The first leg between Juventus and Tottenham in Turin. was a great tactical battle. The second game? It was even better.
Juventus’ back three vs. Tottenham’s mid-block
Juventus needed to score. Massimiliano Allegri wanted to control the possession, so he used a back three. As a result, Juve had more possession than they did in the first leg — 46 percent vs. 34 percent — and the extra defender gave them more bodies when Tottenham counter-attacked.
Like Lazio, Tottenham maintained a compact mid-block. Spurs didn’t aggressively press against Juventus during their initial build-up, and just like when they played against Lazio, they couldn’t pass through that mid-block. Their ball’s movements were too slow, and Tottenham could set into the proper positions to wait for Juventus’ attack. Unable to advance through the center, Juventus’ only outlet was the wingbacks:
Tottenham’s fullbacks closed down Douglas Costa and Alex Sandro as soon as they received the ball. Costa could only turn inside and had to deal with Spurs’ helpers from the middle, which meant Juventus couldn’t find any space to attack.
Spurs also attacked the ball handlers aggressively once their mid-block got close to them. They played to their strengths and won a majority of the 50-50 duels. Juventus couldn’t adjust to Tottenham’s pressure and their players became impatient after 30 minutes. They tried to force through the mid-block, and when they couldn’t, every wrong pass turned into a Tottenham counterattack.
Mousa Dembele terrorized Juventus in the first leg, so Allegri put a marker on him in every possession. Sami Khedira, Paulo Dybala or Blaise Matuidi always stayed close to him, and Spurs’ attack was stagnant without Dembele.
Juventus wanted to press against Tottenham. This urgency became a problem:
One player had to man-mark Dembele. The center backs or the wingbacks didn’t cover the midfielders. The midfield couldn’t stay compact. Spurs could pass through it on multiple occasions and they scored the first goal.
The move that changes the tie
Juventus could not find any space until Allegri introduced Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner. The formation changed into a 4-4-2 and a 2-4-4 in attack. When you play with only two center backs, you usually don’t control the ball as well as when you play with a back three. But Tottenham wasn’t pressing and their defense was heavy ball- and man- orientated. They wanted to maintain the mid-block. When Asamoah and Lichtsteiner pushed to the midfield, Spurs’ players had to shift to the ball-close side when the ball reached the flank:
The line stretched wider, but the players stayed closer because of the extra defender. For the first time, Juventus could move the ball faster than Tottenham’s mid-block. They now found space when they circulated the ball between the flanks. They also had a tactical advantage on the flank: Costa and Sandro occupied Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies and Spurs couldn’t shift between the sidelines fast enough. Lichtsteriner and Asamoah had the freedom and could generate the overload, especially when Dybala moved to the flank.
The equalizer shocked Tottenham. They wanted to cover the flank and eliminated Juventus’ numerical advantage. They spread to a wide 4-4-2 to match Juventus’ new shape. But doing so opened the central channels:
With one move, Juventus flipped the tie.
Juve spent 60 minutes trying to find a crack and they couldn’t. They didn’t have enough technical nuances to play through that mid-block, so they needed to stretch it. Vertical stretching with the long ball wasn’t possible without Mario Mandzukic, and the only solution was to use the width. They didn’t have any wingers, so the fullbacks became the only solution. We won’t know if Allegri instructed Juventus how they should attack when they changed formation. He probably didn’t and thought that as long as they could stretch Tottenham’s defense, the attackers would do the job, and they did.
Mauricio Pochettino made a mistake. Tottenham’s superior reflex and Juventus’ woeful build-up gave him the wrong impression that the Italians couldn’t attack. He thought that Juventus’ chances in the first two games were accidental, but they weren’t. Juventus averages 2.42 goals per game in the league, 0.3 more than the previous six seasons. Their attack has been potent all season and they just needed a spark to ignite.
Once in control, Juventus closed up shop and the tie was over.
The best tactical battle this season
The two legs were fantastic. We have two elite teams that exposed each other’s weakness — Juventus’ poor build-up suffers against the ultra-aggressive pressing and tackling, but Spurs’ fragile defense couldn’t defend the Italians. They put each other in miserable situations, and they needed to play outside of their comfort zones. Mistakes amplified and the coaches needed to find, fix or exploit them.
Juventus are the better team. Tottenham played the more attractive football, but not better football. If they had dominated Juventus, as Pochettino believed, Juventus would not have fought back in the last 30 minutes. Tottenham played their favorite football, but they still couldn’t finish the job. Even with their weakness fully exposed, Juventus’ defense could weather the storm. When they finally had the chance, they killed off Pochettino’s side. Juventus could stop bleeding with their hands tied. Tottenham couldn’t. Juventus deserves the qualification.
Allegri edged out Pochettino, but didn’t knock him out. In the first half three weeks ago, Pochettino studied and exploited the tiny crack when Juventus’ players exchange marking duty. Allegri fixed the problem, but Juventus came out with a disadvantage of the away goal. In the second game, Allegri changed to a back three to counter Spurs’ pressing and froze out Dembele. Juventus kept the ball better than the first game, but they couldn’t solve Pochettino’s mid-block. They kept probing until Allegri’s stroke of genius finally opened the channels for the attackers. As predicted, Juventus’ more extensive tactical range made the difference.
You may argue that Pochettino should have responded to Allegri’s move. But Juventus first substitution and Dybala’s goal lasted seven minutes. Playing a Monday morning quarterback is easy; being in Pochettino’s position isn’t. Pochettino forced Allegri into showing everything the Italian could think of. They gave everything they had, and we got to enjoy this fantastic battle.
Juventus’ champion quality
Tottenham should be proud because they are phenomenal. They beat last year’s Champions League winner, Real Madrid, twice and almost knocked out the runner-up. The loss is devastating, but their future is bright. Remember how Manchester United won the first treble? They had suffered consecutive painful losses before they finally clicked. Tottenham can follow that route.
This is a massive win for Juventus. They not only move to the quarterfinal but also grow into a better team. Chiellini was fantastic (like always), but Gonzalo Higuain has become a leader. Not just the goals and the assist, but he played with poise and maturity with little support for 173 minutes. When your best striker is a leader, you can rely on him. You know you can always hurt the opponent, and you gain confidence and patience. Juventus are tougher than they were before this tie.
Juventus moved into the Champions League quarterfinals because of their newfound quality, not luck, even though Tottenham imposed their football on Juventus for the majority of the two ties. Everything looks good when you play to your strength, but only the fittest and the strongest can survive the suffering. You can’t always play to your strength in Europe. Teams are too good. The quality that allows you to grind out a victory against an elite opponent in your most vulnerable state makes a champion. How can anyone beat you if you can suffer and not lose? They have lacked that quality in Europe until now. Last year’s European run wasn’t a fluke, but they weren’t challenged enough until the final. This tie shows that Juventus grow as a team. All those painful losses finally click.
The build-up’s problem was exposed —again — and isn’t fixed by advancing. Allegri has admitted the problem. Miralem Pjanic needs to play with more calm because he is irreplaceable. They have a lot of work to do. But if they can improve these things, they will become a truly formidable side, and maybe they can go a little further this year.