Following Cristiano Ronaldo’s purchase, many Juventus fans anticipated how the team would shape up in order to get the best out of the Portuguese champion.
Juve’s debut game in Serie A sold dreams to many spectators, who hoped that Allegri would continue on the same route, fielding a formation that saw all his best offensive players start in a 4-2-3-1. Cancelo-Cuadrado and Alex Sandro-Douglas Costa on the flanks and Dybala behind Ronaldo. Due to the poor physical shape and lack of vertical compactness and rest-defence stemmed from the midfield’s tactical attitudes, in the subsequent match Allegri opted for a more stable eleven (just on paper, as the performance showed). Since Lazio-Juve, the trends have been Mandzukic starting beside Ronaldo in a 4-3-3 with Matuidi, Pjanic and Khedira in midfield.
Mandzukic up top
Allegri’s idea behind Mandzukic joining Cristiano in attack was probably due to his skill-set, that tends to favour creative players, and tactical similarity to the former Real Madrid star’s striking partner: Karim Benzema. The Croatian seemed perfectly complementary to Ronaldo’s movements and capable of pinning the opposition’s centre-backs when the latter drifted wide, or coasting to the flank himself, giving the team fluidity in attack.
However, since the first start, the duo clearly showed underlying problems caused by Mandzukic’s reluctance to participate in the build-up. Moreover, the centre-midfielders’ verticality off the ball, which often sees Khedira and Matuidi push up aside the striker, and little contribution to the ball progression due to aforementioned behaviors and technical limitations, created an unorganized structure in possession; this sub-optimal staggering forced Ronaldo to drop outside the opponent’s block to support, luring him away from the danger zone.
Juve’s final ball strategy didn’t help either, as it revolved around excessive and continuous crossing into the box notwithstanding the occupation of it, therefore often relying on the the player’s finishing skills and on their ability to head the ball in outnumbered situations; this way Ronaldo’s movements aren’t exploited and he rarely gets clean headers. The current structure also lacks occupation of the space between the lines, either because of the high positions of the centre-midfielders, or their deep and flat positioning which redundantly overloads the build-up; even in the rare situations in which Khedira and Matuidi occupy the space between defence and attack, their technical flaws in tight spaces and with their back to goal don’t allow the bianconeri to make the most of the positional superiority achieved.
Thus far, the relationship between Mandzukic and Ronaldo has lacked fluidity, and in the grand scheme of things, deprived Juventus of offensive points of reference. In addition, the former’s lay-offs on long-balls for 3rd man runners doesn’t have much utility in a team that doesn’t use third man concepts and doesn’t attack second balls due to an inadequate support structure around the ball.
Possible improvements to the team’s interactions
Allegri is a manager of principles, whose football philosophy revolves around offensive freedom when it comes to player decisions and initiatives, therefore, it’s unlikely to expect improvement in possession from a collective standpoint, unless specific game-plans are prepared on how to exploit particular situations. The difference between the 2016/17 and 2017/18 sides are a testament to how important the individuals, and the interactions between each other, are in the collective scheme and performances. Put simply, this year’s best eleven will be the ones who find a good balance between tactical stability and technical prowess, allowing Juve to achieve a strong collective relationship through the players’ individual quality.
Improving ball progression
The first step could be to improve the midfield’s ball progression ability to take some of the burden off the full-backs. The ideal partnership seems to be a double pivot comprising Pjanic and Can, due to the lack of centre-midfield quality in a three-man midfield. Furthermore, their skill-sets are compatible and diverse; the Bosnian offers technical ability and could roam into the ten space to combine with the forwards, whilst the presence of a more positional and defensive player like Emre Can would provide cover and aggressiveness in rest-defence. Consequently, Can would be mainly used for his defensive qualities, although his ball-carrying out of pressure and into offensive zones could come in handy in certain situations.
Delivery from wide areas
On the flanks, Douglas Costa and Bernardeschi seem the best fits to supply Ronaldo and diversify the final ball. Besides the Brazilian’s dribbling ability, he’s one of the best crossers of a ball in the world and can assist the forwards in many different ways, through different type of crosses: low, near-post and far-post. This kind of final ball would fit particularly well with Ronaldo’s trademark far post runs, but Costa’s accuracy allows him to assist his teammates anywhere in the box. Bernardeschi, on the other hand, is more adept at central final balls, particularly long-balls in-behind the defence from the right half-space into Ronaldo’s depth-runs.
Finally, the spot aside Ronaldo seems to be best fit for Dybala, simply due to the fact that a second striker he could provide the occupation of the ten space which Juve has been crying for. Initially a centre-forward in the early stages of his career, the Argentine is also capable of pinning the centre-backs to allow Ronaldo to drop and drift wide without being followed by the centre-backs. What remains to be seen is the on the ball relationship Dybala and the Portuguese develop, since due to the small sample size, their associative compatibility isn’t clear yet.
The final formation
The final formation would look like something like this. The player movements seem to suit each other quite well, whilst maintaining defensive and structural stability. This eleven could result in different asymmetrical shapes throughout the game: from a 4-3-3 with Bernardeschi at CM and Dybala in the right half-space, to a 4-4-2.
The main improvements would not only be the overall technical ability, but also the capability of every player to participate in build-up and positional attacking in different ways (through dribbling or combinations) and areas (wide or central penetration), thus making the first phase less reliant on the full-backs’ initiatives and press resistance, particularly Cancelo’s.
The front-line would be quite fluid with constant movements inside and outside from the wingers and full-backs to provide width and a half-space option, while Ronaldo wouldn’t be required to drop to facilitate the play as much. In a hypothetical situation in which Cristiano drifts wide, he could create overloads with Alex Sandro and Costa over/underlapping, creating 1v1 and 2v1 situations and drawing markers to himself, dismarking his teammates; albeit these situations already occasionally occur, the surrounding players aren’t as adroit at exploiting them due to their characteristics, often nullifying the achieved superiority.
Dybala would then shift centrally whilst Bernardeschi and Cancelo respectively occupied half-space and width. The compact possession structure and improved staggering would also allow Pjanic to push up and occupy Zone 14, without exposing Juve to turnovers. Furthermore, the box occupation with Ronaldo on the wing would also be Dybala and Bernardeschi’s task, with the former attacking the near post for low crosses and the latter making runs to the far-post.
To exploit Ronaldo fully, Juventus will need the most technical eleven possible, to disorganize the opposition’s structure and try to somewhat emulate Real Madrid’s chance creation volume and distribution from every possible area on the field. Whilst it is not the easiest job to include so many offensive players while maintaining the stability that Allegri requires, the gaffer’s intuitions and understanding of the right moment of the season to make changes could turn out to be crucial if Juventus wants to be successful in every competition.