Juventus found it difficult to create chances against Lazio in what was a classic Italian game where the two sides tactics restricted each other to very few opportunities. This is reflected in the xG stats: Lazio had 0.18 and Juventus 1.03. The game really needed a moment of magic to unlock to superb defences, and that moment of magic was provided by Paulo Dybala with only 30 seconds remaining. 1-0 Juve, a huge win which put pressure on Napoli who went on to lose at home to Roma a few hours later. With the focus on both sides defending, I take a look at how they stopped each other playing which is no mean feat considering this is Italy’s two most prolific attacks.
Lazio set up in their usual 3-5-1-1 and the line-up read: Strakosha; Luiz Felipe, De Vrij, Radu; Lulic, Parolo, Leiva, Milinkovic-Savic, Lukaku; Alberto; Immobile. Juventus surprised slightly since Max Allegri chose to mirror Lazio’s formation. The Juventus side as follows: Buffon; Barzagli, Benatia, Rugani; Lichtsteiner, Khedira, Pjanic, Matuidi, Asamoah; Dybala; Mandzukic. Notable was that Lazio were without energetic wing-back Adam Marusic and that Juventus had Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi out injured while Douglas Costa started on the bench.
From the first whistle, Lazio impressed with their pressing. They kept a compact shape and wanted to force Juventus into the wide areas. The two wider central midfielders, Parolo on the right and Milinkovic-Savic on the left, would leave the midfield and press Juve’s wider centre-backs Barzagli and Rugani. When they stepped up, the wing-backs Lukaku and Lulic would quickly sprint out against their direct opponents Lichtsteiner and Asamoah. In this way Lazio managed to stop Juve’s progression of the ball very successfully. Below is an illustration of what the pressing would look like as the ball was passed to one of Juve’s wider centre-backs.
Here’s an in-game example of Parolo leaving his position in midfield to press Juve’s left-sided centre-back Rugani.
And on the opposite side we see Milinkovic-Savic pressing Barzagli.
Lazio were very successful in their pressing but failed to create chances from when they turned over possession. When they didn’t have the opportunity to press as they liked, Simone Inzaghi’s men would drop into a compact lower block which restricted Juventus’ possibilities of playing between the lines.
Conte-esque movement from Juventus
Juventus had some interesting solutions to try and overcome Lazio’s effective pressing and compact defending with one method in particular evoking memories of Antonio Conte’s reign at the club. Conte, like former Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura, loves the type of movement where particularly strikers combine by positioning themselves in a straight line and when the ball is played forward the closest striker lets it run to the other, spins around and makes himself available for a pass. The goal is to take the opponent by surprise with this movement which is rehearsed over and over again on the training pitch in what is often called “shadow play”. It seems Allegri had taken a leaf out of his predecessors book when watching the way Blaise Matuidi and Paulo Dybala looked to combine. Matuidi would position himself directly in front of Dybala when left wing-back Kwadwo Asamoah was in possession. The Ghanaian would then pass the ball towards Matuidi who would leave it for Dybala who could then turn or play a first time pass.
Above, Matuidi has just left the ball for Dybala who gets a little space.
Below is another example of the combination. This movement didn’t yield any chances, but it was interesting to see a possible solution to overcome Lazio’s impressive defensive approach.
Another approach Juve used was by having Sami Khedira drift wide on the right while Lichtsteiner pushed on even higher. That movement forced the wing-back Lukaku back and left Khedira and Barzagli 2 vs 1 against Milinkovic-Savic. Below is one example of Khedira moving wide.
This movement from the German directly lead to one of Juventus’ best attacks in the first half. First, Khedira passes the ball to Dybala before continuing his run inwards and forward. Dybala slides the ball along the flank to Lichtsteiner who then lays it off for the onrushing German who can then switch sides with the ball. The movement of both Khedira and Dybala towards the flank managed to exploit Lazio’s man-orientated midfield pressing with Lucas Leiva vacating the centre by following Dybala.
Juventus make changes and gain control
In the first half, Juventus had defended as you can see in the image below, 5-3-1-1, to block Lazio’s chances of progressing through the centre.
Towards the end of the first half and especially in the second half, Allegri changed Juventus’ defensive shape. When pressing higher up the pitch, Mandzukic would move towards the left with Dybala in the centre while Khedira pushed up on the right. This created a front-three when pressing which had direct access to Lazio’s three defenders and numerical equality after having been outnumbered earlier.
When deeper, Khedira and Mandzukic simply slotted in either side of Pjanic and Matuidi to create a midfield four and Juve were now defending in a 5-4-1. Allegri’s changes saw Juventus’ pressing work much better as Lazio struggled to build attacks and Juventus could regain the ball quickly.
After starting the game attacking in a 3-5-1-1, Allegri also changed the possession structure in the second half. Lichtsteiner would push up as an out-and-out winger down the right with Barzagli moving across as a right-back. Benatia and Rugani played as a central defensive partnership with Asamoah taking up a “normal” left-back position.
The midfield three remained in central positions while Mandzukic hugged the touchline on the left, Lichtsteiner on the right as mentioned and Dybala acted as a false nine who was consistently dropping into midfield to get on the ball. As you see below, Dybala drops off the front and into midfield to create a diamond in midfield while Lichtsteiner and Mandzukic attacks depth through the wide areas.
Despite these changes Juventus struggled to create chances against a well-organised Lazio. With the high and wide positioning of Lichtsteiner and Mandzukic Lazio’s wing-backs couldn’t perform the aggressive pressing they did in the first half because of the risk of leaving space outside the back-three. However, their consolidating of a back-five proved difficult to break down and Juventus could mostly only control possession in front of Lazio’s block, not within it. Lazio hardly registered an attack in the second half and Juve consistently won the ball back quickly so the changes proved superb for Juve from a defensive perspective as they nullified Lazio’s attacking threat.
In an extremely tactical battle between two great teams and two great coaches, a moment of Paulo Dybala magic earned Juventus a huge win in the title race. Lazio can take great heart from how they stopped Juventus playing, but they are top scorers in the league and should have threatened more going forward. All in all though, two good defensive teams largely cancelled each other out in the most Italian of games. Until the little Argentine magician changed the script in the last minute.