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Juventus 3-0 Barcelona

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Similar to Barcelona’s trip to PSG last month, Juventus’s emphatic first leg triumph further highlighted the Spanish champions’ issues under Luis Enrique.

There were no real surprises to Juventus XI. Gonzalo Higuain started ahead of Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado. Meanwhile, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira protected Max Allegri’s experience back-line.

Enrique was without the suspended Sergio Busquets, which forced the Barcelona manager to field Javier Mascherano in midfield, whereas Jeremy Mathieu was a surprise member in the away side’s back-line.

Juve’s wonderful start to the match was a combination of exploiting the away side’s weaknesses along with their imbalanced shape, which ultimately defined the overall tempo of the match.

Juve squeeze early

One of the key elements to Juve’s success was their quick start. In the opening minutes, Higuain had already spurned a free header from six-yards out via Pjanic’s free-kick.

But from open play, Juve’s high-pressing ensured Barcelona couldn’t settle into their preferred tempo. Higuain and Dybala monitored the Barcelona centre-backs and Cuadrado occasionally stepped towards Mathieu to make it 3v3 at the back.

An attempt to overturn Juve’s press witnessed Mascherano slot into a deeper zone, which therefore offset Khedira to push forward to limit the Argentine’s influence from midfield. Barca were marked across the pitch due to Juve’s cohesive pressing: the full-backs were tight on the Barca wide players – Dani Alves succumbed to an early booking due to concessive fouls on Neymar – Suarez was isolated upfront, while Pjanic tracked Iniesta’s movement in midfield.

Enrique was infuriated by goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen’s reluctance to play passes over the top for Suarez to chase into the channels and viciously showcased is disappointment within the opening five minutes. Obviously, Juve were unable to sustain this press throughout the match – nor was it likely their intention to do so – but it still represented a significant feat to the Italian champions’ positive start.

Barca’s flawed system

The other key factor associated with Barca’s issues was the initial set-up. What appeared to be a 3-4-3 ahead of kickoff was a back three in possession, but supposed to be a back four when Juve broke forward. However, Enrique’s men were uncertain of their duties from front to back.

Sergi Roberto left his right-back zone to help overload central areas, whilst making vertical darts into the channels to provide penetration going forward. Mathieu, on the other hand, rarely ventured forward in the opening stages despite the hosts allowing the Frenchman space to step into their half to play passes out the back. Perhaps Allegri wanted Mathieu in advanced positions so Juve could break into the right channel in transition, along with the fact that the Barcelona centre-back isn’t the strongest defender on the ball.

Iniesta was unable to control the game – though it’s not one of the traits the Spaniard is renowned for – whereas the other issue stemmed from the left flank. Iniesta started the match as the widest midfielder, but his narrow positioning along with Neymar operating as a wide forward meant there was no cover on the flanks, which therefore forced Mathieu to step to the left to cover space against Cuadrado.

Essentially, there was ample space in the channels for Juve’s wide players to manipulate, and it’s unsurprising that the buildup to both of Dybala’s goals stemmed down the flanks.

Dybala goals

Slack defending contributed to the simplicity of Juve’s opening goals, but the fact that the buildup was nearly identical justifies Allegri’s approach. Higuain switched the ball to the right flank to place Cuadrado in a 1v1 situation with Mathieu, which ultimately resulted in Dybala ghosting into the box and quickly firing the opener past ter Stegen.

Subsequently, Juve sprung on the counter-attack down the left flank for Mandzukic to run at the recovering Sergi Roberto before pulling the ball back for Dybala, who curled another super effort past the Barcelona goal-keeper. Towards the end of the half Alex Sandro broke past Rakitic down the left to provide a pull-back opportunity for Higuain that ter Stegen nearly pushed away into danger.

Barcelona encountered difficulties protecting pull-backs from half spaces, but more worryingly was their reluctance to track Dybala, Higuain and Khedira’s late runs towards the box. Juve’s crucial first half chances followed the aforementioned template that highlighted Barca’s issues in wide areas – against the wide players and tracking Dybala’s movement to the flanks – along with Busquets’ absence ahead of the back four.

Messi Magic

The other aspect of Juve’s quick start meant the hosts could drop deeper, remain compact, and swarm the away side when they attempted to penetrate in central zones.

Busquets’ absence was critical to Barca’s issue because Mascherano failed to dictate the tempo of the match with his passing and lacked the range and confidence to play penetrating passes from deep. Meanwhile, out of possession, the Argentine was culpable for being caught on the ball via pressure and failing to track late runs towards the box.

Therefore, Barca were devoid of creativity in midfield: with Rakitic and Roberto unsure of their roles, and Iniesta marked out of the match, only a dangerous cross from the often open Mathieu nearly troubled Juve, but Giorgio Chiellini blocked Suarez’s diving header. Ultimately, it took brilliance from Messi – forced to beat at the minimum two players whenever he found space on the field – to create the game’s best chances.

The first opportunity involved a breathtaking reverse ball that bisected the Juve defence to play in Iniesta, but his poor finish witnessed Gianluigi Buffon push away the Spaniard’s attempt seconds prior to Dybala’s second goal. Frankly, Messi was involved in two other major chances in the second half that should’ve resulted in away goals.

First, a failed combination with Neymar led to the Argentine sliding a low effort inches wide of the far post. Then, Messi received the ball in a pocket of space to bamboozle Chiellini before playing in Suarez who rolled Bonucci, but fired his shot wide. Majority of Barca’s attacking play was bland and lethargic, and it’s surprising they failed to record an away goal given the several chances created through Messi’s greatness.

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Second Half

Enrique removed Mathieu at half time for Andre Gomes, meaning Mascherano moved to centre-back, Samuel Umtiti operated as a left-back and the Portuguese midfielder sat at the base ahead of the back-line. The tactical alteration ensured Barca had cover at left-back, and although Sergi Roberto still charged forward into midfield, Rakitic often moved to the right touchline to maintain width.

While the tactical shift slightly improved Barca’s shape, Juve’s best period of the second half – the build up to Chiellini’s third goal – witnessed Mandzukic charge down the left create another pull-back for Khedira, and Cuadrado also charging into the aforementioned space that led to an identical move where Higuain’s tame effort was easily handled by ter Stegen. Minutes later, a quick free-kick over the Barca defence should’ve sealed the match but Higuain’s preference to shoot rather than play the ball across goal to an unmarked Mandzukic led to another important ter Stegen save.

Barca dominated possession for majority of the match following Chiellini’s goal, while Juve maintained a deeper line and slowly turned to defensive options off the bench to secure the result. Enrique’s men still found pathways to goal via Suarez getting the better of Bonucci on numerous occasions, but largely through Messi finding space in midfield to create.

Conclusion

Juve were deserving winners, here, despite producing a far from perfect performance. Allegri exploited the systematic flaws in Enrique’s unorthodox XI by breaking into space in the channels, combined with the intelligent positioning and individual brilliance of Dybala – who scored two great goals and forced the away side into fouling him across the pitch.

Juve’s initial energetic pressing flustered Barca, and they took a commanding lead, protected key zones around their box for large spells to neutralize Barca’s key attackers in the final third. However, Barca’s poor set-up and Busquets’ suspension was also pivotal at full-time, along with poor finishing around the box as Messi created the two best chances of the match.

Allegri has been the victim of a second leg collapse at the Camp Nou in the past, and though a supreme performance from the Barca front three isn’t farcical, the experience of the Juve defence combined with their tactical discipline and organization suggests Barca may not have enough to turn the tie. Enrique may need more than the individual brilliance of his three star attackers to overcome this well-drilled Juventus side.

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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Juventus 3-0 Napoli

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Juventus sit one point behind league leaders Roma after a convincing victory over Napoli.

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Antonio Conte made two changes to the side that drew Real Madrid in midweek. Angelo Ogbonna joined Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli at centre back, while Mauricio Isla made an appearance as a right wingback.

Rafa Benitez assembled his side in a 4-2-3-1 with Gonzalo Higuain leading the line ahead of Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne. Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami formed the double pivot.

Two moments of individual brilliance may have put the match out of reach, but Juventus were terrific in and out of possession.

Juventus’ great start

Conte’s men started the match in a positive manner, which has been a recurring theme throughout the early part of this campaign.

Shockingly, it only took two minutes for the Bianconeri to take the lead. From an initial short corner, Pirlo squared a pass to Isla, and the Chilean’s deflected shot fell to Llorente – who was marginally offside – and the Spaniard tapped the ball into the net. Three minutes later, Pirlo received his cleared corner kick at the edge of the box, and the Italian received time and space to deliver a cross at the far post to Paul Pogba, who nodded the ball across goal to Bonucci, but Pepe Reina made an excellent save to deny the Italian.

It was an ideal start for Conte’s men – they created two legitimate goal-scoring opportunities, took the lead, and pegged Napoli into their own half, during the opening 10 minutes.

Napoli shape

To an extent, Napoli’s shape without the ball was the cause for Juventus’ first half dominance. In Napoli’s away matches against top-sides this season, Benitez’s men have been cautious, and focused on attacking teams on the counter. Here, they dropped too deep, and failed to limit Juve’s activity in the final third.

Higuain and Hamsik dropped off near Pirlo, allowing Bonucci, Barzagli and Ogbonna time on the ball. Benitez’s men allowed Juve’s centrebacks to push forward, and their wingbacks to advance higher up the pitch. Occasionally, Higuain and Napoli’s wide men would press Juve’s defenders, but that left Pirlo as a free outlet to receive the ball.

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Another odd feat was Napoli’s defensive approach towards the Italian maestro when he had the ball in Napoli’s half. No pressure was applied on Pirlo as he was allowed to spread passes to the advancing wingbacks.

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Coincidentally, Kwadwo Asamoah and Isla was Pirlo’s preferred outlet going forward. Napoli’s two banks of four were organized, but their shape lacked structure.  There was space between the lines for Juve to exploit and their press was non-existent, which allowed Conte’s men freedom to express themselves.

Juventus shape

Unlike Napoli, Juventus’ shape without the ball was simple, yet effective. Similar to Napoli’s approach, Tevez and Llorente preferred not to press Napoli’s centrebacks, as they stuck close to Behrami and Inler – preventing the midfield duo from receiving the ball. This left the Napoli fullbacks as the free outlets out wide, but Vidal and Pogba closed them down admirably, while Asamoah and Isla tracked Insigne and Callejon’s runs.

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Napoli failed to get the ball into Higuain, who was left isolated against Juventus’ three centrebacks, whereas Hamsik was unable to find space between the lines. Conte’s men nullified Napoli’s attacking threat by winning individual battles across the pitch, and limiting Hamsik’s space in the final third.

Another interesting feat was the dissimilarity in cohesion between both attacks. Juventus was fluid, their passing tempo was quick, and their utilization of wide areas was pivotal. Napoli struggled in wide areas against Arsenal at the Emirates a few weeks ago, and Conte’s men created their best chances from this source of attack, as they focused on isolating their fullbacks – while they may be great going forward, their defensive abilities are mediocre.

  1. 25th minute: Tevez received a pass from Pirlo between the lines and flicked a ball behind Christian Maggio to an unmarked Asamoah, but the Ghanaian’s shot hit the side netting.
  2. 38th minute: Vidal received a cross-field ball from Asamoah, and he played a defence splitting pass to the oncoming Isla. The Chilean delivered a sensational cross to Llorente, but Reina denied him at the near post.
  3. 65th minute: Pirlo spreads a pass to Isla on the right flank, and the Chilean squared the ball to Tevez on the edge of the box. Vidal’s movement led to Raul Albiol’s slip, and Tevez slipped the ball into the Chilean midfielder, but he scuffed his shot at the near post and it hit the side netting.

Juventus received several opportunities to increase their lead from wide areas, but great goalkeeping from Reina, and poor finishing kept Napoli in the match.

Napoli improve

There was a gradual lift in Napoli’s performance during the second half. Opposed to the first half, their work ethic improved when they lost the ball, as they instantly swarmed the Juventus defenders. Napoli pushed higher up the pitch, attempting to squeeze Conte’s men in their own half, and this led to their superiority in possession.

Nonetheless, Benitez’s men encountered the same issues in the second half, as they were unable to get behind the Juventus backline. But with Juventus sitting deeper, Hamsik’s movement enabled him to find gaps to exploit. Similar to the first half, Hamsik was forced to drop near the halfway line to receive the ball, and help Napoli push forward.

Hamsik passing vs Juventus

The Slovak international was neutralized in the first half, as he’s unable to influence the match from a deeper position. With Juventus 10-yards deeper, Hamsik found pockets of space to receive the ball and he attempted to overload wide areas, and penetrate in the final third.

  1. 63rd minute: Ogbonna failed to clear Pablo Armero’s cross and it fell to Hamsik – who snuck behind Pogba – but the Slovak’s shot towards the near post hit the side netting.
  2. 77th minute: Hamsik found space on the left flank, and played a splendid ball to Insigne – who made an intelligent run behind Barzagli – but Buffon saved Insigne’s shot at the near post.

Also, it’s key to point out Insigne’s attacking threat throughout the match. Whilst Napoli lacked invention and creativity in the final third, the Italian winger looked like the only player capable of snagging an equalizer. In the first half, he had two shots outside of the box that flashed inches of wide of the post and cross bar. Early on in the second half, he nearly beat Buffon with a promising curling free kick, but once again Buffon made a vital save. Insigne’s movement allowed him to get into great positions to threaten Juventus – the Italian was Napoli’s main attacking threat throughout the match but he was unable to beat Buffon when the opportunity was presented.

Benitez’s men improved in the second half with Hamsik and Insigne leading the charge, but Napoli’s standout performers lacked that extra bit of quality around the 18-yard box.

Tevez

Although he didn’t add to his six goals in 11 matches, Tevez continued to shine for the Bianconeri. He was arguably the man of the match as he produced another fantastic display behind Llorente. Tevez found space between the lines to receive the ball and link play with his teammates, he made intelligent runs into space to open up holes in the backline, and he swiftly dribbled past Napoli defenders with ease.

The Argentine has settled well in his role as the second striker as his movement in the final third to allow runners to attack behind him, and his ability to play intricate passes in tight spaces has seen Tevez develop into a significant cog in Juventus’ attack. Tevez became a nuisance towards Napoli’s backline, and Inler’s foul on him – which led to Pirlo’s fantastic free kick goal – displayed the threat the Argentine poses in the final third.

Pirlo and Pogba added two goals in seven minutes to put the match out of reach, but Tevez continued to display why he’s currently the best striker in Italy.

Conclusion

Juventus move within one point of league leaders Roma, but more importantly they displayed that they’re still favourites to lift their third consecutive Scudetto. They nullified Hamsik’s threat in the final third and their overall shape without the ball was impressive for large portions of the match. On the other hand Napoli’s poor shape, and work ethic without the ball allowed Juve’s wingbacks, Tevez and Pirlo space to thrive in. 

“We needed more possession and to be more dangerous, but above all to show the character and quality we knew we had,” Benitez said. 

“We know Pirlo has quality, but we can’t play an entire game just for one player. We knew it could be difficult, but we know that in future we can play as we did in the second half,” he added. 

Napoli improved in the second half, and although they’re undergoing a transitional period, their performances in big matches and Hamsik’s minimal influence shouldn’t be overlooked. Napoli’s role in the title race is unknown as the season is long, but this match highlighted the contrast in quality between the two title rivals.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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2 Guys and a MIKE – Champions League Podcast May 2nd

Tyrrell Meertins and Hugo V recap the second leg ties that took place in the Champions League this week. They discuss whether Jose Mourinho’s tenure at Real Madrid has been successful, why Bayern Munich need Pep Guardiola and breakdown whether German football is on the rise!

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Posted by on May 2, 2013 in Podcasts

 

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