Massimiliano Allegri has a dilemma to solve.
Juventus have played some of their best football since switching to a 4-3-3 formation. Its success relies on the three central midfielders —Miralem Pjanic, Sami Khedira, and Blaise Matuidi — and two wingers, Mario Mandzukic and Juan Cuadrado. They transform a passive system into an aggressive zonal defense. They are brawny but also brainy enough to keep the offense clicking. The formation functions so well that it keeps Paulo Dybala, Juventus’ future franchise player, on the bench.
In 2018, Allegri needs another Mad Max-type idea to integrate Dybala back into the starting line-up.
A passive-aggressive zonal defense
The 4-3-3 formation empowers Juventus to defend in a passive but aggressive zone, and they are impeccable at doing so. They have conceded only one goal over the last eight weeks. Since switching to this formation against Napoli in early December, Juventus have limited the opponents to create around 40 percent fewer shots than their season averages. In the last five games, Allegri’s men have conceded only 8.45 normalized shots per game, 15 percent fewer than league leader Napoli (9.95 normalized shots per game).
Juventus’ defensive phase switches from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 shape:
When the opponent approaches the half line, one Juventus player will come out to confront the ball handler. The other midfielders compress toward the ball-close side and mark the zone. The tackler aims to minimize the ball handler’s vertical passing lanes. The opponent will find it difficult to pass the ball through the congested space immediately to him. If he cannot dribble past the tackler, he can only pass backward or switch to the ball-far side. If he moves the ball backward, Juventus’ defense will press forward and pushes back the opponent’s possession. As the ball moves closer to the opponent’s goal, Juventus’ defense increases its tackling pressure and forces the opponent to lose the possession.
A zonal defense is often passive because the players need to maintain a preferred team shape. Defenders focus on marking the spaces and not to recover the ball, “You can control the ball, but you can’t pass through us.” Man-orientated marking is active and aggressive. The defending team wants to regain the possession at the earliest, but can lose the defensive shape, “You cannot have the ball.” Juventus’ defense is a hybrid of these forms. “You can have the ball, but I decide where it goes.” It is passive and maintains the defensive shape to minimize the risk. But it is also aggressive because it dictates the location of the opponent’s offense.
This tactic is challenging to perform because the tackler will leave some space when he comes out, he must make sure his teammates can cover him and maintain the zone. He has to be quick to close down the ball handler to efficiently minimize the passing lanes. If the ball moves to another player, the tackler has to decide whether he chases the ball or exchanges the tackling duty with his teammates. In the latter case, he needs to move back with his teammates to cover the new ball tackler and maintain the zone. When a tackler comes out of the midfield, his teammates also need to press forward to minimize the distance between them. Juventus’ midfielders have to perform constant calculations about the positions of the ball and the opponent’s players. They have to decide when to tackle the ball or maintain the zone.
Juventus’ central midfielders are excellent because they always make correct decisions on how they position with each other and the ball. Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi are the primary tacklers. Their positional sense is superb, and they often make accurate assessments of when to cover his teammates or tackle the ball. Juan Cuadrado also deserves praise. He is not a great individual defender. But his positioning has improved tremendously and has become Allegri’s first choice on the right wing.
Juventus’ defense has been fantastic since moving to the 4-3-3 formation. Their defense allows them to dominate in the matches against other title contenders.
A brawny but brainy offense
Juventus’ offense becomes more physical in the 4-3-3 than in the 4-2-3-1 formation. The efficiency has surprisingly improved in the absence of Dybala — they have created 3.6 more shots per game in the absence of Dybala (17.2 vs. 13.6 shots per game). Juventus has basically replaced Dybala’s creativity with Khedira and Matuidi’s box-to-box ability.
Allegri uses Mario Mandzukic’s aerial dominance to attack the left flank. He wins 2.6 headers per game, 15th highest among all attacking players in Serie A. I first labeled him as the “striker in a winger’s suit,” but a better term is the “target wing.” He is dominant over the regular fullbacks. Juventus maximizes this advantage with Matuidi’s tactical intelligence and physicality:
Playing normal center backs on the flank is disadvantageous because they usually lack speed. Many teams move the center back to the flank only when they challenge Mandzukic. But doing so leaves a space in the defense. Matuidi often runs into this space. It is difficult to cover this gap because it is harder for the players to relate the position with the ball when it is in the air. Even if Mandzukic’s header doesn’t result in a clear pass, Matuidi is so strong that he often wins a 50-50 duel. Matuidi constant running in the half-space also allows Alex Sandro to attack the flank. When Juventus plays in the 4-2-3-1 formation, Alex Sandro often faces multiple defenders when Mandukic moves inside. In the new formation, he can combine with either Mandzukic or Mautidi to attack the flank.
On the right flank, Cuadrado or Douglas Costa can dribble past the defender, and Mattia De Sciglio or Stephan Lichtsteiner will provide typical overlapping support from a fullback. Many criticize Khedira’s ability in the offensive phase because he can’t protect the ball and dribble past the defender. But like his function in the defensive phase, Khedira’s contribution is hard to grasp because he excels in position recognition and tactical intelligence:
When Gonzalo Higuain moves out of his position, Khedira will move into the space created by Higuain. He does not always receive the ball after the positional exchange. But his movement pushes back the opponent’s defense, draws a defender(s) with him, and creates space for his teammates to operate (such as a 1-v-1 opportunity for Cuadrado). Khedira does not have the skills like Luka Modric or Arturo Vidal, but his tactical intelligence is world-class. And we always overlook this part when analyzing his games.
Matuidi and Khedira are typical box-to-box midfielders. They cover more space than anyone. When the fullbacks surge forward, Juventus create a 2-3-5 structure, with Pjanic, Matuidi and Khedira forming a base in front of the center back to advance the ball. They will then run into the box to support their teammates. Juventus can have as many as four targets in the box when they attack.
Without Dybala, Pjanic provides most of the creativity. He is the deep-lying playmaker in midfield. Even Andrea Pirlo said, “My heir? Pjanic is the one that comes closest to me at the moment. He is doing very well. He has improved a lot compared to last year. Now he has found his ideal role. He is interpreting it very well.” Pjanic’s passing range is one of the best in the world. But he has a major flaw. He is careless:
Pjanic loses 1.8 possessions per game — which is not a bad number. But Andrea Pirlo was outstanding. He only lost 0.8 possessions per game in his last season at Juventus. Juventus is susceptible to counter-attack if Pjanic loses the ball when Khedira and Matuidi surge forward in attack. Pjanic has to be more careful.
Khedira and Matuidi are vital to Juventus’ offense. Their running opens the opponent’s defense and creates passing lanes. Their recognition of space capitalizes the physical and technical advantages of Juventus’ players. Allegri uses Khedira and Matuidi’s brawns and brains to replace Dybala’s creativity.
Allegri’s dilemma: Where to fit Dybala?
Dybala is Juventus most prized player. But Juventus are playing their best football without him. They dominated Inter and Roma because of their defense. The midfield blocks the ball progression and keeps pushing the opponent’s possession back until they made a mistake. Roma and Inter collapsed after 30 minutes against Juventus. You lose this advantage when you play Dybala.
Allegri has to hide his defensive weakness by playing a passive 4-4-2 shape. They can’t generate enough pressure because Dybala can’t defend like Khedira or Matuidi. I thought that Claudio Marchisio should start instead of them (in my last post). But I was wrong because it is evident that he won’t return to his pre-ACL form and carry the workloads in consecutive games. Khedira, Matuidi, and Pjanic must start if they are fully fit.
You lose a lot of creativity when Dybala doesn’t play. But there are few places you can start him.
Juventus can’t lose Mandzukic on the left wing. He is Juventus’ most dangerous weapon because no team has figured out how to defend him on the flank. He is an important target for the vertical passes. He shields the ball so that other players can move into the positions. And he is Juventus only aerial outlet when the opponent presses them. Taking him out of the winger position is suicidal. Cuadrado is playing on the right flank. His defense is outstanding. And Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi are waiting behind him. You can’t have four top players fighting for one spot.
The only place that Dybala can fit is Higuain’s position. Allegri seems not to be warm to that possibility, as he said that Dybala was not a striker. But Allegri played him as one in the Coppa Italia game against Genoa, and Dybala played well. Can he thrive in that position in the long term? Higuain has missed many chances in the last few games. But his defensive duties have increased since Juventus have moved to the new formation. As the lone striker, he has to cover a lot of areas in defense. The extra workload may have weaken his sharpness in front of the goal. If Higuain can’t maintain the defense-offense balance, Dybala would only do worse.
Allegri has a tricky problem to solve. It is not only a sports issue. It has an impact off the pitch: Dybala is the future franchise player. You can’t keep benching your franchise player. He may not be happy if the team doesn’t build around him. Allegri needs to figure out how to utilize Dybala’s talent in the starting line-up. Mad Max has a blurry road ahead of him.