How Max Allegri strengthened Juventus’ defence

Manager Analysis
Michele Tossani

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Michele Tossani

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The seven goals scored against Sassuolo allowed Juventus to overcome Lazio as Serie A’s most prolific team. This astonishing record can’t make us forget how Juventus produced a series of 1-0 victories that highlighted Bianconeri’s strong defensive phase. After some troubles they face at the start of the season – in which they allowed 14 goals out from 13 games – with Allegri starting Juventus’ campaign replying the 4-2-3-1 that allowed them to win a sixth consecutive Scudetto last term, Bianconeri finally found the way to strengthen their side without the ball.

They did it switching from a system with two interior midfielders, as 4-2-3-1 is, to a 4-4-2/4-3-3 narrow formation with three men in the middle of the pitch. The Frenchman Blaise Matuidi played a pivotal role to bolster Juventus when out of possession. In fact, former PSG player added his defensive skills to this compact 4-4-2/4-3-3. It also enabled Allegri to full integrate Medhi Benatia into a backline now no more suffering the loss of the departed Leonardo Bonucci.

When defending deep, Allegri’s Juve usually use a 4-4-2/4-5-1 system focused on covering both the half-spaces and the middle of the field, providing vertical and horizontal compactness and also forcing opponents into a U-circulation, denying them positional superiority.

Their 4-4-2/4-3-3 without the ball is very narrow with the more offensive players – Mario Mandzukic, Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala or anyone else – set to support Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira or whoever plays in the middle during the defensive phase. Some pundits found similarities between Juventus’ shape and Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid when out of possession. That said, a big difference exists over there. In fact, whilst Colchoneros are very active defending by utilizing their pressing to manipulate opposite’s possession phase, trying also to force them to move the ball into wider areas, Juventus’s 4-4-2/4-5-1 is more passive. This happens because Allegri’s first defensive goal isn’t to regain the ball but to cover all the spaces in order to manipulate the opponent to create an unfavorable situation for them, preventing them from control the zone in front of the penalty box, from which the attacks can be particularly dangerous.

That’s happened – for example – when Juventus met Napoli this season. If Allegri had chosen to play aggressively in the way to chase down the rivals, Juve probably would have left open gaps between midfield and the four-man backline, increasing Napoli’s chances they exploit them once they get past Juventus’s first pressure.

So, they didn’t apply a strong, direct pressure, preferring put emphasis on vertical and horizontal compactness through a narrowed midfield. Within this low-blocking scheme, Juventus’ players used they bodies to close every passing lines shutting down Napoli’s access to the centre-halves.

Juve’s defensive compactness limited Napoli’s effectiveness.

Even if this game plan didn’t completely shut-down Napoli’s offensive phase and although their system was a 4-2-3-1 switching to a 4-4-2 when out of possession, Juventus still showed their renewed defensive stability forcing the Azzurri to change their approach by moving the ball into wider areas from where Maurizio Sarri’s side is not suited to attack.

In general, playing narrow with a three-man midfield allows Juve to protect the space between playmaker and the flankers. This system also made Bianconeri able to prevent opponents from overload them as it sometimes happened when Juve lined up Khedira and Pjanic as lone central midfielders.

Conclusion

This season’s midfield three and narrow play once again showed Allegri’s flexibility and adaptability to the contest. Leaving aside the debate about if Allegri is a proactive or reactive coach, the main point here is Juve’s coach focus on strategy and balance between offensive and defensive phase. Allegri lined up his side in many formations this season – 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-3 etc…– still being able to improve Juve’s. Between these formations, 4-3-3 looked particularly efficient.

Stats confirm Allegri’s though to add an extra-midfielder to bolster his team defensive shape. In fact, according to understat.com, Juve’s expected goals against rate (xGA) is an impressive 4.42 when playing in a 4-3-3 formation.

The xGA from understat.com highlighting Juve’s defensive stability according to the line up.

As Allegri himself often pointed out, the best defence usually won the titles. After the aforementioned 14 goals they allowed in their first 13 games of this season, Bianconeri conceded only one goal in the following 11 matches with zero allowed in 2018. They also recorded eight clean sheets in their last eight matches played at home.

Following a though game against the rivals of Fiorentina – that Juve won 2-0 – the same Allegri also reiterated another of his tactical though: it was about how a side can dictate the game by controlling the space.

Juventus defensively controlling the spaces against Fiorentina.

In fact, you can lead the match retaining the ball such as sides as Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona or Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola usually do. But you can also control the game by closing the gaps and forcing the opponents out from their comfort zone. That’s exactly what Allegri is trying to do defending narrower and adding an extra man in the midfield when it needed.

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