Why a return to a back three makes sense for Juventus

Juventus took the controversial decision to sack Maurizio Sarri and replace him with the relatively unproven Andrea Pirlo this past summer, after a disappointing season. The Bianconeri may have retained their Scudetto, but ultimately fell short against Lyon in the Round of 16 of the Champions League.

Sarri was a firm believer in his preferred 4-3-3 and rarely budged from his playing philosophy, despite his side’s lackluster play. While not much is known about Pirlo’s coaching style or formation, all signs are pointing to some form of a return to a back three. Media outlets have speculated that Pirlo will deploy a back three in possession, which will later transform into a back four when they lose the ball.

As of right now, this is Juve’s reported XI going into their season opener against Sampdoria:

Szczęsny; Danilo, Bonucci, Chiellini; Cuadrado, Bentancur, Arthur, Rabiot, Pellegrini; Kulusevski, Ronaldo.

In theory, Pellegrini would drop at left back when Juventus lose the ball, with the remaining midfielders forming a bank of four ahead of their backline. Matthijs de Ligt’s return would hand the Bianconeri a huge boost, as well, while Merih Demiral will slowly be eased into action following his injury.

The back three ensures Pirlo gets the most out of Bonucci and Chiellini, who have thrived in this system before while giving de Ligt and Demiral the license to get forward in possession. Danilo struggled last season, but could benefit from a deeper role, as the Brazilian will no longer be tasked with contributing offensively.

Beyond the back three, this formation offers a crafty solution to Juve’s fullback conundrum. The Italian champions simply do not have the quality out wide to compete with Europe’s elite, but the 3-5-2 helps remedy this. Cuadrado has typically excelled in this position, while Luca Pellegrini will be raring to go on Sunday. The former Cagliari man will be looking to make the most of Alex Sandro’s recent setback and cement himself as Juve’s starting leftback. Pellegrini has demonstrated he can get forward with ease and with Chiellini behind him, he will have all the guidance he needs in his defensive third.

Federico Bernardeschi and Alex Sandro are two players who will be hoping to get their careers back on track after mediocre seasons and the 3-5-2 could just revitalize the duo. The former has experience in this setup during his time at Fiorentina, while Sandro was at his very best as a wingback under Conte.

The midfield is where it gets interesting for Pirlo. As of right now, Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, and Adrien Rabiot are his preferred trio, but Juve’s latest signing Weston McKennie is worth monitoring. Arthur will reportedly start as the side’s regista after convincing Pirlo in training and will largely be tasked with dictating play. Rabiot, on the other hand, finished the season in exceptional form and will be eager to hit the ground running once more.

The biggest question mark, however, remains Bentancur. The Uruguayan international has played his best football at the base of the midfield, but Arthur is currently the preferred man there. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see Pirlo juggle the two and potentially introduce McKennie into the fold for one of them.

Up front, Ronaldo and Dybala enter the season at the preferred duo, but the latter’s latest injury will hand Dejan Kulusevski a chance to stake a claim for a spot in the eleven. The Swedish international has emerged as one of the league’s brightest young talents and could force Pirlo’s hand with a strong start. As Kulusevski gains familiarity in his system, the rookie tactician may just be forced to deploy a three-man attack to accommodate him alongside Dybala and Ronaldo.

Given his propensity to work hard without the ball, a 3-4-3 with Kulusevski tracking back, similar to Gian Piero Gasperini’s system, is not entirely out of the question. Edin Dzeko’s reported move to Juve will also prove crucial, as the Bosnian international offers a much-needed physical and creative presence in the final third.

If last season showed us anything, it’s that tactical rigidity got Juve nowhere. The Bianconeri played mediocre football and struggled to create chances. Pirlo’s appointment is by no means a sure thing, but at the very least, the rookie tactician is ready to experiment, starting with their opener against Sampdoria.

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Serie A Fantasy Preview – Round One

FIORENTINA-TORINO

Fiorentina: despite not changing all that much, the Viola have brought in some new interesting pieces during the transfer market window, such as Sofyan Amrabat, who is suspended in this one, Giacomo Bonaventura and Cristiano Biraghi, who seems poised to stay after a solid season at Inter. However, their coach and attack are the same, which means we can expect something akin to what happened in the restart, where Franck Ribery and Gaetano Castrovilli served as the main playmakers, Federico Chiesa was the most consistent scorer, while Christian Kouame, Dusan Vlahovic and Patrick Cutrone, all capable but otherworldly strikers, fight for one spot. The ex-Genoa forward seems to have separated himself from the pack a little during the summer. Bonaventura is supremely sneaky.

Suggested picks: Chiesa, Ribery, Kouame. Continue reading

Serie A Fantasy Preview – Round 36

BOLOGNA-LECCE

Bologna: they stayed in the game until the end but they could not perforate Atalanta’s defence and, result-wise, they have been on a pretty steep downward trajectory. They could use some offensive help because Musa Barrow and Roberto Soriano have been the only ones producing in the last month, since Riccardo Orsolini’s effectiveness has abated, Nicola Sansone has not been great all season long and Rodrigo Palacio, while being a tactical weapon, is not very prolific. Deploying Federico Santander and Andreas Skov Olsen has not changed things and they also lost one of their most trusted contributors in Takehiro Tomiyasu. However, the match-up could help their attackers get off their schneid.

Suggested picks: Barrow, Soriano, Orsolini. Continue reading

Serie A Fantasy Preview – Round 34

VERONA-ATALANTA

Verona: after a consistent stretch with a pure striker up front, Ivan Juric went back to a false-nine, Valerio Verre in this case, against Roma, but the results were not that great, with the second half push coming on the heels of the subs. The returns from injury of Fabio Borini, Eddie Salcedo and Valentin Eysseric will allow the coach to go that route more often, especially against top teams, although Samuel Di Carmine has been decently effective (three goals in the last six games). Mattia Pessina scored again and he has separated himself from their slew of attacking midfielders, while Mattia Zaccagni picked up the assist. Darko Lazovic has been their most consistent player.

Suggested picks: Pessina, Lazovic, Borini. Continue reading

Serie A Injury Report – Round 33

Atalanta: Robin Gosens was a late scratch against Juventus, but he has been called up and therefore avoided serious problems. Luis Muriel suffered a head trauma in a domestic incident, but he is fine and will be back for the next match.

Bologna: Federico Santander and Andrea Poli have recovered from their thigh injuries. Mattia Bani is pretty much done for the season with a calf strain. Jerdy Schouten (thigh) will be back in a pair of weeks.

Brescia: Jesse Joronen is out with an undisclosed injury, joining Andrea Cistana (tibia), Enrico Alfonso and Dimitri Bisoli (patellar tendon) on the mend. Continue reading

Serie A Best Fantasy XI – Round 30

Jesse Joronen (7 points): after a bonanza of goals in the previous rounds, defences managed to have the upper-hand in few cases over the weekend and five teams kept a clean sheet. Brescia’s Finnish goalie had by far the best performance among #1s, as he answered the bell on the multiple big chances created by Verona attackers.

Timothy Castagne (5 points): Atalanta’s key reserve on the flanks got the nod in Cagliari, put in a very solid shift and could have easily provided an assist with the usual cross wingback-to-wingback if Hans Hateboer correctly met his great delivery.   Continue reading

Serie A Fantasy Recap – Round 30

Standings implications: Juventus prevailed handedly in the Derby, while Lazio got demolished at home by Milan, so the Bianconeri’s lead atop of the table ballooned to seven points. Atalanta eked one out in Cagliari, while Inter threw the Bologna game away: the two Nerazzurri teams are now separated by just one point. Napoli defeated Roma in the head-to-head clash and caught them in fifth position.

As far as the seventh place is concerned, Milan pulled away from Verona, which surprisingly stumbled in Brescia, while Bologna and Sassuolo were successful but still have some ground to make up The Emilian duo overtook Cagliari and Parma, as the Ducali laid an egg versus Fiorentina. Continue reading

Juventus Top Perfomers – Round 30 vs Torino

Juventus kept the winning going in the Derby della Mole, which had a weird development as the Bianconeri scored twice early, but Torino managed to get back in the game with a penalty and threatened the lead early in the second half, then a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick pulled the chestnuts out of the fire.

Gianluigi Buffon: he did not get to play hero, but it was a momentous occasion for the legend, who surpassed Paolo Maldini and is now the player with the most Serie A appearances in history with 648. He had a couple of good saves but business as usual. Matthijs De Ligt was unlucky on the penalty as those pesky arms keep sticking out, but he actually had a strong display, hooking and clearing a couple of dangerous balls in the box. Leonardo Bonucci was less flashy, Danilo attacked a little more than usual but all in all remain a weak spot of the formation, given for instance how meaningful the contribution of Juan Cuadrado was on the other flank. Continue reading

Fan Zone: Gregory on Nedved, Buffon, Dybala & more Juve talk

Gregory Caltabanis is an established writer and reporter who covers extensively European football, but what matters for the purposes of this Q&A is Gregory’s unfaltering allegiance to Italian giants Juventus.

Gregory is part of the @FantaCalcioGame team as well! They run the most popular Fantasy Serie A Game, but for now let’s go straight to the Q&A with Gregory offering lots of interesting takes on legends such as Pavel Nedved and Gianluigi Buffon.

1) Who are your 3 all-time favorite Juve players (ranked by preference) and why?

Pavel Nedved: My all-time favorite Juve player is undoubtedly Nedved. One of the first games I saw as a kid was Juve against Milan in 2005 and all I remember seeing was a player with blonde locks run effortlessly down the left wing. Of course, it was Nedved. From that point forward, I always watched Juve and became a fan. The rest is history.

Gianluigi Buffon: After Nedved, I would have to say it’s Buffon. Buffon has been with the team since I’ve followed them and is the main reason I’m a goalkeeper to this day. Beyond saving countless goals, he’s a class act both on and off the field. I’ll never forget his save on Zidane’s header in 2006.

Paulo Dybala: The last one is a bit difficult, but I have to go with Dybala. I know he’s not up there yet with Alessandro Del Piero and other legends, but Dybala is one of the reasons I’m still passionate about the team today. He’s always respected the shirt and is arguably the first worthy number 10 we’ve had since Del Piero. I hope he stays with Juve for the long haul.

2) From active players, pick your favorite Juve player by position: one each from defense, midfield and attack. Why did you pick them?

DEF: My favorite defender is 100% Merih Demiral (Gregory says it emphatically!). Since he’s joined, I always thought he would be very important for our success. It’s a shame the serious injury halted his progress, but I’m confident he’ll come back stronger. Demiral embodies everything that Juve should seek in a player. He’s confident, plays with an edge and has that fighting spirit. I’ll be ordering my Demiral jersey very soon.

MID: It has to be Rodrigo Bentancur. I’ve had my doubts about him over the years, but he’s stepped up this season and looks to be evolving into an important player for us. Like Demiral, he plays with an edge to his game which I feel we lack sometimes. I’m looking forward to seeing him make further progress when play hopefully resumes.

STR: It’s an obvious one- Paulo Dybala. You really get the sense that he loves Juve and fights for the shirt every time he steps onto the pitch. It goes without saying, but his left foot is incredible. It’s just amazing to watch him play. Now, if only Fabio Paratici shared the same opinion, we’d be better off.

3) Your choice for most important Juve victory in your lifetime? Why?

Without a doubt, when we knocked out Real Madrid 3-2 on aggregate in 2015. While the win against Inter in 2018 was huge, for me the Real result announced Juve’s return on the world stage and showed the rest of Europe “we are back.” After all, we just took out Real Madrid. The final didn’t go our way, but I can’t recall a win I’ve celebrated more.

4) Choose your all-time favorite Juve match, and why?

Against Inter and on their home turf just over two years ago. At times, it felt like the game and the title were slipping away but as soon as Dybala stepped onto the pitch, it changed everything. I’ll never forget Gonzalo Higuain’s goal to complete the comeback. Made it that much sweeter that it was against Inter at the San Siro.

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5) Where do you rank Sarri among the current generation of Italian coaches? How about among coaches worldwide?

I’d put him in the top five, but I wouldn’t rank him in the top tier of Italian managers at the moment. Conte is in a class of his own, in my opinion. Other than last year, I’d put Allegri in the same tier as Conte. Beyond them, I rate Gasperini highly but it would be interesting to see how he does outside of Atalanta.

Worldwide, I think he’s a top ten manager. If I had to rank them, I’d say this is my top ten: Klopp, Guardiola, Simeone, Conte, Zidane, Allegri, Nagelsmann, Sarri, Tuchel, Gasperini.

6) What’s Juve’s objective for this season? Is it Serie A, the Champions League, or both?

Definitely both. When you have Cristiano Ronaldo on your team, the objective always has to be the Champions League. While I don’t think the team is well equipped for a deep European run, a player like Ronaldo can make the difference in a big game. It would be a waste of his final years if Juve didn’t push for European glory.

7) Perhaps a tough one here but pick two from Marchisio, Pirlo, Pogba, and Vidal for your midfield, and why?

I love Marchisio and it’ll be hard to leave him out, but I have to go with Pirlo and Vidal. Pirlo is the ultimate Regista and is needed to dictate play. Obviously, it helps he can score a free-kick from just about any angle. As for Vidal, he’s your classic box-to-box midfielder and is not afraid to jump into tackles. Few midfielders impressed me more than prime Vidal and let’s not forget, he could score, too. Juve’s current midfield is really lacking his type of profile.

8) Where are Juve’s weaknesses? Some say right-back, others say left-back, or many mention the midfield. Your take?

It has to be the midfield. This may anger some, but Miralem Pjanic is a complete liability both in and out of possession. Juve can do much better in his position and I think they’ll look to replace him this summer. Blaise Matuidi is necessary to press and offer defensive support, but ultimately he’s far too limited. Remember his turnover against Napoli?

I think this Juve side needs at least two signings in the middle of the park and should arguably offload two or three guys (Sami Khedira, Pjanic and perhaps Adrien Rabiot) As I said before, this midfield lacks fight and demonstrates zero Grinta.

Of course, our depth at full-back is worrisome particularly with Alex Sandro slowing down, but for now, I think Sandro and Juan Cuadrado can manage the situation. Hopefully, Pellegrini comes back in the summer and competes for the left-back position.

9) In your opinion who is the best player (not necessarily your favorite) to ever wear the Juve shirt?

It has to be Del Piero. Record goalscorer and record appearance holder, few match Del Piero’s resume with the club. He’s won it all with us and has inspired many to support Juve over the years. At the height of Italian football, he was one of the best and led Juve to many trophies.

Del Piero set the standard for our number ten jersey and raised the bar for everyone after him. Perhaps Buffon is in it with a shout, but I have to give this one to Pinturicchio.

Federico Bernardeschi: Time for redemption?

With Juventus struggling in the final third, Federico Bernardeschi may just be presented with an opportunity to redeem himself. After an indifferent finish to last season, Bernardeschi faded and failed to establish himself as a set-starter. When Maurizio Sarri was hired, however, many expected the former Fiorentina man to take the next step in his career, something that until now has not happened.

In 17 Serie A appearances this season, Bernardeschi is yet to register an assist or score a goal. That’s over seven hundred minutes of football with nothing to show for. Despite this, the 26-year-old could yet turn it around. After failing to implement the 4-3-3 successfully at the start of the season, Sarri turned to a more narrow 4-3-1-2 and deployed Bernardeschi as the side’s trequartista. 

While he may seem suited to the role given his technique, Bernardeschi needs space to operate and is far more effective from a wide position. When he plays for Italy there, the Juventus man looks more threatening and creates many chances.

As a result, the Juventus winger has looked out of place in the hole and offers close to nothing in the final third. Fast forward to match-day 26 and Sarri is now turning back to the 4-3-3, presenting Bernardeschi with a unique opportunity for redemption.

In Juventus’ last three games, Cuadrado has been deployed on the right alongside Dybala and Ronaldo. The Colombian international has injected some much-needed pace and unpredictability in the final third, but one problem remains. With Cuadrado in the front-three, Juventus’ right-back options leave a lot to be desired. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sarri starts Bernardeschi in the front-three with Cuadrado returning in defence.

In the past, Bernardeschi demonstrated he can play with Ronaldo and showed early signs of a budding partnership. Factor in Dybala’s mobility and ability to interchange at will, and Bernardeschi could thrive on the right-hand side of a front-three. Since returning from injury, the 26-year-old has made cameo appearances and is slowly finding his rhythm again.

Douglas Costa is another player that could feature alongside Ronaldo and Dybala, however, the Brazilian struggles to stay fit. As a result, expect Bernardeschi to get more minutes than his counterpart. If the former Fiorentina man seizes his opportunities, he may just finish the season as Juve’s starting right-winger.

Right now, the side desperately needs a spark in attack and could use Bernardeschi back at his best. When the 26-year-old was at Fiorentina, he was a constant counter-attacking threat and had a keen eye for goal. Until now, the Juventus faithful haven’t seen this side of him. As the season wears on and with crucial games upon us, expect Sarri to try and revitalize Bernardeschi and give him a new lease on life. While he may be on his way out this summer as it’s been widely reported, this end of season run-in presents Bernardeschi with an opportunity for redemption. It’s up to him if he takes it.

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