The best defence in Serie A meets the highest scoring team in Italy, how will the game develop?
The following is a guest post from Kareem Bianchi – You can follow him on Twitter here.
Roma arrive at the clash at a difficult moment, coming off an elimination in the Coppa Italia at the hands of Torino and consecutive draws in two away games against Genoa and Chievo. However, Di Francesco’s side is potentially level on points with Juventus (having a game in hand) and this game is an important test to determine Roma’s ambitions.
After a complicated start to the season, typified by skepticism on whether Di Francesco was the right successor to Spalletti and the right man to take the club forward, which saw Roma’s players struggle to apply the manager’s requested instructions, Di Francesco’s side has found a pleasent defensive solidity: only 10 goals conceded, which thus far, crown Roma the best defence in Serie A; however, this early balance at the back hasn’t come without problems in other areas as Roma has struggled to score goals – 28 in total, 5th best in the league and worst amongst the top 6 sides, with the Rome based side having scored more than one goal only twice since the 18th of November. This lack of goals, has coincided with a goal drought from last season’s Serie A top scorer, Edin Dzeko, and is a mere consequence of Roma’s struggles to disrupt and break through a deep block.
Juventus on the other hand, have finally found its long-sought defensive solidity and have gone six consecutive games without conceding a goal – keeping a clean sheet against free scoring sides such as Barcelona and Napoli – and are the top scorers in Serie A with 44 goals. The game arrives at the best possible moment for Allegri’s side, and they’d be foolish not to take advantage of their current form and their opponent’s hard time.
The quest to control the ball
Juventus and Roma are two sides that like to maintain possession (57% and 59% possession per game), however as often showcased this season, they can also defend effectively and control games off the ball.
Both sides will most likely try to apply their respective high-press in the early stages of the game, to recover possession immediately and transition quickly; a phase of the game in which Roma excels, with 9 goals out of 21 from open play scored on counters in Serie A (43% of their total tally); the match could be well and truly won based on the effectiveness of the teams’ pressing, as Juve’s centre-backs, Chiellini and Benatia, have struggled under pressure (Napoli-Juve was a further confirmation of the Bianconeri’s build-up flaws, since the more Napoli’s press intensity increased, the more they found it hard to evade it) and Roma’s Manolas has displayed technical faults and is his backline’s least technical player.
Therefore, Juve’s pressing might be focused on cutting passing options to the full-backs, to Kolarov in particular, Roma’s “regista in disguise” and through whom the build-up mainly goes, forcing Manolas on the ball.
Eventually, if Juventus don’t score in the first 10-15 minutes Allegri could decide to set up his team to nullify the opponent, thus conceding possession to Roma and trying to hit them on the counter, only to start pressing again in the final quarter of the half and ready to start the second half intensively (Juve has scored 20% of their goals, which is equivalent to 9 goals, between the 45th and 60th minute).
How will Juventus defend?
Roma’s style of play is in line with Di Francesco’s (and Zeman’s) key principles of play: verticality. As Di Francesco famously states: “two horizontal passes are more than enough”, which summarizes perfectly the Abruzzese manager’s philosophy. Roma’s attacks mainly develop on the flanks (42% on the left and 33% on the right), with lateral passing chains and coordinated movements to progress up the field (e.g the full-back and the interior provide width whilst the winger cuts inside and occupies the half-spaces).
As previously mentioned, Roma struggle to penetrate organized deep blocks, which could mean that Allegri might set up his team to close down space in the usual 4-4-2/4-5-1, with particular attention on negating access to wide areas and maintaining numerical superiority on the flanks, as previously seen against Inter.
How will Juventus attack?
In their last two games, Juventus has utilized an unorthodox 4-3-3, which against Bologna saw two interiors, Matuidi and Khedira, who tend to make forward runs and occupy zones in the final third (Zone 13/14/15), often positioning themselves on Higuain’s line, being fielded “alongside” Pjanic. Midfielders with similar characteristics to the two above mentioned, Marchisio and Sturaro, were also played against Genoa; this time due to Dybala being the centre-forward, the former two occupied the penalty area dynamically with their runs, in order not to give any points of references to the opposing centre-halves. This shape became a 4-5-1 out of possession, which could turn into a 4-4-2 whenever the winger on the weak side or one of the interiors stepped out on the forward’s line.
Whilst Di Francesco’s side applies a very aggressive man-oriented high-press (and recovers possession at a distance of 72.9 meters from the opposition’s goal, 3rd best after Napoli, 68.7, and Sampdoria, 72.7) Roma also defends effectively in a ball-oriented horizontally compact 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 high-block, in similar fashion to Sarri and Giampaolo’s teams. Defensively Roma is a solid side as they’ve only conceded 7 goals and 12.04 expected goals from open play and are the best defence in Serie A having conceded 10 goals (15.89 xG) with 8 clean sheets.
Depending on the starting lineup Juventus may adopt two different approaches: due to the nature of a ball-oriented structure, Allegri’s side could manipulate Roma into collapsing onto the ball-side by overloading it and exploiting the narrow shape to attack the weak side in numerical superiority/parity through diagonal switches; this approach would work best with Douglas Costa, as he thrives when isolated against the opposing full-back, making use of his dribbling repertoire and speed. It could also work with the Brazilian on one side and Mandzukic on the opposite flank to create qualitative superiority and exploit the Croatian’s physical mismatch against Florenzi and Costa’s speed disparity against Kolarov. Furthermore, Roma’s high-line could be taken advantage of with runs into depth and 3rd man runs from Douglas Costa.
On the other hand , if Dybala was to start ahead of Mandzukic, Juve could rely on the Argentine’s technique and ability to receive with his back to goal between the lines to create positional superiority situations and play quick one-touch combinations to progress up the field.
The importance of Juventus-Roma
Juventus-Roma comes at a time when both managers have had quite enough time to implement their ideas into the team, especially Di Francesco, and both teams seem to have reached a fine level of their respective playing styles. This match isn’t a Scudetto decider as it’s too early, however it can already give us an idea of the main candidates for the victor of Serie A (if it wasn’t already clear). Roma are potentially level on points with Juventus having a game in hand and a victory would be a further confidence boost; however a home side win would help extend their lead on a rival and confirm the good form they’ve been on for the past month. To win, Allegri will have to nullify Roma’s moves and exploit them to his advantage, whilst Di Francesco must be smart enough not to fall into the Tuscan manager’s traps. Juventus-Roma has all the right ingredients to be an exciting contest and a thrilling tactical battle.