It is an indicator of the high esteem in which Juventus hold themselves that suffering five defeats before February necessitated a drastic tactical overhaul. The resulting 4-2-3-1 formation has earned plaudits for combining a swashbuckling, attacking emphasis with the ability to grind out results. However, Sunday’s draw away to Napoli has raised doubts over how the formation will cope against the offensive might of Barcelona.
The new formation allows Coach Max Allegri to field his three star strikers, whilst catering to Gonzalo Higuain’s preference for playing as a lone centre-forward. Although less glamorous, Mario Mandzukic’s defensive work rate on the left wing has been somewhat of a revelation.
The Croatian international has been played as a ‘hidden forward’ rather than an inverted winger, plying his trade as a target man out wide. The attacking prowess of his supporting fullback Alex Sandro means that there’s no shortage of traditional wing play down the left flank, leaving Mandzukic free to cause havoc moving into the box.
Unavoidably, overloading the attack has taken its toll on the defence. Not only has the team lost a centre-back, but the two central midfielders Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira are both offensively minded. Thus, the Old Lady’s defence has been playing deeper and allowing opponents to carry to the ball further into their half.
Additionally, the Bianconeri’s new set-up is significantly narrower when not in possession. The two centre-backs no longer enjoy the luxury of a covering player when defending the wide areas, which opens gaps in the final third for teams with talented wingers to exploit.
Napoli Coach Maurizio Sarri has long favoured a 4-3-3 formation, putting an emphasis on attacking from wide positions. Whereas in previous fixtures where Juventus’ 3-5-2 has effectively contained this threat, the Partenopei dominated the flanks on Sunday. If it weren’t for Lorenzo Insigne’s missing shooting boots on the night, Allegri’s side could well have paid the price for this.
Juventus’ comfortable lead in Serie A and 3-1 first leg advantage in the Coppa Italia allowed Allegri to rotate his squad for the trip to Naples. Not starting Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado is evidence not only to a prioritisation of the Champions League, but also to a shortage in offensive options.
To make matters worse, reserve winger Marco Pjaca’s ACL tear leaves teenager Moise Kean as the only offensive player that Allegri has in the event of an injury to any of his front four.
Even without further injuries, facing Barcelona is a daunting task. The Catalan giants are also known to play a 4-3-3, and the Nou Camp pitch is notoriously large, allowing Leo Messi and Co. space to exploit the wings. There is arguably no team worse than the Blaugrana against whom to field a narrow formation, especially one that concedes and extra six per cent passes in their defensive third.
Furthermore, Allegri’s 4-2-3-1 would require both wingers to track back in order to counter the threat of Messi and Neymar. As if asking Mandzukic to tackle Messi wasn’t enough, over-burdening the wingers defensively has blunted their effectiveness in attack.
Nevertheless, it is not all doom and gloom for the Old Lady. Barcelona suffered a similarly inconsistent start to the season as Juventus, which likewise resulted in a formation change, switching to a 3-4-3 (set up as 3-1-2-1-3). With Dybala occupying Sergio Busquets, this would undoubtedly leave space for the remaining three forwards.
Moreover, Juventus may benefit from the fact that Barcelona Coach Luis Enrique has abandoned Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka tactics. The former Roma boss has instead encouraged fast build-up play, often by-passing the midfield to give more space to his MSN trio. Whereas Allegri’s 4-2-3-1 may have been exposed against possession-based play, his deeper sitting defence would be ideal against a counter-attacking team.
The upcoming fixtures are far from mission impossible for Juventus, and Allegri is not without options. Sunday’s experiment of introducing Claudio Marchisio into defensive midfield and pushing Pjanic forward certainly helped to balance the scales defensively. Otherwise reverting to the tried and tested 3-5-2 formation or attempting to match Barcelona’s 3-4-3 are both valid possibilities for the Tuscan Coach.
With the first leg against Barcelona at home, Allegri may well decide to field a more defensive XI in Turin. However, Barcelona’s recent struggles coping with high-pressing, attacking teams have been well documented, and Allegri has spent the last three months training his team to do exactly that.
As the saying goes ‘fortune favours the bold’, and if the Coach sticks to his guns then perhaps, just perhaps, it will do on the night.