A four-man defensive line was an option for Mr. Allegri, but is often becoming forced choice. Will necessity become a virtue for Juventus?
Two years ago (almost to the day), in occasion of the Champions League clash against Olympiacos, Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri was forced into a decision that proved to be the “eureka moment” of the bianconeri‘s season and his tenue at Juventus.
With key centre backs injured, Allegri opted for a four-man defence featuring Chiellini and Bonucci, flanked by Lichsteiner and Asamoah.
Today’s forced 4-man defence will mark Allegri’s fate. #JuveOlympiacos
— Rocco (@CatenaccioNA) November 4, 2014
My tweet, live on location, proved prophetic. Until then, the Tuscan coach had relied on the chassis inherited from his predecessor Antonio Conte, namely the 3-5-2 that Juventus fans had so loved for its reliability and at the same time despised for its static game flow. The only outing with a 4-man defence produced an early preseason loss to an amateur side with the score 3 to 2.
Juventus-Olympiacos would be telling of Allegri’s 4-man defence in Turin. The game got off to a good start with a magical Pirlo free kick, but Olympiacos exposed Juve’s rusty defensive mechanisms and scored twice, unanswered.
The murmurs heard at Juventus Stadium that night began to grow into despair as Juventus was losing a key match at home that would have made their road to Berlin much more complicated.
Juventus’ four man defence (then and now) is leaky. Defending mechanisms are not as automated as with a 3-5-2 formation, notwithstanding player availability. Juventus have struggled to make outstanding defensive performances with it since the departments (defence, midfield, and attack) seem to lose compactness and fall apart, leaving wide open spaces and exposing defenders to vicious (counter)attacks.
Where Juventus struggles in defending in four-man defensive formations, they make up for it in attack. Juventus-Olympiacos of 2014 was, once again, a great sample of the bianconeri in a formation that has as its base a four-man defense. At the 65th minute, a Llorente header is deflected in the back of the net by Olympiacos defender Roberto, and one minute later a Pogba strike puts Juventus on top.
While Juventus seems less compact, as mentioned above, one is left with the impression that they can advance and score at will, with much more flow in game play. After being partly responsible for European success that led Juventus all the way to Berlin, just to see the bianconeri defeated by a star-studded Barcelona, the four-man defence was largely shelved in 2015-16. The reasons could be multiple: the inability to secure a trequartista, the many changes in personnel that led to a laboured beginning of the season that resulted in Juve’s need for quick wins with the tried, tested and true 3-5-2.
Recently, presented with a similar player availability emergency, Allegri has been open to dusting off his four-man defence formation, with – once again – similar results. A 4-1 defeat of Sampdoria (employing a 4-4-2), virtually exacted in 30 minutes with two quick goals, was countered by a Chievo away win (employing a 4-3-3 variation) that gave the bianconeri quite a tough time to be achieved, and by a disappointing home draw to Lyon, where Juventus dominated the first half employing a 4-3-1-2 formation, but eventually reverted back to a 3-5-2 formation and allowed Lyon’s tying goal.
Which is the best formation to play? Formation can have a significant bearing on a team’s performance, game play flow, and mechanisms but it’s not a panacea. What Allegri’s side needs is time to work on game play mechanisms and positioning. This season, like last, saw wholesale changes at Juventus: this does not make transitions to new formations easy. One is left with the impression that Juve’s additions to the roster is still metabolizing environmental changes (Pjanic, Higuain and Dani Alves) while some key returning players have suffered injuries (Marchisio, Barzagli, Chiellini on rotation), which have made it hard for the group to work together and solidify.
On November 4, 2014 necessity was the mother of Allegri’s invention. Injuries to Juve’s central defenders, and the return of Marchisio to health will usher in a new addition to Allegri’s arsenal of formations making Juve more unpredictable and adaptable. Fans, however, are warned: this will not be painless.