Thanks to Paulo Dybala’s stoppage-time goal, Juventus escaped the Stadio Olimpico in Rome with three points on Saturday night. The game was technically horrible. It also shows you everything you need to know about Juve’s build-up problem. They didn’t create much. But they did something right in the second half that we will see against Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday.
Juventus’ build-up problem
Juventus’ 3-5-2 didn’t work. They can’t transition into the attack.
Juventus’ center backs couldn’t connect to the central midfielders. Miralem Pjanic always had a marker on him, so he couldn’t direct the flow. Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi would surge up, so the center backs did not have a pass target in the center of the field.
Juventus’ positions and structures were wrong. The center backs stayed too deep and narrow, so the passing lanes toward the center mids were mostly vertical. Those passes are difficult to make because of the mid-block. They tried to make triangular passes through the fullbacks. Kwadwo Asamoah’s passes were poor, and Juventus’ attack always ended after him.
The center backs were too conservative, as Daniele Rugani and Andrea Brazagli rarely pushed down either flank. They carried the ball forward, passed it to a teammate and retreated. Because of that, they offered no support to the attack. Center backs nowadays need to take some risks and and do more to support the attack.
Lazio used the 3-5-2, too, and their build-up showed you how Juventus should have played; Lazio’s center backs often stayed in a big triangle relative to each other. There were better passing angles. The center backs’ high positions also pushed the wingbacks forward and pinned down the defending team. They still had to deal with a mid-block, but they were also closer to goal.
Stefan Radu and Felipe always pushed forward when they had the chance. Those dribbles and forwards run makes a big difference; when a center back can carry the ball forward, his teammates can move into the proper positions and ready to attack. The defense is now occupied, and you have a better chance to create a shot.
You use a three-man backline because of those advantages. But Juventus’ center backs are reluctant to support the attack, and they effectively play with two fewer players in the offensive phase. Their pass pattern becomes predictable and the passes become difficult to make because of the numerical disadvantage. Everything worsens when the players don’t have good ball-playing skills.
The tactical exchange between Inzaghi and Allegri
Simone Inzaghi’s game plan was simple: Sit back and counterattack. It’s worked for Lazio before and it almost worked again this time:
Juventus gave the ball away with many woeful passes. Lazio also generated some chances with the counter-pressing:
We all think that Pjanic is Andrea Pirlo, Version No. 2, but I don’t think so anymore. He loses possession too easily. When you do that as a playmaker, your team loses the control of the tempo.
Lazio also used Sergej Milinkovic-Savic as an aerial target for the long ball on the left. Because of that, Max Allegri responded to it by putting Barzagli on him:
Whether Juventus played the 3-5-2 or the 4-3-3 on Saturday, Barzagli countered Milinkovic-Savic on the right flank. He matched up well with the Serbain’s physicality. Barzagli didn’t take Milinkovic-Savic out of the game, but pressured him enough to minimize the damage.
Without any contribution from build-up, Juventus relied on the set pieces to score:
Juventus didn’t just try to create chances with Dybala’s or Pjanic’s dangerous delivery. They have a system: Medhi Benatia and Mario Mandzukic are always the primary targets. Stepha1n Lichtsteiner runs away from the cross’ destination to drag his marker(s) away. Rugani is the screener to block off Benatia’s and Mandzekic’s markers. They didn’t end up scoring this way, but these set pieces will be useful against Tottenham.
Allegri did one thing well in this game, but that awful number of on-target attempts (one) masks it. The positional interplay was actually done well after switching to the 4-3-3:
Dybala was playing as a false-9 after the formation switch. Mandzukic and Lichtsteiner (!!!) became the wingers. Khedira, Matuidi, and Lichtsteiner (!!!) ran into the space Dybala created. Mandzukic also drops to the midfield a lot, but Dybala as a false-9 has an additional advantage with his passing range and ability to dribble past the defenders.
These positional exchanges didn’t create any chance, but they were pre-determined movements and fixed the build-up’s problem. Khedira and Matuidi didn’t just race forward. They dropped in front of the CBs and facilitated more transitional passes from the defense and took pressure off Pjanic.
Even when Lazio’s players tried to pressure them, they could lure the players toward them and opened up space on the ball-far side. When they dropped, they also pushed the FBs forward. There were more space, movements and passing angles.
The final pass was still awful, but at least they could transition into attack, and they could control the possession and the game better than when they were playing in the 3-5-2. Khedira and Matuidi also had better passing ranges than the fullbacks. Fewer bad passes meant fewer chances for Lazio to counterattack.
Juventus were fortunate to take three points. The goal shows the their strong will and Dybala’s amazing talent. But the assist by Rugani tells us everything we need to know about Juventus’ build-up problem: The center backs can’t help open up the opponent’s defense. They won’t dribble, and their passes are predictable and harmless. The possible passing lanes decrease and everyone’s job becomes difficult. When they can’t circulate the ball efficiently enough, the transition halts and the attack stalls.
We saw a few positives in this game — the positional exchange in 4-3-3, Dybala as a false-9 and the creative set pieces. With these things, and if they can improve their technical game, they will beat Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday.