Traditionally, and correctly, Juventus have been viewed as one of the finest defensive sides in Europe.
For the best part of seven years, they have conceded fewer goals than anyone else in Serie A, a record for the most part enabled by the fearsome foursome of legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and his three-man protective shield of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
The Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini trident was the first defensive setup to earn its own acronym – the BBC, like Barcelona’s MSN, were renowned across the continent. The middle letter has since left – Bonucci, surprisingly, departed for Milan last summer – but the image of Juventus as masters without the ball remains deeply ingrained.
Italian football has historically been associated with exceptional defending, so it makes sense that Juventus, for over half a decade Italy’s best team, is seen first and foremost as defensively supreme. Their centre-backs celebrate blocks and clearances, clean sheets are obtained with machine-like consistency, and victories almost always follow. But there is more to this Juventus than great defence.
This season, Massimiliano Allegri’s side have hit three goals or more in just under half of their league fixtures, averaging 2.5 goals per game. Overall, they have found the net 61 times, more than any of their rivals in Italy’s top flight. Only three teams in Europe’s major five leagues have scored more on average: Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Barcelona.
If goals are any measurement of footballing entertainment, and to most people they are, Juventus are in beautiful company. The attacking games of PSG, Manchester City and Barcelona are lauded, every weekend brings a new GIF or highlight reel. And yet Juventus cannot shake their reductive defensive label.
Perhaps their versatility is what prevents them from being embraced by the neutral as warmly as their Parisian, Mancunian and Catalan counterparts. While most of the truly iconic attacks are tethered to specific systems and styles – think Manchester City and Napoli’s versions of 4-3-3 – Allegri’s Juventus are a flexible outfit. Their adaptability is a strength, allowing them to adjust to almost any situation, often while a match is taking place. Unfortunately, it also robs them of a clearly defined tactical identity.
This practicality is a sign of something the football purists simply cannot stand: Result-ism. And, in fairness, Juventus are obsessed with results. In a recent 2-0 win away to Fiorentina, they changed formation just after the hour mark, bringing on an extra centre-back for a full-back in order to shore things up and prevent any chance of a fightback from the home side. It worked, but it wasn’t the prettiest way to see out the win.
However, for a club whose entire reputation is built on an obsession with silverware, the Turinese giants regularly prove themselves capable of stunning attacking play. It all starts, ironically, from the back, where Giorgio Chiellini acts as ball-carrier extraordinaire. Few centre-backs in the world are more astute than the grizzled Italian in this respect. His driving forward runs into midfield are among the most majestic sights Serie A has to offer, and that’s saying something.
Chiellini’s marauds aren’t without thought, of course. The aim here is to provoke pressure from a conservative opposition defence. Juventus often have to overcome low blocks, particularly at home in domestic action, but they are aided in breaking through the middle third by Miralem Pjanic’s cultured right foot.
The Bosnian playmaker has, over time, essentially filled the hole left by Andrea Pirlo’s departure. He displays similar mannerisms to the bearded former regista – he shuffles rather than sprints, moves with a subtle constancy, varies his position intelligently, can pick out a team-mate anywhere on the pitch and is an unerringly accurate taker of set pieces.
But, as good as Chiellini and Pjanic are at progressing the ball, they need players to whom they can distribute. This is where the forward raids of the central midfielders come in handy. It’s generally accepted that Juventus play their best stuff in a 4-3-3 system, within which Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi provide penetrative, line-breaking runs. This is a particularly underrated facet of Khedira’s game. Not only does he consistently find space in dangerous areas, but he often times his runs to perfection – it’s no coincidence that his league goals rate since moving to Italy stands at a highly respectable one per 4.25 games.
Up front, Gonzalo Higuain is more than the brutish, old-fashioned centre-forward he resembles physically. His main function is to score goals, but he is also willing and able to drop deep and link play. And his fellow Argentine, Paulo Dybala, is one of the most nimble, assured and difficult-to-mark forwards around. The 24-year-old has been compared with Lionel Messi on account of his cultured left foot, smooth control and creativity. He also scores plenty of goals – 17 in 29 appearances across all competitions this season so far.
Most importantly, more than a mere collection of individuals, Allegri’s players operate cohesively as a team. The same patterns re-appear in their attacks. The central midfielders drop deep diagonally into the inside channels when the full-backs push forward, Khedira times his forward runs to coincide with Dybala’s receiving the ball.
Juventus are an outstanding defensive side, but their offensive game is equally worthy of praise. For the economy and synchronicity of their movement and the efficacy of their passing and finishing, they deserve more aesthetic appreciation.
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