The following is a guest post from Kareem Bianchi – You can follow him here on Twitter.
Fino Alla Fine. The slogan that represents Juventus and its fans, embodies a winning mentality of never giving up regardless of the circumstances because Juve always find the way to win, which is the only thing that matters. Dybala’s goal in the 93rd minute at Lazio just was further confirmation of Juve’s endless desire to win.
Three weeks after the disappointing home result against Spurs, Juve have a second chance to seal their qualification to the next round. In London. At the historical Stadium that is Wembley.
Where did it go wrong
Injury-plagued Juventus forced Allegri to find new solutions and plan the game around an odd strategy. A return to the long-gone 4-2-3-1 (which actually was a sort of 4-3-3 with Douglas Costa at LCM) seemed a very risky move given previous performances in that shape and, as much as “schemes” mean little to nothing to the Livornese manager, last season’s system displayed multiple structural problems which played right into Tottenham’s hands.
Despite leading by two goals in the space of eight minutes after successfully exploiting Tottenham’s weaknesses (this start will be assessed later on in the piece), Pochettino’s side slowly got back into the game up to a point where it was utter domination from the visitors. They pinned Juventus back, pushing them deeper at every attack and constantly looking like a threat whilst stopping every attempt to build-up play after having regained possession through a coordinated and well-drilled gegenpressing (a tactical concept that sees the opposition immediately press the player in possession and/or all passing options after having lost possession, in order to recover the ball once more and transition from advanced positions).
Thus, Juventus were forced to defend in a 4-5-1 deep block that would become a 5-4-1 whenever Mandžukić dropped into the last line, creating a back five.
Spurs’ initial 4-2-3-1 became a 2-3-5 with Eriksen dropping between or just ahead of Dembélé and Dier, to facilitate the ball circulation and disrupt Juve’s shape. The home side, usually rather compact, started to be easily manipulated, especially on the left-hand side, where Costa often left his line to press Dier, completely misjudging the timing of the press and therefore opening spaces aside Pjanić, who had to cover horizontal ground without being supported adequately by his fellow midfielders. In this particular situation Matuidi was sorely missed and his availability for the second leg certainly is relieving and will be a fundamental addition to the starting lineup.
Juventus’ struggles to retain possession were perfectly summarized by their 33% ball possession. This difficulty to build-up and consolidate play was caused by an organized Tottenham pressure and pressing triggers. Pochettino’s team would allow Benatia on the ball whilst Kane positioned himself between the Morocco international and Chiellini to cut the passing lane towards the centre. Meanwhile, all passing options were marked and would be pressed aggressively whenever they received the ball.
Furthermore, Allegri’s experiment with Douglas Costa as an inside forward was a failure, with the Brazilian struggling to receive possession in dynamic situations in the left half-space and occupy positions to exploit his 1v1 ability (only in one situation did he manage to successfully receive and dribble, when he dribbled past Aurier and Sanchez with ease to win Juve a penalty).
Now that we’ve assessed what went wrong, it’s time to see what worked from Allegri’s plan. The initial ten minutes should be the blueprint around which the Juve gaffer should plan his strategy for the return leg. Juve started the game intensively, pressing Spurs high up the pitch in a man-oriented fashion, focusing on directing the English side’s build-up to the left in order to get Davidson Sánchez, the less adroit centre-back on the ball, to start the play; thus, forcing errors. Juve’s free-kick in the 20th second came, in fact, from a pressing situation in which Juve forced Vertonghen to play a long ball, subsequently intercepted by Pjanić.
Juve’s switches of play
As mentioned in the first leg’s tactical preview, Tottenham defend in a ball-oriented fashion which means that they aren’t afraid to expose their ball-far side by overloading the ball-side. Allegri built his offensive strategy strictly upon this weakness, asking his players to constantly switch play after having isolated the ball-far winger against the full-back. This pattern was key in winning the first penalty that was converted by Higuaín; in the build-up to Davies’ foul you can see how Juve switch play twice, first from Bernardeschi to Alex Sandro and then from Mandžukić to Bernardeschi. However, due to the rare possession segments the home side weren’t able to exploit this flaw more often.
Juve’s pattern focused on switching the play to the weak side
The respective gameplans
Depending on the lineups, each team could approach the game in a different way. Whilst Spurs’ eleven is perhaps the easiest between the two sides to predict, Juve’s will depend on multiple factors. Since Alderweireld has been ruled out due to injury it’s unlikely – also due to the fact that Pochettino has been using the 4-2-3-1 for some time now – that Tottenham revert to a back three, dropping Dier into the defence. The main differences depend on the left winger choice: Son or Lamela. The South Korean tends to provide width and attack depth and therefore, Davies remains in deep positions and hardly ever overlaps, making Tottenham’s shape asymmetrical with a sort of back three in possession. Lamela, on the other hand, likes to cut inside to combine with his teammates and occupy the left half-space, which allows Davies to overlap and provide width, leaving his flank exposed to counters.
Being at home, Spurs will likely start the game with a high-press, looking to recover possession as high up the pitch as possible and transition quickly.
Allegri could counter this approach by employing a back three, in a similar manner to the game against Lazio, where he set up his team with three centre-backs to cope with transitions better, having more central cover and an extra centre-back that could follow runs into depth; moreover, they were instructed to step out aggressively on the biancocelesti’s forwards receiving between the lines. This would allow one of Juve’s defenders to step out to follow Kane’s dropping movements as well.
Another possible strategy, and perhaps the likeliest given Mandžukić’s possible absence due to injury, Allegri could choose the same lineup that defeated Napoli at the San Paolo. A hybrid between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 (with Matuidi at left-winger) that would become a 4-5-1 out of possession. This way Juve would be able to defend the half-spaces well and shift horizontally effectively – defending Tottenham’s strong right side more effectively – thanks to Matuidi’s ability to cover horizontal ground dynamically.
The choices regarding the eleven very much depend on the approach Allegri is planning to adopt: will he decide to field the best players from the start or keep some game-changers on the bench to go all out in the last 30 minutes after having cancelled out Spurs for most of the match?
Juve’s European path is on the line…
The signs from recent games aren’t positive at all, as Juve’s defensive system has looked more fragile compared to previous seasons, despite having conceded just one goal in the last 15 Serie A outings. The midfield’s spacing often is subpar due to Khedira leaving his line to press, thus opening passing lanes and forcing Pjanić and Matuidi to cover too much ground, and only sensational defensive performances from the centre-backs have been limiting the damage.That said, if Juve want to qualify for the quarter-finals they’ll have to manipulate Tottenham’s pressing to free men behind the lines of pressure and be able to consolidate possession and switch play continuously. It won’t be easy, but if there’s a manager that can prepare the perfect strategy for a knock-out game, it’s Massimiliano Allegri.