Juventus came into the match looking for their 11th consecutive Serie A win, and wanting to put pressure on Napoli at the top of the table. They had their back-line trio of Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci back together, in a familiar 3-5-2. Evra came back in on the left, Pogba into midfield and Mandzukic started alongside Dybala up top. Spalletti, aiming to turn his side’s fortunes around and keep pace with the top three, went with a similar set-up although having Nainggolan almost behind the strikers. This differed from their last outing, against Verona, as Castan and Torosidis made way for Rudiger and Vainqueur. De Rossi slipped back into the back three. Salah played as a forward, along with Dzeko.
Juve first-half domination
Although a slightly cagey opening, we got a general feel for the approach that both sides were taking. Juve, as they often do, pressed from the front with the benefit of having the two strikers that can squeeze the opposition into playing the ball out quickly from the back. Roma were more inclined to sit back and let their opponents have the ball, potentially trying to catch them on the break when possible. This early possession and movement up the pitch appeared to give Juve the upper hand and set the tone for the half. Something we saw in the first ten minutes or so was Pogba getting down the left, troubling Roma, and getting crosses in. He was being afforded a concerning amount of space around this area of the pitch. I’m not sure that this was a deliberate ploy to attack Florenzi, who isn’t the best full-back when it comes to defensive positioning or tackling, but it looked like a possible avenue for attack. However, as the game went on, it was predominantly Evra who was the one to move into this area.
De Rossi didn’t do himself any favours by getting booked early after an off-the-ball incident with Mandzukic. He was possibly lucky to stay on the pitch after replays showed a punching motion into the striker’s back and he appears to stand on him as well. Not too long after, Rudiger was also booked after an unnecessary challenge (and could have been carded just before), leaving Roma’s defence on a relatively thin line after only 15 minutes. Dybala was getting into pockets of space between the lines, which he usually does, and was already starting to have an influence (we’ll cover Dybala’s role later). Despite already being pretty deep, Roma probably could have benefited by having someone closer to Dybala to nullify his impact – Vainqueur being the most likely candidate. Nainggolan was dropping deep to help out Roma’s defensive efforts, and with him being there it gave the possibility of him starting counter-attacks, which he has tried to do from a naturally deeper position – like against Milan. However, Juve never really allowed this, and the Belgian’s influence was very limited. Demonstrated on 29 minutes, he had the chance to instigate a counter-attack but lost the ball carelessly. Nainggolan was also well marshalled in the attacking half, making only 9 passes in the attacking third all game. Chiellini proved this on 27 minutes by rushing out of his defensive line to meet the Roma midfielder on the ball, giving away a foul in the process.
A key player in Juve’s midfield was Marchisio. His performance may have gone under the radar a bit, but he did a fantastic job in central areas and was a big part in breaking up any sort of cohesion Roma might have been able to get crossing the halfway line. Marchisio made more successful tackles and more interceptions than anyone else on the pitch, and finished with a pass success rate of 95%. He marshals those central areas so effectively, whilst leaving himself the opportunity to go forward through the middle when appropriate. We saw Marchisio come under pressure a few times, but he was also good at drawing a foul and relieving any intensity and pressure that the Roma players were putting on. Also, he often identified himself as the man to go and pressure the ball from the front – periodically hassling Pjanic, whilst not wildly leaving his midfield space wide open to attack, he would push up and attempt to stop Roma working the ball through the middle on the ground. Khedira did the adaptive role of defend/attack pretty well also, and actually saw more of the ball than Marchisio – but more on the right-hand side of midfield – although the Italian was the ‘busier’ in terms of stopping the opposition.
Roma had a couple of chances to counter-attack in the first half, notably one through Nainggolan which was wasted as his pass was intercepted by Marchisio, and one where Florenzi broke down the left but Chiellini came across to make a fantastic tackle. Florenzi also had a shot from distance, which was created by Nainggolan’s efforts to hold the ball and get it infield to Pjanic. He does this battling and hard work well in midfield, but his efforts appeared somewhat wasted further up the pitch today. In general though, Roma couldn’t get their front-men on the ball and their attacking threat was pretty much non-existent. Salah wasn’t able to use his pace to run at Juve’s back three or get in behind wing-backs, and Dzeko was largely ineffectual in his role once again (with a lack of support or service). Although the system has changed under Spalletti, and at times they seem to play better football, it appears that Roma will take some time to settle and become a threat going forward. The emphasis is still clearly on positioning themselves to defend their third, and the guise of ‘trying to counter-attack or catch the opposition on the break’ is a bit thin against teams like Juventus and just turns into a lack of direction or potency going forward. On the odd occasion that Digne did get down the left, towards the byline, his crosses were actually quite good, one of which was onto Dezko’s head, which came to nothing – with Florenzi blasting the loose ball wide when he should have squared to Nainggolan. They should have utilised wide areas more, with wing-backs plus the pace of Salah, but these avenues were closed off or left unexplored for most of the game.
Juve’s proactive pressing
A main difference between the two sides, when not in possession, was the way in which they engaged the man on the ball. All over the pitch, Juve were very quick to get organised and get the nearest man chasing down the player in possession. The energy they spent in getting someone out to the opposing individual who could create a forward or attacking move was far greater than Roma’s. Spalletti’s side had the mentality on defence of sitting back and absorbing pressure, then having bodies in the middle ready to block Juve’s advances. However, there was a notable occasion in the first half where Chiellini was allowed to just wander into a massive gap in Roma’s half with the ball. Juve had a pretty high line, but they were well organised with Marchisio dropping back and normally having one man going to shut down the ball as soon as Roma looked to pass it around or open Allegri’s side up. The structure of the home side was never really stretched or broken because Roma didn’t get enough people moving around the final third to worry the defence or create obvious holes. On the occasion when Roma did manage to force the opposition defence deeper, they held a very good line.
It felt like too much focus was put on being on the back-foot and not paying enough attention to the transitions between defence and attack, thus they couldn’t build any momentum going into Juve’s half. Pjanic was often dropping deep to get the ball, but didn’t have the best of games with his passing, and couldn’t really do enough to create chances or initiate other players getting forward. Vainqueur was sometimes caught in two minds or in an awkward position of not knowing whether to push up and engage the man on the ball and the opposition coming into their half, or whether to try and cover the space behind him (‘Dybala’s zone’)(see next pic below). He ideally needed to be goalside of Dybala so that he could see where the striker was, or get one of the centre-backs to cover Dybala and push forward.
I’ve spoken briefly before about the impact that Dybala has on the attacking element of this Juventus side, and it was prominent once again against Roma. His tendency is to drop deeper, usually for one of two reasons: either he wants to receive the ball and start a forward attack, or he is trying to get space between the opposition lines of defence and attack. The Argentine doesn’t need a great deal of space to operate in, with his quick feet and burst of pace, but so many times in Serie A this season (and even when he was with Palermo) we have seen teams afford Dybala too much space. There’s always a case for assigning a man to stick to him and mark him intently, but this is a hard task, and Dybala will drag that man around and lose him eventually anyway. As mentioned earlier, Vainqueur would have been a candidate for this. The Juve striker found himself in that area of the number 10 position so often that for the purposes of this game I’ve called it ‘Dybala’s zone’. The danger comes when he receives the ball in this part of the pitch and is allowed to turn and face goal. From there he can: bring other team mates into play by holding the ball up and waiting for runs, run at the defenders, lay it off to Pogba, or shoot. Here are just a couple of examples of this:
Sometimes we will see Dybala come all the way back over the half-way line to pick up the ball and initiate a break. We’ve had examples of this already this season, like against Milan in Novemeber, where he benefits by having players like Pogba and Lichtsteiner running beyond him to join in with the attacks. The advantage to this, as opposed to a target man to launch the ball to, is that Dybala can build momentum going up the pitch, and the second/third passes in the move are generally easier for his team mates and more fluid. The contrast with Mandzukic is one that has the potential to be dangerous, like the one between Tevez and Llorente we saw at times last season. There was also one occasion around the 60 minutes mark where Dybala controlled the ball beautifully inside his own third, as it came out of the sky from a defensive header. He then took the ball on and dribbled away, relieving all the pressure on his team by then playing a simple pass back down the touchline.
Juventus’ goal finally came in the 77th minute, from a fantastic break through midfield. It stemmed from a good tackle by Evra in the left-back position, as he then passed it on to Khedira to drive through midfield, exchanging a one-two with Dybala who had come deep to offer that lay-off. The ball was then moved out wide to Pogba who cut inside and played a lovely pass outside of Manolas, through to Dybala – who ran onto it inside the area and slotted it into the far corner. It was a great counter from Juve – something which Roma themselves may want to take notes from – with a good run through two centre-backs by Dybala and great assist from Pogba. Rudiger probably could have done better and held a line to play the Juve striker offside, but it was a fantastic finish.
Roma were never really able to get into the game, in a slightly pedestrian second half. They had a chance to equalise at the end, with Pjanic just clipping the top of the wall from a free-kick in a great position. However it was Juve that still looked the most threatening. Cuadrado did pretty well when he came on, running at the Roma defence and adding another dimension to their attack coming in off the right wing. The away side had possession at times, but their build-up was notably slow and Juve had a lot of time to get themselves set. They brought on Sadiq for Salah (who looked off the pace all game), but only gave him a few minutes to try and have an effect. Fans will perhaps question Spalletti’s persistence with Dzeko in that role, and not giving Sadiq more of a chance. Juve were still pressing late on, making Szczesny kick long and ultimately lose the ball. There weren’t a great deal of chances in the second half, and the home side picked up a deserved win. Allegri will take positives out of the game after a good all-round performance, particularly: Dybala’s efforts up front, Marchisio and Khedira’s control of the midfield, and a solid and un-threatened defensive display. Spalletti will be more concerned, although Roma did show some improvements on the ball – that being a positive, along with the fact that they were able to keep Juve at bay for the best part of 80 minutes. A clear negative will have to be the uncertainty and lack of threat going forward. It will be interesting to see their approach at home against Frosinone next weekend.