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 Injury and Suspension Report – Round One

Bologna: Gary Medel is suspended and is also recovering from a grade one strain in the semimembranosus muscle on the right thigh, therefore he could miss week two as well.

Cagliari: Luca Ceppitelli, Filip Bradaric and Kiril Despodov are quarantining after catching COVID-19 in late August. Gaston Pereiro suffered a fifth metatarsal fracture in the right foot about two weeks ago and he has a 45-day timetable. Alessandro Deiola is recovering from a clean-up surgery on the right knee he had during his time at Lecce. Continue reading

Three Question Marks For Andrea Pirlo

When Juventus announced the decision to sack Maurizio Sarri, few expected the Italian champions to appoint Andrea Pirlo. The former midfielder was just hired to lead their U23 side and is yet to complete his coaching licenses at Coverciano. In many ways, Juve’s decision to fast-track Pirlo into the first team seemed like desperation more than anything. Regardless, the World Cup winner will be eager to hit the ground running in Turin and propel the Bianconeri to new heights.

After crashing out in the Round of 16 against Lyon, more questions than answers were raised about Juventus and their current squad. Here are three things Pirlo will have to adjust immediately if he wants to get his coaching career off on the right foot.

1) Number Nine Conundrum. 

In attack, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala are set starters. The duo was responsible for over half of their goals in Serie A this season and netted 50% of Juve’s goals in the Champions League. Moving forward, Pirlo will not want to be so reliant on Dybala and Ronaldo. Due to this, the Bianconeri are still in the market for a more physical presence in the final third to help them lead the line. Mario Mandzukic’s departure has left a gaping hole upfront; one which Higuain simply can no longer fill. Juventus have since been linked with Napoli’s Arkadisuz Milik, Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette, and Luis Suarez among others.

With Gonzalo Higuain’s future looking further and further away from the club, Pirlo will need an alternative to Dybala and Ronaldo off the bench. Parma loanee Dejan Kulusevski will undoubtedly help in this respect, but Juve’s offensive depth still leaves a lot to be desired at the moment. Considering Douglas Costa’s injury proneness and Bernardeschi’s lack of end product, the number nine position is of serious importance.

Mercato suggestion: Alexander Isak.

2) Who joins Bentancur and Arthur in the midfield? 

Much like Juventus’ attack, their midfield lacks one final piece. Rodrigo Bentancur stepped up admirably this season and despite slowing down late in the year, the Uruguayan will definitely be important in the middle of the park for Pirlo. Then, of course, there’s Arthur. The Brazilian was brought in a swap deal for Miralem Pjanic and has all the tools to become a set starter under Pirlo. Arthur has proven to be a great progressor of the ball and has all the qualities to slot in wonderfully alongside Bentancur; which leaves the third and final midfield spot.

The candidates: Adrien Rabiot, Aaron Ramsey, Mr. X.

Well, Blaise Matuidi is off to enjoy the sun in Miami while Sami Khedira’s contract will be terminated shortly. This leaves last summer’s arrivals Rabiot and Ramsey. The former finished the season strongly and as of right now, should be favored to the Welshman. Ramsey has failed to get going since joining and battled injuries all season. While Sarri’s system demands rigidity, not much is known about Pirlo’s tactics. Regardless, it’s safe to say Juve’s midfielders will enjoy more freedom both in and out of possession, something that will definitely help Ramsey.

Lastly, Juve could bring in another midfielder. Pirlo is reportedly keen on adding a more creative midfielder to his ranks. The Bianconeri have been linked with Rodrigo De Paul and Luis Alberto in recent times, two midfielders who would definitely come in and start right away.

3) Out with the old, in with the new? 

The last debate for Pirlo will be whether he will look to revolutionize Juve’s rearguard or not. Matthijs de Ligt will surely play a key role while Leonardo Bonucci offers some much-needed experience and familiarity. However, Merih Demiral has proven he’s ready to seize any opportunities and has the talent to displace Bonucci. In fact, it wouldn’t be implausible to see the Turkish international start alongside de Ligt.

At fullback, Alex Sandro and Juan Cuadrado go into the new season as favorites to start. As the new season approaches, it will be interesting to see if Pirlo will call upon Pellegrini at leftback. The young Italian has shown glimpses of his talent and is ready to challenge Sandro out left. At rightback, there’s no denying Juve desperately needs to bolster their ranks and could very well sign a player before the new season.

In any case, Pirlo will oversee a potential revolution and will have tough decisions to make.

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Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round 38

Atalanta: Josip Ilicic will miss another one and will be probably joined by José Palomino, who picked up a thigh problem in the last game.

Bologna: Mattia Bani (calf) and Takehiro Tomiyasu (thigh) will not be back for the season finale. Mitchell Dijks and Ladislav Krejci (thigh) have been ruled out. 

Brescia: Jhon Chancellor and Simon Skrabb are out, while Jesse Joronen, Alfredo Donnarumma and even Andrea Cistana are in the squad list, but that is not necessarily an indication they are certainly going to play.   Continue reading

Grading Juventus’s Scudetto Winning Season

Juventus clinched its ninth consecutive Scudetto on Sunday, besting Sampdoria thanks to goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Federico Bernardeschi. The latter notched his first goal in Serie A in two years, breaking his goalscoring duck. It wasn’t always pretty for the Bianconeri, but Maurizio Sarri’s men inevitably got the job done.

Let’s take a deeper look at Juventus’s Scudetto-winning team.

Player of the season: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portuguese superstar is undoubtedly Juve’s player of the season, netting 31 goals and counting in league play. Since the restart, Ronaldo has struck a partnership with Paulo Dybala, forming a deadly one-two punch in the final third. If the Bianconeri have any chance at overturning their narrow one-goal deficit against Lyon, Sarri’s men will need Ronaldo firing on all cylinders.

Signing of the season: Matthijs de Ligt

The former Ajax man got off to a rough start in Bianconero, but quickly kicked into another gear as the season wore on. de Ligt formed an uncompromising partnership at the back with Leonardo Bonucci and established himself as one of the league’s best centerbacks. Today, the defender is crucial to the Italian champions’ long-term plans. Juve’s defense conceded more goals than they are accustomed to, but it would have undoubtedly been worse without de Ligt.

Most improved player: Rodrigo Bentancur

The Uruguayan international took the next step in his career this season, becoming a first-team regular under Sarri and dominating the proceedings in the middle of the park. With Miralem Pjanic on his way to Barcelona, Bentancur is expected to become Juve’s undisputed regista next season. The former Boca Juniors man combines a keen sense of anticipation with an impressive passing range and is well on his way at becoming one of football’s elite midfielders.

Biggest disappointment: Miralem Pjanic

Many of Juventus’ players can feature on this list as the Bianconeri regularly left a lot to be desired on the pitch, despite their positive results. Initially, much was expected of Pjanic under Sarri with the Bosnian featuring at the heart of the veteran tactician’s setup. The former Roma man struggled immensely this season, offering little to nothing in the final third. As a result, it did not come as a surprise once Juventus decided to swap him with Arthur and send him to Barcelona.

A word on Sarri: 

The former Napoli tactician was handed arguably the weakest Juventus side in recent memory and managed to win his first trophy in Italian football, becoming the oldest manager to win a Scudetto. While the end result was positive, Sarri’s Juve often underwhelmed, losing both finals they played in. The side may have been out-of-balance due to a weak midfield and middling fullbacks, but Sarri’s first season in Turin was largely disappointing.

What’s been more concerning has been Juve’s propensity to drop points from winning positions, relinquishing 18 points. In addition, the Bianconeri were uncharacteristically weak at the back, conceding 38 goals on the season. Only Luigi Del Neri’s Juve conceded more over the last decade. Ultimately, the veteran tactician often relied on individual brilliance to see his side over the line. Simply not good enough for Sarri who will be on the hot seat in his second season.

An overall grade: C+

In many ways, Juventus did not win this Scudetto but rather, other sides lost it. Lazio, Inter, and Atalanta all challenged the Bianconeri at times but dropped points at crucial moments throughout the season. Inter held a narrow led atop the table early in the season while Lazio looked a shadow of their former selves after the restart. Sarri’s Juve looked as vulnerable as they have ever been and will need to significantly bolster their ranks if they are to make it ten in a row next season. Factor in both final losses to Lazio and Napoli and what seems to be an early Champions League exit and Juve will be disappointed with their season.

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Juventus Top Performers – Round 35 vs Udinese

Juventus tried to stroll their way to the title as they run into the brick wall erected by Udinese, somehow found a way to score but, as it has happened few times now, everything went south while trying to manage the lead and then got bitten late by the typical weapon of this kind of teams, killer counters.

Matthijs De Ligt (3 points): the squad had to go the extra-mile to break the deadlock and he came through on that regard busting a great daisy-cutter out of nowhere at the end of the first half. Continue reading

Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round 34

Atalanta: Luis Muriel quickly resumed practicing after suffering a fortunately mild head injury in a domestic accident. Josip Ilicic will be held out as he keeps working on his fitness. 

Bologna: Andrea Poli and Federico Santander were available for the last game after some time on the shelf. Mattia Bani (calf) is done for the season, Jerdy Schouten (thigh) will try to return for the final couple of matches.

Brescia: goalie Jesse Joronen is back, unlike Enrico Alfonso (hip). Andrea Cistana is ramping up his activity in practice and might be back soon. Emanuele Ndoj is back on the shelf.  Continue reading

Juventus Top Perfomers – Round 32 vs Atalanta

Juventus survived a literal battle against a terrific Atalanta thanks to excellent second half and two Cristiano Ronaldo PKs, garnering a point in a big spot that moves them much closer to the title.

Matthijs De Ligt: obviously an imperfect display by the defence, but it is extremely hard to keep up with Bergamaschi these days, as they can throw such a smorgasbord of weapons at you and built the two goals in two completely different plays, perfectly executed by two separate tandems. De Ligt had some hiccups, most notably on the 1-0 goal, where he got sucked out of position and then fooled by the crafty Alejandro Gomez, leaving the poor Rodrigo Bentancur dealing with Duvan Zapata and predictably capitulating. However, he was engaged throughout the night in all-out duel with the Colombian tank and he often emerged victorious and was simply so much busier and noticeable than the rest of the defenders. The actions, but the second tremendous goal, mostly shied away from Leonardo Bonucci’s zones. Danilo often looked sloppy and unfocused but did not significant damage, low bar but Alex Sandro came off the bench much better than in the Milan game. Continue reading

Serie A Injury and Supension Report – Round 31

Atalanta: José Palomino is suspended.

Bologna: Roberto Soriano was red-carded in the last game and has been suspended for two matches. Gary Medel was a late scratch for the last game due to back spasm, but he is in the squad list. Ibrahima Mbaye and Andreas Skov Olsen (thigh) recovered enough to be called up. Andrea Poli and Federico Santander are nursing thigh strains.

Brescia: Andrea Cistana (lower leg surgery), Jhon Chancellor (thigh) and Dimitri Bisoli (patellar tendon) remain sidelined, Emanuele Ndoj and Enrico Alfonso are questionable.  Continue reading

Serie A Best Fantasy XI – Round 28

Gianluigi Donnarumma (7 points): goals galore in Serie A in the last round and just two goalkeepers kept a clean sheet, Milan’s one and Wojciech Szczesny. Neither was particularly challenged, but Donnarumma did it against an better opponents.

Matthijs De Ligt (9 points): the Dutch centre-back rounded out Juventus’ trashing of Lecce with an easy finish from close range, notching his third goal of the season. He was the top point-getter over the weekend. Continue reading