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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo still has room to build all-time great legacy at Juventus’ expense

For the first time in over a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the main topic of discussion of a major cup final featuring the Portuguese star. With Real Madrid on the verge of being the first club to retain the Champions League, the Portuguese forward has occasionally floated amongst the peripheral this season.

Nevertheless, the trials and tribulations of eight years in Madrid may result in Ronaldo’s greatest achievement since moving to the Spanish capital. A La Liga/Champions League double at the expense of city rivals Atletico, and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona would validate their dominance as world football’s alpha club. All this in the latter stages of the 32-year-old’s career.

A career that was supposed to be on the decline continues to enjoy the success that many could only dream of. Ronaldo equally remains one of the key components to Zinedine Zidane’s outfit, as the transition from high-flying roaming left-sided forward to a clinical forward has been seamless.

“Obviously what I want the most is to play more freely up front,” Ronaldo said. “That is the opportunity Zinedine Zidane has been giving me as a No. 9. I play freely. I play on the wing, down the middle. I play whenever I think I should.”

From a silverware perspective, the last 12 months have been the greatest Ronaldo’s ever experienced. Yet, oddly enough, the final in Cardiff means more. Not solely to build on Real’s trophy haul, or representing the focal point in another Champions League milestone. For once, this is about Ronaldo.

No mentions of Lionel Messi. No distraction of a summer move from Old Trafford to the Santiago Bernabeu. With guidance from Zidane, Ronaldo has been working hard for this moment. A chance to produce a display that will be cemented in football history for years to come.

Perhaps that’s one of the few, if not, sole criticism left in the anti-Ronaldo arsenal. Although it can be deemed extremely harsh, very few can argue that greatest players of our generation delivered genuine world-class final’s moment. Whether it be Lionel Messi’s 2011 Champions League final master-class, Xavi’s metronomic control in both the 2009 Champions League Final and 2008 European Final or Ronaldo’s goals in the 2002 World Cup final, the small group of players that dazzled over the past 20-years have shifted the game in some manner.

At the conclusion of his career, Cristiano will be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned greats, but what sets him apart is the lack of a truly defining moment. The infamous Copa del Rey winner in 2011 along with the goal that practically clinched La Liga in 2012 were magnificent moments in Real history, but on the biggest stage, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to provide the extra bit of quality we’ve grown accustomed to.

This is not to say that Ronaldo “doesn’t show up for the big games.” Frankly, the 32-year-old’s ability to score goals is unparalleled and he epitomizes the ultimate modern day “big game” star, but even when you examine his performances in recent title triumphs, the Portuguese forward has been fairly underwhelming.

During the earlier stages of Ronaldo’s prime at Manchester United resulted in the opening goal in Moscow, yet he was subsequently denied by Petr Cech in the shootout. The following year, Ronaldo was merely a bystander in a fairly one-sided defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Oddly, Ronaldo’s significance decreased in Real’s success over Atletico. However, the 32-year-old still managed to score a penalty in both finals – with last year’s goal securing Real’s second Champions League title in three years. Even in last summer’s European Championship, Portugal defeated host nation France following the captain’s first half departure due to injury.

Frankly, much of Ronaldo’s inability to showcase his optimum talent on the biggest stage has been associated with fatigue. This year, however, Zidane’s altered his talisman’s training regimen and opted to rest the Portuguese international in pivotal domestic games against inferior opposition.

“He knows himself that sometimes he has to not play,” Zidane said following Real’s first leg semi-final victory over Atletico. “It’s not just this year; it’s an accumulation over the years. He knows that himself because he is intelligent.”

In return, Ronaldo discovered the best form of his career post-May since the turn of the decade, which has witnessed the forward single-handily guide Madrid to the final in Cardiff.

He arguably eliminated two favourites en route to the final with hat-tricks against Atletico and Bayern Munich, scoring 8 goals over both legs. Likewise, Ronaldo scored six goals in Real’s final four league games to edge out Barca in the final week of the La Liga season.

Though, far from tactically competent, and still lacking balance in certain areas, Zidane’s Real compliments Ronaldo’s transition into a conventional forward. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are two of the finest ball-playing midfielders in world football, whilst Marcelo and Dani Carvajal offer crossing from advanced full-back positions.

If Zidane prefers width, Karim Benzema can operate in the channels, whereas Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez have offered pace and defensive discipline from wide areas. Then, there’s Isco who has helped Real overload central areas but also provides the guile Madrid can lack if Kroos and Modric aren’t floating around the penalty area.

Where Mourinho’s counter-attacking Madrid benefitted Ronaldo’s pace, power, and trickery during his prime, Zidane’s version – stemming from Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival that led to a proactive outlook of the game – provides ample service for the reliable Portuguese goal-scorer. Under Mourinho, Ronaldo was the ultimate counter-attacking player, but his evolution along with the Real methodology alteration under Ancelotti and Zidane suggests he’s now the ultimate forward.

In truth, although Ronaldo continues to maintain an unprecedented level of excellence at 32, the decline many have harped about could limit what would be an advantage for the newly-crowned Spanish champions. On paper, Ronaldo charging into space behind Dani Alves and running at Andrea Barzagli appears to be an area that would concern Juventus in previous seasons.

But this version of Ronaldo may prefer to exploit the Juventus defence with his athletic and aerial superiority. Apart from a few moments of brilliance from Lionel Messi, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve have been susceptible defending crosses from wide areas – a route to goal Ronaldo utilized to dispatch Bayern and Atletico – and will encounter difficulties preventing the 32-year-old from scoring.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Ronaldo’s first Champions League triumph, and despite the various heartfelt narratives surrounding the final, football’s biggest stage is still about him. At 32, he remains the best, and most dangerous player on the pitch, capable of deciding a match within seconds.

History beckons in Cardiff, but with nothing else to prove to the cynics, the possibility of being the first team to retain the Champions League in this era presents Ronaldo with another opportunity to enhance his football immortality with one memorable performance against Juventus.

 
 

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Juventus 3-0 Barcelona

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.

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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Paul Pogba’s arrival may force Jose Mourinho to adopt a three-man midfield at Manchester United

All eyes are set on Paul Pogba.

What appears to be the final incoming transfer at Old Trafford has smashed the world transfer record. At the age of 23, Pogba, is now the most expensive player in world football, joining Manchester United for a record fee £89m. It’s gut-check time – all the hype, all the dabbing, all the aspirations of becoming a Ballon d’Or winner will be displayed on a weekly basis in the most watched league in the world.

The global spotlight now rests on the young Frenchman, which is largely why he decided to return to Manchester. Leaving Juventus – a club on the cusp of becoming genuine European contenders and already perennial Italian champions – for Manchester United is currently a significant downgrade, which equally illustrates United’s intent to regain an elite status across the continent.

“I spoke with a lot of players when he was at Madrid; I spoke with [Alvaro] Morata and I spoke with others and they all told me he’s the coach for me because he’s going to make you work harder. I feel this,” Pogba told MUTV.

“I spoke with him a few times and he gave me energy and positivity. I was thinking ‘why not?’. I’m sure he can help me improve and make me a better player and a better person.”

Without Champions League football, Jose Mourinho’s United were still capable of luring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly and Pogba to Old Trafford, thus making an alarming statement to their domestic and former European rivals. A domestic winner and proven striker upfront will ease Mourinho into his job, whereas Mkhitaryan is a creative upgrade in the final third and Bailly is an exciting athletic prospect at the back.

Pogba, however, is the marquee signing, and the aim is for the Frenchman to command the midfield zone for the next decade. This is why United invested so much money in a nearly finished product, but similar to the aforementioned summer signings – excluding Bailly – it’s uncertain how Mourinho will utilize the players at his disposal.

On paper, United appear to be a genuine title contender, but apart from bolstering the midfield and attack with top-class talent, you can argue that the incoming players weren’t desperately required and only Ibrahimovic’s role has been defined. While Pogba is the marquee player, most teams including Ibrahimovic are built around the Swede upfront, which could be problematic from a short-term perspective.

This could explain why Ibrahimovic has yet to win a Champions League during his career – eventually the entire attack is solely based around long balls into the striker as most coaches wisely attempt to maximize his full potential. At least for this season at Old Trafford that may be true, as the Swedish striker has yet to show significant signs of declination, whereas his dual role would compliment Pogba’s late runs into the box, thus improving United’s attack.

Therefore, Mourinho is likely to field Wayne Rooney in a no.10 role assuming he utilizes the 4-2-3-1 that’s been his base system at Real Madrid and Chelsea. During those tenures Mourinho’s preferred midfield featured Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira at the Santiago Bernabeu, whereas Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic protected the backline at Stamford Bridge. The former features a hybrid of a destroyer/wide-ranged passer with a tenacious runner, while the latter showcased a positional undisciplined creator with a technical ball winner.

Pogba’s versatility enables the Frenchman to operate in various roles, but he failed to excel in Deschamps’ 4-2-3-1 throughout his international career – most notably at Euro 2016. Aiming to maximize Antoine Griezmann’s goal threat was logical, but it equally meant Pogba’s influence was sacrificed. In the latter stages of the tournament, Pogba was cautious of his positioning and often played deeper near the centre-circle to play passes going forward, as neither the 23-year-old nor Blaise Matuidi are natural defensive midfielders.

Nevertheless, this isn’t to say Pogba won’t or can’t be utilized in a midfield duo. Home matches against inferior opposition should see United dominate majority of the possession, which would allow Pogba to join the attack, whilst Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin holds their position to protect the defence.

The worry for United is they currently lack a reliable top class defensive midfielder, and were constantly exploited in transitional phases against Leicester City in Sunday’s Community Shield. Mourinho could turn to Morgan Schneiderlin to as a temporary solution, but Pogba’s compatriot is arguably better suited in the opposite shuttling role due to his dynamism.

With that being said, Mourinho is renowned for flipping his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 in the bigger games, and that would enable the Frenchman to play in the shuttling role that was responsible for his rapid prominence at Juventus. The shuttling role presents Pogba the freedom to charge forward into attack but also utilize his brute strength to regain possession in central areas. United’s midfielders are more adept to shuttling opposed to operating in a double-pivot, which may force Mourinho to eventually alter his main system.

Although there are still selection issues that could arise regarding Rooney’s first team status once Pogba is declared match fit, and Juan Mata’s future at the club, United appear better equipped utilizing a three-man midfield. Considering the large amount of money spent to sanction Pogba’s return, Mourinho’s main goal surely rests upon maximizing the world’s most expensive player’s threat.

“He [Pogba] has everything,” said Mourinho. “What he has to learn now is how to play with us because I always say that in football you can be a super player, like he is, but a team is a team and you need to learn how to play in the team, and the team needs to learn how to play with you.”

“We need to get the best out of him and this will be a process. So if he needs protection, I am here to protect. I know some people think that he arrives here now and, the first time he touches the ball, he scores, but I’m here to protect him and give him the best conditions to be what we think he is going to be, which is a football player for Man United, a reference for this club. I’m so happy.”

Apart from slight mental lapses in terms of positioning, and letting his emotions alter his performance, Pogba is an exceptional all-rounder with all the tools required to dominate a league that is slowly regaining its tactical essence. Whether it be goals, creativity, power, or sheer technical ability, Pogba has it all, and considering he’s yet to reach his peak, Mourinho’s experience in elevating a player’s confidence can prove decisive.

Perhaps he’s never been the standout player or midfielder during his time in Turin, but now, Pogba must now rise to the challenge and consistently produce standout performances. Failure to instantly seam into the Manchester United setup could lead to psychological issues and possible stagnation that has witnessed other marquee signings fail in the past.

But with every risk comes a possible reward, and United’s excessive transfer fee for the most sought out young player in world football is a triumph that can’t be overlooked. With Pogba, United aim to provide the Frenchman a platform to begin an era of dominance in what might be the most competitive Premier League seasons in the competition’s history.

The stage is now yours Paul, you have our attention.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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AS Roma 2-1 Juventus

Xinhua News Agency Aug. 31, 2015-- AS Roma's Pjanic (2nd R) celebrates his goal with teammates during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Juventus on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. Rome won 2-1.

Xinhua News Agency
Aug. 31, 2015– AS Roma’s Pjanic (2nd R) celebrates his goal with teammates during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Juventus on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. Rome won 2-1.

Roma relied on two goals from Bosnian duo Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko to defeat title rivals Juventus.

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Iago Falque joined Dzeko and Mohammed Salah upfront in Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3. Daniele De Rossi moved to centre-back alongside Kosta Manolas, whereas Seydou Keita formed a midfield trio with Radja Nainggolan and Pjanic.

Max Allegri reverted to a 3-5-2 with Mario Mandzukic and Pablo Dybala leading the line. With Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira unavailable for selection, Simone Padoin and Marco Sturaro joined Paul Pogba in midfield.

Roma dominated possession over extensive periods of the match, and with Juventus unable to pose a threat on the counter, Allegri’s men succumbed to two moments of brilliance.

Roma press

While Roma’s dominance may have been down to Juve’s caution, Allegri’s side have displayed their ability to decrease their route to goal by instantly lobbing balls into the strikers. Juve’s only way to maintain a decent spell of possession was to build from the back, but here, Garcia instructed his men to press from the front, with all three attackers handed a distinct role.

Falque and Salah pressed the exterior centre-backs, while Dzeko possessed a dual role. If Dzeko pushed towards Bonucci – a very good passer of the ball – he instructed a midfielder to close down Padoin, but for the most part, the Bosnian striker stuck goal-side to the Juventus midfielder to negate his influence from deep.

Roma didn’t always press in this manner, as they were keen on dropping into a 4-5-1 when necessary to clog spaces in midfield, yet both methods effectively contained Juve’s threat in open play. The wide players maintained their discipline, keeping the adventurous wingbacks quiet, and Dybala rarely received passes between the lines.

Juventus shape

Where Roma pressed higher up the pitch in various spells, Allegri instructed his side to drop deeper into their half and pressed aggressively in midfield. This allowed De Rossi time on the ball, and Nainggolan, in particular was free to retain possession, stringing passes from flank to flank.

Attachment-1 (7)

Essentially, Roma overloaded central areas with several passers, and it could explain several reckless tackles and eventual bookings in midfield. The transition to a 5-3-2 negated Dzeko’s aerial threat, as he was always outnumbered around the box, but in general their approach was too conservative, allowing the home-side too much space to dominate.

Roma’s balanced attack

Ultimately, there were two ways to describe Roma’s dominance over the current champions. First, Enrique placed Gervinho to the bench for Falque, who in fairness offered the hosts genuine width. With Falque stretching the pitch, Salah operated in narrow mixed positions, before charging into half space to create chances.

Gervinho and Salah are similar players – both thrive when there’s space to break into on the counter attack – but here, both the latter and Falque created chances in their respected positions. Salah’s first half pull-back resulted in Pjanic directing a shot off the post, whereas Falque delivered a devastating ball across the six-yard box that went amidst.

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The hosts’ attack would improve with a trequartista in the XI, but the cohesion between the front six was an improvement from last year. There was balance in wide areas, and each midfielder was able to fulfill their role due to Juve’s setup. Keita sat deep to protect the back four, Nainggolan retained possession a few yards ahead, and Pjanic scurried between the lines to receive possession and force Chiellini and Pogba into first half bookings.

Lack of familiarity upfront

Juve’s deep defensive line limited the possibility of creating chances from deep, but the away side still appeared perplexed during the rare occasions when they sustained possession in Roma’s third. One of the keys to Juve’s success last season involved Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata understanding their roles – the former dropped deep to receive the ball, while the latter sprinted behind the defence.

Tevez’s departure deprives Juve of a creative threat between the lines that can score goals and effectively link play with his teammates, which resulted in flat possession in the final third. Dybala’s lateral movement in these areas was positive, but a sole individual slalom sufficed from his presence upfront.

Likewise, Mario Mandzukic doesn’t offer a threat behind the last defender, and with Juve maintaining a low block, the Croatian was isolated for long spells. This, nevertheless, is also related to a lack of familiarity between the pair, along with one of the downfalls that comes with Mandzukic.

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The Croatian’s denies his team of natural pace upfront, but he was equally reluctant to drop deep to link play with his teammates. There was one moment towards the conclusion of the first half where Pogba was clearly frustrated with his attackers’ movement upfront, as neither attacker aimed to drop deep to receive the ball.

More so, Juve’s deep line, combined with a new strike partnership lacking Allegri’s basic attacking concepts is partially responsible for the away side’s blunt productivity in the final third.

Allegri adapts

Pjanic’s superb free-kick put Roma ahead at the hour mark, but Roma’s threat from wide areas decreased significantly. Majority of the hosts’ buildup play was narrow, and with Pogba offering improved protection for Evra, Garcia’s men relied on distant Nainggolan efforts on goal that forced Buffon to make a few saves.

Allegri instantly reacted to Pjanic’s opener, introducing Morata for the subdued Mandzukic, but the away side’s best chances stemmed from corner kicks. Then the Juve manager altered to a midfield diamond, sacrificing Lichtsteiner for Roberto Pereyra.

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Pereyra represented the ideal player suited for Allegri’s approach as his pace offers a genuine threat on the counter, and it was odd to see the Argentinian reduced to a bit-part role considering the circumstances. The Argentine forced Dzeko into a booking, while his pace and clever combination with Morata led to Dybala’s consolation goal – Morata dispossessed Keita in midfield to ignite the swift break.

Evra’s second dismissal proved costly in the final stages of the match, but a change of shape and additional space from Morata and Pereyra nearly inspired a comeback.

2-0

Roma, though, quickly pounced on the champions’ mistakes. Subsequent to Evra’s dismissal, Pjanic played a lovely diagonal behind Juan Cuadrado for Falque, and his cross into the box witnessed Dzeko tower over Chiellini to notch his first goal for the hosts.

The significance of the goal may be overlooked, but it distinctly highlights two areas that Garcia seeked to improve this summer. Put simply, it was another dangerous delivery from Falque in a wide area that was converted by a legitimate centre-forward.

There’s a chance that the signings may not elevate Roma into potential champions, but the goal provides evidence that Garcia has made it priority to offer variety to an attack that was mightily predictable last season.

Conclusion

Juve’s apathetic display enabled Roma to dominate the match, as a moment of brilliance and a defensive lapse punished the champions in the second half.

This was an improved display for Garcia’s side, following a poor draw to Verona, with the most intriguing theme involving the balance within his attacking trio. In the past, the attacking options at Garcia’s disposal represent a team suited to play on the counter, and natural width combined with an aerial threat can improve Roma’s difficulty breaking down organized back-lines.

Miralem Pjanic (15) of AS Roma competes for the ball with Paul Pogba (10) of Juventus FC during the Serie A soccer match between AS Roma and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy. CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY

Miralem Pjanic (15) of AS Roma competes for the ball with Paul Pogba (10) of Juventus FC during the Serie A soccer match between AS Roma and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 30, 2015 in Rome, Italy.
CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY

Allegri’s approach was logical considering the scheduling of the fixture and limited time to integrate his philosophy, but here, his personnel selection was incorrect. Perhaps match fitness prevented Morata from starting, but Pereyra’s pace in midfield proved crucial in transition, and was the missing piece to a disjointed attempt to break on the counter.

Still, it would be harsh to prematurely criticize Juventus as the club lost a leader in Andrea Pirlo, and the league’s best attacker and midfielder in Tevez and Arturo Vidal, last summer, leading to several new additions in Turin. Allegri will be assessed attentively in the upcoming weeks, as the Juventus manager rightly requires time to find the correct balance, and welcome back injured players on his quest to retain the Scudetto.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Real Madrid 1-1 Juventus

Alvaro Morata of Juventus celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Real Madrid CF and Juventus at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.

Juventus progressed to their first European final in 12 years, earning a significant 1-1 draw against holders Real Madrid.

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Massimiliano Allegri made one change to his XI that defeated the Real Madrid last week in Turin, slotting Paul Pogba into midfield alongside Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo.

Carlo Ancelotti persisted with a 4-4-2, welcoming back Karim Benzema to his attack, and pushing Sergio Ramos to centre-back alongside Raphael Varane.

In ways, this was very similar to the first leg: despite Real negating service into Juve’s strikers, the away side nicked an early second half goal, and remained organized and compact in deeper positions to close out the match.

Real stop overload/Shape

Sometimes it’s interesting to see how a personnel change can shift the pattern of an overall tie. Juve maintained an overload in central areas in the opening stages of the first leg due to Gareth Bale’s reluctance to press Pirlo – along with Vidal dropping deeper – thus providing Allegri’s side with an outlet into the strikers.

Benzema’s inclusion, however, ensured it was 4v4 in midfield. Juventus, though, encountered a few issues with their system. Even though Marchisio and Pogba pressed the Real full-backs when they received the ball, the Juventus midfielders couldn’t cope with Marcelo and Dani Carvajal’s adventurous running.

kroos juventus

Also, while Benzema stuck close to Pirlo, neither Carlos Tevez nor Alvaro Morata were interested in picking up Toni Kroos. Kroos was free to dictate the tempo of the match from deep positions, often playing a few exquisite diagonal balls behind Pogba for Carvajal.

Marcelo

It’s not often that defensive players serve as the most significant factors in key European ties, but both full-backs were pivotal to Real’s goal threat. In the first leg it was Dani Carvajal’s clever ball into half space that allowed James to create Ronaldo’s goal, and here, Marcelo was equally important.

Against sides that play in two narrow banks of four, with midfielders playing in wide roles – specifically Atletico – Ancelotti has relied on the width from his full-backs to stretch the game – it’s quite simple, but the quality in these areas coincide with Real’s efficiency.

However, Marcelo’s threat was displayed in several ways throughout the match. In the first minute he stormed past Marchisio and clipped the ball to the far post, but Bale’s tame header flew over the net. Later on in the half, the Brazilian showcased his passing range – Marchisio also failed to close him down quickly – by clipping a ball into half space for Benzema, but Patrice Evra cleared his compatriot’s pull back to Ronaldo.

For the most part, majority of Madrid’s attacks stemmed down the left flank, with Ronaldo occasionally drifting over to the touch-line to create space for himself to receive the ball, It was Marcelo’s pass into Ronaldo that led to the Portuguese forward charging towards the box, before James won the penalty that put Madrid ahead.

Where Ancelotti may have introduced attacking full-backs later in the second half to torment a leggy back-line, both started at the Bernabeu as Madrid were required to score. Still, Marcelo didn’t tire and overloaded the left flank on two occasions – with James and Isco initially, then Ronaldo – but Bale skewed both chances inches wide of the net.

Marcelo juventus

Marcelo was undoubtedly Madrid’s best player — he was the catalyst behind Madrid’s best moves, and recorded the most take-ons and passes in the final third.

Juve approach

It appeared that Allegri might have reverted to a 5-3-2 to preserve a slender first leg lead, but the Juventus manager persisted with four ball-playing midfielders, and simply instructing his defensive line to sit a few yards deeper.

Following a shaky 10-minute spell, it was evident that the plan was to instantly get the ball into Morata and Tevez’s feet. Initially, Tevez aimed to scamper between the lines, while Morata played off the last shoulder, but the away side got into dangerous positions through the former breaking into Madrid’s half.

Tevez dispossessed Kroos twice in the first half to break forward, storming into Madrid’s half to win a corner, while Vidal forced Iker Casillas to make a key save. Though Juve was calm in possession, and retained the ball confidently in short spells, apart from quick breaks through Tevez, the away side failed to create legitimate goal scoring opportunities from open play.

Madrid counter

Another interesting feat at the Bernabeu was the pattern change following Ronaldo’s opener. Both sides operated in a variation of a 4-4-2, and where Juve initially dropped into two banks of four, Real followed suit knowing Ronaldo’s penalty would secure progression.

The issue with Allegri’s selection, however, was the lack of natural width. This meant Evra and Stephane Lichtsteiner surged forward to help stretch the pitch, thus leaving space in the channels for Madrid to break into. Similar to Juve, Ancelotti’s side easily ignited swift counters to move into dangerous positions, but this was purely based on the system tweak opposed to individual errors.

First, James’ clearance into the left channel freed up Benzema to play a reverse ball into Ronaldo, but the recovering Lichtsteiner’s presence – despite being dropped to the floor – forced the Portuguese forward to deliver a cross, rather than shoot. Real exposed space behind Lichtsteiner minutes later through a simple Bale outlet pass, but this time the Swiss defender’s recovery run forced Ronaldo to rush his shot into the side netting.

Pogba moved in-field to create space for Evra in the early stages, but the Juve were susceptible to counters when they pushed the full-backs forward. Both Lichtsteiner and Evra were cautious with their positioning in the second half.

Ramos – Varane

Sergio Ramos’ poor outing in Turin led to Ancelotti placing the Spaniard in his preferred position at the Bernabeu, which helped Real shut down Juve’s main threat. Real’s centre-backs proactively stepped forward to intercept passes and prevent the away side’s front pairing from turning towards goal.

Ramos juventus

Although this effectively limited passes into the strikers, there were moments, when Morata in particular, held up the ball superbly and linked play with his teammates. Likewise, this forced Ramos and Varane into silly challenges away from Juve’s half, enabling the Italian club to push forward to alleviate constant waves of pressure.

Morata and Tevez fouled

Coincidentally, it was Ramos’ clumsy challenge on Vidal that resulted in Morata scoring from the subsequent set-piece. Perhaps Ramos and Varane’s proactive defending stifled Juve’s main strength in the first leg, but it equally backfired on the European champions.

Final half hour

Morata’s equalizer prompted both managers to make identical moves from the first leg to alter the match. This time Javier Hernandez replaced Benzema, whereas Allegri reverted to a 5-3-2 with Andrea Barzagli moving into defence at Pirlo’s expense.

The match followed a similar pattern at the Bernabeu with Madrid chasing a goal, and Juve sitting deep in their half to defend their lines. Ancelotti’s side reverted to hopeless crosses that were comfortably dealt with, and shots from distance that failed to test Gianluigi Buffon.

Juve, on the other hand, equally had their chances, with Vidal breaking lines on two occasions, yet Morata and Tevez were reluctant to set the Chilean free on goal. Another example of Morata’s hold up play was also on display when he rolled Varane to play a pass into Vidal, who instantly slid the ball to Marchisio in the box, but Casillas made a key save.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF duels for the ball with Arturo Vidal of Juventus during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Real Madrid CF and Juventus at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF duels for the ball with Arturo Vidal of Juventus during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Real Madrid CF and Juventus at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.

Fernando Llorente and Roberto Pereyra were summoned in the latter stages, with the former also holding off Varane to create a chance for Pogba – further showcasing Allegri making better use of his bench than Ancelotti. Madrid lacked imagination for large portions of the second half, and despite the home side’s territorial dominance – and a few squandered Bale efforts – they never looked like scoring.

Conclusion

Stylistically, there were minimal changes to the tactical battle at the Bernabeu. Madrid continued to attack through their full backs, and attempted to thwart Juve’s threat through proactive defending from their centre-backs.

Yet the pattern in both legs perfectly illustrated Real’s issue this season. They squandered several chances in the opening period, stagnated and conceded a goal midway through the match, and failed to provide Ronaldo with service (reverting to hopeless crosses into the box) in the latter stages.

More importantly, Juve didn’t concede in open play, and deserve credit for defending superbly in two banks of four, while executing from a set-piece. Allegri comfortably out-coached Ancelotti over two legs, and will likely be forced to adopt similar tactics against Barcelona’s fluid South American attacking trio in Berlin.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Juventus 2-1 Real Madrid

TURIN, ITALY - MAY 05: Alvaro Morata of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images) Credit: Marco Luzzani / stringer

TURIN, ITALY – MAY 05: Alvaro Morata of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Credit: Marco Luzzani / stringer

Juventus recorded an impressive home victory against reigning European champions Real Madrid, courtesy of goals from Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata.

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Massimiliano Allegri was still without Paul Pogba in his preferred 4-3-1-2, and handed Stefano Sturaro a place in midfield alongside, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo in midfield.

Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo formed a pacy strike partnership upfront in Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-4-2. Sergio Ramos maintained his makeshift role in midfield with Toni Kroos, whereas James Rodriguez and Isco drifted infield from the flanks.

This was something of a traditional European Juventus performance under Allegri: the Bianconeri attacked directly with balls into the strikers, and once they regained the lead in the second half, showcased the ideal manner in closing out a match through organized defending.

Juve welcomes pressure

The most interesting tactical approach throughout full-time was Juve’s approach in the first half. Most Serie A teams are often ridiculed for their inability to cope with intense pressing and dynamic opposition, but under Allegri, Juve have managed to overcome the stereotype.

Similar to their victory over Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16, Juve intended luring Real forward with patient passes in their half, and then bypassing the press with simple lofted balls into their strikers. Real, however, weren’t keen on blitzing the hosts with pressure in the opening minutes, and were at times reluctant to move higher up the pitch as a unit. A simple Leonardo Bonucci punt saw Morata’s presence fluster Pepe, but the Spaniard’s audacious chip nearly fooled Iker Casillas.

Nonetheless, with Vidal dropping deeper into midfield to create overloads, Juve were free to play vertical passes into advanced positions, and Tevez shifted into space behind Ramos and Kroos. It was Pirlo’s ball into Tevez between the lines that led to Sturaro recording Juve’s first shot on target. Following a terrific Juventus passing move, it was Tevez again that drifted into an ocean of space between Marcelo and Raphael Varane to receive a pass from Marchisio, and fire a low shot at Casillas, which ultimately resulted in Morata’s tap in.

Juventus goal real madrid

This was a brave decision from Allegri, but Morata’s positioning on the last defender stretched Real’s shape, and the Spanish side’s reluctance to press, combined with Juve’s overload in central areas, enabled Tevez to find space between the lines.

Real sloppy in possession

Juve was equally proactive without the ball in the early stages. The shuttlers pushed forward on the wingers, and while Kroos was free to retain the ball, Juve’s centre backs weren’t scared to step forward ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

There was a moment when Chiellini stepped forward to dispossess Bale, which resulted in Tevez receiving the ball in space and firing an audacious effort wide of the net. Sturaro also nicked the ball off Ramos in the opening half and broke down the left channel before cutting the ball back to the Argentine striker, but his effort was poor once again.

More importantly it was Morata who led by example: the Spaniard forced Casillas into a poor pass to Marchisio that led to a Vidal penalty shout, and dispossessed Varane in Real’s box, but was harshly penalized for a foul. While lackadaisical play from several Real players resulted in several Juve transitional moves, the hosts’ discipline to quickly close down their markers proved beneficial.

Real attacks

Real eventually settled into the match once Juve dropped deeper into two narrow banks of four. This was the identical shape Real adopted when Juve monopolized possession, but where the Italian champions appeared perplexed when required to break down the opposition, the away side overcame their issues through width from the full-backs.

With James and Isco moving infield, central areas were congested, which could also explain the former’s delivery into the box for Varane serving as Juve’s first scare. Prior to Ronaldo’s goal, it was the Portuguese forward’s diagonal run between the centre-backs to meet Isco’s delicate through ball that stretched the Juventus back-line.

However, Juventus’ deep positioning prevented Ronaldo and Bale space to run into, and their narrow shape limited Real’s creative players from sliding incisive balls behind the back four. Where Juve bypassed Real’s midfield band with balls into the forwards, the away side countered their issue by pushing the fullbacks forward. Coincidentally, the duo completed the most passes in the attacking third at Juventus Stadium.

Marcelo Carvajal juventus

It was Dani Carvajal’s clever ball into half-space for James that bamboozled Juve’s defence and allowed the Colombian to deliver the cross for Ronaldo’s equalizer. It was one of many long passing moves – and also similar to Juve’s patient buildup for Morata’s opener – that eventually prevailed due to width. Real nearly took the lead minutes from half-time from a similar move that saw Marcelo and Isco overload the left flanks, but James’ nodded the latter’s cross off the bar.

Second half

Juve started the second half with the energy that was displayed in the early stages of the first. Allegri’s men pressed higher up the pitch once again to prevent Real from playing out the back, and created the first legitimate chance of the half when Tevez turned Pepe and fired a shot directly at Casillas.

Although the home side’s ambition to win possession higher up the pitch was successful in the first, the initial ten minutes of the second was stop-start due to Real constantly breaking lines. Stephan Lichtsteiner, Sturaro and Bonucci all committed cynical fouls to half Real breaks, and it appeared the match was shifting in Real’s favour with every passing minute.

2-1

Then came the equalizer. While it may have been another direct move involving the two Juventus strikers, it was rather fortuitous then planned. Still, Real were caught on the break, a situation Ancelotti should have been wary about heading into this tie – particularly following Juve’s triumph over Dortmund earlier this year.

Marcelo’s shot ricocheted off Kroos, igniting a 2v2 break between Juve’s strikers and Real full-backs, which resulted in both men being fouled – Carvajal clipping Tevez in the box. Tevez notched his 29th goal of the season from the spot, but also shifted the match back into Allegri’s hand despite a nervy start to the second half.

Both managers react

The goal forced both managers into significant system alterations. Ancelotti turned to his only fit striker, Javier Hernandez, to replace Isco, as Madrid effectively became a 4-3-3. Allegri instantly reacted by inserting Andrea Barzagli into defence for Sturaro to make Juventus a 3-5-2 that eventually transitioned into a 5-3-2 out of possession.

Bale Ronaldo Juventus

Bale was finally involved in the match, receiving space downn the right flank, but Real’s attempt to blitz the penalty area with hopeless crosses proved unsuccessful, as Juve’s experienced back trio and Gianluigi Buffon coped well. In theory, the move was supposed to provide a focal point upfront, but also offer more service into Ronaldo, but the Portuguese star’s threat in the final third was scarce.

Juve, however, comfortably managed the final quarter of the game. They were organized defensively, whereas Morata held up the ball well to bring his teammates forward. Allegri’s substitutions were equally impressive, replacing Morata for compatriot Fernando Llorente, and Tevez for the energetic Pereyra.

Llorente was involved in the two best chances of the match subsequent to Tevez’s winner. Once again a simple Marchisio ball over the top troubled Varane – who had a poor outing – enabling Llorente to round Casillas, but Carvajal intercepted his pull back to the onrushing Pereyra. Then, from a stoppage time Pirlo free kick, the Spaniard nodded a tame effort at Casillas.

Tevez’s winner forced the Italian managers to alter their approach, but in terms of preparation and overall efficiency, Allegri outwitted Ancelotti.

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library

Carlos Tevez of Juventus celebrates as he scores their second goal from a penalty during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) Credit: Michael Regan / staff

Conclusion

The overall pattern of the match went as expected when you assess Juve and Real’s road to the semi-finals. Ancelotti has often relied on width from the full-backs to overcome narrow defensive lines, whereas direct balls into Morata and Tevez has been Allegri’s method of bisecting the opposition’s pressing.

But Juve’s method of baiting Real into pushing higher up the pitch was interesting. Yet it’s difficult to understand Ancelotti’s approach in this tie. Surely several players performed poorly – Bale, Varane, Ramos, and to an extent Marcelo – but Real appeared flabbergasted by Tevez’s movement in the opening stages, and constantly looked vulnerable when balls were played into the strikers.

It’s unlikely that Real will perform this poorly at the Bernabeu, but they haven’t been entirely impressive at home this season.

Allegri’s second half changes preserved a positive home triumph over the reigning champions, and it’s likely he may stick with a three-man defensive system with the wingbacks maintaining cautious positions, and rely on quick counters led by their dynamic front two in the return leg at the Bernabeu.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Napoli 1-3 Juventus: Juventus’ clinical finishing sinks Rafa Benitez’s unadventurous Napoli

CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images)

CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images)

Juventus avenged their Supercoppa Italiana misfortunes to claim their first win at the San Paolo in 14 years.

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Massimiliano Allegri handed Martin Caceres a start at right back for Stephan Lichtsteiner, while Arturo Vidal sat ahead of Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba.

Rafa Benitez also opted to leave his attacking six unchanged with Jonathan De Guzman joining Marek Hamsik and Jose Callejon in an attacking trio behind Gonzalo Higuain.

In another slow burning contest between two of the top sides in the country, Juventus’ clinical finishing in front of goal was enough to sink Napoli.

Pattern 

While Allegri and Benitez adopted the same attacking personnel, both managers were reluctant to stray away from their initial Super Coppa shape. Unsurprisingly, this meant that the pattern of the match didn’t differ, as the slow, patient buildups that lacked creativity and guile in the final third were evident at the San Paolo.

With both sides displaying discipline and organization without the ball, the non-existent fluidity in attack led to a static, uninspiring match. Put simply, Juve dominated possession, and Napoli intended on breaking quickly in transition.

Without the ball

However, here Napoli were better structured when they dropped into two deep banks of four. Walter Gargano and David Lopez limited space between the lines ahead of the back four, and they received help from De Guzman who tucked infield to limit space in central areas.

Lopez Gargano

Ultimately, this was a logical approach considering Allegri’s decision to field four ball-playing midfielders, as there was an evident lack of invention in central areas. While Callejon was responsible for negating Patrice Evra, Caceres received space on the right to exploit due to De Guzman being pulled into the midfield battle. Oddly, Caceres was reluctant to push forward into this space, yet when the Uruguayan advanced forward he forced Rafael Cabral to make a key save, and delivered a well-weighed ball across the six-yard box that his teammates failed to attack.

Juve equally dropped deeper into a 4-4-1-1 without the ball, opposed to pressing higher up the pitch. Marchisio and Pogba pushed out into wide areas, Pirlo monitored Hamsik’s movement, and Tevez dropped off to track the deep lying Napoli midfielder.

Napoli struggled to create chances from open play, but they continued to pose a threat in transition. The home side’s best – and sole – chance in the opening half saw Hamsik run past three Juventus midfielders, before the ball fell to De Guzman in the box, but the Dutch international skied the ball over the net.

Juventus lacks variety in attack

The one worry for Allegri moving forward was the overall quality of the performance. While Juve dominated possession, and were rarely tested for large portions of the match, both penetration and guile remain non-existent in big matches.

Pogba’s opener was a moment of individual brilliance, while Caceres’ winner was a well-executed set piece combined with poor marking. Juventus didn’t cope well against Napoli’s reactive approach, and with a shortage of creative options available in the final third, Allegri’s side were bound to encounter difficulties.

Juve were often free to play out the back with Pirlo dropping in between centre backs Giorgio Chiellini, and Leonardo Bonucci to play the first pass, but the admirable work from Lopez, De Guzman and Gargano deprived the away side from linking midfield and attack. With Vidal fielded in a trequartista role, the Chilean’ successfully completed tackles higher up the pitch, but his powerful runs from deep were sorely missed.

Allegri’s midfield quartet lacked ideas in central areas, and there was a vast difference in terms of attempted take-ons across the pitch. The decision to overload central areas with ball-playing midfielders wasn’t necessarily incorrect, but Napoli’s ability to maintain a compact shape, along with a lack of variety in attacking areas worked against the current champions.

Juventus Napoli take ons

Tevez – Higuain

Tevez and Higuain were the key men in the Supercoppa Italiana final, scoring both goals for their respected clubs, but the Argentinian strikers were ineffective at the San Paolo. The former was involved in Juve’s best moves in last month’s encounter, while the latter served as a reliable reference point in the box.

Higuain Tevez Napoli Juve

The problem here is that the Argentinian strikers often received the ball yards away from the box.

Here, there was minimal space for Tevez to operate in between the lines. Nonetheless, the Juventus striker was involved in some of their best moves, as his incisive pass should have resulted in a Caceres goal, and he was involved in the buildup to Pogba’s opener.

Higuain, on the other hand, struggled because Napoli sat too deep out of possession. The Napoli striker was involved in his side’s sole break in the opening half, but his involvement was scarce due to Benitez’s caution.

Second half changes

Apart from an individual slalom from Lopez in the opening minutes of the second half, the pattern of the match remained unchanged until Benitez introduced Dries Mertens for Hamsik. De Guzman moved to a central role, and Napoli gained an additional direct threat through the Belgian. Mertens’ impact was immediate, as he constantly ran at Caceres – resulting in the Uruguayan receiving a booking – whilst earning, and delivering the corner that led to Miguel Britos’ equalizer.

Allegri quickly responded to taking the lead shortly after Caceres’ goal, by replacing Pogba for Lichtsteiner. Juve sat deeper in the final 20 minutes, reverting to a 5-3-2, with Vidal and Marchisio drifting wide to protect their wingbacks from being overloaded.

Benitez reacted by introducing Manolo Gabbiadini and Duvan Zapata, thus moving to a traditional 4-4-2. Napoli was handed the onus to break down Allegri’s side, but only received chances in the latter stages of stoppage time: Mertens intercepted Angelo Ogbonna’s stray pass and slid in Zapata, but he overran the ball and was booked for simulation. Then, Mertens’ penetrative pass into the box for Higuain, nearly led to an equalizer, but Giorgio Chiellini’s last-ditch tackle preserved Juve’s lead.

The decision to introduce Mertens improved Napoli’s impetus, but the timing of Caceres winner, along with Allegri’s alteration to a five-man defence, halted Napoli’s attempt to claim an equalizer.

Conclusion

A second tilt between the two sides in the last month resulted in a dire encounter that relied on clinical finishing, opposed to an abundance of tactical themes.

Benitez’s attempt to thwart Juventus’ activity in open play was nearly successful, but their threat on the counter was limited. Neither side offered enough creativity and guile in the final third or central areas, and found joy in wide areas.

Although neither side was fully deserving of maximum points, Allegri’s Juve proved that they have enough talent to overcome poor performances, and cruise past their domestic rivals.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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