotted into the right back role while Dani Alves started in the right winger position in place of Juan Cuadrado. Claudio Marchisio also replaced the suspended Sami Khedira.
Juventus’ solutions to Monaco's high presses
1) Three center backs
We discussed in the tactical preview post that Monaco employs a sophisticated scheme on defense that allows them to force the opponent to play the ball in the middle and facilitates them to generate transition opportunities. A central element of their defensive scheme is a carefully-designed high press that cut off opponent's passing lanes to the flanks and forced the opponents to pass through the middle. In this game, Allegri and Juventus solved Monaco's high presses almost in perfection.
Allegri explained after the match that Barzagli played right back while Alves replaced Cuadrado on the right wing because, without Khedira, Juventus needed more aerial ability while Barzagli could provide more preventative marking to contain Monaco's speed. All of these factors focus on the defensive phase.
However, intentional or not, playing Barzagli alongside Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini also allowed them to deploy three center backs and allowed Juventus to have man advantage over Monaco's two strikers both defensively and offensively. Even though they were beaten in both games, Borussia Dortmund was quite successful in advancing the ball past Monaco's first line of defense with their three center backs. Juventus's back three in this game did exactly that:
The wide and horizontal positioning between the three center backs created a problem for Monaco's two strikers because they were out-numbered. To successfully pressuring the initial build-up of Juventus, either Bernardo Silva or Thomas Lemar needed to move up to form a 4-3-3:
Monaco has only occasionally used a 4-3-3 to press opponents. The reason is that when if they move to a high 4-3-3 press, they would not be able to cover the flank in the midfield unless the side backs push up, something that they are reluctant to do because it would compromise their compact shape and leave too much space in the back. Therefore, they would not be able to exert too much pressure against Juventus' center backs in the build-up:
It was a bold move for Allegri. He was often criticized for using three center backs because it could not utilize Juventus' attacking talents. Although Allegri has used Barzagli as a center back and right back hybrid after moving to 4-2-3-1 (the Coppa game against Napoli), it was still bold for him to play like that in such a high-profile match.
2) Double pivot
Apart from a few careless passes, Marchisio and Miralem Pjanic performed the double pivot duties exceptionally well. They helped not only to control the possession and progress the ball but also stretching Monaco's defense and burning their energy.
During the build-up, both Marchisio and Pjanic often positioned themselves such that there would be a viable passing lane towards them from the three center backs, Alex Sandro and Dani Alves. Particularly, when Juventus advanced the ball from the back, there were five outfield players close to the ball, comparing to Monaco's front four players. With the numerical disadvantages, Monaco's players could not cover all the passing lanes from Juventus' center backs. Removing or blocking the passing lanes towards Marchisio and Pjanic meant that Juventus' center backs could pass the ball to Alves or Sandro.
Moreover, Marchisio and Pjanic often positioned very close to each other and tried to maintained a viable passing lane between them.
Such carefully maintained positions between them meant that it was often easy for the two players to exchange passes between each other. If one player was pressured, the other players could always bail him out of danger.
If the involved players lack passing ability, such arrangments will hamper ball progression, because they would not be able to advance the ball. But because Marchisio and Pjanic both have exceptional passing range and vision, they were able to push the ball easily and pass the ball almost anywhere they wanted. Coupled with Bonucci's long pass ability, Juventus was able to completely stretch Monaco's defense using the full length and width of the pitch. And Juventus also carried out these passes very quickly, moving Monaco's players all over the place.
There were a couple of notable miss passes from both Marchisio and Pjanic, and they could have done better in the future. However, Monaco was a fast team, and they prey for those chances. One may not be able to eliminate all the instances that they could take advantage of the transitions. Apart from these mistakes, the double pivot was instrumental for Juventus' victory because Monaco's players were visibly tired in the last thirty minutes of the game. They were no longer able to carry out the high presses on a consistent basis. A large part of their inability to push is because Juventus was able to utilize the pitch in the earlier part of the match, and the double pivot is instrumental to that success.
3) Monaco's adjustment and yet another Juventus' solution
After about 15 or 20 minutes of the game, Monaco adjusted their pressing scheme that was ineffective. Initially, Monaco's front four players could not cover the three Juventus center backs and the double pivot. To eliminate the numerical disadvantage, at least one of the two Monaco's central defensive midfielders pushed up and joined the presses.
With the smart use of cover shadow and a restored numerical equality, Monaco was able to cut out the passing lanes towards Marchisio and Pjanic while maintained pressures on the ball handling center back.
Instead of being pinned down in their half by Monaco's new pressing scheme, Juventus adjusted their build-up very quickly. The solution was very simple. Rather than progressing the ball through the center backs, Buffon would just hit a long ball forward. These long balls have only one target, and that was Mario Mandzukic. .
Almost every single long ball sent by Gigi Buffon reached the left flank of the midfield, where Mandzukic and Alex Sandro operated. It is not surprising that Juventus would use Mandzukic as a target man since he is one of the best headers in the world and is the most physical player other than the central defenders. What is surprising is the speed that Juventus reacted to Monaco's adjustments. It took merely a few minutes for Juventus to switch to having Buffon to send the long balls to Mandzukic. This observation would suggest that these tactical changes must have been discussed and practiced before the match.
4) Dybala's brillance
After switching to the 4-2-3-1, Paulo Dybala has played the trequartista role. His technical quality is beyond doubt, but his interpretation of the role was not always optimal. There always seems to be too much "striker" in him that he would take a few too many dribbles or try to shoot by himself. He was brilliant against Barcelona, but he was also afforded the space to do the damage. However, against Monaco, he finally showed the signs that he is mature enough to be that number ten to lead Juventus and compete at the highest level.
Against Monaco, Dybala did not showcase the eye-popping dribbles or his thunderous shot. But more importantly, he always moving in the midfield to try to connect to his teammates to simply advance the ball:
These kinds of connections to Marchisio, Pjanic, Dani Alves and Mandzukic were subtle but critical, in particular against a team liken Monaco who is so aggressive and put so much pressure on the opponent. Dybala's connections to other teammates not only allowed Juventus to advance the ball, but they also relived Monaco's pressures. It is even more impressive considering Dybala himself was being pressured when he received most of these balls.
All of these tactics instructed by Allegri allowed Juventus to control the game for a majority of the matches. You can see almost all of these tactics in all of the actions that led to the first goal:
5) Juventus delayed Monaco's transition
For a team like Monaco who lives on transitional opportunities, it must act quickly enough such that they can enter the offensive phase BEFORE the other team enters the defensive phase. Therefore, if it is not fast enough, it will never be able to capitalize these opportunities. To minimize Monaco's opportunities in transitions, not only Juventus was careful when in possession, Juventus' players were also very aggressive against Monaco's players when they lost the ball:
As you can see, Mandzukic and Alex Sandro were aggressive to tackle and attack Bernardo Silva once Juventus lost the possession. The idea is that if Juventus' players lost the ball, the ball closest players would attack the opponent's ball handler so that Monaco would not be able to enter the offensive phase. The delay allowed Juventus' players to enter the defensive phase.
Allegri carefully designed several very specific strategies that aim to minimize and delay Monaco from utilizing their strength in transition games. Leonardo Jardim adjusted his team accordingly, but Juventus had the exact answers for his changes. Without a Plan B, Monaco slowly but painfully lost the grasp of the game. Monaco simply had no ways to effectively attack Juventus other than sending hopeless crosses from the right-hand side.
Arrigo Sacchi had this to say about the first leg: “Juventus are doing something extraordinary, they really are a machine. A machine which completely annihilates the opponent until they’re rendered lifeless, almost nothing. The last thing happened last night with Monaco."
What about the second leg in Turin?
Monaco will play without any pressure. They have a mountain to climb, but they also have nothing to lose, and therefore, they will take a lot of risk in the second game.
The most important question for Monaco is that whether Mendy will play. When he plays, Monaco can utilize the left flank much better because Mendy is very strong, fast and skillful. Sidibe could not replace him. He cannot take on a player as well as Mendy. Moreover, he is playing on the wrong foot. When he plays the left back, he almost exclusively cuts back inside to use his right foot. This habit becomes a big problem for Monaco in the offensive phase because Sidibe always operates in the same area as Lemar (left half space) and both of them were ineffective.
Another option is Andrea Raggi, but he is worse than Sidibe as a left back. He possesses no dribbling ability, he is slow and he cannot even cut back inside consistently and cross the ball.
Assuming that Mendy is not able to recover in time for Tuesday night’s second leg, one viable option for Jardim is to play Lemar at the left back. Lemar is not a defender, but Monaco has to take a risk and they will have to press Juventus very aggressively from the start of the match. It does not matter to put Lemar there because if their presses are successful, he will not be spending a lot of time defending. Putting him at left back and playing Bernardo Silva as the left midfielder should allow Monaco to restore the attacking structure and positional plays they lacked in the first match. On the right-hand side, Sidibe can return to his preferred right-back position with Dirar as the right winger. Playing this lineup should guarantee sufficient offensive potency on the two flanks. In the middle, Moutinho can replace Bakayoko and improves their vertical passing ability.
No matter how Monaco lines up, several weaknesses remain in the team:
- The center backs lack passing ranges.
- There is not creativity in the team, other than Bernardo Silva.
Therefore, Monaco does not have great ability to penetrate through the middle and they rely on the flanks and the crosses to attack. In the first game, Juventus conceded too many crosses into the box from Monaco's right-hand side. Allegri criticized than Mandzukic sometimes were too slow to close down the crosser. Part of the reason is that in Juventus wanted to have an extra center back to contain Monaco's two strikers. In the deep defensive phase, Juventus used a 5-3-2 shape. The three midfielders would struggle to cover the whole width of the pitch. One solution is to have Dybala dropping back to the midfield to form a 5-4-1 shape. Monaco has not demonstrated the ability to send switching passes consistently and Juventus may be able to use a more ball-orientated approach to defend the ball close side and ignore ball far side.