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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Pirlo heavily experimenting in the early days of his Juventus tenure

When Andrea Pirlo was hired by Juventus, not much was known about his coaching philosophy, let alone his preferred formation. The rookie manager is yet to submit his final thesis to Coverciano and will be doing so in October to receive his UEFA badge. As a result, many Italian outlets have speculated heavily about Pirlo’s preferred setup, based on his first training sessions.

Let’s take a look at the different options.

1) (3-5-2/3-4-1-2): Woj; De Ligt/Danilo, Bonucci/Rugani, Demiral/Chiellini; Cuadrado/Bernardeschi, Bentancur/McKennie, Arthur, Kulusevski/Rabiot, Alex Sandro; Dybala, Ronaldo. 

It’s been recently reported that Pirlo is looking to introduce a back three to Juve, a formation he enjoyed plenty of success in during his playing days. The former Milan man is already familiar with the inner workings of the formation and will be eager to impart his knowledge on his new side.

At the back, there are no real surprises with De Ligt, Bonucci, Chiellini, Demiral and Rugani occupying the central positions. Danilo has reportedly been training as a right center-back in recent sessions, indicating a position switch may be on the cards for the Brazilian. In many ways, the deeper role would suit him as the former Manchester City man struggles when tasked with getting forward.

Out wide, Alex Sandro and Cuadrado will arguably start, but Federico Bernardeschi’s progression is worth monitoring. Pirlo is said to be grooming him for the left wingback position, but ultimately, he can feature on either side. The former Fiorentina man played his best football from the right-hand side of a 3-5-2 and will look to get his career back on track under Pirlo.

In the midfield, Arthur is expected to start as Pirlo’s regista with two of Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, and the newly-arrived Weston McKennie. When Pirlo’s looking to shake things up and get a more offensive outlook on the game, he can also introduce Dejan Kulusevski in a trequartista role behind the front two. The Swedish international thrived as Parma’s creative outlet this season and will undoubtedly emerge as a key man under Pirlo.

The front two of Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo will round off the side and will be eager to build on their budding partnership. La Joya has been at his best in this formation in the past, linking up to devastating effect with Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente. The persisting links to Edin Dzeko and Moise Kean should come as no surprise, as either would slot in wonderfully in a front two and would offer some much-needed depth.

In many ways, this reported 3-5-2 would get the most of Pirlo’s current squad and help the Bianconeri’s stuttering players turn their fortunes around.

2) (4-3-1-2): Woj; Cuadrado, De Ligt, Bonucci, Alex Sandro; Bentancur, Arthur, Rabiot; Kulusevski; Dybala, Ronaldo. 

The main difference here is essentially the back four but is ultimately very similar to the 3-5-2. Dybala and Ronaldo would maintain their spots up front with Kulusevski roaming dangerously behind them. With this setup, Pirlo ensures his front three are in their best positions and could open up any opposition.

The midfield is where the main difference lies with one of Rabiot or Bentancur coming in for one of the center-backs from the back three. While this formation is intriguing from an offensive perspective, it stretches Juve’s depth pretty thin and does not give Pirlo much flexibility off the bench to shake things up. McKennie and Bernardeschi could help in this respect, but the Bianconeri would still need a few reinforcements from the summer mercato – notably a striker or two.

The final option for Pirlo is to deploy a 4-3-3 with any combination of Ronaldo, Dybala, Kulusevski, and Douglas Costa as his front three. The Brazilian, however, appears to be on the outs in Turin, after struggling with recurring injuries since arriving from Bayern Munich. The back four and midfield would remain unchanged from the 4-3-1-2 and is arguably the best formation for Juve’s star man, Ronaldo.

As the season approaches, it will be interesting to see what Pirlo has in store for his Juventus side. As of right now, the Juventus faithful are venturing into the unknown with Pirlo and will get their answers shortly as pre-season approaches.

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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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Juventus Top Performers – Round 37 vs Cagliari

Despite what the final result may indicate, Juventus actually put in a decent effort against Cagliari few days after the title-clincher, but it was one of those in the box where they would not have been able to score even if they played one more hour.

Alex Sandro: tough to find a good contributor among defenders, as the back-line collectively fell asleep (again) on the initial goal, where Cagliari players were allowed to pass the ball from one flank to the other and then back to the middle for a tap-in without much opposition. Leonardo Bonucci and Gianluigi Buffon then were both poor on the Giovanni Simeone goal, as the centre-back should have stayed closer and the goalie had his hands bent. Since it is often hard to notice that Daniele Rugani is even playing, the nod goes to Alex Sandro, who was moderately active offensively and has become a sneaky asset on set pieces with his headers. 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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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 Performers – Round 29 vs Genoa

Juventus pulled the plug a smidge too early in the Genoa game, failing to extend their streak of clean sheet, but other than that it was a very mature performance, the best one after the resumption, coronated by three superb goals by their star attackers.

Leonardo Bonucci: another solid outing by both centre-backs, with the Italian one beating out Matthijs De Ligt because the Dutch teammate had a careless pass late in the box that could have been picked off by an opponent, leading to all sorts of troubles. The duo stood up to two very physical strikers, countering with their own muscularity and not letting up until the final 15 minutes. Nothing out of the ordinary for Wojciech Szczesny and Danilo, as the latter did not mess anything up this time. Continue reading

Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round 29

Atalanta: Ruslan Malinovskyi is suspended for yellow-card accumulation. Josip Ilicic is not 100 percent after an ankle sprain but he is at his coach’s disposal. José Palomino is out with a thigh injury. 

Bologna: Federico Santander and Andreas Skov Olsen remain out with thigh strains. Andrea Poli will miss up to ten days with a thigh pull. 

Brescia: Andrea Cistana (lower leg) and Jhon Chancellor (thigh) will be back in mid-July at the earliest, Dimitri Bisoli (patellar tendon) is out until December. Continue reading

Juventus Top Performers – Round 28 vs Lecce

Juventus jogged around in the first half, but key mistakes by the opponents paved the way to what ended up to be a larger-than-deserved rout. Lecce caused some troubles at the beginning of the game, but were the cause of their own demise for the second straight round.

Matthijs De Ligt (9 points): just two defenders on the pitch and they got to rest for half of the contest since the lights went off for the Salentini after the red card. The start was not promising as the lack of focus in the back-line was palpable, but no harm was done in this case despite a pair of chances. The Dutch starlet came through on the other hand with a freebie for the four-nil. Wojciech Szczesny had no saves. Continue reading

Juventus Top Performers – Round 27 vs Bologna

Juventus got off their schneid with the assistance of some sloppy defending by Bologna and kicked off the Serie A resumption with a fairly convincing two-nothing win on the road.

Leonardo Bonucci (five points): other than some oddly misplaced passes by Wojciech Szczesny and some unnecessary risks in the early build-up of some actions, especially at the beginning of the season, it was a sound display for the back-line, once again perfectly anchored by the two centre-backs. Matthijs De Ligt was flashier as usual, Bonucci just a bit tidier and had a great block very late to deny a clear-cut chance by an opponent in a mad scrum. The clean sheet was marred by the deepening of the troubles at left back, as Mattia De Sciglio was forced to bow out due to an injury after an acceptable display and Danilo was sent off for two silly yellow cards. Continue reading