It could have all gone differently in the final minutes of the season’s second Derby D’Italia between Juventus and Inter. After a first half controlled by the home side, Inter gradually started piling the pressure as fatigue and injuries took their toll on the Juve players, and you just knew that the visitors would get their big chance sooner or later. And then it arrived. On the 89th minute, Samuel Eto’o was staring at an open goal from about five meters as the ball was player across the front of the goal to his feet. You could hear hearts sinking for the Bianconeri fans at the sight of their team (once again) throwing away a deserved victory at the death in a match that, win or lose, might define the rest of their season. As the ball struck the crossbar they could hardly believe their eyes; it was a one in a million miss from someone like Eto’o. But as always, one needs to earn one’s good fortune and Juventus were the deserved winners with a well thought-out and professionally executed performance.
Juventus start with an interesting application of their usual 4-4-2 formation
One of the main reasons for Juve’s inconsistent performances in the autumn was that their wide midfielders were used in overtly attacking roles. They often played really high up the pitch which means that there is acres of space behind them for the opposition to exploit. When you add the fact into the equation that Juve have few natural full-backs who can actually defend (Marco Motta and Fabio Grosso are good going forward, but often in trouble at their own end), it is no wonder that Juve often both scored and conceded goals at will.
Luigi Delneri’s remedy for this problem has been two-fold. Firstly, the wide midfielders (Claudio Marchisio has been switched from the centre to the left, playing in a more central role than Simone Pepe) play deeper and go forward with more restraint. And secondly, Juve’s attacking full-backs have been replaced with defensive ones (Giorgio Chiellini, who took over at left-back after Andrea Barzagli’s arrival, and Frederik Sorensen are both centre-backs by profession). By changing a natural winger to a centre midfielder and attacking full-backs to central defenders, the tactical change might seem overtly defensive. However, Marchisio played on the left last season and even if he is not a full tilt dribbler by nature, the 25-year-old Juventus youth product is a highly intelligent and dynamic player. Also, Chiellini did play at left back at the start of his career and when the occasion arose on Sunday he went forward with gusto (even if his crossing was disappointing). So in the end, what this tactical shuffle by Delneri has actually done is that after having lost some of their gung-ho attacking intent, Juve have gained needed defensive cohesion and balance in their overall play.
Juve’s tactical plan works to disarm Inter in the first half, their defensive grip holds in the second
The strength and tactical flexibility of this new strategy was perfectly on show on Sunday as Delneri worked out a game plan to stop Inter from playing the flowing football they have showcased recently. Two key areas were under scrutiny: ‘the hole’ and flanks. First of all, Juve made sure Wesley Sneijder was kept fairly quiet all evening. This meant that when Inter had possession, Felipe Melo sat deep in front of the centre-backs with Alberto Aquilani providing cover and Marchisio moving into a central position. Juve were, therefore, basically playing with a narrow three-man centre midfield and with a defensive shape that moved fluidly to create triangular shapes around an Inter player with possession. By taking out Sneijder, Juve not only cut off the supply to Giampaolo Pazzini (who plays in a more central, spearheading role than Eto’o) but also Javier Zanetti and Maicon.
Juve’s defensive shape worked well to take out both full-backs, even when there was space on the flanks at times due to Juve’s narrow shape, because in the absence of wide midfielders Inter are often reliant on their full-backs to create width when they attack. So with the Juve midfield sitting deep, Inter found it hard to attack through the centre with the pace they need to maximise the effect of the marauding full-backs. Therefore, even if Marchisio’s position in the centre left space open on the right, Maicon rarely dared to go forward in the fear of leaving his flank wide open for Juve’s counter-attacks in the case if they lost the ball in the build-up. For the same reason and because of Milos Krasic’s slightly more advanced position, Zanetti (and often Esteban Cambiasso) was pinned back on the other flank.
In an attacking sense Juve’s approach was not the subtlest at the start of the game. They often played long balls towards the physical front two (Alessandro Matri and Luca Toni) who put in a huge effort not only battling for the long balls but by retrieving possession and harassing the defenders. As momentum shifted to the home side, however, Juve started using the ball better on the ground. Aquilani, playing in a deep playmaker role, controlled the rhythm well with his intelligent passing that accommodated the movement of Juve’s attacking collective. The full-backs (Chiellini especially) also ventured forward at times and the winning goal came courtesy of a well-timed run and a perfectly executed cross by the right back Sorensen. In the build-up Krasic drew both Zanetti and Cambiasso towards him deep in the Inter half and this way created space for the Danish defender to go forward. The Serb then played a simple pass backwards to Sorensen who provided a pinpoint cross between the Inter centre-backs (Ivan Cordoba and Andrea Ranocchia) which Matri finished with a professional header (his third strike in as many games). It was a perfect example of a simple build-up where your own tactical plan works to perfection against the opposition’s.
In the second half, Inter came on a lot stronger. On the hour mark Leonardo reacted further by bringing on Goran Pandev in place of the anonymous Houssine Kharja and shifted into a 4-3-3. This change worked to stretch Juve’s narrow defensive shape and the home side gradually crept into siege mode. What started out as a game Juve controlled comfortably was beginning to slip away from their fingers as player after another tired and others picked up knocks (Melo and Matri, who had to stay on despite injury). Gianluigi Buffon had to make a couple of match-winning saves to keep the home team in the game and, after some resolute defending, Juve held on. They can only hope that this victory will mark the way for a successful spring campaign.
Derby della Lanterna: visitors Genoa come on top in season’s first Genoa derby
City rivals Sampdoria and Genoa put in a highly entertaining show in an early evening midweek fixture. The match was a much-anticipated break from routine after what has been a disappointing season for both teams. Sampdoria were knocked out of Europe already in the group stages of the Europa League, and after some terrible recent form (largely due to losing Antonio Cassano and Pazzini) they have slipped to the lower half of the table. Genoa had started the season with great expectations but had soon found themselves bogged down in the mid-table anonymity. Since neither team have much to expect from the rest of the season, both were relishign the opportunity to put one over their city rivals.
The match itself (despite a dreadful pitch and a 0-1 scoreline) was a captivating and open affair with both teams preferring proactivity over caution. Genoa took the initiative and had a string of chances already during the first ten minutes of the match, the best arriving on the 7th minute as Rodrigo Palacio hit the bar from inside the box. After being run over by the visitors early on, the home side gradually stared getting some foothold as well. Their first opportunity, and their best in the game, opened in the 13th minute as Stefano Guberti snaked his way through the Genoa defense inside the penalty area but was denied by Genoa goalkeeper Eduardo (who, after some shaky performances, really redeemed himself in the eyes of the Genoa fans in the biggest game of the season). Both teams had plenty of chances to score but, in the end, it was Rafinha’s wonderstrike on the 55th minute that separated the city rivals.
Meanwhile around Italy:
On Saturday, Roma looked like starting a spring slump (as we now know that they also lost 3-2 to Shaktar Donetsk at home in the Champions League) in a bad-tempered 2-0 home defeat in the Derby del Sud against Napoli (you guessed it, Edison Cavani scored both goals for Napoli and has now 20 in total).
The match between Palermo and Fiorentina on Sunday must have been one of the strangest affairs all season. Palermo were the better and more balanced side for most of the match but somehow, without an explicit reason, imploded and concede three times during the last twenty minutes, ending up at the wrong end of a 2-4 scoreline against a team that hadn’t won away all season.