Chelsea kick off their defence of the Champions League this week with a match against Italian champions Juventus, who along with Shakhtar Donetsk and Nordsjælland form a formidable set of opponents in Group E. It's not the easiest group by any measure, and Chelsea will have their work cut out for them if they want to progress. On face value, Juventus are a tough challenge, with the Italian giants currently in the midst of an unbeaten league streak stretching back to August 2011, and while they have some fantastic players and a strong system of play, by no stretch of the imagination are they unbeatable. So what can Chelsea expect on Wednesday? Let's dive in, after the jump.
Juventus are a team that prioritize ball control and a high tempo. They'll look to keep the ball on the ground, play out from the back, and press heavily when they do lose the ball. In fact, that's a fairly broad definition that could in theory be applied to a number of teams such as Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao, even if there are certain nuances within the individual systems. It's a favoured style of play because it provides a good framework not only for efficiency but for entertainment.
What might not be so familiar is Juve's formation: it's a fairly unorthodox 3-5-2, with three central defenders covering for the enterprising runs of the two wing backs, generally the duo of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah. In the centre of the park Andrea Pirlo is flanked by a hard working pairing of Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, while up front the favoured combination for this season has been Sebastian Giovinco and Mirko Vucinic. In goals is veteran captain Gianluigi Buffon. On paper, it's a strong team, and on the pitch, it's a strong team, but there are definitely flaws within this side, most notably the three centre backs - Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci aren't the world's worst defenders, but if exposed properly they can be left totally out at sea, as was the case against Genoa on Sunday.
Although there were a couple of notable omissions for that game (Vucinic, Asamoah and Vidal were all absent from the starting lineup, although Asamoah and Vucinic both came off the bench to turn the game around), there's nothing to indicate that Juventus won't run out a full strength side against Chelsea.
You'll notice I haven't actually mentioned who the manager is yet, and there's a good reason why. At the moment, Juventus are currently at the heart of yet another criminal case as Italian football attempts to weed out the rotting smell of corruption that seemingly plagues its every move. The manager Antonio Conte is at present serving a ten month ban, not for match fixing itself but for failing to report its occurrence (which seems like a lazy way of avoiding the actual problem, if you ask me). That incident came when Conte was at Siena, meaning that his current club hasn't faced any official sanctions, although it'd be remiss to say that their name hasn't been sullied by the whole affair. It's a messy business, so we'll try and focus on the football.
Not only did Conte enjoy great success as manager last year, he was also captain of the side of the early 2000s, and coupling this with his current feats he is certainly marking himself out as a legend of the bianconeri faithful. There's a lot to like about Conte as a manager: he plays a pleasing brand of football and there's enough evidence he's effective at implanting a strong team ethic and sense of unity.
What's notable about Conte is that he is both tactically astute and flexible. He arrived from Siena with the apparent intent of playing his favoured 4-4-2 (often called the 4-2-4), however the board couldn't resist the lure of signing Andrea Pirlo on a Bosman. The mercurial regista simply wasn't cut out to the demands of a two man midfield, and Conte redesigned his team appropriately to a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 variations. Not only was this stunningly successful - Pirlo was many peoples player of the season - but when it wasn't, Conte was able to switch 3-5-2 variants, which has in fact become the default for his side. In turn, this informed Italy coach Cesare Prandelli's decision to play it at Euro 2012. Another strength of Conte is his apparent ability to motivate his players, apparent in the team's selfless, hardworking attributes on the pitch and also in their willingness to change from two wildly different formations.
A criticism of Conte? I suppose being involved in a match-fixing cloud is a bad thing. This week UEFA confirmed that Conte's ban extended to European competitions, which means we'll see his replacement on the touchlines on Tuesday, that being Massimo Carrera. It's difficult to get a proper grip on what sort of skills Carrera brings to the job, but he's had a good start so far having notched up three wins in the league - and don't forget Conte is still able to work on the training ground to implement tactics.
This Juventus side were strengthened in the summer by a number of clever signings, with the highest profile being the double swoop for Udinese duo Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla. They also brought in Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner on loan after failing in their pursuit for a top-drawer striker, a search that took them from Robin Van Persie to Stefan Jovetic. Juventus were pushing hard for a player of that ilk because quite frankly, their current crop of strikers just probably doesn't cut it for a side with lofty European ambitions. That being said, their current no.9, Mirko Vucinic, is having an excellent start to the season, and he will partner new signing Sebastian Giovinco up front. Interestingly, despite being a powerhouse midfielder at Udinese, Asamoah is currently undergoing a positional renaissance at left wing-back, and the experiment is going very well indeed. Isla is currently returning from injury, and given Lichtsteiner has been no slouch this game will probably come too early for the Chilean. In Juventus did decide to pull something out of the hat, it would likely be either introducing Lucio (update: the Brazilian suffered torn ligaments and as such won't be available for Inter for an extended period of time) or Luca Marrone into the back three, or keeping faith with Emanuele Giaccherini, who had an excellent game against Genoa.
However, all things considered, the following should be the starting XI:
Juventus starting XI (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Kwadwo Asamoah, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio, Sebastian Giovinco, Mirko Vucinic
To draw all that up...
The focal point of the Juventus attack is a two-pronged strike force of two players you might normally expect to play as second strikers. Therefore, pairing them together sees a lot of intricate build up play and clever, fluid interchange. Expect Giovinco to be the predominantly deeper player, though - he played in that position for Parma last season and did so for Italy during the international break. He is very quick, often using his explosive pace to get behind opposition defences. He is often let down by a poor first touch, often conceding possession at crucial moments of attack, although he is certainly capable of lighting fast one-twos. The wall pass is the most frequent route of attack you'll see from these strikers, with one player (often Vucinic) dropping deep to receive the ball, and playing a quick one time pass into the channel of Giovinco's run. When performed at a high tempo, this kind of interchange can be near impossible to stop, which is fortunate because it doesn't come off very often.
Also expect to see the two strikers thriving off balls from deep. Pirlo is instrumental in this aspect: observers of the Euro 2012 quarter final between England and Italy will remember Pirlo's masterful performance, and he often does a similar job for Juventus, looking to play long diagonals into the channels or long ground balls to his wide players. Pirlo's distribution from defence is near unparalleled in world football, and Chelsea will really need to consider how they will limit his influence on the game. Not doing so and they will suffer.
However, one thing that Chelsea can almost certainly count on is for the two strikers to miss some chances. Profilgacy is perhaps the most glaring weakness facing the Old Lady, and it definitely came back to bite them in the fifteen draws they suffered last season. There's definitely a reason they were searching for a clincial finisher, and while he does have his benefits, Bendtner is not the answer.
The wide players also have a big role in the Juventus attack, even if their roles are slightly different: Asamoah often stays wide and deep on the left flank whereas Lichtsteiner's plays much higher up the pitch and appearing for all intents and purposes as a right-winger. It's a similar role to what Dani Alves of Barcelona plays. Because he doesn't really have the ability to beat players in one-on-one situations, Lichtsteiner is more reliant on clever diagonal runs in behind the opposition defence. Often you'll see him make a bisecting run of the opposing centre backs towards the penalty area, and at other times he'll make a swerving run towards the touchline in order to play an early cross.
Asamoah is different: he's more inclined to use his physical presence to simply overpower defenders. It's an effective strategy - see his assist against Parma - and furthermore his deeper positioning is often useful in providing an out ball when the midfield comes under pressure.
How then does Chelsea grapple with all these different routes of attack? I'd be inclined to think Roberto Di Matteo will return to the tactics that served him so successfully in the same competition last year - two banks of four, soaking up pressure and looking to counter attack. His use of defensive wingers against QPR was widely criticized, but a similar tactic wouldn't go amiss here. Chelsea also need to ensure they track the runs of Lichtsteiner into the wide areas, and I'd be wary of leaving this as a job for Ashley Cole alone - offering him support in the form of Ramires would go a long way to limiting the threat that the right flank poses.
Chelsea also need to focus on limiting the ability of Giovinco-Vucinic pairing to play their quick combinations, and stifling the space in the final third would be an effective way of doing so. To me, that sounds like a job for David Luiz, who can use his pace to intercept loose balls. That sucks for Gary Cahill, but Chelsea just don't really need his aerial presence in a match like this.
It would be silly not to use the combination of Mata-Hazard that has been so successful this season, but it will need to be with discipline: one of the two should always have the responsibility of picking up Pirlo in the attacking phase and ensuring he doesn't have the time and space to control the tempo of the match. Wayne Rooney not doing so for England was suicidal, and there are countless other examples from Serie A last year of sides suffering a similar fate: Chelsea need to make sure it doesn't happen to them. If you take Pirlo out of the game, Juve's defence to attack transition can really suffer, as none of the centre backs really have the technical skills to bring the ball out of defence and into attack. This in turn informed the decision of Carrera to start Luca Marrone against Parma, a player who describes himself as the ‘new Andrea Pirlo' and does display similar characteristics. He won't start, but it is certainly an option on the bench should Juve run into difficulties.
Juve's midfield is fantastic, but it's by no means invincible. They adopt a triangle formation in which Pirlo is the pivot, and the energy and tenacity of the forward two is crucial in implementing the Conte blueprint. On the left side is Claudio Marchisio, who is particularly important to how Juventus pressure high up the pitch. He often breaks out of formation to support Giovinco and Lichtsteiner, who look to box in the man in possession. Marchisio occupys any spare men and restricts the ability of the ball-carrier to play short. He also makes apposite vertical runs in the opposite direction to collect the ball off Pirlo and play quick forward passes.
Vidal is more horizontal. He likes to move out into the centre-right position, occupying the space behind Lichtsteiner's aggressive runs. Not only does this provide a useful out ball, but it also provides the wing-back with an easy pass, and often a simple cut back can result in a dangerous forward surge from Vidal, as was evident against Parma. I'm a big fan of Vidal, particularly for his versatility, and that flexibility certainly comes in handy for the manager when it comes to making personnel changes.
The final component of the midfield is Pirlo. The British media went into shock when Pirlo showed them what he could do in the European Championships, but the truth he's been doing that for a while. All of Juventus play goes through Pirlo. He is responsible for the defence to midfield transition, and also the primary source of through balls. There are arguments to suggest he's been the most influential player of the twentieth century, and they often contain an element of truth. But on the whole these are exaggerations, because Pirlo definitely does have flaws to his game. With a controlled tracker, you can remove his influence. Man-marking Pirlo is not an effective strategy for a fluid player like Mesut Ozil or David Silva, but given Pirlo's tendency to stay central, you don't run the risk of opening up space for other attackers. Alternatively, you could place immediate pressure on the Italian as soon as he receives the ball, as Spain did in the Euro 2012 Final, this of course requiring a player high enough on the pitch to do so.
Furthermore, if you can counter-attack at a time when Marchisio and Vidal are out of the central zone, you have the ability to run directly at Pirlo. This is a good thing. Pirlo's not that great a defender at all - this is disguised by the energy his midfield companions provide - and he's got a reputation for picking up yellows as a result of rash challenges. Exploiting this with a player like Eden Hazard will definitely pay dividends.
What's clever about Juventus' midfield is that if there's a problem, there's always a preconceived solution. The most obvious is opponents seeking to neutralise Pirlo by man-marking him. As we've seen, Vidal drops deep to collect the ball, and the midfield tilts as to open up space from deep. Another issue that arises is teams parking the bus, and Juve take the risky strategy here - Vidal make his lateral movement to the right wing position and thus allowing Lichtsteiner the freedom to push on higher up the pitch.
Behind Pirlo you have the back three, a concept which remains on the whole alien to the English fan (despite Wigan's heroic efforts with the system last season). Barzagli and Chiellini are the outside defenders, and they are generally more aggressive in how they approach defending. Bonucci sits a little bit deeper and sweeps, but it's a fairly fluid system that sees the three swap positions on occasion. Chiellini in particular is vulnerable if facing clever, technical dribblers, hence Asamoah plays an important role in providing support and guile in the defensive phase. After a sustained period of pressure, the fullbacks will collapse to make a back five, although there are definitely moments where Barzagli is left exposed by Lichtsteiner's high positioning.
As a collective, the back three is a fairly integrated unit, but I'd definitely expect Fernando Torres to be able to make the most of the space in the channels and look to attack Bonucci in the middle, as he did so effectively against De Rossi in the group stage game between Spain v Italy. Counter attacking in particular is the way to attack this back three.
Andrea Pirlo takes most of these, as you might expect, and from most positions around the penalty area you can expect him to take the shot on. Giovinco is also capable of striking a dead ball. In terms of set pieces from out wide, generally two of the back three goes forward (always Chiellini) to try and attack the ball inside the box - same goes for corners as well. It's a fairly rudimentary approach to set pieces. When defending the oppositions, Juve generally match up man to man, with the back three and Lichtsteiner particularly adept in the air. Where they fall down is in concentration, and clever movement from the players inside the box could be the difference. On goal kicks, despite it playing against Fernando Torres strengths, its probably best to play the long ball: it's a less risky tactic than being trapped under immense Juventus pressure high up the field.
Let's sort something out now: there's no way Chelsea should try and compete in midfield. Vidal's a supreme ball winner and could probably outpower the Lampard and Mikel duo on his own, so it's just as well he's got Marchisio to support him as well. Both of them are also more than technically able to pass it around any midfield pressure, so Di Matteo's options are limited there. The approach will need to be struck between keeping it tight between the lines and denying Pirlo the space to play in.
As aforementioned, Juventus is a fairly flexible side, and they're not grounded in set patterns of play. They have the ability to switch formations midway through a match should the initial plan not be working. I'd like to think Chelsea would be able to apply pressure high up the pitch, but I just don't have enough faith in our midfield to execute such a tactic. Sitting back, dropping deep and pouncing on the break is the way to go. We'll certainly have spells of possession, but it's important the central players remain disciplined and funnel any attacks into wide positions. The battle between our full backs and their wing backs will be key: it's important that Ivanovic and Cole don't get drawn too high up the pitch and risk being exploited in behind. The other key area is the midfield zone concerning Pirlo: if Chelsea can shut that down, then they will definitely be able to take the game to Juventus. Allowing the Italian side to settle into the rhythm of play needs to be avoided, but if we can frustrate them quickly, then there's no reason why Chelsea can't win this match. I'm a big fan of the way Juventus plays, but they're certainly not unbeatable, as much as their record suggests otherwise.