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What advanced stats can tell us about Juventus’ defense this season

Portents for the rest of the season, or just pure coincidence?

Leonardo Bonucci , Giorgio Chiellini and Danilo Luiz Da... Photo by Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images

With just under one-third of the 2021-22 season complete, Juventus sit in eighth place in the league table with 18 points from five wins, three draws and four losses, having scored 16 goals and conceded 15 times. These numbers are quite unremarkable by Juventus standards, with those four defeats the highest for this stage of the season since pretty much any reader of this blog was born. The defence has been especially leaky too, with the number of goals given up also a record for more than a generation.

In the first of two pieces during this third international break, we’re going to dig into some stats from Opta data, StatsBomb (via FBRef) and WhoScored to see if we can notice some underlying trends in Juve’s performances, and if there can be some pointers there on what to expect for the rest of the season.

Let’s start with the Bianconeri pride and joy, the defence. For many of us here, the trademark of a Juventus team is defensive organization. A solid backline, whether manned by three or four personnel, strong in the tackle, quick to react and tenacious at set pieces. That defence was the foundation on which pretty much every one of the 38 Scudetti has been won.

Cracks had started appearing in the rearguard in Massimiliano Allegri’s last season in charge, but held firm for one more Serie A title with Maurizio Sarri in charge. However, it was last season that the wheels seem to come right off with uncharacteristic mistakes and brain farts the order of the day. It was that uncharacteristic season that likely led to the club showing Andrea Pirlo the door and bringing Allegri back, and though things have improved lately, Juve still struggled out of the gates with silly errors — from veteran players, no less — which has led to their lowly standing in the league now, fourteen points off the pace.

Of the 15 goals given up this season, 10 have come from open play, four from set pieces and one was a penalty. Let’s look at the open play goals first.

Juventus have allowed 104 shots on goal so far, seventh best in the league. Pretty much all the teams above Juve in the table have done better, except Inter Milan who are just below. However, Juve have conceded 10 goals from 8.8xGA (expected goals against), and those can almost all be put down to the terrible run of form Wojciech Szczesny started the season with giving up inexplicable goals. Inter, on the other hand, have given up 105 shots, six goals on 8.7xGA with an equally shaky Samir Handanovic in goal, so that should be more of a barometer there. Four less goals conceded for Juve would likely have meant three or four more points as well, and a much more reasonable footing on the edge of the Champions League spots in the table.

For a further comparison, runaway leaders Napoli and AC Milan’s stats make for much more pleasant reading — the Neapolitans are at 83 shots, 6.9xGA and three goals conceded while the Rossoneri have 94 shots, 8.2xGA and seven goals conceded. Of course, the quality of shots conceded makes a big difference, but interestingly the npxG/Sh (non-penalty expected goals per shot) faced by Juve is only 0.09, tied for seventh-best. Also, the average distance of shots taken against Juventus is 17.9 yards, fourth best in the league.

Another area of interest is PPDA — passes per defensive action, defined as the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third — which is a pretty good metric of how much a team presses their opponent. Believe it or not, last season Juve were the side that pressed third most in Serie A, allowing only 10.4 PPDA with Atalanta and Sassuolo tied highest at 10.3. But this season, that has tailed off, with Juve now allowing 11.8 PPDA, only 11th highest in the league. This means the Bianconeri are happy to allow their opponents more space and time when they have the ball to set up attacks, and is a direct reflection on how high and hard the midfield and attack are (not) pressing upfield.

The entire object of pressing high is to get the ball back as quickly as possible, and to translate that into a shot and eventually a goal. Last season, Juve created 312 turnovers from pressing, 57 shots were generated from that and resulted in five goals. In the metric of the ratio of shots per turnover, Juve were among the top sides in the league. This campaign, Juve have created 84 turnovers (12th highest), well off the pace of last season. However, they have 18 shots and two goals from them, just about last season’s rate.

Finally, set piece defending hasn’t been great, either, and will continue to be a concern for the rest of the season if not addressed. Juve have given up 34 shots from set pieces (eighth best), at an xG of 3.9 (12th) and four goals conceded (15th). The corresponding numbers for last season — 108 shots (7th), 7.7xG (2nd) and eight goals conceded (7th).

So in terms of how the defence is performing overall, Juve’s league table is about an accurate reflection of where we belong. What Allegri needs to work on here is defensive cohesion within the backline and with the midfield, limiting the number of shots taken as well as keeping them as far away from the box as possible. Additionally, the coach needs to improve the miscommunications that result in blown assignments on set pieces and counterattacking goals like happened against Sassuolo and Hellas Verona recently.

Juventus v Zenit St. Petersburg: Group H - UEFA Champions League
Allegri trying to make a point during a game
Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

In terms of individual performances, some things definitely stand out. Matthijs de Ligt is yet to be dribbled past in the league this season, and the two veteran centre backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are tackling the least in the defence, but that is also a function of the Juve defence whereby the defensive midfielders and fullbacks engage first leaving the two centre halves as the last line of defence. All the fullbacks and centre backs have an over 70% tackle success rate, which is also a positive sign. As a team, Juve have 13.9 tackles per game, which is fifth-lowest in the league. Napoli are 13th with 14.1 and Milan are 3rd with 16.1, both again a reflection on how they press and defend.

Juventus only manage eight interceptions a game (second worst in the league) and 16.6 clearances a game (8th). Individually, Bonucci gets 1.6 interceptions per 90, with De Ligt at 1.3 and Alex Sandro with 1.2. Chiellini leads the way with clearances with 4.3 per 90 and the rest of the defenders bunched together around the 3 per 90 mark.

Mattia De Sciglio and Alex Sandro have been leading the way with supporting the attack too, getting 1.9 and 1.1 key passes (passes that lead to an attempt on goal without scoring) per 90 respectively. Juventus also commit the fifth highest fouls per game, which doesn’t reflect well on the defence either. League leaders Napoli and Milan are among the least carded teams in the league, with Juve in the top five as well despite the number of fouls they are committing.

All in all, Juventus appear to be where they deserve to be in the league table, barring a couple of avoidable goals here and there. Allegri won’t need advanced stats to tell him the defence needs tightening up, but the numbers will certainly show him where the problems lie and how to affect change tactically.