Juventus haven't been playing badly, says Michael Cox - but individual performances could send the team out...
One of the major surprises in this season’s Champions League has been the poor form of Juventus. Having won consecutive Serie A titles, The Old Lady seemed ready to have learned a lesson from last season's tough Champions League tie against eventual champions Bayern Munich. The signings of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente strengthened their attack, their problem position last season – and the squad has improved overall, theoretically allowing them to compete on two fronts.
But things haven’t gone as expected. Draws against Copenhagen and Galatasaray mean they’re fighting to qualify for the knockout stages, and with runaway leaders Real Madrid likely to ease up in the final two matches – potentially allowing the two other sides in the group unexpected points – Juventus could crash out at the group stage.
The peculiar thing is this: Juventus haven’t actually played poorly throughout their four group matches. There have been some defensive errors and poor finishing, but overall the Italians have controlled matches intelligently in the centre of midfield and created a succession of chances. Antonio Conte must be tearing his hair out.
So what has been letting Juventus down? Well, in the opening group game against Copenhagen, they were constantly denied by a fine goalkeeping performance by Johan Wiland, unquestionably the game’s star performer. Not only did Juve record significantly more shots, they managed 11 on target – which is usually enough to convincingly win a game of football. Many of these attempts were from close range, too.
That could legitimately have been considered a minor blip, but the performance at home to Galatasaray in the next match was more concerning.
Again, Juventus had significantly more shots than their opponents – nearly four times as many, in fact – but they were guilty of wastefulness in front of goal. Less than 20% of their shots were on target, and they were attempting to score from much trickier positions than against Copenhagen.
More worryingly, there was some awful defensive play. Leonardo Bonucci inexplicably misjudged a bouncing ball, allowing Didier Drogba in behind to score the opener. Then, after turning the game around, in the 88th minute Juventus allowed Umut Bulut a crazy amount of room inside the box to reach Drogba’s knock-down, and the Turkish champions stole a point. Again, Conte will feel his side had dominated, but failed to take the victory.
Away in the Bernabeu, Juventus again performed well – switching to a 4-3-3 shape to cope with Madrid’s wingers, and matching them in midfield. But they were let down by one of their most dependable players – Giorgio Chiellini had a terrible match, conceding the penalty for the home side’s decisive goal, before being sent off for bringing down Cristiano Ronaldo.
Again, Juventus acquitted themselves well – it was just one poor individual performance to blame.
Then, finally, there was the return match against Madrid three weeks ago. Once more Juventus played some fine football, with Andrea Pirlo turning in one of his best performances this season from his deep-lying midfield role, constantly winning possession and barely misplacing a pass.
It was also notable how threatening Juventus were from wide positions – they constantly crossed the ball and their cross completion rate was close to 50%, around double what is generally expected. When placed side-by-side with Madrid’s crossing, it’s particularly impressive.
Again, however, defensive errors cost Juventus. They were caught out with their defence spread too wide when a passing move broke down, allowing Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo to link for the equaliser, then were caught three-against-three at the back, allowing Ronaldo to tee up Gareth Bale for Real’s second goal in a 2-2 draw.
These constant defensive mistakes are particularly surprising for Juventus, a side that have appeared so solid under Conte. Arguably, the shift to a back four against Madrid caused some positional problems, but they still don’t explain the individual errors from reliable defenders.
In summary, Conte doesn’t need to change his strategy significantly. Juventus have performed well – they’ve just been wasteful upfront, and error-prone at the back. In this situation, the players must take responsibility.