Like the proverbial Phoenix, Juventus has risen from the Calciopoli ashes. Hardest hit by the Italian football scandal that revealed itself in 2006, the club has withered the storm of demotion and humiliation to become Italy’s finest football club once more.
Much of this has to do with Antonio Conte.
The former Juventus midfielder returned in the summer of 2011 to manage the Old Lady. In the two seasons prior to his return, Juventus had finished seventh on both occasions. In the two seasons since, Conte has made them champions of Italy. In one, they even went the whole season unbeaten.
With that has come the return to the Champions League. As such, it is an enigma that Italy’s most successful club domestically has only two European Cups to its name. If Conte is to change that, he must also change much more.
Because his first foray into the Champions League last season was a mixed one. Certainly, the start was auspicious with three draws in the first three games. This, coupled with the six draws in their last outing in a European competition (the Group Stages of the 2010-2011 Europa League) meant that Juventus had drawn nine consecutive games in Europe.
That changed slightly when three wins in the next three games secured passage to the knock out rounds. Invariably, the last 16 tie against Celtic was easily manoeuvred.
But Juventus met their match in the next round against Bayern Munich. The eventual champions would outplay and outrun them. Against opponents of quality, Juve could not cope.
It showed as a lack of intensity let them down. As such, Bayern were quicker and stronger. The tempo was unlike what Juventus was used to. Their formation as well came under serious scrutiny. Conte’s 3-5-2 was stretched, with midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo unable to orchestrate as he is used to. The wing-backs eventually became overwhelmed by the sheer power of opposition wingers, and at times, opposition full backs.
Conte thus must re-think his strategy because while Juve have been on the rise, the effects of Calciopoli are still having effects in the Serie A.
It is no longer the great League it used to be before the turn of the century. Its reputation smeared, its finances dwindling and subsequently its finest players leaving. As such, it no longer possesses the quality it used to. In turn, the intensity and tempo has gone that many notches lower.
It is why as a whole all Italian clubs have suffered recently in the face of fast paced teams in European competitions. Italy meanwhile has slowly slid down the UEFA co-efficient rankings.
For Juventus as well, it has meant that a 3-5-2 that is rendered obsolete by other top teams remains a mainstay. While it works in Italy, it is subject to different problems in European competitions.
The reason this formation works in Italy is because most teams do not use width. Thus in the 3-5-2, you have wing backs who rectify this. However, against a classic 4-2-3-1 (which is the formation most teams use nowadays), the wing backs get overwhelmed when facing the winger/full back combination. At the same time, it becomes a bit superfluous to have three defenders marking one striker – meaning resources are overused in one area thus the simple chain effect is that they will be underused somewhere else.
In a way therefore, Italy is in an idiosyncrasy of its own – disconnected from tactical developments happening elsewhere in Europe. Because of that, and because of the weakness of the league as a whole, a false sense of superiority has grown for Juve.
The sooner Conte realises this, the better. For him, it must be difficult to change a winning formula. But that is what he must do.
Of course, this will not be entirely new to him. His previous job at Siena had seen him utilise a dynamic 4-2-4 that almost seemed to resemble the 4-4-2 that Arsene Wenger used in his earlier Arsenal managerial career. It was also expected that he would use that formation when he initially joined Juve. That was until Pirlo signed for the bianconeri and it became clear that Pirlo was not going to be used in a two man central midfield if ever he wanted to get the best out of him.
Switching to three at the back not only allowed Juve accommodation of more midfielders — it also allowed accommodation of Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli who were three very good center backs at their prime. Of late however, a combination of injuries, loss of form and ageing legs has meant that Barzagli especially makes that defensive trident not as strong as it used to. If ever there is time to experiment with reverting to a four man defence, it is now.
Tactical tinkering is something Italian managers are fond of and if Conte is to get the best out of Juve in the Champions League, it is what he must do. Otherwise, his current setup may only overcome teams of lesser quality. It cannot match up against teams of equal or superior quality.
[image courtesy of zimbio]