After a stop-and-start beginning under Andrea Pirlo, Juventus have now reeled off two hugely significant victories, the first a throwback derby win over Torino with shades of rugged tales from years past when the Bianconeri won ugly but won, the second a romp away from home against Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players ever to set foot on the pitch.
That’s how this sport works: you blink for one moment and everything has changed. The vintage feel to the Derby della Mole was certainly palpable and inspiring, but I think more important than the feeling of the victory were, simply, the three points. Milan, with our without Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the lineup, are on fire, and if Juve feel like winning their 10th straight Scudetto — and one would surmise that they do — then the lads need to kick it into gear sooner rather than later. The Barcelona win, of course, probably means a hell of a lot better opponent in the Round of 16 in the Champions League, although there are still some tough draws (not sure I want to play either Spanish team, and Leipzig is no walk in the park).
Despite the success of the last two games, however, questions about Pirlo’s approach remain, and they’re viable questions. The one I want to focus on here is the formation he deploys: a lopsided 3-4-1-2 in attack and a 4-4-2 in defense more or less. We’ve seen this formation help a number of individual players and hurt others, while there are some worrying tactical trends.
So you want to be a guy in Pirlo’s team?
One of the more interesting things to me through the first few months of Pirlo’s tenure has been the way his formation has affected individual players. Unlike Maurizio Sarri, who used a set-in-stone 4-3-3 in which players were asked to play particular roles, Pirlo’s formation is considerably more organic and seems to adapt more effectively to whoever lines up to play. There are still plenty of issues, but I think that’s generally a good sign.
Here is another thing: there are no true wingers in Pirlo’s formation, and the Bianconeri have at least three players whose best position is probably right wing (Federico Chiesa, Dejan Kulusevski, Federico Bernardeschi) and maybe a third (Paulo Dybala). All four of those players have had varying degrees of difficulty fitting into the manager’s schemes.
Of those four listed above, Chiesa has probably seen the most success. He seems the most natural fit for a wingback position, more so on the right than the left, as his experience in Florence gave him plenty of play at various places on the field. Kulusevski started brilliantly and still feels like he’s about to be brilliant when he touches the ball; he’s very evidently most comfortable counter-attacking and carrying the ball into space. Usually, though, Juve are staring at 10 players behind the ball. The player and the coach need to figure out how to make this work, because this kid is too talented to waste away. I for one would love to see him used as a second striker when either Cristiano Ronaldo or Alvaro Morata is taking a rest.
Bernardeschi is just now — I’d probably add a “maybe” — breaking out of his atrocious slump of play, and Dybala, who ought to be the subject of an entire additional story at some point, just shouldn’t make the starting lineup right now.
That’s the bad, but there’s plenty of good.
Juan Cuadrado has been, for the most part, “bueno Juan.” Aaron Ramsey has been very good when healthy. Morata is on fire. Danilo has new life as a footballer. And Weston McKennie has completely proven me wrong when I ... oh wait, scratch that. I told y’all, damn it. He’s still just 22, by the way.
All in all, a mixed bag. I dearly, dearly hope Pirlo finds a way to use Kulusevski in a more effective way. I honestly don’t feel a lot of optimism about the Dybala situation, even less than a couple weeks ago when I last wrote about No. 10.
*I’ve got a bad feeling about this Han Solo gif*
Maybe more individual players are growing than declining under Pirlo, but there are still a few areas on the pitch in which this formation gives me ominous feelings.
First, the build-up seems precariously stretched. There were moments at Camp Nou when Barca decided to press more aggressively, and Juve struggled mightily to play from back to front without launching the ball down the field. The center of the pitch had big, gaping holes between the front line and the midfield; the wingbacks were out wide, the forwards too high, and it felt like a bubble that was going to pop. Barcelona isn’t the only instance of this trend.
The defense, as we know, has never felt particularly sure-footed to this point in the season, but I’ve felt OK about it in some circumstances. I think when a team is possessing the ball against Juve, like Barca were, the old instincts of sitting back and building a wall sort of kick in. Sure, Barca had 19 shots, seven on target (literally all from Messi), and Gianluigi Buffon was called to action in real ways, but most of the chances were half at best and a lot were extraordinarily speculative.
Where I worry more is when Juve are defending counter-attacks and in transition after losing possession. It’s kind of the flipside of the build-up: there’s a gaping hole in the center of the field that not even McKennie can fill. Throwing players into the attack is admirable, but if you have a trequartista in addition to one of the center midfields running into the box, you better hope Leonardo Bonucci has added little jet engines to his cleats, because the center backs are the only things now standing in the way of an attack. Torino exploited this weakness almost to perfection; were it not for a Wojciech Szczęsny wonder-save — and, guys, please chill: Woj is still man No. 1 over Buffon — the Derby might’ve had a different ending.
Another fear I have is that the attack becomes too predictable. With Cuadrado out there, so much of the movement forward comes from the right. At one point against our crosstown rivals, I think Cuadrado, Chiesa, and Kulusevski were all preposterously on the right flank.
These are real concerns, and I don’t imagine Pirlo and his staff aren’t aware of them. Hopefully some of these issues can get fixed. The Old Lady has four remaining games in December, only one of which is against a top-tier opponent (Atalanta). Matchups against Genoa, Fiorentina, and Parma mean there’s time to address these concerns.
Very few teams in Europe have no issues. That number is actually probably zero at this point, as even Bayern Munich look wobbly this campaign. In other words, I think it’s natural to be seeing issues, especially given the circumstances (new manager who has never managed before under considerable pressure with a lot of new faces). Right now, winning is the important thing. Winning forgives a lot of sins, tactical or otherwise. And that’s just what Pirlo needs to do: win.