This past summer, when the rumors about who would replace Massimiliano Allegri as Juventus’ next manager began to crystalize around Maurizio Sarri, one of the biggest arguments employed by his detractors was his lack of flexibility.
The 4-3-3 formation that he had employed at Napoli and Chelsea — and that he had been unwilling to alter, even under major hardships — was considered by many to be his one and only plan. At Napoli, after he lost Gonazlo Higuain to Juventus and Arkaduiz Milik to injury in 2016, he responded by employing Dries Mertens as a false 9. He made a similar move in his one and only season at Chelsea, eventually employing Eden Hazard as his striker when Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud failed to work out.
Now, it’s arguable that both of those moves worked. Mertens certainly did — he went from a mildly productive winger to scoring 28 times in the league and 34 times overall that season. Hazard’s numbers were less spectacular, but the move still put Chelsea on the path that eventually saw them win the Europa League. But despite the success, many still looked at him as a man determined to put a square peg in a round hole. After five years of the tactical chameleon that was Allegri, fans despaired that the team would become toothless if Plan A didn’t work.
But the last month or so has put paid to that notion — and now Sarri has an interesting tactical choice on his hands.
Of course, if you had taken a bit deeper of a look in Sarri’s history, you’d know that such arguments about him were baseless. The Empoli teams that he broke into the public eye with were based not on the 4-3-3 that had produced such crazy production from the likes of Higuain and Mertens at Napoli, but on a 4-3-1-2 structure that made the likes of Riccardo Saponara shine to the point that AC Milan bought him before he’d ever play a top-flight game.
Sarri inherited a team that seemed much more built for the 4-3-3 that had become his perceived calling card. With Cristiano Ronaldo seemingly assured to play in his favored place on the left wing and Douglas Costa healthy and ready to man the other flank, with Federico Bernardeschi and Juan Cuadrado backing the two up, wide play looked to be the focus of the team.
Then Costa got hurt, and injuries at the fullback position forced Cuadrado to cover in the back. And then came a new element: Aaron Ramsey.
The timing of Ramsey’s arrival at Juventus is so ironic as to be almost painful. For his first two years at Juventus, Allegri had begged the front office for a trequartista. For a hot second it looked like Roberto Pereyra might have fit the bill before he fizzled out. Miralem Pjanic, who played an advanced position at Roma, gradually got moved further back into the regista role. Allegri eventually gave up on the position entirely, focusing on the wingers that Sarri inherited.
Now, here was Ramsey, who — when healthy — fit the bill perfectly. Facing a bit of a selection crunch against Brescia, Sarri dipped back into his past and deployed Ramsey behind the strike pair of Higuain and Paulo Dybala. Juve wobbled early, but eventually gritted out a 2-1 win. He kept with it the next game, this time pairing Dybala with Ronaldo, and Juventus put together one of its best performances to that point. A few days later against Bayer Leverkusen, everyone — including Juve’s own social media accounts — listed the starting lineup as a 4-3-3 with Bernardeschi on the right wing and Higuain in the middle. It took all of two minutes to realize that the graphics were nonsense, as Bernardeschi was playing in the hole behind Higuain and Ronaldo. With Bernardeschi helping to press high up the field, Juve utterly dominated the Germans, then, with the same lineup, ground Inter down on their own field to get a 2-1 win.
The 4-3-1-2 seems like a revelation. It’s unleashed Ramsey’s immense talent and revitalized Dybala by putting him back in his most natural position as the seconda punta, where he has suddenly begun linking up with Ronaldo in a way that, until about two weeks ago, he was thought incapable of.
But it does beg one major question: What happens when Costa comes back?
Until he had to limp off early in the third game of the season against Fiorentina, Costa looked like the best player in the entire league. Using his near-unique combination of pace and skill, he sliced through opposing defenses almost at will, looking every bit like the player that led Serie A in assists two years ago. What would become of him with a new, narrower formation producing such results?
But for me, this isn’t an either/or situation. One shape doesn’t have to dominate the other. Rather, Sarri can use them to compliment each other. The big key here is the fact that the underlying system doesn’t change. Sarri’s philosophies of the game — quick passing, possession, constant attack — still dictate how Juventus will work regardless of their shape. The difference between the formations is simply the focal point of the attack. By changing that at the right moment, Sarri could turn close games on their ears. Even better, he would only have to spend one substitution in order to do it, given the fact that Dybala has shown flashes as a viable false nine and that any two of Dybala, Higuain, and Ronaldo has proven thus far to be workable combinations when operating as a pair.
There are still a few variables in the equation. Both Ramsey and Costa have injury histories that could require Sarri to lean on one formation or the other. Indeed, Ramsey may be looking at a spell on the sidelines after tweaking something while trying to warm up as a potential sub against Inter the game before the international break. Bernardeschi could be used in either’s stead, but he’s lacked the Welshman’s impetus in the hole and generally gets robbed of his dynamism when asked to move into the middle as opposed to out wide. That’s not to say he can’t adapt — he’s changed positions before in his career — and even when he struggles offensively his contribution to the high press out of the trequartista spot has been invaluable in the games he’s played there.
Obviously, health is a huge part of any season. But even with certain players missing, Sarri has the tools at his disposal to mix and match the two formations he’s used this season to provide the one thing people didn’t think him capable of coming into the season: tactical flexibility.
If he manages it, it will be wonderful to watch.