Juventus made sure they go into next weekend’s top of the table clash with Inter in good form thanks to their 2-0 win over SPAL in Serie A. The win was delivered despite the personnel struggles Juventus had to endure in defence, which saw Blaise Matuidi and Juan Cuadrado line up as full-backs. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by both sides with the focus being on the mechanisms of Juventus’s midfield diamond, SPAL’s defensive setup and SPAL’s build-up methods.
Maurizio Sarri maintained the 4-3-1-2 shape he used at Brescia in midweek, but it was a makeshift side with Matuidi and Cuadrado each at full-back. Aaron Ramsey again started as the tip of the diamond with Miralem Pjanić at its base. In attack, Sarri paired Cristiano Ronaldo with Paulo Dybala.
Leonardo Semplici’s SPAL started in their usual 3-5-2. The most eye-catching decision was the inclusion of Gabriele Moncini alongside Andrea Petagna in the attack. The inclusion of Mirko Valdifiori as the deepest of the three central midfielders provided an interesting side story since Valdifiori was such an important player for Sarri’s Empoli and someone who Sarri brought along when he had made the move to Napoli.
Tactical analysis: Juventus’s 4-3-1-2, their struggles, and their solutions
As mentioned, Sarri decided to retain the 4-3-1-2 which secured him a win at Brescia in midweek. With Matuidi starting at left-back, Adrien Rabiot was given the chance to play as the left-sided central midfielder with Pjanić at the base, Sami Khedira to the right and Ramsey as the number 10. We can see this setup in the image below.
On paper, it looked like a balanced diamond that should have been able to dominate the game. However, the inclusion of Dybala in the attack provided Juventus with some initial troubles. Dybala’s first thought is usually to drop into midfield to receive passes, turn and then attack the opposition. The issue was that Juve already had four central players and next to no width in their attack. In itself, that is no problem since the full-backs would eventually provide the width needed higher up the pitch, but Juve also sorely lacked runs into depth. These runs are critical to force a defence to readjust their positions and also be wary of the space behind them rather than only focusing on what they can see ahead of them.
When Dybala dropped without anyone attacking the space in-behind, SPAL found it easy to crowd Juve out in midfield. The image below highlights the issue Juve had when the midfield became too congested.
As the first half went on, Juventus improved a lot in their possession play. Firstly, they became more fluid in their positioning, which meant they became increasingly unpredictable. In the image below we can see that the structure remained the same, but Dybala was acting as the 10 here with Ramsey (black) and Ronaldo (white) as the front two. This is evidence of the rotations Juve used in their attack. As you can see, the front two also started from wider positions, which made them more difficult to deal with.
After a poor opening fifteen minutes, Juve also realised that their midfielders needed to make more runs into depth. Khedira always does this well, so it was no surprise to see him look to exploit the space between SPAL’s left-sided centre-back and left wing-back. In the image below, Ramsey has dribbled past an opponent and then threads the ball into the path of Khedira.
Ramsey himself also started to showcase his positional intelligence and his ability to time runs well. With Dybala dropping into midfield, Ramsey would look to exploit the space behind SPAL’s defence as they became preoccupied with Dybala’s movements. We can see this in the image below. Dybala’s movement to receive drags SPAL’s central centre-back, Francesco Vicari, out of position and Ramsey (yellow) is quick to realise that.
These types of counter-movements became key as Juve started to dominate the game. It often dragged the man-orientated SPAL players out of position and allowed Juve to progress the ball over the top or between the lines. In the image below, the substitute, Federico Bernardeschi, makes a movement to receive from Pjanić while Dybala (yellow) makes a run into depth.
As Juve started to threaten in-behind SPAL’s defence, they invariably also started to get more space centrally as the visitors became more stretched. This allowed Pjanić to thread passes into the likes of Dybala between the lines of SPAL’s defence and midfield, which further allowed Juve to dominate possession. We can see an example of this in the image below as Dybala receives in a good position.
Semplici’s defensive setup
I have praised Semplici’s tactical nous on this site plenty of times in the past, and the SPAL coach showed again on Saturday that he has one of Italy’s brightest tactical minds. As mentioned above, Juventus were extremely narrow in their attacking shape, so Semplici adapted his defensive tactics to make sure it was extremely crowded in the central areas. One interesting adaptation of his normal tactics was his use of the two wing-backs, Jacobo Sala and Arkadiusz Reca.
In deeper areas, they defended as they normally would, which is as full-backs in a back-five. However, in the attacking and the middle thirds, they acted a lot more as wide midfielders than as full-backs. This was probably due to Juve only having their full-backs in wide areas. By making the wing-backs press Juve’s full-backs, the midfield three could remain centrally and combine with the two strikers to create a 5 vs 4 advantage against Juve’s diamond. Often, as you can see below, when one wing-back pressed, the other would drop in to create a back-four.
We can see these high starting positions in the image below. It is clear that the two wing-backs were part of the midfield rather than the defence as Juve tried to build from the back. This allowed Sala and Reca to always have access to Matuidi and Cuadrado respectively.
The image below highlights the overall defensive shape of SPAL and, again, it is clear that the two wing-backs really were midfielders rather than defenders in the middle third. It was also crucial that the two strikers always looked to connect with the three central midfielders as this allowed SPAL to have two lines close together to minimise the space afforded to the likes of Pjanić.
SPAL were also very aggressive in their high pressing as they looked to prevent Juve easy and clean progression of the ball from their defence. As usual, Semplici’s side was man-orientated in their pressing and marked all of Gianluigi Buffon’s options. This was done to force a long ball and worked very well initially before the players started to tire and Juve’s quality took control.
SPAL’s build-up patterns
SPAL’s defending was impressive, yet their attacking play also stood out and highlighted how well-coached they are under Semplici. Their positioning was the first thing that catches the eye. The back-three and the deepest midfielder Valdifiori constructed attacks with the two advanced midfielders Alessandro Murgia and Simone Missiroli pushing into higher positions, where they looked to receive between the lines of Juve’s defence and midfield. The width was provided by the wing-backs with the front two of Petagna and Moncini provided depth within the attacking structure. We can see their attacking shape below.
Despite Juve’s efforts to press them high, SPAL stuck to their philosophy and tried to play through the press. This was done successfully on many occasions. The image below highlights SPAL’s confidence when playing out from the back. The goalkeeper Etrit Berisha is pressed and Juve mark all of his options. However, the Albanian exploits the aggressive positioning of Pjanić (yellow) by breaking Juve’s press with a low, hard pass to Missiroli in midfield.
SPAL are well-known for using the third-man concept to great effect and this was deployed to break through Juve’s press on many occasions. The image below highlights one such situation as Igor passed into Reca who instantly played it out to Missiroli who then progressed the ball further.
Semplici had also spotted Juve’s issues to cope with Sarri’s positional demands in defence and SPAL exploited this by having their strikers drop into midfield to aid ball progression. Under Massimiliano Allegri, Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs De Ligt would have followed the strikers into midfield, but under Sarri, the centre-backs still seem hesitant on how to deal with such situations. Should they stay in position or follow their man? That seems to be the question confusing them as Sarri looks to implement his positional defensive approach. In the image below, we can see how Vicari finds the dropping Petagna who can turn and spread the ball out wide.
Here, Valdifiori found Moncini in a similar situation and SPAL broke Juve’s press yet again.
An added benefit of SPAL’s shape compared to Juve’s narrow defence was the space afforded to their wing-backs. We can see this in the image below. Petagna spreads the ball wide to Reca (yellow) who has a lot of space due to Cuadrado (white) having been forced to cover inside.
SPAL’s performance was largely good, but their lack of good results so far is worrying. If they continue playing like they are, however, then surely it is only a matter of time before they start reaping the rewards.
As this analysis has shown, Juventus found ways to exploit a very good SPAL side to stay within touching distance of Inter ahead of next weekend’s mouth-watering clash. SPAL provided the perfect preparation as their 3-5-2 is quite similar to Antonio Conte’s, yet Inter’s quality is obviously higher. Juve will need to improve defensively to stop Conte’s team from scoring, but their attacking solutions here provided good examples to build on during the week.
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