This post was guest-blogged by Bassel Barakat. Follow him on Twitter (@the_juventino)
Juventus were absent from European competition in 2011-12 following a second consecutive 7th place finish in the table. Former Bianconeri player and current Siena coach Antonio Conte was brought on board to replace the deposed lead man, Luigi Del Neri. In his first season at the helm, Conte miraculously led the squad to lifting the Scudetto. Juventus now seem favoured to retain their crown, and have shown the football world through dethroning Chelsea in the Champions League group stage that they are once again a top European squad. Conte’s methods deserve lots of praise for the level Juventus is at today, such organization, balance and intensity surly draws from the efforts on the training ground. However, it remains the ability and talent of the players taking on the pitch that makes reaching such levels possible, and indeed there is exceptional quality in this Juve roster.
After a few seasons of injuries and some sub-standard performances, Gianluigi Buffon returned to being the type of goalkeeper that many call “the greatest in the world.” A defensive trio of Chiellini-Bonucci-Barzagli operate with incredible chemistry and have proven their ability to perform consistently at the highest level domestically, in Europe, and for country. The Juventus flanks are also filled with enormous quality in the form of Asamoah and Lichtsteiner as the regulars at their respective wingback spots. They have played very important roles in Juve’s current campaign. Grabbing the most attention was the rebirth of the genius that is Andrea Pirlo after his surprising free-transfer to Turin from AC Milan. He had an exceptional 2011-12 season for juventus, followed by several world class performances at the Euros for Italy, garnering him very much deserved applause from the football world. The cast of strikers on the roster have been criticized regularly, but definitely possess a number of qualities that have proven crucial on important occasions, although without nearly enough consistency. Many think a great center forward is the last missing piece to round out this Juventus side.
Giving the above mentioned their credit, what was the main reason for Buffon and the defense giving up so few goals to opponents? Who provided the platform for Pirlo to return to excellence from what most believed was the aging downside of a great career? How are the needed goals coming with the known shortcomings of Juve’s strike force?
One of the most important strategies the side employs is the incredible amount of pressing the squad uses all over the field. Opposition teams are allowed minimal comfort on the ball while trying to build attacks towards Buffon’s net, resulting in weak chances. Indeed, such a display of pressing can only be applied by the whole team when they work together. The greatest responsibility is assigned to the players covering the most space, and in Juve’s version of the 3-5-2, it happens to be the two aforementioned box-to-box midfielders. Looking at the Champions League group stage as an example, Claudio Marchisio covered the most distance among all players at the conclusion of matchday 5. If he had not missed the final game against Shakhtar because of yellow card accumulation, he surely would have covered more ground than almost any other player. According to uefa.com, the “Il Principino“, as fans affectionately call him, was an absolute force covering 61,771 meters during 450 minutes of play. To accompany his movement, Marchisio had 2.4 tackles and 3.4 interceptions per game (via whoscored.com). His pal Arturo Vidal wasn’t any less impressive, whoscored.com counted 29 tackles for “El Guerrero”, his fan favorite nickname, in the Champions League group stage. This was a larger tally than that of any other player, and an average of 2.2 interceptions per game is a nice add on to his accomplishments. Such numbers speak volumes on how much credit this duo deserve for Juve’s defensive solidity.
As said above, Andrea Pirlo has seen a quick return to masterful form under Antonio Conte. After AC Milan’s UCL triumph in 2007, he had a dramatic drop off in performance in the next several years. Over the period that followed, Pirlo took part in an aging Rossoneri side that did not lack quality as much as it lacked the very important contributions needed from a player with Pirlo’s style of play. In 2007 Pirlo was surrounded by the hard working pair of Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini. They ran all over the field and took care of the dirty work that created time and space for Pirlo to apply his brilliance. This duo could not provide the same amount of cover for Pirlo in the years that followed, which coincided with a decrease in off the ball running due to a noticeable change in style of play and personnel (mainly forwards and full backs). As a result Pirlo experienced a serious dip in performance. Then came the final straw, a 2010-11 season and all the troubles it provided in the form of injuries, Allegri, and contract talks that forced him out of Milan after 10 years of loyal service.
Immediately upon joining Juventus, Pirlo received the type of cover that had previously allowed him to show his brilliance. Antonio Conte used a 3 man central midfield with Pirlo supported by Marchisio and Vidal, giving him a chance to return to the form of his best years, and then some. Pirlo started playing masterfully once again.
Last year Marchisio, Matri and Vucinic shared the distinction of pacing Juve with 10 goals apiece, while Vidal put in his lower, but still impressive display of 7. This season Vidal has already tallied 9 goals, with Marchisio putting in a respectable 5 just past the midway point. The duo’s attacking contribution are not merely limited to goals, both Marchisio and Vidal also have a flair for assists. They often provide that killer pass, which is crucial alternative for the strikers because the opposition’s main plan is often shutting down Pirlo’s service. Marchisio is particularly well known in Italy and around Europe for his off the ball vertical runs into the opposition box. While these runs have not lead to as many goals as some critics would wish, they don’t just threaten opposition center backs, but also confuse the opposing midfielders as they struggle to track him and end up leaving space in the middle for Pirlo and Vidal to exploit.
Great sides need great players to make the difference in key moments. Away at Stamford Bridge with Juventus 2 goals down against the European champions, a limping Vidal managed to create space for himself at the top of the box and sent a low left-footed driving effort to cut the deficit in half. Marchisio then delivered a blind-sided assist that sent Quagliarella one on one with Cech to grab the equalizer. In two moments of brilliance, the duo proved to the watchful eyes of the world they were capable of being game changers at the highest level. Jose Mourinho even recently suggested that the way Juventus are built makes the presence of a world class finisher unnecessary. Looking at Marchisio and Vidal’s style of play, it is not difficult to tell how much is required from their positions to make such a structure work and be successful.
Antonio Conte arrived at Juventus with the plan of deploying his beloved 4-2-4 system which gave him success at the lower levels of calcio. Even with that background he did not hesitate to quickly scrap the 4-2-4 and adopt the 3 man midfield as he found that Marchisio and Vidal were both simply too good to be dropped. The mercurial duo have been the major key to allowing Conte’s training ground work to yield the results that are still currently successful. Marchisio and Vidal epitomize Antonio Conte’s system with their grinta, hard work, and never say die attitude. They combine these necessary midfield qualities with technique, passing precision, creativity, running, and contributing to both phases of the game to be among the best in the world. Club director Giuseppe Marotta claimed by the end of last summer’s transfer window that the club rejected an offer of €60 million to sell both players, showing that the club really knows what sort of value they’re in possession of. With the Juventini fan base well aware of the quality that these two talismanic players possess, it will depend on the quality of the stamp Juventus puts on the European stage this year and in following campaigns that will earn the undoubtedly world class twin-turbo engine the recognition it deserves from the football world.