Pre-match attention on the top-of-the-table clash between Juventus and Udinese centred on tactics – the speculation was that Antonio Conte was considering a formation change. For a team that had seemingly perfected their understanding and application of a 4-1-4-1 variant in their so-far-unbeaten run, Conte’s wish to switch to a 3-5-1-1 to mirror Udinese was a move that came with a risk. Indeed, the biggest threat to the Bianconeri’s record of not losing this season came the one and only other time they had used a three-man defence, when facing Napoli in Week 11’s rearranged fixture.
What’s more, where the intention was the same as against Napoli, to reflect their opponents’ use of a back-three, this time it was against a more in-form side in Francesco Guidolin’s men, one that had won all seven of its home games this season.
However, given that the game produced few items of notable highlight, focus after it deservedly falls on the calculated gamble Conte took. As La Gazzetta dello Sport exclaimed afterwards: ‘What traffic in the middle!’ Conte’s decision had the effect of cancelling out the Zebrette’s movement in midfield – each Udinese man had a direct opponent whilst the key dangermen of Antonio Di Natale, Pablo Armero, Mauricio Isla and Dusan Basta often found themselves up against two markers.
Resultantly, Udinese created just nine chances in the game – their lowest of the season – and managed their joint-lowest number of shots on target from inside the area. The calendar year has seen few teams prevent Udinese from scoring – only the Milanese clubs have netted more goals in 2011 – but such was Juve’s discipline in an otherwise unfamiliar state, that the best chances in fact fell their way.
Giorgio Chiellini spoke of the performance proving a point, as much as earning one. Indeed, whilst the literal point ensured the Old Lady finish the year as joint-winter champions, the existential point made is perhaps the more significant one looking ahead.
There were finer elements to the tactical switch that, as were also seen in Naples, suggest it remains something that needs work. This ranged from Gianluigi Buffon struggling to find suitable options when with the ball at his feet, to Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal struggling for space in the middle of the park. At the same time, the requirement for wingers Stephan Lichtsteiner and Marcelo Estigarribia to pull right back when without the ball had the effect of pulling the midfield back too and generally presenting a much deeper Juve than we have seen this year. The most prominent victim of this was perhaps Alessandro Matri, who at the other end of the pitch struggled to adapt to a game-plan that often saw support later and less frequent in arriving than previous this season.
However, for the context of this being only Conte’s 29th career match as a Coach in Serie A and only his 16th with the Turin outfit, minor details can be excused. That Juventus were able to effectively shut out Udinese for 90 minutes and become the first team to both stop the Zebrette from scoring and winning at the Stadio Friuli this season was testament to Conte’s coaching and his players’ concentration to see out this unfamiliar tactic. Indeed, should Juve still be in a title race come late April, the reasons why can be attributed as much to performances like this as to recent tests of their attacking nous.
That the 0-0 can be considered a good and significant result despite the historical disparity between the two teams in Serie A is an equally sure reflection of where the likes of Juve and most likely joint leaders Milan now see Udinese. Right on their tailcoats.
Udinese’s success in the 3-5-1-1 system and Juve’s chameleon charm to seemingly master it inside two attempts points towards why these two are at the top of the League. Similarly, it is what Milan are chasing towards too – a lack of clear reference points for opponents to target. However, creating the illusion of a lack of reference points in a team comes only with a full first XI that can apply the specific, almost clockwork movement required.
This was best highlighted in the Rossoneri’s struggles to create chances or even keep the ball for long spells against Cagliari on Tuesday night. Without full-backs Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini, Milan gave away that their attacking line-up can still be nullified by an organised back-line. Indeed, without the regular option to stretch Davide Ballardini’s team with a run from wide, it took a goalkeeping error and a moment of mastered control from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to prove the difference. It was a game that suggests the moves for Carlos Tevez and Maxi Lopez are more of a necessity than previously thought.
Whilst the biggest game on Wednesday finished goalless, six of that evening’s fixtures shared a staggering 29 goals between them. Napoli recorded their biggest win of the year whilst Inter won by three goals in Serie A for the first time in nine-and-a-half months in both sides’ best performances of the season to date. Atalanta also proved their mental resilience with a 4-1 win over Cesena in an otherwise distracting week to end the season.