Juventus FC and AC Milan faced each other in the quarter-finals of Coppa Italia, which can be seen as a rematch of the Supercoppa that Milan won in penalties. This time it was Juventus who came out laughing with a 2-1 win that took them to the semi final against Napoli. This was a very different Juventus, comparing to the last time this two teams met. The result was different and the Bianconeri exhibition was much better. Milan probably deserved to win the Supercoppa even before penalties. This time the Bianconeri were clearly the best team on the pitch. In between this two games, a lot happened. Juventus lost against Fiorentina, making Max Allegri question himself and his team again. He came up with different answers. Answers that can change considerably the way Juventus will be playing for the rest of the season.
The defeat in Florence revealed two major weaknesses in Juventus´s 1-3-5-2. First, they lost the midfield battle (3 men against 4 from Fiorentina). Second, and most important, the team was struggling in the buildup. Fiorentina pressed very high up the pitch, but even when Juventus was able to surpass that initial pressure the midfield was not able to get the ball to the forwards. For this reason, Allegri, being the anti-dogma coach that he is, changed everything. He dropped the 2 men defense and presented his team in a 1-4-2-3-1 formation against Lazio in the next matchday. Juventus won 2-0 and played one of their best games in months. As logic dictates, Allegri kept the new formation to face Milan.
This formation allows Allegri to play with all his best players. Higuaín in front. Dybala in the middle, Cuadrado on the right and Mandžukić on the left. Pjanić and Khedira in midfield. Bonucci and Rugani were central defensive partners, with Asamoah on the left and Barzagli on the right. Juventus defended in a very compact 1-4-4-2. Horizontal compaction was especially noticeable. When the ball was on the far left, Cuadrado came all the way to the center. All 11 Juventus´s players were in half pitch. This condensed block made it very difficult for Milan to play in Juventus’s half.
The definitive edge Juventus had in this game, however, was their pressing. Higuaín pressed the central defenders, Dybala marked Locatelli and Milan had no other option but play to the wings where Juventus had always two players defending, with the close support from a third man, usually the central midfielder, sometimes the central defender.
For Higuaín and Dybala the primary task was taking Locatelli out of the game and they did that perfectly. Even when Milan’s playmaker could get a hold of the ball, he had almost no time to think and execute. When Juventus wanted to put even more pressure, Higuaín and Dybala would press the central defenders and one of the midfielders would mark Locatelli. That severely damaged Milan’s buildup.
Montella’s team showed interesting dynamic in the attack. Milan showed up in the usual 1-4-3-3 formation, becoming an asymmetrical 1-3-3-4 when in possession. Abate came up on the right flank, with Suso coming inside to the halfspace. Kucka was recoiled and wide to protect Abate’s runs. On the other side, Antonelli rarely moved up the flank, being often close to Romagnoli and Zapata. Bonaventura stayed wide, while Bertolacci moved up to the halfspace.
This dynamics could have caused many problems to Juventus, especially when Suso was receiving the ball in the halfspace and was able to switch the ball to the other flank quickly. However, with Locatelli being taken off the game, there was no one to get the ball to him. The few times Suso accomplished that, Cuadrado was aware and closed the right flank very well.
Milan’s pressing was effective, but not enough to challenge Bonucci and Rugani. Milan pressed in a 4-1-4-1 with Bacca trying to split Juventus´s central defenders, but one of them was always left free. Many times Pjanić came in deep to get the ball and help the buildup. When there was no option to play in the midfield, Bonucci used his amazing long pass ability to explore the aerial disputes between Mandžukić and Abate. That was how the first goal was created.
The biggest difference in Juventus´s approach was in midfield. They are now stronger, with 4 players instead of 3 and much better on the ball. Choosing Pjanić and Khedira, and leaving out players like Sturaro and Rincón, reveals what Allegri wants from their midfielders. He wants more technique, more time and quality on the ball. He achieves that with Pjanić deeper in the field. More technical ability in midfield means Dybala doesn’t have to come deep so many times, so he can be closer to Higuaín where he can be more dangerous.
Moving from a 3 men defense has its challenges. Juventus´s central defenders are used to a really strong man orientation, coming out of the line to press hard on the halfspaces, knowing that any mistake could be covered by the third defender. They played with a back 4 before but in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with much more midfield support. That’s not the case with this 1-4-2-3-1/1-4-4-2. Juventus´s defenders must have now a more zonal oriented approach.
All in all, Juventus has now much more confidence and quality when in possession. For that, they become a more dangerous team when attacking and more capable of controlling the game through ball possession.