This tactical analysis looks at the game between Hellas Verona and Juventus. Hellas Verona faced off against perpetual Serie A title favourites Juventus, on the 8th of February 2020. Verona were coming into this fixture on the back of two consecutive away draws, against Lazio & AC Milan. A noteworthy feat for a newly-promoted side. Ivan Jurić’s Verona have defied the odds all season given the preseason predictions of a season-long survival battle for them. Juventus came into the game on the back of a convincing 3-0 victory against Fiorentina and an away loss to Napoli. Juventus have had a mixed season. Maurizio Sarri’s men find themselves leading the table, but only just, owing to slip-ups of their own and some outstanding play by chasers Lazio.
In a game between two of the better defensive sides of the league, Verona shocked Juventus by scoring twice in the final 14 minutes to take the game 2-1. It can be argued that all the goals scored came from individual errors. This tactical analysis will aim to understand the defences of both sides in the game, and the errors that unfolded which led to the shocking result.
Ivan Jurić’s tactics setup Hellas Verona in one of their favoured schemes this season, 3-4-1-2 (the other being 3-4-2-1). The back three consisted of Amir Rrahmani, Koray Günter and Marash Kumbulla in front of Marco Silvestri. Kumbulla has been a shining light for Verona this season, after coming through the ranks from their academy. Davide Faraoni & Sofyan Amrabat, taking their positions as wing-backs with combined support duties for the attack and defence. Joining them in the midfield are Miguel Veloso, Darko Lazović, Matteo Pessina and Mattia Zaccagni. The latter two, of course playing closer to the opposition box operating as attacking midfielders. Ex-Liverpool man Fabio Borini played as the sole striker.
Juventus were set up in a 4-3-3 by Maurizio Sarri, presumably as some sort of a tactical move. Juventus have favoured the 4-3-1-2 for 60% of their game-time. In contrast, the 4-3-3 was their least favoured at 16%. Wojciech Szczęsny started in goal, with a back four of Juan Cuadrado(!?!), Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci & Alex Sandro. In the midfield, Juve started with Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanić and the not-so-new man Adrien Rabiot. Douglas Costa, Gonzalo Higuaín and Cristiano Ronaldo completed front-line of the oddly used 4-3-3.
Defence vs Defence
Theoretically, games can be won in one of two ways – by scoring more goals than the opposition, or by conceding fewer goals than the opposition. While winning the league doesn’t necessarily equate to scoring the most goals, there must be something that the win can be attributed to. For Juventus, it has been their defence. In each of their last five title-winning campaigns, they have conceded the least number of goals. On the other end of the pitch, they have been outscored in each of those seasons by teams below them in the table. Hellas Verona, this season’s super over-achievers are also a team that has built their campaign on a solid, cohesive defensive unit. The below table brings out some stats to show how integral a role the defence has played for both teams – historically for Juventus, and for this season’s wonder team Hellas Verona.
Verona have had a great season themselves, again on the back of a solid defensive unit. They’ve scored only 29 goals in the 26 games they’ve played, which is an average of just 1.16 per game. This is a decent number for a side in the lower half of the table but not for a side that’s 8th on the league standings. Their defensive performances have greatly contributed to their impressive standing.
They’ve conceded the fourth least number of goals this season at an average of 1.04 per game. They’re only led by Lazio (0.88), Juventus (0.92) and Inter Milan (0.96). The game was in many ways defence vs defence.
The below analysis takes a deeper look at how both the teams have fared as a unit defensively. It also further does an analysis of how the players have contributed to the overall stats for both teams. To set the context for the analysis, we must first note that Verona have faced 14.66 shots per game, and Juventus have faced 11.54 per game. Also, Verona have conceded 26 goals this season, and Juventus have conceded 24. The below chart looks at the interceptions/90 and clearances/90 numbers for the overall defensive units of the teams. Obviously, you’d assume Juventus to have a better record given they’ve conceded fewer and have allowed fewer shots to be taken. The analysis, however, brings out a different story.
A tactical analysis shows that even though Verona did allow more shots on goal, they were better with their clearances and interceptions per 90. In the above image, we see Verona have had a better performing defensive unit compared to that of Juventus. Verona recorded 42.59 interceptions to Juve’s 40.95 & 20.07 clearances to Juve’s 14.43. While interceptions can be attributed to better positional play and understanding of the game, clearances often require both the positional play and reactions. It may not be a stretch to say that maybe the Verona defensive unit has a better understanding of the play, cuts the passages of play, and overall has better positional awareness. Not just in terms of interceptions and clearances but also in terms of defensive intensity, Verona seem to have Juventus’ number. The below chart takes a look at the numbers for aerial duels per 90, defensive duels per 90 and sliding tackles per 90.
A little more digging into the analysis shows us exactly how each of the players who’ve played for the teams have fared in the season. The below chart takes into consideration the players that have played at least 12 games for Verona or Juventus respectively. It then studies their contributions to the defence in terms of interceptions per 90 and shots blocked per 90. Interceptions are helpful in determining how well a player reads and anticipates the game. It usually translates into the activity of cutting off a passage of play and intercepting the pass before a move materialises. Shots blocked, requires the player to not just be positionally proficient but also have the willingness to sacrifice his body and put it in the way of the shot.
Koray Günter, by a mile, shows better numbers for both of the attributes. Not Matthijs de Ligt,not Leonardo Bonucci, not Marash Kumbulla. Günter blocks 1.13 shots per game while also making 6.43 interceptions per game. Evidently, all of the full-backs by nature of their position and role, record fewer interceptions and shots blocked. But what is surprising is the presence of Leonardo Bonucci in the lower tier. Juventus’ de Ligt and Verona’s Kumbulla are better than Bonucci but still fall some way short of Günter. Below are the numbers for the remaining defenders.
Now that we’ve done an analysis of the defences in detail, we move to the next section of the tactical analysis which looks into the errors which led to the goals scored in the game.
Error 1 – tactic error
This section of the tactical analysis looks at the question – why did Sarri line-up his team in a seldom-used 4-3-3?
Juventus have been using a 4-3-1-2 for the most part of their campaign and have had good success with the formation. Juventus have used the following formations this season: 4-3-1-2 (61.1%), 4-4-2 (20.1%) and 4-3-3 (16.8%). Presumably to add more firepower to their frontline which was going to be up against one of the better defences of the season. In the 22 games that Juventus have played with a 4-3-1-2, they scored 42 goals at an average of 1.9 goals per game. In the 6 games that they played with a 4-3-3, they scored 16 goals at an average of 2.66 per game. It is probably why Sarri decided to play with a 4-3-3 and get the goals in.
The 4-3-3 plays two very advanced wide forwards- Cristiano Ronaldo and Douglas Costa in this case, on either side of the central striker- Gonzalo Higuaín. While this tactic is effective in its own right, it places enormous amounts of pressure on the central forward. Not only is he to lead the line and score goals, but is also responsible to bring the wide forwards into play. Unfortunately for Higuaín and Juventus, this didn’t work too well. He was often caught out by the Verona defence and was hardly in any position to get the wide forwards into the game. In the 59 minutes on the pitch, he made just 2 passes each to Ronaldo and Costa, an embarrassing stat that.
However, once Sarri realised the problem, he switched to a 4-3-1-2 in the 59th minute. He brought on Paulo Dybala for the not-so-effective Gonzalo Higuaín.
Needless to say, it clicked. Ronaldo scored Juventus’ only goal of the game in the 65th minute. In a move initiated by Dybala from Juventus’ own third, he passed the ball to Ronaldo at the edge of the halfway line who played a beautiful one-two with Rodrigo Bentancur. Ronaldo received the return ball a little past the halfway line and from then on it was vintage Ronaldo. Beat the last defender in a foot race to the box, a quick step-over and a shot drilled into the bottom left corner away from the goalkeeper.
While we take nothing away from the moment of brilliance by Ronaldo, it can be argued that slightly better positioning by Günter could have prevented the goal. And this brings us to the tactical analysis of the second error.
Error 2 – positioning error
Arguably, a slightly better position taken up by Günter could have prevented the goal. This could have been an outcome of poor decision making. Günter’s position enabled the one-two between Ronaldo and Bentancur. His decision to adopt the role of a stopper instead of a defend or cover duty, led him to come forward and close the play before it built up. Once he moved out of position, he was caught in no-man’s land and Ronaldo took complete advantage of it. He played a neat one-two with Bentancur and took him out of the equation. The below images depict the incident.
Günter usually holds up behind the defensive line, playing in a defend/cover role. However, he does have the knack to push ahead sometimes to support the midfield. But his presence so far up the pitch, presumably in search of a goal, made the backline vulnerable.
In the above image we see Günter backtracking to remain in-line with Ronaldo to provide cover and get back to his defensive position. So far, so good.
In the above picture, it is clear that Günter has now switched to CB-Cover mode. He has made a run further than Ronaldo’s to provide cover. However, in doing this, he has opened up the passage of play between Ronaldo and Bentancur which he had blocked thus far. The passage is highlighted in a red dotted line. The white dotted line indicates just how further did Günter run from Ronaldo to provide cover.
Seeing Ronaldo dribble closer towards him, Günter reconsiders his decision to track back to provide cover, and thinks he can maybe take the ball away from Ronaldo. He now tries to take the ball away by moving towards Ronaldo. A decision he will soon regret.
In the above picture we see how Günter’s poor decision making and rare lapse in positional awareness cost Verona a goal. He comes forward to take the ball from Ronaldo but ends up in no-man’s land and takes himself out completely. Ronaldo plays a quick pass to Bentancur and runs past Günter who’s left questioning his decision. Taking nothing away from the way Ronaldo baits him into making the mistake, but Günter should have done better.
Ronaldo runs past Günter, while Bentancur puts in a neat lob into Ronaldo’s path. What followed was a foot race between Amir Rrahmani and Ronaldo which the latter won and put the ball into the net after a quick step-over. Typical.
Error 3 & Error 4 – poor decision making
Error 3 and error 4 are less tactic errors, and more poor decision making errors. The less said about both the errors, the better. Both cost Verona a goal each; and consequently the game and three points. The first came via a decision-making error by Bentancur. After playing a role in Juventus’ goal, Bentancur suffered a moment of what can only be described as a brain fade.
Verona, in search of an equaliser pressed forward from the left wing. A part of the play saw the ball coming towards Matteo Pessina in the final third of the pitch. Bentancur had a routine chance to break the play via multiple options, playing the ball back to the keeper, kicking the ball out, passing it to the nearest player etc. But he chose to play a cheeky back flick, which ended up hitting Pessina’s foot and ricocheted into Borini’s path. The ball took a nick off Pjanić’s boot and Borini picked it up to put a curling effort past the keeper. No tactical flaw in the play, no tactical brilliance in the play, just very poor decision making.
Just when it seemed like nobody could beat Bentancur for his moment, Bonucci decided to hold his arm up inside the penalty box. But of course, a routine corner hit his arm and VAR decided to award the penalty that was converted to make it 2-1 to the hosts. In all fairness, the routine did look rehearsed as it was Kumbulla again who met the ball with his head. A beautiful header which was going into the top corner, but Bonucci decides to get his arm up casually, denying Kumbulla again after VAR ruled his first-half goal offside.
The analysis brings out some glaring errors in the tactics and of decision making that led to the shocking result. The game will most likely be remembered for the result, and the fight that Verona put in. It’ll be remembered for a flurry of mistakes that cost both teams goals. It’ll also be remembered for Juventus’ lapse in concentration, which led to poor decisions on the field after going up 1-0. Call it complacency or poor decisions, either way, it does seem like Juventus have some issues to fix if they want to retain their title (assuming there is a restart). Verona have fought hard all season, and they deserve a restart so they can finish what they started. Until then, history shall always remember how a newly promoted Hellas Verona came back from behind to beat the giants Juventus – 2:1.
David got Goliath this time.