L’Ultimo Uomo (Fabio Barcellona) Juventus physically overwhelmed a Roma side struggling with the same old problems.
Before the game, both coaches agreed on the fact that this game wouldn’t be decisive in the scudetto race. Given that there is still a whole half of the season to come, including the return game at the Olimpico, they erred on the site of caution; both Spalletti and Allegri needed to carefully manage players who weren’t 100% fit following injuries: Barzagli and Dybala for the Bianconeri, Bruno Peres and Salah for the Giallorossi. Each coach decided to keep them on the bench, holding them back to potentially be used later on in the game.
For the third time in a row, following their thrashing at Genoa, Allegri chose a 4-man defence and, for the fourth time in a row, the defensive line was made up of Lichtsteiner, Rugani, Chiellini and Alex Sandro. Further forward, Pjanic was at the head of the midfield diamond with Mandzukic and Higuain forming the attacking partnership. Spalletti’s choices were slightly more counter-intuitive. He didn’t replace Salah with El Shaarawy, as many thought he would, but instead opted for the young Brazilian Gerson. Roma seemed to go out onto the pitch with a 4-2-3-1 setup: Perotti and Gerson wide and Nainggolan playing off Dzeko.
No contest in the individual duels
It took just 15 minutes for the match’s course to be set when Higuain picked up the ball midway through the Roma half, beat Manolas and fired a shot that arrowed into the left hand corner. It was the goal that decided the game.
However, the preceding 15 minutes had already showed that one team’s strategy was proving far more effective than the other. Pjanic’s position between the midfield and attack had already proven to be a decisive factor against Atalanta in their 4-3-1-2 system. In possession, the Bosnian was free to find the best position to receive the ball in; out of possession, Pjanic – bravely – didn’t drop deeper to join the rest of the midfield but stayed in a more advanced role, ready to press higher up the pitch and increase the number of players who were positioned ahead of the ball.
Juventus adopted a very direct style, a result of Higuain and Mandzukic forming a solid partnership and having Sturaro in the starting lineup. The Bianconeri were trying to pick out the front 2 quickly to make the most of the physical strength of Higuain and – particularly – Mandzukic. They were helped by intelligent supporting play from the midfielders Sturaro and Khedira, who were always ready to offer a short option when the ball was played forward to the strikers.
Spalletti tried to avoid a 2 v 2 situation developing in central defence, possibly to try to contain the 2 Bianconeri strikers, by vacillating between the 4-2-3-1 system with a sort of 3-4-1-2 shape when they were pressing the Bianconeri in possession. This required Perotti not only to move from his original position into the centre to press Rugani when he had the ball but also to try to close down the space to stop the Bianconeri centre back passing to Lichtsteiner. Perotti’s movement meant Emerson had to move further forward, which consequently forced the entire defensive line over to the left to cover the weak spot. There were therefore frequently 3 players in central defence: Rudiger on the right, Manolas in the middle and Fazio on the left, with Gerson covering the weakend right hand side on the German’s outside.
However, the ways that Spalletti expected his side to come out with the ball often weren’t clear, which ended up creating invitingly open spaces in behind Emerson on the left hand side of the Giallorossi defence for the Juventus forwards to attack. Fazio was often forced to go out wide, with De Rossi having to both cover the centre-left and stay in a position from which he could launch a Roma counter-attack.
Apart from the left hand side, Roma were also clearly struggling between the lines where Pjanic was operating.
Other than the intrinsic difficulty of having to defend at the base of a 3-man midfield against the opponent’s diamond midfield, De Rossi was too often forced back to cover Fazio’s movement out to the left, which created even more space in front of his own defence.
In possession, Roma wanted to play with width, creating problems for Juventus’ 3-man midfield (excluding trequartista Pjanic) who would have to try and cover the entire width of the pitch. In this phase of play, the Giallorossi were playing with a classic 4-2-3-1 formation, with Perotti and Gerson instructed to stay wide to increase the horizontal distance between the Bianconeri players.
Spalletti’s strategy was sound in theory, but in practice it wasn’t effective for a number of reasons. First of all, because of Juventus’ physicality. Even though they played Pjanic further forward, by keeping the central midfielder on the more vulnerable side of the pitch positioned further inside, they avoided giving Roma too many opportunities to make a simple switch of play from one side to the other. Secondly, the fact Spalletti’s side weren’t passing the ball quickly allowed the physical Bianconeri players time to press them, frequently against their direct opponent on the pitch. Thirdly, Roma’s full backs – Rudiger and Emerson – were too cautious when their team had possession and only rarely pushed up to support the wingers Gerson and Perotti. Even when Roma were able to move the ball quickly from one side of the pitch to the other, they weren’t able to create significant positional advantages, limiting themselves to individual duels (which they lost more often than not) between their wingers and the Bianconeri full backs.
Unable to create many problems from a short passing move, Roma’s attack was also blunt when trying to play direct balls to Dzeko – a tactic they have frequently used this season. The Bosnian, left far too isolated as a result of Salah’s absence and marshalled excellently by Chiellini and Rugani, was neither able to act as a pivot for counter attacks nor to be a target for his team-mates to pick out with crosses. Roma attempted 29 crosses and not one reached Dzeko, who only managed to touch the ball twice in the penalty area and didn’t get a single shot off at goal. Astonishing for a player who, before Saturday, had an average of 0.86xG (Expected Goals) per 90 minutes.
Once they took the lead with Higuain’s goal, Juventus stopped pressing the ball so much when the opposition were in possession, although they remained particularly aggressive when they had the ball themselves. Mandzukic’s defensive cover, as well as their excellent pressing game, resolved a potential positional problem in defence – he often dropped deeper to provide support for the midfielder on the more vulnerable side, preventing the problem from occurring before it had even happened.
But the substitutions of Salah for Gerson and Cuadrado for Pjanic put the game back in the balance. Although Alex Sandro did well to defend against him, the directness of Salah’s running and the support he and Dzeko gave to each other gave the Bianconeri defence serious cause for alarm. But it was Pjanic’s exit, and the transformation of the midfield from a diamond to a 4-4-2, that really gave Roma the advantage. Without this reference point between the lines, Juventus had much more difficulty trying to get further up the pitch after winning the ball back. At this point, Spalletti’s side were also having a lot of possession in the Juventus half. However, that didn’t mean they became much more dangerous: Roma created just 0.3xG in the second half, marginally more than the 0.2xG of the first half. Juventus’ defence was too solid and Roma’s attack had too few ideas, only able to cause problems from set pieces.
New Juventus, old Roma
One of the aspects at the start of the season that Juventus needed to improve on was in how they moved the ball around, as they were previously too slow and played it too square. However, switching to a back 4 and introducing more physical players oddly allowed them to develop a more dynamic and direct style, which has seen them record 3 consecutive wins.
The synergy between the 2 centre forwards was fundamental to this. Higuain moves longitudinally, sometimes dropping deeper such as when he scored his excellent goal, while Mandzukic moves latitudinally, offering himself as an option out wide. Sturaro’s introduction was also important to Juventus’ new style, as they need players like him who can cover a lot of ground in both attacking and defensive phases. The continuing improvement of Rugani, who is tactically transformed from the player he was at Empoli under Maurizio Sarri, made the switch to a 4-man defence much easier. This new-look Juventus side, as Spalletti admitted after the game, make it difficult for opponents to cope with them physically. However they still need to improve the quality of their attacking game: in the last 3 games Juventus have had a passing accuracy of 77.5%, compared to 86.2% from the first 14 games, and this lack of accuracy is only partly down to their new playing style. The next challenge for Allegri will be how he incorporates Dybala into the setup without damaging the new found dynamism and intensity of his team.
Roma, meanwhile, showed their same old problems: they lacked precision when winning the ball back and had serious difficulty in creating fluid passing moves. With regard to the first issue, only Juventus’ own poor decision-making limited the damage for the Giallorossi. The second issue was accentuated by the absences of Bruno Peres and Salah, which forced Roma to look for options other than giving the ball to them to use their pace and race up the pitch – one of the two shortcuts they have used when faced with difficulties in building the play. The other, the long ball to Dzeko, was negated by the fact the Bosnian was left isolated, surrounded by Juventus’ well-organised defence. Without a strong game plan, Roma appear to be too reliant on individuals’ performances: if the Giallorossi can’t do without Salah, Juventus can still win without Dybala. And that is a big indication of the difference between the 2 teams right now.