We’re headed toward the home stretch of the season. There are only nine games left in the Serie A season, the UEFA Champions League has reached the quarterfinal stage, and the Coppa Italia final is set.
It’s a bit distressing then that, unlike in years past, Juventus doesn’t really have a set starting formation at this point in the year. And that is most unlike Massimiliano Allegri.
By this point in his first year with the team, the 2014-15 season, the 4-3-1-2 was the default starting position, with frequent in-game shifts to 3-5-2 as the situation dictated. The next season, changing back to the 3-5-2 ended up being a major factor in Juve’s epic comeback to win their fifth straight title, although Allegri still tinkered with various four-man back line formations in the Champions League. By this time last year, the so-called “Five Star” formation, a 4-2-3-1, was so locked in as the starting formation that by the end of the season it bordered on detrimental, given how few healthy forwards Allegri had at his disposal by the end and how little chance that gave them to rest.
But this year is different. We don’t really know what shape is going to pop out in a given week until an hour before game time when our phones chirp and our chosen app provides us with the starting XI. Of the several that Max has chosen over the season, I think that there is one that can be clearly marked out as the best choice as the starting formation going forward:
The 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” shape.
The club conducted its business in the transfer window with the “Five Star” in mind, and the 4-2-3-1 started the year as the standard, but there was something ... different about it. It wasn’t as solid defensively as it had been a year ago. In particular, the midfield was getting overwhelmed, putting Juve on the back foot against higher-quality opponents.
It’s not 100 percent clear what caused this change. It could be that the step back Sami Khedira has taken this season has left him unable to keep the balance of the midfield. Two of Juve’s worst games in the formation — the 3-2 loss at Sampdoria in November and last month’s brutal Champions League Round of 16 first leg against Tottenham Hotspur — have come with him making up part of the double pivot. The formation has certainly fared better with Blaise Matuidi’s energy and ability as a destroyer in that part of the park. It’s also possible that the loss of Leonardo Bonucci this summer reduced the formation’s effectiveness. Say what you will about the manner of his departure, but he was the only significant player in last year’s “Five Star” to leave and between his chemistry with the rest of the back line and his ability to find teammates with pinpoint accuracy on long balls out of the back, which could make up for the occasional off day in midfield, it’s not far fetched to think that his loss took something away from the system.
What is clear is that the run of success that Juve has seen since that loss to Sampdoria — 24 games unbeaten in all competitions with only four goals conceded, three of which came over the two legs against Tottenham — has largely been based on formations that employed three midfielders rather than two.
Using a three-man midfield gave the team the defensive stability that has been so uncharacteristically lacking for the first three-and-a-half months of the season. But using a three-man midfield presented a problem: How do you do so while still allowing Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala to successfully coexist on the field?
For a while this was a moot point. Between Dybala’s December benching and a six-week injury absence while dealing with a thigh problem at the beginning of 2018, it wasn’t a puzzle that Allegri needed to work out. But with La Joya not only healthy but seeming to round into form over the last few weeks, the issue has reappeared.
The most simple way to accommodate both Argentines would seem to be to shift Dybala onto one wing in a 4-3-3, but whether that would be most effective in practice is another matter. Dybala’s never played on the wing, so he would have to learn another new position barely 12 months after having to work out the trequartista role in the “Five Star.” After all sorts of speculation that he would replace Neymar at Barcelona, the Catalan club reportedly decided that he was “incompatible” with Lionel Messi, an indication they didn’t see him as a solution in the wide position Neymar played in. Beyond that, playing outside would put a shackle on some of Dybala’s best traits, in particular his ability to run the channels.
Other options all have drawbacks. The 3-5-2 would allow the two countrymen to work together as a traditional prima punta and seconda punta, respectively, but it would leave no room for quality wide players like Douglas Costa. I think we can all agree that that one should stay in its current role of late-game tactical change to see out a lead. The 4-3-1-2 would similarly crowd out players like Costa, and there isn’t a clear trequartista there unless Higuain and Mario Mandzukic play up top together with Dybala in the hole, or perhaps Miralem Pjanic is moved forward, but that seems contrary to how the Bosnian’s game is evolving.
This is where the 4-3-2-1 comes into play.
Juventus has only “officially” used the formation once, at least according to WhoScored.com. But it’s not uncommon for statistics sites and TV networks to misinterpret formations (for the second leg against Spurs, for example, WhoScored listed Juve’s formation as a 4-1-2-1-2 with Khedira in the hole and Costa as a mezz’ala), and I think a lot of games where Juve has been listed as using a 4-3-3 or 4-4-1-1 have seen them behave far more like a Christmas tree in actual practice.
The 4-3-2-1 is the best of all possible worlds: a three-man midfield to ensure balance and stability and a forward setup that uses both Higuain and Dybala to the best of their abilities.
Employing Dybala as one of a pair in the hole behind the No. 9 allows him the freedom to do pretty much anything. He can stay in the middle of the field or go wide as the situation dictates without being wedded to any one side. It also allows for a wealth of options alongside him — the speed of Costa, the power of Mandzukic, the technique of Federico Bernardeschi (if he manages to avoid surgery and return this season), and the unpredictability of Juan Cuadrado (if he manages to return from surgery before the end of the season) all compliment Dybala in different ways and can be mixed and matched based on what will be most effective against a given opponent. All can be effective working off the efforts of Higuain just ahead of them.
Using this kind of attacking trio — more of a spearhead or arrowhead than a trident — brings a lot of versatility. Allegri can easily swap out a forward based on the needs of the game and significantly change the way the front three functions. It also lends itself to the in-game tactical flexibility that Max so loves in games. If there is need to protect a lead, remove one of the front three for a center-back and the 3-5-2 can help see the game out. If there’s need to chase a game, a midfielder can be swapped for another forward to get back into the 4-2-3-1.
I’m more critical of Allegri than most, but it’s impossible to deny that he has always found the right base formation for a given season. Some years have taken a little longer than others, but he always ends up finding it. The next eight weeks will decide trophies and perhaps legacies. He has a lot of options in finding a shape, but the 4-3-2-1 is the only one that offers the versatility he craves with the balance the team needs and the ability to play both his Argentine hit men in roles that maximize their talent simultaneously. It’s entirely possible that he will find some other solution that I haven’t dreamed up, but based on what I can see in front of me, this system is the best one he can employ given what he has at his disposal.
Oh, Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree....