This post was guest-blogged by Ratul “Papai” Chakraborty. Follow him on Twitter (@maxratul).
Juventus FC, as lead by Antonio Conte, is the first rendition of the Old Lady to win a trophy since the dark days of Farsopoli. Much has already been written to recount the exploits of our boys in Bianconero, from Claudio Zuliani’s 1-2-3 Stella! right down to assessing each player’s performance individually, such as JuventiKnows’ brilliant Season 2011-12 Pagelle post.
Yet, there is a grave danger of putting on rose-tinted glasses whenever we sit down to analyze the journey of a winning team. Hindsight is always 20/20, and on looking back, we may find kernels of wisdom in decisions that may have exasperated us six months ago. Similarly, sometimes victory may overshadow critical flaws (as AC Milan is finding out every day). Yet there at the end of every season, there remains ONE constant: Eupalla (the Goddess of Football, as created by legendary writer & journalist Gianni Brera) gives the verdict of the field, and then sits back and smiles as mere mortals try to decipher all of its intricacies.
That is what we will attempt to do today: understand Juventus FC – Made in Conte, and specifically how the team has evolved TACTICALLY ever since the ex-Captain took charge of the dugout.
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If we want to understand the basis on which a professional team plays football, there are three things we must consider:
A deep understanding of each of these three elements is necessary if we are to analyze the behavior of a football team on the pitch, and thus will discuss them in broad terms for now, and then shall move into how they can be applied into analyzing Juventus under Conte.
Now that we have established the criteria on which we will be analyzing Juventus under Antonio Conte, let us start from the beginning.
The 4-2-4 Myth
Readers will no doubt remember the time when Conte was hired. The club had come off one of its worst seasons, the team had absolutely no backbone and the game they played was almost medieval at times. When Conte’s name was announced, many said that he was appointed because his Juventus past would give him a store of goodwill that Gigi Delneri was sorely lacking. More importantly, it was hoped that Conte will channel his famous winning mentality and grinta to a squad which was sadly lacking in those departments.
As for his actual tactics, Conte was labeled as a fundamentalist believer of a particularly attacking form of 4-4-2, which the press somewhat inaccurately dubbed a “4-2-4″. Indeed, unlike the Brazilian-style 4-2-4/Magic Box, Conte’s formation relied on very aggressive wingers pressing high on the pitch, while two hard-working central midfielders ran tirelessly to shield the defense and flood the opponent’s penalty box.
But Conte had in his hands a peerless gem, unequaled in the world. In Andrea Pirlo he had one of the true greats of the game, a player who was raring to go after a year of undeserved (and frankly insulting) benching from his previous club, AC Milan. Conte’s first job was to integrate Pirlo into the team, even if it meant shifting from the kind of central midfielders the coach generally preferred, and finding wingers who would tirelessly support the aforementioned centre mids.
Pirlo would go on to repay the faith shown in him by il Mister by having one of his best-ever seasons and leading the Serie A in assists.
In last year’s first league game against Parma, this is how Juventus shaped up:
The first match was a sensational success: Juventus raced to a 4-1 thumping win, against a Gialloblu side which had allowed Pirlo all the time in the world with the ball, and had born witness to scintillating debuts from the likes of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Arturo Vidal.
Things were about to get very interesting in the next few months however, with Conte determined to make the best use of his squad even if it meant abandoning his beloved 4-4-2/”4-2-4″ system.
Winds of Change: Enter Three Strikers
With Marchisio, Vidal, and Pirlo (M-V-P), Conte realized that he had in his hand three absolutely world-class midfielders. He had two paths before him: to stick to his system or to be flexible and adapt. He chose the latter, and thus started a year-long process of tactical evolution.
Conte modified his formation to a 4-1-4-1. Pirlo sat in front of the defense, pulling the strings from a position so deep that sometimes he was on line with the central defenders. Marchisio and Vidal provided the energy in the central midfield, while Lichtsteiner motored up & down the flanks like a bad-tempered steam engine.
However, two other factors arose around this time to further push Conte towards making tactical changes:
- Milos Krasic was completely unsuited to the game Conte demanded. While the coach wanted a high-pressing game based on retaining possession of the ball, Krasic’s natural style was that of a counter-attacking winger who likes to run into space. The Serbian struggled to adapt to Conte’s system, and further obstacles created by the language barrier (sometimes to very comical effect) saw the winger marginalized from the first team, until he finally made an exit from Juventus this summer.
- After Paolo De Ceglie committed a few mistakes (including a couple that directly led to goals), Conte introduced Giorgio Chiellini as the left-back, shifting to a Chiellini-Barzagli-Bonucci-Lichtsteiner backline. These four players no doubt were the best defenders Juventus had, but the utilization of this “back-four” gave rise to two emergent, very interesting patterns:
- While transitioning from the defensive phase, with hard-working wingers like Estigarribia/Giaccherini/Pepe guarding the left, Leonardo Bonucci occupied a role which was as close to that of a libero (sweeper) a modern defender can be. While Bonucci’s passing is nowhere near that of the maestro in front of/beside him, he improved steadily all through the season. In some respects his play reminded one of how Marcel Desailly performed some similar duties at Milan.
- In the attacking phase, Chiellini was far less adventurous than Lichtsteiner. So while the Swiss full-back hammered the opposition on the right flank, the three central defenders provided a defensive wall behind him which ensured that opponents rarely got to utilize the space Lichtsteiner left behind him. This is precisely the tactic used by FC Barcelona to ensure opponents do not exploit the space left behind Dani Alves, but differs in one key detail: for the Blaugrana, a midfielder drops down to perform the task, whereas Juventus sacrificed width on the left flank to put an extra central defender (Chiellini) on the pitch.
The final result of these factors was that Conte settled on a 4-3-3 system, which turned 3-1-3-3 in attack and 4-4-1-1 in the defensive phase.
Now before we go into the next major tactical evolution, let us take a break and understand Conte’s core football philosophies.
CONTE’S 10 COMMANDMENTS
|• Thou shalt pressure opposition relentlessly, even (and especially) high up the pitch|
|• Thou shalt track back|
|• Thou shalt attempt to regain possession as a team, be thou attacker, midfielder or defender|
|• Thou shalt play both short passes and long balls as the situation demands|
|• Thou shalt build play from the back|
|• Thou shalt not give possession away|
|• Thou shalt train hard|
|• Thou shalt be patient|
|• Thou shalt not give up, individually or as a group|
|• Thou shalt be a protagonist on the pitch, even if thou art there for 5 minutes|
Regardless of the formation used or the players selected, Conte always held true to these ideals. This was going to be crucial in what he would attempt to do next.
Three-man backlines were making a slow return to prominence in the peninsula, powered by high-flying counter-attacking teams like UDINESE and NAPOLI. Conte slowly started to tinker with his formation ostensibly to “mirror the opposition” initially, but in truth it was but the next logical stage in the tactical evolution already in progress.
What Conte did was switch to a 3-5-2, sacrificing one of his attacking players up top to add a true wing-back on the left. We can make several interesting observations here:
- The team now looked definitely more balanced, on the other hand Juventus lost the advantage of the spaces that opened up when the right flank was overloaded.
- Stephan Lichtsteiner, now playing as a quasi-winger, had much less impact on the game, since he was now permanently parked in the opposition half, instead of running into space there. This is again similar to how much Dani Alves struggles in Barcelona’s 3-4-3.
- On the attacking front, the two strikers were now much closer to the goal. More importantly, the extra man in the midfield allowed Vidal to push forward even more.
- The biggest beneficiaries of the introduction of a left winger were Paolo De Ceglie, Marcelo Estigarribia and Emanuele Giaccherini. They now had a definite role to play in the team, and having three central defenders backing them up did wonders for their (and the coach’s) confidence.
- The most fundamental thing to remember about the change to the three-man defense was that Juventus did not alter their playing philosophy (Conte’s Commandments). Unlike Napoli or Udinese, the team played the same high-pressing game which is the hallmark of all of Conte’s squads, whatever their formation.
The 3-5-2 looks to be the formation of choice for Conte even this year, as demonstrated by the deployment of Kwadwo Asamoah as left wing-back and the purchase of Mauricio Isla during the Summer mercato. The benefit of the formation is an unprecedented amount of control, thanks to the technical qualities and the sheer physical power of the midfield.
In a sense, this year-long transformation reminds me a lot of Capello’s Juve, where the team’s absolute quality always shone through domestically. Conte — without altering his playing philosophy and the team’s personality — went through a whole cycle of formation changes, showed his adaptability and excellent use of resources at his disposal, and was rewarded with a Scudetto more beautiful than the one he and the team won on May 5th.
As of this moment, we can only speculate as to how our way of playing will continue to perform in the merciless UEFA Champions League (elements from the Chelsea game leave us fairly optimistic, though Shakhtar’s performance less so), but if Italy’s Euro 2012 campaign is anything to go by, we can dream. A lot will depend upon how Juve’s generally underwhelming strikeforce takes their chances.
Because at the end of the day, margins as small as the width of a goalpost may make the difference between glory and ignominy.