For the first time in nearly a decade, the tactics of Juventus are shrouded in secrecy and unknowns.
After the 3-5-2 of Antonio Conte, the three-man midfield of Massimiliano Allegri, and the attempted “Sarrismo” of Maurizio Sarri, the Bianconeri have elected to go with a manager in Andrea Pirlo who has no experience, no vast tome of strategic writings, and a tight-lipped, ice-cold mien. But there might be little breadcrumbs falling onto the trail to give us a hint heading into the new campaign: According to Tuttosport, the Old Lady is headed back to a three-man backline for the opener against Sampdoria.
If true, this is a fantastic decision and a sign of Pirlo’s willingness to be flexible. Juventus should shirk several years of a four-man backline and move to three, and here’s why.
1. Several personnel issues could be addressed
Daniele Rugani is, apparently, in Turin to stay, and let’s face it: he’s not good enough against top competition (or maybe any competition) to hold a line with one other center back. He’s not a terrible player, though, and he might actually work with two other center backs whose aggression compensate for his lack thereof. Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Rugani sounds fine to good; Chiellini, Matthijs de Ligt, and Rugani sounds fine to good; Merih Demiral, de Ligt, and Rugani sounds kind of potentially awesome.
Give Rugani that Andrea Barzagli role and see what happens.
Another possible issue solved: Danilo. The Brazilian has been, generously speaking, competent as a fullback. But there have been rumors swirling about that, if Juve indeed reverted to a three-man backline, he might be flexible enough to play back there. If he really could do that, his athleticism would guard against the counter attack effectively, and he’d be part of a larger unit that would give a little cover for his weaknesses.
The Bianconeri have four really, really damn good center backs in Chiellini, Bonucci, de Ligt, and Demiral. Then there’s Rugani. Then there’s the possibility of Danilo playing at the back, and Alex Sandro could certainly play as a center back on the left side. That’s a very fine cadre of players to occupy three spots. Let’s run it.
2. The fullback situation becomes less bleak
Juan Cuadrado the wingback makes me feel a lot less afraid than Juan Cuadrado the true fullback. We’ve seen the Colombian give and take away, often in the same game, often in the same few minutes, but the damages in the “take away” portion of his offering might be significantly mitigated with a third center back.
I really believe that Cuadrado playing as a right wingback would give Pirlo a lot more consistency out of Johnny Square. Lest we forget, there were a number of games last year in which Cuadrado was far and away Juve’s best play: the most dangerous, the most creative, the most penetrating. Aiming for more consistency with that weapon would be great.
Also: Federico Bernardeschi. Juve’s strange No. 33, who has never quite found his footing in his tenure here, might possibly find the best expression for his strengths and weaknesses as a wingback. Where he lacks in finishing ability and that final decision, he is a tenacious, hard-working player who has a good touch, decent vision, and who can carry the ball with the dribble.
What’s more, he could probably feature either as a left wingback or an inverted right wingback. We’ve seen Bernardeschi play quite well in a 4-4-2 when Juve sink back into that formation defensively; the responsibilities would be somewhat similar with a little more emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.
As fans, we have to face the fact that Juventus are apparently broke. If there’s a way to be flexible tactically that takes away the need to spend money on a fullback, it’s possibly worth the risk — especially if it enables another transaction in the midfield.
3. Proper support for a lethal and defensively lax attack
There is no question that Juventus are going to be asking a hell of a lot from the midfielders this season. Pirlo has reiterated the fact several times already that he wants to win the ball back after losing possession; that’s all fine and dandy if you have Mario Mandzukic as a striker/center back in the No. 9 position and 11 players all dedicated to a press, but Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, and possibly Luis Suarez are not world-renowned pressers.
That means Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, Arthur, Weston McKennie, and whoever else ends up in the midfield will be putting in unreal defensive shifts. I think throwing an extra center back on the pitch, especially one with the athleticism of de Ligt or Demiral, as well as two wingbacks who will be able to apply pressure further up the field, will make their job a little bit easier.
4. Opening the possibility of a double pivot
I am of the opinion that, by the end of the calendar year, and possibly within a few weeks of playing, Dejan Kulusevski is going to make himself impossible to hold out of the starting lineup. If that indeed happens, there are some interesting things Pirlo could do with the formation, as well as some interesting tactical problems to solve.
I am imagining a formation that is a 3-5-2 defensively and a 3-4-1-2 offensively. Something like this on defense:
Woj / de Ligt, Bonucci, Chiellini / Cuadrado, Kulusevski, Arthur, Bentancur, Sandro / Ronaldo, Dybala.
On offense, the Swede would move to the attacking midfielder position with the ability to interchange positions with Dybala, and he could also drift out further to a true right wing position for a 3-4-3 look with Dybala as the central striker.
In a situation where Juve need all the guns out at once (and where we’ve purchased Suarez), Pirlo could deploy an ultra-attacking 3-4-3 with Ronaldo, Suarez, and Dybala as the trident and Kulusevksi as a midfielder or, perhaps, the nominal wingback. Pirlo has a few players whose positions are nowhere near fixed, Dybala and Kulusevksi foremost among them. Fielding three at the back means that, no matter how players get shuffled, there will be more defensive support to absorb attacks.
Of course, all this comes with a danger: trading a midfielder or attacker for another defender. Juve struggled at times last year to really be a team that logs heavy quality possession, and that failure might be exacerbated by the move to a three-man look. This approach would also leave the team considerably vulnerable to counter-attacks, because I don’t imagine those wingbacks holding a five-man back line; they’re going to push forward and join the attack. That leaves two older guys (Chiellini and Bonucci), one of whom is coming off a torn ACL, plus a gaffe-prone Rugani, and whoever is playing between de Ligt and Demiral, to ward off counter-attacks all on their own.
Juventus does not have the perfect roster. Juventus will not have the perfect roster by their season opener on Sept. 20. No matter how Pirlo lines this team up, there will be weaknesses — and strengths. His job, and the job for any manager, is to find the tactical expression that most effectively mitigates those weaknesses and enhances those strengths.