Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 20th Juventus goal on Sunday as he led his side to a comfortable 3-0 away win at Sassuolo. The result widened the gap at the top of the Serie A table to 11 points and ended a run of questionable performances from the reigning champions.
Sami Khedira opened the scoring for the visitors in the 23rd minute before summer signings Ronaldo and Can increased Juve’s lead to secure a 20th league victory in 2018/19.
The following article will analyse how a change in formation, the use of Cristiano Ronaldo and a new-look defence took Juventus to victory.
Home side Sassuolo played in their possession-oriented 4-3-3 which has enabled them to score 34 league goals this season. They made just one change from the side that drew 1-1 with Genoa last time out, with Medhi Bourabia replacing Alfred Duncan on the left hand side of the midfield three.
Juventus, meanwhile, made a plethora of changes from their disappointing 3-3 draw at home to Parma last weekend. Wojciech Szczesny replaced Mattia Perin in goal, Mattia De Sciglio replaced Joao Cancelo at right-back and Alex Sandro came in for Leanardo Spinazzola on the other side of defence in a makeshift back four. Contrary to what the above team sheet suggests, Allegri opted for a midfield four this time out, meaning Federico Bernadeschi came into the team in the right-midfielder position and Blaise Matuidi was pushed out to the left. Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic played as the front two with Paulo Dybala conspicuously left on the bench.
A CHANGE IN FORMATION
Tactical versatility, particularly in defensive and attacking areas, has been a hallmark of Massimiliano Allegri’s successful tenure at Juventus so far. The Italian tactician has used a 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3 for sustained periods of time in Turin. Seeing Juve’s recent run of poor defensive performances, he switched things up again- this time to a robust 4-4-2.
In practice, however, the Juventus formation was more a 4-3-1-2 with Federico Bernadeschi operating as a free-roaming 10 behind split strikers and Matuidi tucking in from the left into a midfield three. This system allowed Juventus to press midfield areas more effectively and nullify the wide threat of Sassuolo’s full-backs.
In possession, Miralem Pjanic would tend to drop between the two centre-backs to receive and progress the ball forward whilst De Sciglio and Sandro typically occupied high positions on the wings. Though Bernadeschi largely played in the attacking midfield or right wing berth in the game Khedira, Panic and Matuidi all found themselves in advanced positions at certain points- as was the case for Juve’s opening goal.
Defensively, the midfield dynamic would change. Khedira would sit back to protect centre-halves Caceres and Rugani whilst the mobility of Pjanic was used to press higher and stop shots on the edge of the box. This system had wide midfielders in the starting 4-4-2, Bernadeschi and Matuidi, covering the wide areas.
The change to a 4-4-2 further highlighted Allegri’s tactical nous as Juventus were able to keep their first clean sheet since January without taming their attacking threat.
DEFENDING AND PRESSING
Juventus, playing with a makeshift back four due to injuries across the backline, looked lethargic in defensive areas early on in the game. Keeper Szczesny was forced to make a terrific save (followed by a VAR review) after Rugani lost possession early on and Sassuolo were finding it far too easy to find spaces in the final third during the opening exchanges. Second choice centre-backs Martin Caceres and Daniele Rugani were careless in possession and too slow to recover the ball when play was given away.
Allegri’s Juventus made up for the deficiencies of the back four with their intense pressing of the midfield and wide areas.
Juventus didn’t really press Sassuolo’s centre-backs when they tried to play it out from defence but when the ball came to either a central midfielder or a full-back the visitors tried to make defensive overloads. When a ball came to a full-back either De Sciglio or Alex Sandro would press high and aggressive to win possession with the wide midfielder providing cover behind him.
When Juve were in the 4-3-2-1 shape however Bernadeschi was an omnipresent defensive weapon as he made four tackles in the game. He managed to close down passing lanes from the centre-backs to the midfield, help press the middle three of Sassuolo and cover the right hand side at different points in the game.
Juve defended their own penalty area in numbers. The midfield and defence lined up in banks of four and Mario Mandzukic often tracked all the way back to the six yard box to help his team. This managed to stop the wide threat Sassuolo carry and prevented forwards Duricic and Babacar from making an impact on the game.
Juve’s system was not flawless, however. In the first half, there were so many defenders in the penalty area that the midfield three of Sassuolo found themselves isolated on the edge of the box. Add to this a fairly lackadaisical Alex Sandro performance and Juventus were ultimately lucky to come away with a clean sheet. Though injuries surely play their part in Juve’s recent defensive troubles, Allegri should look for more tactical solutions to this conundrum. For a prospect rated at £40 million in the summer, Rugani looked off the pace and Caceres is not the quality nor age profile of a starting centre-back at one of Europe’s elite clubs.
As highlighted by David Selini’s excellent piece on Juventus in January’s TFA Magazine, Juventus often deploy split strikers when playing an attacking midfielder such as Bernadeschi or Dybala. Mandzukic and, of course, Ronaldo both have experience playing on the wings which means they can easily adapt to a 4-3-3 in attack during the game.
The split forwards allowed both Bernadeschi and the more aerially threatening Matuidi to burst into pockets of space in the middle of the field whilst the two starting strikers pulled wide. Mandzukic in particular often dropped deep and was overlapped on the right hand side by De Sciglio or Khedira who he could thread the ball to. When Ronaldo was dragged onto his left hand side he would usually run to the byline to deliver a cross into the waiting six yard box where Mandzukic twice came close to scoring.
Earlier in this article, I stated that Juve did not press the Sassuolo centre-backs but that is only partially true. Ronaldo and Mandzukic savvily and subtly cut out passing lanes from the goalkeeper to his backline and Ronaldo often tracked back to tackle centre-backs marauding out of their own half, as shown by the image below.
The effective pressing of the Sassuolo goalkeeper was evident in Juve’s first goal. Mario Mandzukic forced keeper Andrea Consigli into playing an awkward lobbed pass to his centre-back who lost the ball to Ronaldo. Ronaldo then found space on the edge of the box (as the midfield were caught off guard) to have a shot which was parried away and buried on the rebound by Khedira.
Moments like these show the positive effect on a team’s attacking output that pressing from the front can have. Though Juventus don’t press as much as, say, Liverpool or Manchester City, their more subdued but efficient brand of pressing was perfect to disrupt the possession-based style of Sassuolo.
Juventus are an extremely versatile and tactically adaptable side. Against Sassuolo they seamlessly rotated between a 4-4-2, 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 at times in the game and it worked to their advantage. Sassuolo 0-3 Juventus is not a scoreline that accurately reflected the game. Whilst Juve were good value for the win their defence looked slow at times and their threat on the counter-attack and creativity in midfield were hampered by the absence of Paulo Dybala from the starting XI. Still, Juventus played well and were worthy winners over a side who haven’t lost since last year.
A trip to relegation-threatened Frosinone is up next for the Serie A leaders before they travel to the Wanda Metropolitano next Wednesday for the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie.
Sassuolo, meanwhile, will look to continue their quest for European football with a trip to Empoli on Sunday.