Massimiliano Allegri's Coaching Nightmare At Juventus

Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares was a great show. The British version, not the American one filled with Fox's signature melodrama. Despite his foul mouth, you could see Gordon Ramsay's passion for food and sympathy for the people he worked with. He could deal with a variety of restaurants: British, French, Italian, tapas, pub, fish and chips, etc. Ramsay could cook them all. His magical formula was to use the local produce. Let the ingredients dictate your menu, not the other way around.

If anyone decides to launch a “Coaching Nightmares” show, Massimiliano Allegri should play Ramsay. Like the Scottish chef, Allegri designs his tactics to fit the talents; 4-3-1-2, 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, regista, false-10, inverted winger—Allegri can coach them all. He lets the players dictate his system, not the other way around. 

Juventus Are Flying Away In Serie A

Allegri's flexibility fits Juventus because there is high turnover in Turin. This summer, the ever-present Gigi Buffon, Kwadwo Asamoah, Stephan Lichtsteiner, and Gonzalo Higuain all departed. Mattia Perin, Leonardo Bonucci, Joao Cancelo, Emre Can and Cristiano Ronaldo were brought in. Once again, Allegri needed to redesign his system to fit the new players.

The new system and players upgraded Juventus significantly; this season, the Bianconeri have created 2.15 Expected Goals (xG) while conceded 0.98 xG per game. Their defense is leakier than that of the last season (they conceded 0.83 xG per game in 2017-18), but their offense has improved by more than 0.5 xG per game. Their performance measured by xG worsened considerably in December, possibly due to the tough opponents: Fiorentina, Inter, Torino, Roma, Atalanta and Sampdoria were all in good form. Even so, Juventus are the best team in Italy for the past half-decade. At this stage of the season, Juventus have the best xG differential among 100 teams in the last five seasons of Serie A. 

Allegri’s Tactical Change 

Allegri has changed how Juventus defend and attack. Defensively, he is molding the Bianconeri's style closer to the other European giants. Juventus are now pressing more than they did in the previous seasons; this season, Juventus made about two defensive actions per 100 opponent passes in the opponent’s half, 11 percent more than that of the previous season. Juventus’ pressing intensity last season is higher than 55 percent of the teams in the big five European leagues in these two years. This season, it is better than 86 percent of the teams.

Offensively, Allegri is able to unleash Ronaldo's full offensive power. The formation is the default 4-3-3. Miralem Pjanic forms a triangle with the two center backs as the initiators to transition from the buildup into the attack. They use two primary ways to penetrate the opponent:

The outside central midfielders, usually with Blaise Matuidi or Rodrigo Bentancur as the starters, drop below the fullback to receive the ball from Pjanic or the center backs. This movement triggers two downstream positional exchanges: the inverted winger, Ronaldo or Paulo Dybala, drops into the midfield and the fullback will surge forward. If these movements can disorganize the opponent’s defense, the inverted winger should be able to link up with the fullback so that the latter can attack the space close to the byline. The final product is usually a cross, with multiple targets, including the three forwards and a surging central midfielder. On the opposite side, the other fullback or central midfielder will tuck inside to provide defensive cover. Occasionally the latter will move into the box to provide another cross target to overwhelm the defense.

Sometimes Juventus will initiate the attack through the fullback to stretch the opponent. The two outside central midfielders will now attack the flank. The inverted winger will positionaly exchange with him. The former will drop to the midfield, while the latter will attack the flank all the way to the byline.

The positional exchanges may not create enough space for the midfielder or the fullback to attack. But if the inverted winger, Ronaldo or Dybala, is liberated from the opponent’s marking, he can always turn inside to shoot. If the opponent’s defense remains tightly packed, Juventus will circulate the ball using the center backs or Pjanic and restart their attacking phase until they can find a crack.

None of these things is new. They used the same movements last year. What has changed is the way they make the final pass and the frequency they do so:



Compared to the same stage of the last season, Juventus have now shifted their touches in the opponent’s half to the two flanks. Juventus also rely on the cross to create chances: 22 percent of their key passes comes from the cross compared to only 15 percent last season. The change equates to close to a 50 percent increase. They now drop the cross as soon as they get close enough.

Allegri makes these changes to maximize the talents available to him; offensively, Cancelo is a massive upgrade over Lichtsteiner. The Swiss Express is a great fullback, but he can only attack in one speed because of his technical limitations. Cancelo can protect the ball from the opponent’s defender and create an opening through his dribble. He, and even the technically inferior Mattia De Sciglio, allow Juventus to play the same positional play on the right side.

Replacing Higuain with Ronaldo triggers a domino effect on how Juventus attack; last season, Higuain was the No. 9 and Mandzukic mostly played on the left, while Dybala operated on the right. This season, the three attackers exchange their positions regularly:


 

Mandzukic and Dybala played rigidly last year because Higuain can’t attack the flank, so he mostly worked in the center and Juventus couldn't justify using a lot of positional exchanges between him, Mandzukic and Dybala. Higuain has an underappreciated ability to drop to the midfield and spread the play, and Juventus’ attack involved a lot of this type of switching. But gluing Mandzukic close to the sideline meant that the attack on the left flank couldn't use a lot of technical combinations between players. When Mandzukic was isolated against the defender in the half-space, he wouldn't be able to turn inside and shoot or create effectively. On both sides, the technical limitations of Mandzukic and Lichtsteiner meant that Juventus often attacked the flanks with a mono-speed that relied on a lot of overlappings and headers.

Everything changes with Ronaldo; simply isolating him in the half-space puts the opponent’s defense on its toes. You have to always have a covering defender. Because he can dribble and shoot in the final third from any distance, the defense can’t be so aggressive in attacking the ball. Ronaldo’s technique also means that when the ball flows through him on the flank, Juventus can use more technical combinations between the players than last year. Mandzukic now starts as the No. 9, but Ronaldo is also efficient playing that role. Allegri can let them loose and allows them to positionally exchange. Doing so confuses the opponent’s defense. Crossing becomes an effective weapon because you have two world-class headers plus Matuidi and Dybala lurking inside the box.

Pjanic’s and Dybala’s roles change, too. Allegri built the attack around them in the past. With the new focus in the offense phase, he needs to modify their roles:


 

Both players are making more horizontal passes than they did last season. The key for Juventus is to attack the flank, and Pjanic’s role now is to circulate the ball and spread the defense quickly. Dybala doesn’t always get the chance to run at the opponent’s defenders, a feature that was often initiated by Pjanic’s surgical vertical passes. So now, Dybala needs to create for himself. When he turns inside from the flank, he will often switch to the opposite flank if he can’t find his shot. Allegri may not utilize them as prominently as he did, but he is using them effectively.

Allegri’s Practical Approach

Not everyone likes this new offense. Juventus were making some beautiful attacking moves in the first few months. Watch the league game against Bologna or the away UCL games against Valencia and Manchester United. Juventus played some of their most dazzling soccer under Allegri. Many don't understand why he has opted for this monotonous cross-heavy offense in the last two months. Only Allegri can explain his choice, but we can speculate the reason from the data.

Juventus are turning the ball over in the buildup phase more than they did in the previous season. This suggestion is surprising, considering that Cancelo and Bonucci are superior to Lichtsteiner and Benatia technically. Szczesny also passes the ball better than Buffon did. But measuring the xG an opponent creates within 20 seconds after a team loses the possession in its own half, you will find that Juventus conceded 0.01 xG per 500 passes last season. This season the number doubles to 0.02 xG per 500 passes this term.

Juventus’ switch to a cross-heavy team in the last two months may be Allegri’s way to curb these turnovers; separating the xG resulted from their turnovers into two groups by month, Juventus conceded 0.03 xG per 500 passes in the first two months. Since then, they have not conceded a single chance from the same type of turnovers.

How does the transformation to a monotonous offensive scheme alleviate the turnover? Juventus can’t play out from the back like Manchester City or Barcelona. The new attack features mostly the same positional plays we discuss above. The more they do it, the better they play it. It makes sense that they are making fewer mistakes now because they keep repeating the same runs and passes and they get better at it. Simple play means accurate play.

Issues To Be Fixed 

Allegri may have settled for the offense, but he still has issues to address.

The hyper-switching and crossing offense comes with a price; Juventus are now conceding more chances from the counterattack than they did in the first two months. They conceded 0.08 xG per 500 passes from the counterattack that resulted in a shot within 20 seconds of a turnover in the opponent’s half, up from 0.06 xG per 500 passes, representing a 33 percent increase. 

Many different factors may increase their susceptibility to the counterattack: for one, the hyper-switching behavior means that every Juventus player positions far away from each other, putting every player distance away from the ball and making it hard for Juventus to counter-press the lost possession. Secondly, the two sided central midfielders, especially Matuidi, often run into the box to catch the cross. This setup increases the area that the remaining midfielders and the fullback on the opposite side need to defend when their teammates lose the ball. Bentancur or Can can cover a lot of the ground, but when they can't reach the ball and let Pjanic defend those instances, the opponent can often inflict the counterattack. In the first two months, Juventus counter-pressed 8.5 percent of the lost ball in the opponent’s half. The same measure dropped to 6.6 percent in the last two months. The difference amounts to a 23 percent decrease of counter-pressing and can explain their 33 percent increase of xG the opponent creates from the counterattack. 

Juventus also only have five central midfielders this season. With the injuries to Khedira and Can, their midfield couldn’t have any substitute for close to a month. Their squad rotation decreases by more than 30 percent this year:



Fatigue may reduce their counter-pressing. When the players don’t counter-press sufficiently, Juventus suffer from the counterattack. European games are more open than the league games. This weakness can be an issue in the knockout round of the Champions League. Allegri needs to fix this problem.

Bonucci’s Dilemma

The first-choice center back pairing seems to be a concern for the fans but not so much for Allegri. He has already made his choice; Bonucci and Chiellini have started 15 and 12 times, respectively. Daniele Rugani, Andrea Barzagli and last year’s starting center back Medhi Benatia have accumulated only seven starts in total. But Bonucci's performance hasn't impressed. He was at fault, or at least partly responsible, for the goals Juventus conceded against Napoli, Genoa, Manchester United and Atalanta. Allegri didn't help the situation by not giving Benatia—who had a career year last season, or Rugani, who is a fan favorite—more minutes.

Bonucci doesn't seem to be a reliable defender compared to Benatia or Rugani, because he isn't:



In the last two seasons, Giorgio Chiellini, Benatia and Rugani won over 60 percent of the individual aerial duels in the defensive half, while both Bonucci and Barzagli had 50 percent success rates. Worse, Bonucci wins less than 30 percent of the headers in the penalty box. The second worst defender is Benatia at 55 percent. Rugani has an astonishing 89 percent success rate.

Bonucci is not only bad at winning the header but also bad at defending against a 1 vs. 1 dribble:



Benatia, Chiellini, and Rugani stop more than 82 percent of the individual 1 vs.1 ground dribbles. Bonucci has the lowest success at 68 percent. His number drops to about 40 percent in the penalty box. In contrast, Benatia wins more than 67 percent of these duels. Again, Chiellini and Rugani are outstanding and win more than 83 percent of the same situations. Individually, Bonucci is Juventus; worst 1 vs.1 center back besides Barzagli. 

But Bonucci keeps getting the nod because of his contribution to the offense; Bonucci's non-penalty xGBuildup—the xG of a shot assigned to anyone who has contributed with a pass preceding the final assist—is 0.67 xG per 90 minutes, while Benatia and Rugani range between 0.3 and 0.5 xG per 90 minutes in the last two seasons. Bonucci's number will put him above 87 percent of the center backs in Serie A. Chiellini is an underrated passer because his non-penalty xGBuildup is even better than Bonucci's at 0.69 per 90 minutes.  

You can say that Bonucci is a defender and should defend better than the others if he is starting over them. But the question isn’t black and white. Allegri likely feels that Bonucci offers the most on both ends compared to Benatia or Rugani. The choice makes sense; Juventus are more technical and offense-orientated this season. They have more skillful players than ever. Bonucci and Chiellini allow the best flow in the offensive phase.

Dybala’s New Role

Once again, Dybala needs to modify his game to accommodate his new teammates.

Dybala was the secondary striker when he first arrived from Palermo, but was given more responsibility to create after Paul Pogba left. When the magic of the 4-2-3-1 faded, and Juventus switched to the 4-3-3, Dybala had to experiment between the false-9 and the inverted right winger role. 

To accommodate Ronaldo, Dybala had to take a backseat and takes fewer shots than he did before; he dominated Juventus’ shooting last year, averaging 0.45 xG per game. But with Ronaldo in the squad, there is no need for another volume shooter: he creates close to 1 xG per game, two-thirds of what an average Serie A team creates. The pie isn’t big enough for everyone, considering Mandzukic also needs some shots, so Allegri instructs Dybala to handle other tasks.

The Argentinian averages 0.6 xGBuildup per game when he starts this season, 20 percent lower than he did last term. His number is deflated since he had to spend the first few games figuring out how to gel with Ronaldo. He is improving significantly in the last two months: his xG, xGAssist and xGBuildup all bump up between 50 percent and 75 percent. His game becomes simpler than when the season started. He now focuses on helping the buildup and circulating the ball. He is even running into the box to catch the cross more frequently than he did before. He hasn't gotten those through passes from Pjanic often, but in the last few games, he has been aggressive to dribble toward the opponent to collapse the defense. Can’s second goal against Chievo is the perfect example. 

Allegri’s job this season is not only to incorporate Ronaldo but also to guide Dybala into his new role; Ronaldo’s greatest strength is his ability to create shots and make shots no matter how many times he misses. It is proven year after year. Dybala needs to understand that. Let the Portuguese, and Mandzukic, shoulder that burden to shoot. Focus on putting Ronaldo in the dangerous territory and he will make something happen. Concentrate on the unfancy part of the buildup. It is not only the smart way to play, it is the proper way to play. Do that, Juventus have a good chance in Europe.

The first part of Allegri’s Coaching Nightmare has gone as well as anyone could have imagined, let’s see how they will deal with the second part.

This article was written with the aid of InStat Scout by @InStatFootball.


Cheuk He Ho is a scientist during the day who writes about MLS and Serie A during the night. You can find his work at tacticsplatform.com and on Twitter at @Tacticsplatform.

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