Over the years the name Juventus has been synonymous with disciplined, aggressive and resolute defending. However, a defensive deficiency has been discovered. Despite the new season being in its infancy, this apparent weakness in the back-line has already come under heavy scrutiny.
Conceding two set-piece goals in their first home game against Napoli saw Juve relinquish a three-goal lead before emerging victorious in fortunate circumstances. Then a little under three weeks later, the Bianconeri kicked off their Champions League campaign by succumbing to Atletico Madrid’s dead ball bombardment of the Juve box. This time Maurizio’s Sarri’s men had to settle for a point as their set-piece issues came back to haunt them.
The warning signs have been there for some time. During the 2017-2018 season Juventus conceded nine of their 24 league goals from set-plays, which is over 37%. Those problems under Max Allegri continued last season with six of the 30 Serie A goals they leaked coming again from set piece situations. Over the course of the year in Italy’s top flight, the dominant Old Lady have been able to subsume these goals, with them having little effect on their march toward another title, but it is a different story on the continent.
Europe’s elite football competition is decided by key moments and it is here where Juve’s lapses in concentration have really hurt them. Of the last 12 goals that Juve have allowed past them in the Champions League, nine have arrived from set pieces.
Last season they were caught out in the group stage when shocked late on at home by a deep in-swinging Manchester United free-kick, it continued in the knockout stages as Diego Simeone’s Atletico exploited Juve from a corner and another in-swinging free-kick. Then in the quarter-finals it caught up with them. The Turin giants were finally made to pay the ultimate price as then Ajax player Matthijs de Ligt scored a priceless away goal with a bullet header from a corner.
So why is it that a crop of football’s best players are unable to defend these situations on a consistent basis? Is it difficulties with concentration or is it simply that Juve do not have enough individual’s capable of dealing with a ball in the box?
What about organisation? Old boss Allegri used a mixture of man and zonal marking whilst Mister Sarri opts to defend in a complete zonal set-up. It has been well documented that Sarri’s previous sides have experienced complications with his deployment of zonal marking. Juve’s complete overhaul in style under new boss Sarri is likely to contribute to the existing defensive problems at set plays.
First contact is pivotal at any corner or free kick and Juve’s players are failing to ensure that they are first to the ball. There is no clear pattern, it is more a case of individuals not taking responsibility. Players must be aware of the danger and spaces around them. It is key that the destination of the ball is anticipated, that runs are tracked and blocked. Spaces must be limited and jumps fairly impeded so that the opponent does not get a free ride. At this current time, none of those things are happening. If players do not do their jobs, it is irrelevant what marking system is deployed.
There is an acceptance on Juve’s part that their set play worries need to be resolved and we saw a glimpse of this being addressed in last Saturday’s match against Verona. On a number of occasions Cristiano Ronaldo could be seen communicating with teammates around him to make sure they were fully prepared for the incoming ball.
That kind of leadership is needed continually in the box, but it must become a priority for the group, in all games. Along with CR7 there are enough experienced professionals to understand that they must remain focused when the game breaks for any set piece. Relaxing for a second can have severe consequences.
The Bianconeri’s opponents will be looking to test Leo Bonucci and co as often as possible from crossing situations, so they will need to improve quickly to avoid another more costly goals.
It is often dead balls that prove to be the difference in the biggest games and as La Vecchia Signora seek to add to their hefty trophy haul in recent years, they will not want to fall short as a result of handing over cheap set play goals in critical matches.