The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, Antonio Conte’s return to management with Inter, Atalanta’s attacking football, Lazio’s burst into the top three, Gattuso fighting back the crisis at Napoli, Ibrahimovic leading Milan back to winning ways…. While there are already enough reasons for someone to be excited about Serie A, here we are welcoming yet another addition to Italian football; Andrea Pirlo, The Manager!
For someone who vowed to never get into coaching or management not too long ago, Pirlo has certainly made a huge decision by accepting a club as big as Juventus as his first ever. Any football lover who has come across Pirlo the player, would know that falling in love with watching him play used to happen instantly or eventually but it was hard not to at all. With the way he used to find pockets of space to receive the ball, dictate the tempo, progress play into the final-third and create chances out of nowhere with his hawk-eyed vision, it was evident that he already had a thorough knowledge, ability to read and understand the game.
However as cliched as it sounds, playing football and coaching a team are two totally different situations and there is no guarantee that a successful player will go on to become a successful coach. Having said that, there are some who have been successful in both careers and we can only wait and watch if Pirlo would turn out to become one such exception himself. So, what do the early signs say?
Coaching Principles & Objective
“The founding idea of my football is based off a will that is: purposeful, possessive and attacking. I want total football. The two principals of my football are: we must keep the ball for as long as possible and be ferocious in winning it back immediately. The teams that inspired my ideas as a football coach were: Cruyff’s Barcelona, then Guardiola’s, Van Gaal’s Ajax, Ancelotti’s AC Milan & Conte’s Juventus”
These were Pirlo’s words when asked about the foundation of his team’s principles and how he would like to set them up. He wants his team to focus on not only keeping the possession of the ball but to have meaningful possession spells which translate into fruitful chances. Regaining possession as high and as quickly as possible is also one of the key characteristics he wants to instill. From what we saw against Sampdoria, it did seem like Pirlo’s Juventus checked all boxes. So how exactly were they setup and what in terms of tactics, can we expect from Pirlo in his debut season as a manager?
Juventus maintained two different formations throughout the game: one when they have the ball and one when they don’t have the ball. By doing so, Pirlo has already shown that he is well aware of the basics of setting-up a team despite having no experience. The reason is simple; A team in possession of the ball and a team not in possession of the ball have completely different functions to carry out with different objectives in mind.
While it is not impossible to maintain one single formation during all phases of the game, there is a need for our players to occupy different spaces when we have the ball and a need to deny different spaces when we don’t have it. After all, the most basic objective of a team is to score goals and not concede and it is the coach/ manager’s duty to provide their team with a setup that will enable them to achieve both objectives in the easiest way possible.
Formation in possession: 3–4–1–2
While in possession, Juventus adapted a 3–4–1–2 shape, ensuring enough numerical superiority in the first phase for build-up without having to give up on width or depth. The preference was to keep possession of the ball while playing out from the back using the goalkeeper (Szczesny) and a 3–2 shape. The 3–2 here refers to the 3 defenders (Danilo, Bonucci & Chiellini) and 2 midfielders (McKennie & Rabiot) to be additional passing options beyond opponent’s first line of press.
Asymmetry in width
As Danilo joined the two center-backs to form a back-three in possession, Pirlo opted to go for asymmetry to provide width to Juventus in possession. On the left flank, Gianluca Frabotta bombed forward to be the attacking outlet while on the right flank, it was Juan Cuadrado who was the attacking outlet. The advantage of asymmetry especially while playing out from the back is that, the opponent’s attackers or the first line of pressure find it complicated to close down.
A typical high-press pattern has the striker on one of the center-backs, left-winger on the right-back, right winger on the left-back and so on. With Danilo staying back with Bonucci & Chiellini, the opponent would have to commit their front-three to press high, which would mean that left-back Frabotta or Cuadrado on the right are likely to be free. So the back-three was all about drawing pressure from Sampdoria to create gaps in other areas of the pitch, which can be utilized to progress play.
Cristiano Ronaldo & Dejan Kulusevski were almost acting as a front-two with Aaron Ramsey as the connector between midfield and attack. The front-two were more of wide forwards who wanted to dominate the half-spaces (Ronaldo on the left and Kulusevski on the right). The main reason why Juve were able to convert their long spells of possession into real threatening chances was owing to the dynamic movement shown by Ronaldo, Kulusevski as well as Ramsey. For majority of the first half, the three were positioned high, narrow and close to each other. It was almost like a front-three who pinned back the opposition’s last line of defense.
However in the second half, Pirlo had made a small tweak to his attack with Ramsey withdrawing from his high positioning into a deeper role, more like a typical number 10. After this change, Juve were able to get the best out of Ramsey as they were more direct, more vertical and progressed play into the final third by playing into the Welshman’s feet. We will see more of this later.
On winning the ball back, Juve prioritized on securing possession more than initiating counter-attacks or quick breaks. Again this is not a black-and-white rule that applies throughout the game but the general preference was to start possession spells from the back using Bonucci, Chiellini & Danilo.
Formation when not in possession: 4–4–2
It looked like Juve had a clear plan in place on how to approach the opponent when not in possession and executed it to perfection. Pirlo’s men adapted the traditional flat 4–4–2 shape with Ronaldo & Kulusevski forming the first line of pressure while Ramsey & Cuadrado joined the central-midfielders to form the second line of four and Danilo, Bonucci, Chiellini & Frabotta forming the last line of defence.
Pirlo did mention about his desire to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible but this definitely didn’t mean that he wanted his team to press anyone and everyone who had the ball blindly with maximum intensity. It was rather a combination of hard work and smart work by Juventus as they excelled in keeping their opponents far from goal. Sampdoria had just 1 shot on target in the entire game and this is why Juve’s work off the ball needs a special mention here.
The Italian Champions were more than happy to let Sampdoria goal-keeper Emil Audero have the ball and remained passive in their pressing around the penalty area. There was almost never any pressure applied on Audero, rather focusing on maintaining a 10 v 10 inside the pitch simply because the moment a player is sent to close down the goalkeeper, the defending team is under the risk of leaving someone else free in the outfield. While Audero completed all of his short-passes comfortably, there were no clear gaps in Juve’s defensive structure for Sampdoria to utilize. Therefore, it didn’t matter how many passes Audero and Sampdoria’s center-backs exchanged between themselves, Juve were always organized.
Once Sampdoria progressed play into the first-third and gradually attempted to enter the middle-third, that’s when Juventus’ pressed relentlessly. Juve maintained an extremely low PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action) of 6.79 or in other words, there was a pressure attempt for every 7 passes made by Sampdoria. Looking at pressing from another perspective, Juventus had made 154 pressure attempts despite having about 66% possession.
Is this number high or low? Let’s take a look at some other teams who like to dominate the ball and maintain high-intensity pressure.
As you would be knowing, teams with over 65% possession wouldn’t have high number of pressure attempts as their opponents obviously have much lesser of the ball and hence the scope to press itself is limited. This should give you an idea of why it is a big deal to have over 150 pressure attempts when the opponent has the ball only for 35% of the game. The secret sauce of Juve was not to press blindingly high up the pitch but to ensure that they have a defensive shape that covers the right zones, leaves no clear passing option open for access and then press with high intensity.
While Juve did counter-press on losing possession in an attempt to stop the opponent from progressing forward quickly, it was not at the cost of losing their shape/ structure. The nearest player to the ball was usually in charge of the counter-press with the others just covering the safe passing options to encourage the opponent going long and risk losing possession. If it wasn’t possible, Pirlo’s men simply ensured their organization was in place and went back to defending. In short, defensive shape was always the priority with a risk-averse approach to counter-pressing.
Key Players in the system
Although it has just been one game, there is no shame in admitting that the system worked wonders for Juventus. However there are certain players who deserve a special mention as they may go unnoticed while they are actually the key to make the system work:
Aaron Ramsey had probably the trickiest role in the system and yet came through with flying colours. His positioning, movement and decision-making were key to converting spells of possession into goal-scoring chances. Credit to Pirlo where necessary as Ramsey was withdrawn from being part of an almost front-three in the first-half to a proper a no.10 like role for the second half. It gave Juventus much needed freedom while they progressed play from middle-third into the final-third as Ramsey acted as the connector, occupying spaces in between the lines.
Ramsey ended the game with — 70 passes (83%), 6 key passes, 1 assist, 12/17 duels won and completed 2/2 dribbles. He was just as brilliant when Juventus weren’t in possession, as part of the second-line of four out on the left-flank. He managed to win back possession 7 times for Juve with 6 tackles and 1 interception, making his performance a complete package.
Danilo was yet another key influencer of the game having been deployed in a unique role. As we saw earlier, the Brazilian was responsible for drawing pressure from Sampdoria’s attackers to open gaps in other areas and progress play. He not only played a key part in Juve’s opening goal but also charged forward to act almost like an additional midfielder when Sampdoria adapted to fall deeper into their own third. Danilo finished the game with a massive 121 touches and 101 passes at a 95% pass accuracy (most by any player on the pitch). Being a natural right-back and also having the prowess to excel in central areas, he is arguably a perfect fit to Pirlo’s system.
Although Wojciech Szczesny had almost no saves to make during the game, it doesn’t mean he didn’t have an important role to play in the victory. Szczesny was integral to Juve’s build-up as they mostly played out from the back than going long. He completed the game with 43 passes at a completion of 91%, out of which 31 were short-passes. Compare this to his numbers at Juve from the previous three seasons, Szczesny averages just 21 passes per game with 12 of them being short-passes. He has doubled the number of total passes played and almost tripled the number of short-passes played.
Clarity, Intent, Belief & Work-rate were key ingredients of Pirlo’s Juventus. Although it may be a tad bit early to make any big statement as of now, it does look like the team has bought into Pirlo’s way of football and all the signs from the first game point to a bright future, which as a huge fan, I too hope will be the case!