Sunday, January 5, 2014

Five reflections on Juventus 3 Roma 0

Juventus stormed eight points clear at the top of Serie A, after a convincing 3-0 win over second place Roma at the Juventus Stadium. Here, I provide five reflections on the match.

Conte puts on a tactical masterclass

In the buildup to the match, it was widely acknowledged that both teams will be facing the most difficult challenge they have faced in this Serie A campaign. With two of the best midfields in Italy coming up against each other, the tactical preparation of the two managers would decide the outcome of the match.

As it turned out Antonio Conte rendered Rudi Garcia’s tactics futile, as Juve won all the key one-on-one battles as well as controlling every sphere on the pitch. Playing at home with a vociferous support backing them, it could have been easy for the manager to instruct Arturo Vidal and Pogba to attack further up the pitch in support Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente. However, Conte’s modus operandi at the Old Lady has been based around tactical subtlety.

A vital ingredient in Roma’s success this season has been based on getting their speedy attackers against back peddling defenders in one-on-one scenarios. Obviously such a tactic relies on the team playing on the counter, and this is where Conte’s decision to ask Pogba and Vidal to play in deeper positions than they usually do, completely nullified Roma’s strength. Alongside Andrea Pirlo, who put in a flawless performance as the pivot of Juve’s midfield on his return from injury, Vidal and Pogba ensured that the Giallorossi simply had no space to thread passes through to Gervinho or Adem Ljajic, nor were full-backs Maicon and Dodo able overlap and become attacking options on their own.

With Roma having 61% of possession but unable to do anything with it from midfield, Kevin Strootman and Miralem Pjanic started to lose their tactical discipline by taking advanced positions. This enabled Juve to attack on the counter with wing-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah serving as excellent attacking outlets on the break. With Tevez and Llorente also doing an excellent job at both holding the ball up as well as pressing Roma’s defenders, Juve ensured their attacks were direct without losing their compact shape in midfield. The best demonstration of this was Juve’s first goal, where Lichtsteiner and Tevez won their individual battles against Roma’s retreating back line before the latter laid an exquisite pass for Vidal who ghosted into the box with perfect timing to bury his shot with precision. That goal set in motion a tactical masterclass that was to be the foundation of Juve’s convincing win.

Roma’s midfield fails to fire

The midfield trio of Daniele De Rossi, Strootman and Pjanic have won numerous plaudits for their excellent performances in the Giallorossi midfield this campaign. However, the match against Juve was one of the first occasions where the creative onus was on the centre, and unfortunately Roma failed to adapt to a new tactical challenge. As mentioned earlier, with their wingers and wing-backs deemed ineffective, Strootman and Pjanic started to take advanced positions further up the pitch.

Pjanic did succeed in going past Juve’s midfield three at times, only to then run into the impenetrable wall that was the Bianconeri’s trio of centre-backs. Strootman’s technical ability simply wasn’t on par against Juve’s technocrats, while De Rossi got isolated as he had to stay deeper to help the defence against an increasing frequency of counterattacks, with his match ending with an early bath after a rash tackle. Francesco Totti tried his best to compensate for Roma’s lack of midfield tempo, by dropping deeper from his forward position. However, the captain clearly hasn’t recovered his form after coming back from injury, as his inaccurate passes constantly led to Roma losing possession. Overall, it was just a terrible night for Roma’s midfield.

The best back three in the business

Playing three centre-backs isn’t the easiest tactical formation to play in modern football with its midfield domination and the increasing success of pressing. However, Juve under Conte have been the exception in recent seasons, and a large part of the credit goes to the Old Lady possessing one of the best trio’s of centre-backs currently playing the game. Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini uphold the traditions of the best defenders to have represented Juventus. On the night, all three put in excellent performances. Chiellini didn’t lose a single ball in the air while no Roma player got past him during the 90 minutes. Bonucci’s positioning was excellent as usual, and his distribution with the ball was fantastic. Barzagli’s tackling was spot on throughout the match, and his passes always found Juve’s midfielders in space. After the Old Lady’s hesitant start to the season, the defence is once again in fine fettle. Conte takes a lot of pride in the fact that his defends from the front, but it wouldn’t go amiss every now and then to appreciate the quality of three brilliant technical centre-backs who are vital in making Juventus’ 3-5-2 system a success.

Roma should rebound

It was a chastening defeat for the Giallorossi, and it wasn’t pleasing to see Roma down to nine men after De Rossi and Leandro Castan got red cards within a minute of each other. While it could turn out to be a demoralizing defeat, a sense of perspective should be applied. This was Roma’s first defeat of the campaign. Most Roma fans wouldn’t have thought before the season started that their first loss would come in their 18th match while still having the best defensive record in the league. Being involved in the title race was always a bonus. For Roma, this campaign’s goal was to qualify for Europe next season, and after their impressive start to the season that’s the least they can achieve. In fact, Roma are in a great position to qualify for the Champions League next season. Rudi Garcia has to rally his troops for the remainder of the season, and with Napoli still distracted by European competition, Inter and Fiorentina trying to overcome inconsistency, Roma should ideally be favourites to reach the holy grail that is the Champions League.

Europa League has to be a priority for Juve

After a shaky start by their lofty standards, Juventus are now eight points clear at the top of the Serie A table. A third Scudetto now seems a mere formality. Of course, many might say with 20 games still to go, its too early for the Bianconeri to start counting their chickens. However, the reality is that Juve have a winning mentality second to none in Italy, and no other team in Serie has the recent experience or the playing squad that could maintain a sustained challenge and mount a fightback in the second half of the campaign.

There is no doubt that Conte has unrelenting standards, and Juve will approach every Serie A game with professionalism and intensity. Nonetheless, a good Europa League campaign is now going to be paramount to keep the players motivated and the fans excited. Many will rightly say that a club with the stature of Juventus should be playing in the later stages of the Champions League, but the Old Lady can’t afford to turn their noses up at the Europa League this year. For starters, the final is going to be held in their own stadium. Secondly, if some might complain about the calibre of opponent, Juve have the tricky Besiktas in the round of 32. Surely that provides the club with an opportunity to get rid of their Turkish Champions League demons. If they progress into the next round, they could play against hated rivals Fiorentina, not to mention the possibility of coming up against other storied names in later rounds to keep the fans excited. Finally, and most significantly, a victorious run in the Europa League could end up providing the necessary experience of the pressure that comes with knockout games on the continent, something that could help Juve have a sustained challenge in Europe’s premier competition next season. A third consecutive Serie A triumph is not to be scoffed at, but if Juventus could add the Europa League trophy this campaign, it could end up being a memorable season for fans of the Bianconeri.
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