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Massimiliano Allegri’s indifference puts Juventus’ European dream in limbo

How did Juventus do against Tottenham Hotspur? And how can Juve come back in the second leg next month?

Juventus v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Massimiliano Allegri was indifferent to the challenge.

It was a Champions League game. Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham Hotspur squad were in town. Juventus were without three starting players. These problems didn’t worry Allegri. He had thought that Juventus would be fine if they played their football.

But Pochettino found a crack and broke the Bianconeri‘s game.

So, now, Juventus goes into the second leg with a significant disadvantage. A repeat of two years ago. Allegri needs a specific game plan, like he did against Bayern Munich, but hopes that they would advance this time.

Pochettino’s masterplan paid off

Pochettino went to Turin prepared. He dissected Juventus’ defensive system and identified their weak points.

First, to prevent the Bianconeri from congesting the space in the middle, Tottenham played in a 3-4-2-1 (or 3-5-1-1) in the offensive phase, with their fullbacks hogging the sideline acting as wingbacks.

The wingbacks occupied Juventus’ wide midfielders (Federico Bernardeschi and Mario Mandzukic) or fullbbacks (Mattia De Sciglio and Alex Sandro), preventing them from covering the center.

Now that the help is minimized, Pochettino had his attacking midfielders targeting the space between the central midfield and defense. They didn’t just move in and out of that area and waited for the opportunities; they aimed to confuse Juventus’ players’ markings:

This season, Juventus’ defense has changed into a more aggressive zonal press when they defend with the midfield block. When a player comes out, his teammates need to cover him. This action creates a gap if they don’t synchronize the timing of their movements. Pochettino targeted this window, and as his players created a space between the lines, their teammates moved into the area half-way between the midfield and the defense. It was a deliberate move because Juventus’ players had to exchange their marking duty in those positions and confusion could occur when not done properly.

Tottenham’s players played this move excellently, and Juventus’s defense was overwhelmed. Douglas Costa also did them a huge favor with his erratic engagements to Pochettino’s men:

Costa replaced the injured Blaise Matuidi and carried most of the initial engagement to Tottenham’s ball handler in the midfield. When Matuidi was doing this job, he moved out of the midfield only if he was sure his teammates could cover him. Costa didn’t care. He either came out too fast without considering his covers, or he just ball-watched. The defensive shape got caught between a 4-4-2 without the first line, and a 4-5-1 with a hole in the middle. Maybe it was too much to ask from him; Costa was part-timing the midfield. He can’t replace Matuidi since the Frenchman makes a living defending in the midfield. But playing Costa in place of Matuidi weakened Juventus’ mid-block more than Allegri had thought.

Adding insult to the injury was Spurs’ intense pressing when out of the possession. It is one of their signature moves and hampered Juventus’ ability to transition into the offensive phase. Worse, it immediately put Tottenham in the offensive phase before the Juve’s players could move into their proper defensive positions. Tottenham’s first goal is a direct result of their counter-pressing:

All these factors led to Tottenham dismantling Juventus’ zonal system. Their wingbacks stretched Allegri’s defense, minimizing the help from the wide men. Costa’s incapability to provide midfield defense exposed Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic. With Pochettino’s manipulation of his opponent’s marking duty exchange and Tottenham’s counter-pressing, Juventus’ defense collapsed in the first half.

Pochettino’s preparations paid off.

Juventus’ positive takeaways

Even with the possession largely taken away by Tottenham’s intense pressing, Juventus was still able to transition into their full attacking phase:

They were able to do so because they didn’t need the transition phase to transform into their attacking mode. Mandzukic is still dominating his markers on the left flank. No build up nor positional exchanges were needed. Just a long ball can do the job. It kept Juventus’ offense working in the match even when they couldn’t keep hold of the ball.

Allegri made the necessary adjustments in the second half. Costa swapped position with Khedira and paid more attention to his defensive duty. The midfielders focused on keeping the mid-block intact and covering each other instead of aggressively coming out to engage Tottenham’s players. The fullbacks closed out Tottenham’s wingbacks more and faster than they did in the first-half, keeping Mandzukic and Bernardeschi close to the center. The most important fix was to limit the space between the lines. Giorgio Chiellini and Medhi Benatia were very quick to tackle Tottenham’s incoming attacking midfielders. That was a critical adjustment as it eliminated the confusion caused by the exchange of the passing duty:

Juventus’ defensive was more solid in the second half. They looked worn out after 70th minute because of fatigue, but they kept those penetrations that wrecked havoc in the first half at a minimum. Pochettino created a hole, at least Allegri fixed it.

Juventus needs a plan for the second leg

Pochettino did his homework. He came with a plan. Allegri didn’t. Or he did, and he just didn’t care. He had confidence in his team, but maybe it was too much.

Juventus play ultra-penetrative football, and that style is prone to the loss of possession. But they seldom lost control in the league because Serie A games are slower and less intense than the European ones. Juventus’ physicality can bail them out in Italy. Tottenham isn’t physically stronger than Juventus. To me, it was closer to 50-50. But a winnable ball in Serie A becomes a loose ball against Spurs, and it adds up. Tottenham react faster than Juventus because they are used to these situations, so they dominated the possession in the first leg.

Juventus don’t need possession to win. They can control a game because their defense can soak up the pressure. So when they sit deep, they lure the opponent into their half, and they generate space for their ultra-penetrative attack. But they lost control of the game in the first half when their defense collapsed. All the ball chasing tired them out and they go to Wembley without two valuable away goals.

Going into the second leg, Allegri had a lot of thinking to do. Maybe Juventus should take control the possession because you will spend less time defending and get tired out. What about a switchable 3-4-3 from the 4-3-3? De Sciglio should play. He is the only one who has the calm to dribble in the back. Or Andrea Barzagli should start ahead of Benatia because the Moroccan is very uncomfortable playing the ball. But a simple switch of the formation won’t magically dissolve Spurs’ pressing. They need more ball-playing midfielders and positional exchanges. Have a midfielder dropping between the center backs, and a second midfielder moving in the space or even a third one doing the same. We are talking about articulately designed and executed movements and passes, things that need planning before the match.

Paolo Dybala is almost sure to start. What about Costa and Bernardeschi? Costa’s lightning speed works better with space, and as the game winds down Tottenham will look to close up shop. So Allegri may want to start Costa and use Bernardeschi off the bench later in the match.

And how many ball-playing and box-to-box midfielders should start if Juventus starts a 4-3-3? If Allegri aims to control the possession, then he may want to use two of Pjanic, Claudio Marchisio and Rodrigo Bentancur. In that case, you can’t play both Dybala and Costa.

There are too many factors to consider and too many conditions to calculate. One thing is sure; Allegri can’t be indifferent on March 7. He needs to be a puppet master and guide his team to turn this tie around at Wembley.