After eight victories in a row in the Italian top flight with Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri basing their tactics on a strong defence, Juventus have decided to change skin. They have hired Maurizio Sarri as coach to win new trophies, especially the mighty Uefa Champions League, with a ball-oriented and spectacular style of play; another chapter of Sarriball.
We will begin this scout report with a tactical analysis of the style of play Sarri looks to implement at Juventus, from the build-up to the defensive phase. Afterward, we will compare the former Napoli and Chelsea coach with Massimiliano Allegri, and then look at how players from Juventus suit Maurizio Sarri’s tactics and particular approach.
Maurizio Sarri’s tactics: the Sarriball
Maurizio Sarri is a trainer with strong principles and clear ideals, but he’s not inflexible; he had changed many formations in his long way to the top, starting from 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2 at Empoli, and changing it in 4-3-3 only when in Napoli he had some issues at the start of the season.
Sarri’s teams are focused on ball possession and positional play; they want to be proactive and to hold the tempo of the game, creating triangles between players with rotations, using overloads on a flank to open spaces and switch play on the other side and finishing with fast combination between the attacking trio. In this analysis, we will see those situations.
Building from the back: Jorginho’s heir
The conductor of this sort of music sheet is the central midfielder; he has got to control the rhythm playing short passes to create disorder in the opponent lines (and sometimes has got to try to play a long ball, when he can face the opponent goal), moves constantly to always be a viable option for a pass for the centre-backs, and even be careful in the defensive phase, being the first screen in front of the back four.
This huge load of tasks was done admirably by Jorginho at Napoli and Chelsea; at Juventus, the chosen man is Miralem Pjanić.
As we can see below, Juventus maintain positional superiority and Pjanić moves constantly to be always a valuable option for the ball carrier.
So, in every Sarri team, one of the full-backs is more offensive and goes high on the pitch, giving width on the flank (the other flank’s width is granted by the winger), while the other one forms a back three during the build-up phase with the centre-backs, securing the ball possession.
This type of build-up is perfect to maintain ball possession, and to move the opponent’s defence; often a pass will trigger the opponent’s pressing, and this is a trap from Maurizio Sarri because his teams can take advantage of the disorder, and gain meters on the pitch with short passes. As already mentioned, the man who controls everything is the central midfielder; his ability is fundamental to switch from the build-up phase to an offensive phase.
When he was at Chelsea, Sarri has tried to quicken the build-up from the back to trigger the attackers as soon as possible.
At Juventus, Bonucci and De Ligt will be perfect as centre-backs due to their capacity to play the ball under pressure, while Pjanić will need to improve his play, trying to pass the ball with the first touch, but he has the necessary skills to fit this crucial role.
Attacking with Maurizio Sarri: triangles, rotations, and speed.
Maurizio Sarri’s tactics are coded in a “system game” where everyone knows what to do. The keywords are triangles and rhombus; Sarri’s players aim to create triangles every time they can, to create a sort of web and securing possession even in the opponent half. To do this, they have continuous rotations and they try to position themselves in the half-spaces, creating positional superiority.
In the image below, from one of the first friendly matches played by Maurizio Sarri’s Juventus, we can notice how the central midfielder (on the ball) is the centre of gravity of the team, while the other players create two “side chains” between full-back, midfielder, and winger, creating those triangles.
To attack the opponent goal, Sarri’s teams try to overload a flank, usually the left one, with the full-back high on the pitch, pushing the left-winger in the left half-space, while the left midfielder choose what to do depending on the positions; he can attack the opponent defence in depth, or he can change position with the left-winger himself, or he can even lower himself to open spaces for the attackers.
Two ways to finish with a goal
These in the paragraph above are the requirements craved by Sarri to be ready to attack the opponent’s goal. Furthermore, when his teams have ball possession there are two main possibilities to score a goal using Sarri’s principles.
First, when the two wingers are pushed inside the pitch in the half-spaces, thanks to the full-backs giving width, they need to receive the ball free to create fast combinations to disorder the opponent’s backline and shoot; this is possible thanks to the excellent technical skills of Maurizio Sarri’s strikers, and will surely be exciting to see Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala or Douglas Costa play combinations like these.
Second, when the left flank is overloaded, or in a fast counter-attack, the preferred play from Sarri’s team is the cross on the far post, where the right-winger can attack the blind side. There was a strong connection on this play between Insigne and Callejon, so much to become proverbial. This type of play can be revived at Juventus, making Cristiano Ronaldo attack from the left on the blindside, trying to attack all these situations.
Maurizio Sarri has always enhanced the performances of his strikers, from Gonzalo Higuaín to Dries Mertens, so it will be incredible to see a star like Cristiano Ronaldo play at Juventus under Maurizio Sarri’s tactics.
Analysis of Sarri’s defensive play
If you think that Sarri has strong principles in the attacking phase, you will remain bewildered about how methodic his defensive phase is. He wants compactness, precision and an incredible application from his back four; they’ve got to play high on the field, aiming to play the offside trap every time they can, drawing back only when the ball is uncovered and the opponent is facing the goal.
Sarri’s defence is pure positional defence, always favouring the area over the opponent’s strikers, even in the last 16 meters. They don’t care about the strikers, they position themselves according to where the ball is.
Near the goal, Sarri’s tactics are to defend with a compact 4-4-2 shape, lowering one of the wingers, aiming to negate space and time to the opponents, without man-marking.
Sarri is a lover of high pressing; he starts to press high on the pitch with a 4-3-3 formation; with the striker, a midfielder will often come out from the line to press aggressively, while the wingers are orientated on the full-backs (or the lateral centre-backs if the opponent plays a back three).
With the high pressing, Sarri’s teams often have scored goals after recovering the ball high in the pitch; Allan and Kanté were masters on these recoveries, and Napoli had an average of 21.74 recoveries in the opponent’s half in 2017-2018. At Juventus, players like Matuidi or Emre Can can probably be aggressive to recover the ball high up the pitch.
There are two main limits of these defensive tactics. Firstly, making a pure positional defence, the crosses on the far post, where strikers attack the blind side, are a serious threat for Sarri’s teams. Secondly, when the team is pressing high on the field, if the defenders don’t follow the rest of the team, the space between the line will be enormous to be covered, leading to dangerous counter-attacks.
Differences with Allegri
Sarri and former Juventus trainer Massimiliano Allegri are really different; while Maurizio Sarri, as we have seen in this tactical analysis, like a ball-oriented style of play, with coded moves and little space for extemporaneous plays by talented players, Allegri is a coach who grants his players freedom to create what they want, according to their skills. Therefore, they are at the antipodes on this point of view.
They are really different even in the defensive phase. Allegri defends low on the pitch; he doesn’t have problems to defend in the last 16 meters if there is a need. He prefers a defence who man-marks in the zone, different from the pure positional Sarri’s defence. Players will probably need some time to learn Sarri’s ideas.
How does Juventus’ squad fit these tactics?
This summer is full of changes for Juventus, but the winning block from the past year isn’t entirely gone.
The goalkeeper is Wojciech Szczesny even this year, but his number #12 is the prodigal son Gianluigi Buffon, who returned home at age 41.
While Andrea Barzagli retired last year, the other members of the BBC are still here; Leonardo Bonucci and captain Giorgio Chiellini will be the masters of the star signed this summer, Matthijs De Ligt. De Ligt will probably be in the starting eleven instead of Bonucci, according to Chiellini’s physical conditions. After these three champions, Juventus have the former Sassuolo player Merih Demiral, and Sarri’s protege Daniele Rugani, to compose an incredible defence.
The full-backs are João Cancelo and Alex Sandro, fundamental in his role in the left-flank. The reserves are Mattia De Sciglio, who can play either as a right-back or left-back, and the youngster Luca Pellegrini, signed from Roma.
The pillar of the midfield is Miralem Pjanić; the former Roma player is immovable from the starting eleven. Around him, there are some players with different skills, depending on what Maurizio Sarri wants from them. The main contenders to be starters are Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey, two new signings for Juventus. Emre Can and Rodrigo Bentancur are capable of play in every role of the midfield, while Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi are in doubt for their adaptation to Juventus’ new style of play.
On the left-wing there is no doubt; Cristiano Ronaldo is the absolute star of the team and it is Maurizio Sarri’s task to make him perform at his top. The right flank is crowded: Federico Bernardeschi, Douglas Costa, and former Fiorentina and Chelsea player Juan Cuadrado are the contenders to start in this position, but I can’t see precise hierarchies between them. Douglas Costa will be the favourite, but he is coming from a year of injuries and problems.
Sarri wants to shape Paulo Dybala as a “false nine”, but it’s not a simple task; if it fails, Juventus will need a new signing in this position (Lukaku will probably be a solution), as Mandžukić is out of Sarri’s plans, and Higuaín probably will be sold.
This season preview analysis says that Maurizio Sarri’s tactics aren’t easy to be absorbed in a little amount of time, so the first month will probably be hard for Juventus. If they can pass this situation harmlessly, and the players accept and learn Sarri’s ideals, Juventus fans will be happy with the exciting play that will come at the Allianz Stadium. Cristiano Ronaldo, Miralem Pjanić and the defenders (Chiellini, Sandro, De Ligt) will be the real stars and they can prove their incredible skills again.
The target of this season is, undeniably, the Uefa Champions League, and Juventus has got the players and the coach to go on until the very end; after that, winning the ninth Scudetto in a row, with a different style of play and a different coach, will be a good motivation for the players in bianconero.
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