Juventus’ run of fine form in recent weeks was brought to an abrupt end in Naples on Saturday evening.
A lacklustre defeat at the hands of Gennaro Gattuso’s side put the brakes on what has been a positive period of performances and results for Andrea Pirlo.
Despite a below par display, it was a game The Old Lady arguably still could have won, instead they fell to an avoidable defeat and find themselves yet further back in the Serie A title race.
With important fixtures coming thick and fast, the Bianconeri will have quickly focused their attention on Wednesday’s Champions League tie with Porto.
A trip to Portugal in Europe’s elite football competition provides Pirlo with the perfect bounce-back opportunity. It is perhaps somewhat of an understatement to say that this particular tournament has not treated Juve well over the years and along with the excitement of its return, Juventini could be forgiven for feeling a slight sense of apprehension as another knock-out stage commences.
The trophy with the big ears has evaded Juve for longer than they’d like to admit and even in this the most unpredictable of football seasons, it is hard to envisage that changing this time around.
However, with that being said the Italian champions certainly have enough quality to make their presence felt and run deep into the competitions latter stages. So what does Mister Pirlo need to do in order for that to become a reality?
Domestically the score chart doesn’t make for good reading. Juventus are currently on 41 goals in Serie A, the sixth highest amount in the league with Cristiano Ronaldo responsible for a huge 39% of them.
Poor decisions and finishing around the box are certainly factors. Juve are second only to Roma when it comes to big chances created in Serie A but top the list with regards to big chances missed and sit fourth for average shots on target per game.
They are also the only team to have two individual players in the top eight when it comes to big chances missed (Cristiano Ronaldo 13 and Alvaro Morata 9). Last weekend’s loss was a microcosm of Juve’s issues in front of goal. A total of 23 attempts, just 6 on target and an xG of 2.16 but no goals to show for it.
The Champions League has proven to be a somewhat different story so far - needless to say it is based on a smaller sample size – Juve have been more efficient in attack. Averaging over two goals per game, scoring 14 in six outings, boasting the group stages joint top scorer (Morata 6) and leading assist provider (Juan Cuadrado 5).
Comparing the same metrics as before, Juve do not register in the top 10 with regards to big chances created or big chances missed whilst averaging just over five shots on target per game (10th highest). However, Pirlo’s side were the group stages fifth highest scoring club, impressively netting nine away from home, including three in Camp Nou.
Juve will need to stay on the goal trail if they wish to progress beyond this round and the rounds to come. Perhaps a desperation to catch-up in the league is causing players to lock-up in goal scoring situations, the pressure felt is possibly less than when they perform on the continent. The ability to strike quickly and effectively has been vital in the Champions League in recent years, something Juve have previously struggled with but if they can maintain the attacking intent they have shown so far in Europe, then they give themselves a chance.
Over the last month we have seen Pirlo deploy a somewhat pragmatic approach on occasions to get results and whilst that can be effective in Serie A, it is not proven to succeed in the Champions League.
Tactical flexibility is important but intensity and ambition to dominate remain fundamental if you wish to reach the final stages. To his credit, Pirlo has attempted to adopt this strategy on his maiden European adventure. Juve have taken risks, they’ve played on the front foot. This has meant sacrificing certain spaces on the pitch, ultimately leading them to concede attacks and a number of shots on their goal. Wojciech Szczesny has been a busy goalkeeper. However, the positive is that they were reasonably successful playing this way in Group G.
Pirlo’s men sought to recover the ball in the opponent’s half, coming in joint 6th for the amount of times they won possession in the final third.
Pirlo’s pressing system is far from flawless and the strength of the teams that they have faced so far must be taken into consideration, but continuing to play with that purpose is pivotal. Juve must be brave with their positioning, keep being aggressive in the tackle whilst attempting more pressures in the middle and final thirds of the pitch.
They cannot fall into the trap of surrendering control of the game, if they choose to defended deep it must be on their terms.
Juventus may not be regarded as one of the best teams in the competition and they need to mask their deficiencies, but within the squad they possess tools that are suited to Champions League football.
It is up to Pirlo to embrace the likes of Morata, Federico Chiesa, Weston McKennie and Matthijs de Ligt, players that are capable of pushing the team’s tempo and stamping their authority on the opposition.
If we know one thing about the Champions League, circumstance is everything. If you arrive in the moment in the right way, anything is possible.