Matchday 21 of Italy’s Serie A played out this past weekend as sixth-placed Lazio welcomed league leaders Juventus to the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday evening. Juve sat eight points clear of their nearest rivals Napoli, who had just dropped two points away to AC Milan on Saturday, and so knew victory in the capital would stretch their lead to 11 points.
That 0-0 draw in Milan also opened the door for Lazio to catch the Rossoneri as they looked to take the prized fourth spot in the Serie A table. I Biancocelesti have been in very inconsistent form throughout this campaign and lost 2-1 away to Napoli in their last league outing.
Juventus were victorious in the reverse fixture, winning 2-0 in Turin, and Lazio have struggled overall against top-half opposition this season. All logic suggested another win for I Bianconeri, but with the rain falling heavily and a fervent atmosphere building inside the Stadio Olimpico, hopes of an exciting upset increased. What followed was anything but dull.
Lazio manager Simone Inzaghi made three personnel changes to his side from their defeat to Napoli as he set his team up in a 3-5-2 formation. Defenders Wallace and Bastos replaced the injured Luiz Filipe and suspended Francesco Acerbi in the back three while Joaquín Correa joined the attack as left-wing-back Jordan Lukaku was dropped. Lucas Leiva reprised his role as the defensive midfield anchor while top scorer Ciro Immobile spearheaded the frontline. The Italian has 11 Serie A goals so far this season, the fifth-highest total in the league.
One man ahead of Immobile in the scoring charts is Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar started on the left of a 4-3-3 formation for Max Allegri’s Juve, while Paolo Dybala took up an unfamiliar false nine role. Former Liverpool midfielder Emre Can began the match in a holding midfield role in the absence of the injured Miralem Pjanić.
Attackers are the first defenders
Noticeable right from the kick-off, Lazio made an intense start, full of attacking intent. Inzaghi’s side got numbers ahead of the ball and had a direct approach, looking to engage in a physical battle with the Juve defence. Midfielders Sergej Milinković-Savić and Luis Alberto pushed forward beyond the Juve midfield in support of their strike duo, Immobile and Correa, while both Lazio wing-backs got forward in wide areas.
The retention of possession was not paramount for Inzaghi’s side. Instead, they were content to see their opposition win the ball in their own half as they then implemented their counter-press. When Lazio’s direct passes into their forward line broke down, their advanced midfield players would immediately press the Juve midfield from behind, leaving their defensive line and Lucas to man-mark the Juve forwards.
The visitors continued their patient approach in possession and seemed reluctant to get the ball and bodies forward quickly. Lazio remained unbothered by misplaced passes or sloppy ball control on their part. Lazio’s effective counter-press was ball-oriented, meaning they surrounded the ball carrier as soon as Juventus won the ball back. This transition tactic saw Lazio get the better of the game’s opening as it was the perfect foil for a team looking to slow the game down in possession.
When they could play through the Lazio pressure, Juve were quite favourable of their left-flank where Alex Sandro pushed up from left-back to initially support Cristiano Ronaldo in attack. A midfield player would then drop back to cover. Allegri’s side began conservatively and didn’t push many players ahead of the ball.
Lazio, in contrast, were constantly looking for overload situations in attack. Wing-backs Parolo and Lulić attacked either side of the narrow Juventus back four with the latter in particular finding some joy down the right flank against the attack-minded Alex Sandro.
Lazio’s aggressive start to the game put Juventus on the back foot. They struggled to either gather any momentum in their build-up play, or in turn maintain a sustained period of possession. Juve’s play became predictable, as they always looked for the short pass and ignored open spaces to drive into.
Lazio’s quick transitions were picking at the gaps in Juve’s defence. Luis Alberto was heavily involved in the Lazio attack; the Spaniard would have three attempts from open play as well as create two scoring chances for his side. The heavy presence of Lazio forwards kept the Juve defence honest and they never got many bodies forward in the first half.
Perhaps Allegri was happy to watch his opposition hassle and harry his team in such an aggressive fashion. Juve’s tactics certainly weren’t too physically demanding and without a goal conceded during the early Lazio pressure, the away side didn’t rush to alter their approach.
Simone Inzaghi seemed to also be wary of the game’s state. His side had seen much the better of the chances in the first half hour but had no advantage to show for it. Lazio consciously took the foot off the gas a little toward the end of the half, sitting off in a 3-5-2 mid-block which cut off the central areas and half-spaces.
To the wings then you would assume Juventus would go, using width to circumvent the Lazio block which only had one wide player on each flank. However, they remained heavily focused on their left flank. With Cristiano Ronaldo now spearheading the attack and Costa moved to the left, Dybala was the assigned right winger. But the Argentine playmaker was given license to roam, moving inward and dropping deep toward the ball.
This gave Juventus almost no presence on the right wing. Right-back Mattia De Sciglio was the far more conservative of the two full-backs, while right-sided central midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur is no winger. He too looked for space centrally. This led to many Juventus players looking for the ball in the same areas as they lacked a right-sided threat and a focal point in attack.
Lazio’s drop into a mid-block didn’t encourage Juve to push more players forward either. All three midfielders still maintained deep positions during the build-up while nobody was available in the spaces between the Lazio backline and midfield.
As a truly awful first half performance for Juventus came to a close, Lazio boss Inzaghi must have been scratching his head as to how the match was still poised at 0-0. His side had unsettled their illustrious visitors and looked the better team, switching between two different tactical setups.
The tactical approach from Allegri’s Juve, however, was far more difficult to understand. They created next to nothing in attack and seemed insistent on playing at a slow, cumbersome tempo. Their two main dangermen in attack, Ronaldo and Dybala, had the same average positions as midfielders Can and Bentancur respectively, with Costa the only obvious forward on the pitch.
There were no personnel changes at half time nor differences in approach from either side as the second half got underway. Lazio’s 3-5-2 was comfortably contending with Juve’s 4-3-2-1 as the away side’s insistence on a narrow attacking formation was bettered by a physical, organized and hungry Lazio team.
One change that did occur though was the switch of positions for Emre Can and Rodrigo Bentancur. The Uruguayan’s attributes are far better suited to the deep-lying playmaker role, and he should be the understudy to Pjanić. Emre Can had a rough first half as the tempo-setter and would revert to a more familiar role, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
The tactical setups of both sides continued to produce a scrappy game with little proof of patterns of play or ‘automisations’ (set moves in possession, practiced extensively). It was fitting then that the first goal of the game was scrappy and had a large dose of good fortune. The goal came for the home side in the 59th minute following a corner-kick, during which the ball hit the top of the head of a ducking (for some reason) Emre Can and bounced passed Szczęsny to give Lazio the 1-0 lead.
The goal was the trigger for the first tactical change for the Bianconeri, as Allegri brought some width to Juve’s formation. Federico Bernardeschi replaced Blaise Matuidi and positioned himself on the right wing as Juventus switched to a 4-4-1-1 with Costa wide left, Ronaldo up top and Dybala in the number 10 role behind Cristiano.
Juve now had a front four in attack, also aided by Alex Sandro from left-back, but were still a little lopsided. Bernardeschi is left-footed and looked to make forward runs across the Lazio backline to favour his left side. With De Sciglio remaining in his disciplined role, a switch to the right-wing was still not an available option in attack for Juve.
Costa remained the main point of attack for Juventus. His understanding with compatriot Alex Sandro brought some joy down Juve’s left, but Lazio’s strong organisation resorted the away side to crossing opportunities, for which Ronaldo remained outnumbered in the box. Costa would attempt six crosses throughout his 70 minutes on the pitch but couldn’t find a Juventus player with any of them.
Lazio still remained in the ascendancy following their opening goal. Ciro Immobile had a glorious chance to make it 2-0 in the 64th minute but completely skied his shot after being put through on goal by his strike partner Correa. Luis Alberto would come close shortly after, but Lazio just couldn’t get that second goal that you felt would have sealed the win.
Max Allegri then played his last hand come the 70th minute of play, as right-back Joao Cancelo replaced the ineffective Douglas Costa. Having two right-backs in play when you are chasing a game may seem counterproductive, but Allegri’s idea soon became obvious. An attack-minded full-back by trade, Cancelo would play on the right-wing as Bernardeschi moved to the left-hand side.
Juve’s front four now had the width and depth to trouble the Lazio backline as they looked to counter-attack an attack-minded Lazio. It took little time for the tactic to pay off for the visitors too. Four minutes after Cancelo’s introduction, Bernardeschi’s forward run in the left channel was found by Alex Sandro and subsequently disjointed the Lazio back three. The Italian winger found a cleverly positioned Paolo Dybala with a pull-back which the Argentine struck first-time. The keeper parried it, but only as far as a free Joao Cancelo to pass it back across into the far side of the net.
The home side were deflated. Having bossed proceedings for so long, they somehow found themselves level with little over 15 minutes left on the clock. After a similar breakaway for the Juve front four once again released Bernardeschi down the left-hand side in the 87th minute, Cancelo was this time brought down by Senad Lulić and Juventus had a penalty. Who else but Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up and smashed it home to give the visitors a very hard-fought, and probably undeserving, 2-1 win.
Simone Inzaghi and his team, as well as the rest of Italy, will be left wondering what is needed to put this Juventus team away. The seven-time consecutive Serie A champions look unbeatable at the moment, their resilience and fortitude exemplary to any aspiring title winners. Lazio’s tactical approach worked, for 70 minutes anyway, but their failure to score a second proved extremely costly and they lost their momentum in the closing periods. Perhaps future opponents for Juventus can learn from Lazio’s successes and mistakes in this match.
Juventus were hapless in the first half. Their tactical approach bore no fruit, yet Allegri seemed reluctant to make any early alterations. As soon as Lazio took the lead, Juventus came to life. Tactical changes ensued and a different Juve emerged as if they had been toying with Lazio until then. The Old Lady was singing at the end of this one as they march on to what will surely be their eighth successive Serie A title.
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