With an injury riddled campaign combined with some unfortunate losses against both Milan sides, there was potential for a title race in Serie A. Unfortunately, the team trusted with leading the charge against another Bianconeri title was Roma, a team who, historically, are not great when the world is watching. And boy did Juve capitalise on that.
After an injury riddled season for last seasons champions, Massimiliano Allegri is finally able to play a settled side. Juve’s formation was incredible fluid, ranging from their base 4-3-1-2, to 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. They started off in a 4-3-1-2 with Pjanic as a trequartista, with Lichtsteiner and Alex Sandro providing width from full-back.
The Giallorossi’s line-up was more complicated. Whilst Juventus are getting over their worst injuries, Roma’s just seem to be beginning. With Egyptian star Mohamed Salah still out, Alessandro Florenzi out long-term and Rui Mario not yet fit. This severely affected Roma’s gameplan, they shifted into a back three (Fazio, Manolas, Rudiger) when in possession. However I find it’s better when Roma do this with the left back shifting into the left sided centre back.
This allowed Florenzi to glide up and down the right flank. With the right back (Rudiger) turning into the right sided centreback, this meant Gerson was isolated on the right wing with little help or opportunity for 1 v 1s.
The opening stages of the game
The first twenty minutes or so have been a crucial part of Juventus’ plan in big games, the finest example being Bayern (A) 15/16. The Bianconeri waste no time settling into the game and look to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses early in the game and hope to capitalise on an unsettled side.
Roma suffered much the same fate Bayern did in 2016, and Juve identified two weaknesses.
- All eyes were on Roma and it created a pressure cooker of expectations. You don’t have to be a Calcio expert to know Roma struggle when the lights are too bright. To exploit this Juve were intense and relentless in their pressing in the opening twenty minutes.
- The targeting of the youngster Gerson. A young player adjusting to European football and he’s thrown into a potentially title deciding game. Allegri was always going to identify the youngster as one to exploit.
Some quick analysis of how Juve unsettled Roma in the early stages: High + intense press and force the ball to Gerson and then swarm. pic.twitter.com/qhDc655BTY
— Billy (@BilbertoSilva) December 20, 2016
Juve played a high DEF line and most likely had little doubt doing so with Mohamed Salah out. This pushed the MF and FWD lines up and suffocated Roma straight from kick-off. The 4-3-3 featuring Mandzukic on the left was crucial.
Mandzukic is Juventus’ best presser and Roma would be going to Rudiger a lot. When avoiding an intense press from the forward line, it’s important to use the width across your backline. Due to this, Roma would look to the German centreback to initiate play, however Mandzukic did an excellent job pressuring him. With this, Roma are already panicking from goal kicks and their build-up is struggling.
The pressing did not just start and end with goal kicks. Juventus, unsurprisingly, identified the MF as a key area of pressing. In the defensive phase, Juventus shifted to a 4-4-2, however, this 4-4-2 featured a narrow MF with the FBs wider than wide midfielders.
This tempted Roma into going wide as they believed they could create 2 v 1 situations. However, Roma lacked the wide players to beat Lichtsteiner/Alex Sandro in even 1 v 1 situations. With little to worry about in wide situations, Juve could focus on cutting off central passing lanes.
With essentially four midfielders, cutting off passing lanes to Nainggolan. Roma were forced out wide with little success. The condensed MF always made pressuring De Rossi and Strootman easy, as the duo lacked the mobile ability to escape pressure and had to rely on line splitting passes.
The targeting of Gerson was tough to watch but Allegri has never been one to go for style points. The Brazilian was swarmed whenever he tried to receive the ball as Juve knew they could create turnovers from pressing Gerson into bad decisions.
Roma eventually started avoiding the right flank and Gerson. In fairness to the youngster, I believe he missed Florenzi’s overlapping runs that those who play on the right have become accustom to. Leaving the Brazilian to play 1 v 1 only made his job harder.
With Roma avoiding the right flank, Juve could overload the left hand side and stifle Roma’s play whilst possibly tempting them into playing through Gerson in which Juventus could potentially create turnovers.
More on Juve’s 4-4-2
Four-four-two has become the formation for pressing teams over the last few years and it’s no surprise one of the best pressing sides in Europe also follow this trend.
I covered the basis of how Juve’s 4-4-2 stifled Roma but I’ll talk about it more from top to bottom.
Pressing always starts from the forwards, Mandzukic and Higuain do an excellent job of placing themselves in between two of the three CBs. What this does is create cover shadows meaning they can intercept balls into the MF (Strootman and De Rossi). It also allows them to have flexibility when pressing across the forward line.
One of the main criticisms of a 4-4-2 can be that the formation is too rigid and can be exploited in between the lines. Allegri remedied this by layering his 4-4-2.
Layering is what you imagine it to be. It’s still defined as a 4-4-2 but the midfield line isn’t flat, some players advance and some players drop deeper so space in between the lines cannot be exploited.
I’ve raved about Nainggolan’s offensive transformation under Spalletti and the Belgian’s ability to play as a fluid 10 is leaving Nainggolan much in the mould of Arturo Vidal’s 14/15 where he could play anywhere in midfield.
Marchisio plays off the MF line to prevent any potential passes to Nainggolan. As discussed earlier, Juve have essentially completely locked down Serie A’s most potent offense.
The Old Lady’s midfield has: excellent pressing, is condensed horizontally to apply as much pressure centrally as possible, is layered to prevent line splitting passes. Combine these excellent features with Roma’s impotency and a reliance on Nainggolan centrally. You’ve got a recipe for a great defensive performance.
Juve’s ability to lock-up games
On ItalianFD, I’ve discussed game states before, if you’re not aware of this, you can click here.
Game states can be split into three categories: winning, drawing and losing.
Juventus last season were genuinely incredible in the winning game state and this backs up why they try and pressurise opponent’s early and take a lead.
Juve’s defense conceded a goal once every 164 minutes when they were leading. Meaning, if Juve were 1-0 early in a game, they were more than likely not going to concede. Even more incredibly, when they were 1-0 up, they conceded a goal every 271 minutes.
This arguably makes them quite unique in modern football. Not only can this team create an early lead, but they can lock-up into Catenaccio mode and shut-out offensively incredible teams for 70 odd minutes. It’s actually incredible.
Injuries prevented this game from reaching its fullest potential. The best offense in the league against the best defense always makes for excellent viewing. Without injuries, I think Roma’s gameplan goes a lot differently and is a lot more effective. With one flank completely cut-off for half of a game, you’re going to have problems.
Allegri stakes another claim in the title ‘Wait, is he actually the best defensive coach in the game?’. It’s certainly possible. This Juve side can shut down any type of opposition, possession, counter attack, reliant on the big man, reliant on wings, Allegri can plan for it.
A title race in Serie A seems a bit of a dream now. With Juve finding their feet after stumbles against both Milan sides and Genoa a seven point lead seems insurmountable for a side as ruthless and consistent as Juventus.