Maurizio Sarri’s departure from Chelsea was much talked about as the Italian moved from the Pensioners to the Old Lady after only one season. Sarri’s track record at Napoli, and to a lesser extent at Chelsea, made the Italian a top choice for I Bianconeri.
Advertising attacking and free-flowing football, Sarri aimed to bring the type of devastating attacks seen at Napoli a couple of years back. However, throughout the season, Juventus’ offensive structural dilemma has consistently plagued them. Their tally of 40 goals, in context, is less impressive seeing that five teams out of the top six have either scored more, Inter Milan, Lazio, and Atalanta or come close to the tally, Roma and Cagliari.
With top tier talents, their top scorer is Cristiano Ronaldo with 17 goals. The next closest scorers are Gonzalo Higuaín (5) and Paulo Dybala (5) – a startling gap squad-wise.
Their 16 wins in Serie A have been scattered with dominant performances, overperformances, and undeserved wins and draws. In this tactical analysis, I conduct an analysis of Juventus under Sarri and answer where Juventus have faltered under Sarri’s tactics. This scout report will also focus on some of Juventus’ successes in the attack.
The new formation brings about finishers and attacking problems
Sarri became infamous at Chelsea for sticking to a 4-3-3 formation and lining up with the same set of rules. While it is true that instating a philosophy requires discipline to the craft, there were times where Sarri could have tweaked to win when it was required.
At Juventus, Sarri has taken that approach in a different direction. Juventus, primarily, have lined up in a 4-3-1-2 – an unorthodox formation in an age where every team plays some variation of a 4-3-3. This unique formation allows Sarri to utilize Juventus’ three best attackers: Ronaldo, Dybala, and Higuaín.
The trio has scored 84% of Juventus’ open play goals, contributing 21 goals out of the current 25 goals. While, in the short term, it is not a big problem, in the long term, this attack will ask questions of Juventus.
The main problem is that all three attackers are some of the world’s best finishers. This means that chances whose xG values are very small can be converted. While Juventus can boast to scoring forty goals, a majority of them have been scored by excellent individual brilliance and not a tactical set-up that creates chances for them to score.
In what has been a key feature of this Juventus side, the likes of Higuaín and Dybala have connected in ways that have allowed Juventus to come out of sticky situations.
This incredible attacking trio masks the bigger, structural problems at Juventus. In the coming sections of this scout report, we’ll analyze the tactical problems that Juventus has been facing in the attack that the excellent trio has masked.
Juventus’ midfield creates a Black and White gridlock
A big issue that Sarri has to solve is Juventus and their midfield. Their most common midfield includes Miralem Pjanić at the base of the midfield, rotating and recycling possession on a constant basis. To the left and right of him are usually, Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur. This trio of the midfield is paired with an attacking midfielder who plays behind the two forwards. Normally, it is Dybala that occupies the role but from time to time, Federico Bernardeschi is seen in that role.
Despite a talented midfield, Juventus’ midfield four regularly have tactical issues that do not allow Juventus attacks to develop in the manner that Sarri would like.
For starters, the four-man midfield typically aligns themselves in the centre – oftentimes in a diamond formation. However, this diamond formation is not always maintained and oftentimes, Juventus midfielders are seen occupying the same vertical spaces and zones. This occupation makes it hard for Juventus to really progress play as a lack of spread in their midfield means that the attack is often confined to a small space.
Here we see Juventus’ midfield four. Notice how it is not well-structured with the four midfielders not being in good positions to create progressive passing lanes. As a result, the defence is not bothered and keeps it 4-4-2 shape.
This focus on a central approach means that the halfspaces are not occupied by Juventus midfielders which limits Juventus’ passing options when building attacks. Not only that, since the four midfielders are in the centre and close, an organized defence can easily contain the Goeba midfield.
This makes central play difficult for I Bianconeri as their midfielders are often man-marked or have little to no space to operate in.
Here we see an in-depth look into Juventus’ attack. The white lines denote the lines of the opposition. One can see that five Juventus players – with all four midfielders – occupy the first line of the opposition defence.
While certainly allows for the build-up to occur, it means that Juventus have no midfielders in the defence which means that the opposition is not disturbed as much and stays compact. As such, the forwards and any subsequent play will be difficult as the team’s formation has not been shifted or widened.
Another negative of the Juventus midfield is that often times, they will push themselves into the opposition’s defence displacing the actual strikers to occupy wing positions. The problems with the forwards start to become evident here as the two forwards are often Ronaldo and Higuaín.
While excellent in intelligence and blessed with grace, both players are declining in their speed, agility, and ferocity in the attack. Naturally, it would make sense for the more mature players to shift centrally and have the younger players create space for them.
However, the midfield of Juventus pushes up asynchronously forcing then forwards to go to the wings. As we’ll discuss later, the forwards don’t exactly receive aid from the wing area making it very difficult for meaningful, attacking play to occur on the wings.
Here we see the midfield four, pushing up asynchronously. The left-hand side of the midfield goes up which causes Ronaldo to displace his position from a forward and to come to the wing. However, this decreases a forward presence in the defence which causes the team to maintain its rigidity.
Moreover, because of the absence of structure in the midfield, Ronaldo is now stuck in a 1v1 situation on the wing and considering the defence is a rigid 5-3-2, Juventus will be finding very few success on the wings. Moreover, with the forwards being put into wider positions, Juventus often lose numerical superiority near the mouth of the goal as opposition often create a situation of 5v3 or even 6v3.
Here the midfield’s structure doesn’t disturb the defence which causes the second forward, Higuaín, to drift to the wings to try something. This immediately results in two negatives for Juventus’ attacking play.
First of all, on the wings, the defence is able to quickly create a 3v2 numerical superiority because of the fact that the midfield didn’t stretch the defence by much. As such, the wing attack smothers down.
In the centre, now the defence have a 6v4 situation where three of the defence’s opposition players are directly man-marking three of Goeba’s players – all three which are I Bianconeri’s midfielders.
In terms of the nature of midfield, Juventus’ midfield is tepid, to say the least. The midfield play isn’t active enough, with players at times passing for the sake of passing. A lack of impetus allows the opponents to dominate the midfield and all of a sudden, Juventus’ attack seems to be getting harder and harder to go by.
Apart from counterattacks, the midfield of Juventus doesn’t have late runs from the midfield, runs to split the defence, or surging play. Rather, it is very rigid with the impetus on the on-the-ball movement to create space rather than off-the-ball movement.
Here we see an example of the complacency of Juventus midfield and the general squad. Here we see five members of Juventus on the left-hand side where there are only two Udinese players. Such complacency means that Juventus are not able to make their attacks quicker which allows the defence time to spot most combination plays.
In addition, the midfield of the Goeba do not contain edges of precision. Pjanić and Matuidi make 1.2 and 1.1 dribbles per 90 minutes while Bentancur and Bernardeschi make 2 and 2.6 dribbles per 90 minutes. All four midfielders have low success rates, averaging 68.4% for Pjanić, 66.7% for Bentancur, 54.2% for Bernardeschi, and 42.9% for Matuidi. As such, not only does Goeba’s midfield attempt few penetrative plays, they also are poor at succeeding in these aspects.
However, dribbling does not define penetration. A more introspective look at penetration concerns looking at xA. Pjanić has accumulated an xA of 1.7, Bentancur has an xA of 2.1, Bernardeschi has an xA of 1.5, and Matuidi has an xA of 0.7. These numbers are not per 90 minutes but rather the accumulation of xA over 21 games.
It is clear to see that the midfield of I Bianconeri does not provide tactical pathways to advance the ball, adds a lack of penetration into attacking play, and add complacency. The only exception to this worrying trend is Paulo Dybala who averages 4.4 dribbles per 90 minutes and an xA of 2.6. His constant creativity and incision is the main driving force behind Juventus’ attacks.
Juventus’ narrow play constricts space for its attack
One of the major weaknesses of Juventus has been their inability to stretch play and really widen their attack game plan.
This problems stems from the full-backs and roots its way to the midfield and forward line.
Sarri at Juventus has Alex Sandro – an excellent left-backs who only a few years ago was on the tongues of every club. Not only that, Sarri has chosen for Juan Cuadrado, a forward, to stake his place at the left full-back position.
As such, I Bianconeri have natural attacking players in the full-backs position. However, maybe in an attempt to add more defensive cover, overlapping play from full-backs does not happen as much as one would think.
More intriguingly, the attacking full-back play from Juventus is not much as it should be.
In possession, Juventus transform to a three at the back formation with one of the full-backs coming centre. This places Pjanić much further against the opponent as compared to how normally registas are placed under Sarri.
However, in doing so, Juventus lose an attacker on the wing and there remains a threat the fullbacks from the opposition can push up to outnumber I Bianconeri’s central areas. To prevent this from happening, the other full-back comes in the centre and play as an inverted full-back.
Here we see the vertical lines in Juventus’ attack. One can see the congestion of Juventus’ centre play with four Juventus players being marked – three through man-marking and the forward through zonal – and four players occupying the same vertical zone. Clearly, Juventus need to widen the play here.
However, we do not see any full-back runs on either side. On the left side, we see Sandro, bottom-left, but instead, he stays in his central position and doesn’t overlap or make wide runs. As such, Juventus’ attack stays narrow and easy for the opposition to control.
While, through this, Juventus do gain an advantage in the middle of the pitch, they lose their width and are not able to expand play. This negative would have been countered with a fast-moving midfield.
With a fast-moving midfield, Juventus would be able to take advantage of the inverted full-back to find an extra man. However, as established, Juventus’ slow midfield means that the centre becomes unnaturally congested. This congestion – with players being awkwardly put in the same vertical zone or occupying the same space – means that the opposition team has to do little.
Juventus’ possession structure eventually becomes a deterrent to their attacking structure. I Bianconeri’s need to shift defence through the centre results in a loss of support on the wing. This, conversely, means that if central space is well-defended, which is something that Serie A teams specialize in, Juventus are unable to efficiently use their wing to attack.
Here we see the full-structure of Juventus’ full-backs. At the back, we see a three-man defence with Sandro, shown in red, having come central to form the trio at the back. On the right, Cuadrado comes inside and becomes the inverted winger.
Moreover, Juventus’ midfield is congested in the middle and as such, the opposition is more than happy to sit back. The lack of full-back activity means that the midfield do not get any space to widen the defence with and thus, rotate in the centre.
Due to the midfield’s ineffective shape, one of the forwards – Ronaldo here – comes out to the wings. However since Sandro has tucked in on the left-hand side, Ronaldo has no wing support with him to attract the wider defenders. As such, an opposition defender is able to follow him knowing the defensive rigidity will be kept.
The inverted full-backs and a lack of pre-established support on the wings mean that many times, the forwards do not receive supporting overlapping runs in open play. This puts them in scenarios where they are outnumbered 2 to 1 and as such must pass back and through this, the cycle restarts.
The absence of consistent wing-play also has another downside – predictable play. With creativity coming from the forwards and midfield almost providing no tactical support, teams can start to predict the passing patterns and combination plays – much like what occurred at Chelsea and to a lesser extent at Napoli.
An emerging Juventus demonstrates the right ideas in fast-breaks
For all their inconsistencies, Juventus are still a team that has the right ideas in place and show flashes of the tactical understanding that Sarri really wants.
With the chemistry of Ronaldo, Higuaín, and Dybala, Juventus have been able to implement a successful fast-break approach.
Whenever the counter-attack or fast-break occurs, the duo of Ronaldo and Higuaín – or for that matter whichever two forwards – start separating. This has the effect of widening the defence and causing the centre-backs of the opposition to either stay narrow or drift wide. In most cases, the centre-backs drift wide as it allows them to man-mark the most imminent threat.
This is where Sarri’s tactics really come alive as Juventus’s shining prince Dybala, or for that case any attacking midfielder, comes in central to attack the central space. Now, the opposing defence has to turn its attention inwards which creates just enough space for Higuaín and Ronaldo.
Here we see the start of a fast-break from Juventus. Ronaldo is highlighted in blue and Higuaín is highlighted in red and both start in narrow positions.
As the fast-break develops, both Ronaldo and Higuaín diverge in their paths causing the centre-back pairing at the back to separate. This creates space in the centre which the attacking midfielder – here Douglas Costa – directly attacks.
This will attract the centre-backs inwards creating space on either side for Juventus to exploit.
With Costa’s dribbling, the Cagliari defence has been brought inwards. This created space on the left-hand side which Ronaldo seizes upon. Seeing the amount of goal-space available to him, Ronaldo will most likely score.
As established before, both forwards are great finishers and often convert small xGs to actual goals. This is all Juventus need as one goal is all it takes for sides to open up their formation – something which Juventus really desire.
Here is an example of the quality of finishing of Juventus’ forwards. Dybala here, despite being in a numerically disadvantageous situation, scores a goal.
Here is yet another example of the efficacy of Juventus’ forwards. Here Higuaín, in an impossible situation, curls a goal despite being surrounded by seven players.
Juventus are by no means a completely flawed team. Sarri’s intelligent squad choices make it so that some way and through some measures, I Bianconeri are able to score goals. The choice to play Dybala, Ronaldo, and Higuaín has been a masterpiece as Sarri’s Juventus continue to top Serie A.
However, Sarri needs to ensure that systematic principles are laid down quickly and that they are cemented or else Juventus’ squad may end up with more problems than answers.