Juventus 0-1 Empoli
Juventus were largely disappointing last season. There aren’t many Juventus fans or Serie A fans who will disagree with that claim. Juventus hired an inexperienced manager and coach to get the squad playing a more modern style of football. Pirlo’s playing philosophy required his players to press high and aggressively, to be capable of playing out from defense, to dominate possession and create chances with free flowing, fluid players.
What Juventus got last season was directionless pressing (and managing), mediocre tactics during the build up phase and an overreliance on the now departed Cristiano Ronaldo who was more of a hindrance than anything. Their most recent match against newly promoted Empoli is a hint that the issues from last season are far from resolved.
Empoli have been closely followed by many football hipsters, of which I am not, during their Serie B title win. This was my first time watching Empoli and I was largely surprised by the quality of play in all phases. I was most impressed by their abilities to play out from defense and aggressive pressing. Their style of pressing and defending is a mix of zonal and man-oriented; it was effective at keeping Juventus from creating high quality chances.
Speaking of the quality of chances, the xG for both teams was Juventus 1.5 - 0.8 Empoli (FBRef). Most of the chances created by Juventus were from outside the box, forcing goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario to make a few saves. Otherwise, Juventus seldom worked the ball into Empoli’s penalty area. Empoli’s chance creation came from playing deep in their own half to draw a Juventus press, then playing in a direct style of play once they have drawn in enough players.
This tactical analysis will take a deeper look at exactly how Empoli were able to beat Juventus, and why Juventus seemed so directionless.
The only issue with this Juventus starting eleven is that there is no “focal point”, there is no one player who leads the line. This was an issue because possession for Juventus was often directionless. Dybala was often as deep as Rabiot or Bentancur while Chiesa led the line instead. McKennie was reduced to man-marking Ricci or Bandinelli, and when in possession, looked lost. The midfield trio certainly did not do any favours for Juventus; more on that later.
Empoli, to my understanding, played their strongest team and it showed. The only change from last week was Romagnoli out for Luperto. Otherwise, it was hard to see blatant weaknesses from Empoli in this match. As the season goes on and as Empoli play better teams, the cracks may reveal themselves, if any.
The below image shows how Empoli played out from defense for a majority of the game. One of Ricci or Bandinelli, but mostly Ricci, would drop deep to just above the penalty area. The centre-backs would split as wide as the penalty area and as deep as the goal line. Juventus pressed in a 4-3-1-2 shape, so Dybala and Chiesa would need to split wide to be able to press the Empoli central defenders Ismajili and Luperto.
The problems begin immediately when one of Bentancur or McKennie needs to join the press and cover the dropping Bandinelli in the below image. Once Empoli notice Juventus commit another player to the press, another Empoli midfielder drops deeper to keep numerical superiority in the first third. In this example, it’s Ricci dropping second and is followed by McKennie.
Juventus leave space behind the press in the middle third. Empoli would exploit this by using their goalkeeper to pass to one of Ricci or Bandinelli who would then pass to either Luperto or Ismajili. Due to how deep and wide the Empoli centre-backs are, the space behind the Juventus press grows larger the more aggressive they press. The players most often used in this space were the fullbacks: Marchizza and Stojanovic.
In just three passes Empoli can take four, up to five Juventus players out of the game by moving the ball from the goalkeeper, to Bandinelli, to a split center-back and then finally to a fullback who moves into the vacant space. Eventually Juventus would change their pressing scheme. Rabiot and Bentancur were played in more advanced roles to help Sandro and Cuadrado defend the Empoli fullbacks. However, when faced with a problem Empoli had a solution, a common theme for Empoli in this match.
Empoli would move to a more traditional set up from goal kicks. The central defenders would remain on top of the penalty area with Ricci sitting deeper to draw McKennie who man-marked him frequently. Haas and Bandinelli would drop deeper into the first third in the left and right half-spaces, drawing the attention of Rabiot and Bentancur. The Empoli forwards would then take up wider roles, Cutrone on the left and Mancuso on the right.
Empoli secured the attention of Juventus in the central areas so that they could exploit the wide areas as seen in the image above. Vicario was encouraged to play long passes over the top to his fullbacks who had taken up positions close to the halfway line where one of them would be able to win headers to flick on to the arriving wide forward. If Vicario saw that his team struggled to beat the Juventus press with short passes, he would try to beat the press with long passes.
There were no clear examples of what was trying to be accomplished by the Juventus press. At times Chiesa led the press, others Dybala, and others McKennie. This constant change in press “leader” led Juventus to several uncoordinated pressing attempts, of which Empoli took advantage. Empoli’s centre-backs would frequently use the ballsided fullback as a passing option during their build up phase after goal kicks or when recycling possession.
Both teams played a 4-3-1-2 or 4-4-2 diamond. This is relevant because when Juventus presses, the ball sided forward, Chiesa in the example below, presses the centre-back, while the ball sided central midfielder, Rabiot, presses the fullback. This now forces McKennie to either mark or press two players at once, giving Stojanovic two central passing options to use once he receives the ball.
The idea mentioned above was not exclusive to the right side. Empoli did not commit to using just one flank and would change sides of attack frequently. Below we see Dybala pressing the centre-back passing option Luperto while Bentancur presses Marchizza. Mckennie is sitting quite deep but is covering Haas.
However, Ricci finds space. The Juventus players are out of position, which is why the press is being executed so poorly. Bentancur is not a centre-forward or any kind of forward for that matter. When players are out of their natural positions but attempt to maintain a press, it leads to easy space exploitation if the press is beaten.
Below we see the effects of players who are out of their natural positions when pressing. It was clear that Juventus wanted to maintain their diamond structure when defending, they tried to go man for man against the Empoli midfield. The issue is that when you press as aggressively as Juventus are trying to, the shape begins to change which leads to space Empoli can exploit.
When Ricci received the ball he had a forward vertical passing option in Cutrone, who often dropped between the Juventus midfield and defensive lines. This pass becomes playable because Juventus were not fast enough to regain their shape after an unsuccessful press. If Ricci could not use Cutrone, he would switch the side of the attack to Stojanovic.
These attacking ideas were not exclusive to one side of the pitch, as mentioned before. Mancuso and Cutrone are both capable of dropping between the midfield and defensive lines, while both fullbacks are capable of attacking on either flank. Empoli always had options after beating Juventus’s directionless running.
When in the final third, Empoli would press with a “front three” of Cutrone, Mancuso and Bajrami. Bajrami's responsibility was to man-mark Danilo. When Juventus played out from defense they would have both fullbacks in advanced areas while the centre-backs remained relatively close to the goalkeeper.
With Danilo man-marked out of the build up phase, Juventus did not use either Bentancur or Rabiot to drop deeper to help. The plan for Juventus was to move the ball to a center-back, then the ball sided fullback and finally to an inside central midfielder. This was problematic because Empoli’s midfield three would man-mark Juventus’s midfield three, eliminating the use of any central passing options.
Reluctant to change, Juventus struggled to beat Empoli’s press. Juventus was reduced to long passes over the top to either Chiesa or Dybala, who struggled to win the second and third ball. With Cutrone and Mancuso pressing the centre-backs, and Bajrami marking Danilo, there were few high quality passing options for Juventus to use. This problem persisted for the entire match, which shows that Juventus don’t know of other strategies to use when playing out from defense, or are not confident in their abilities to execute them.
Juventus struggled to move the ball between the thirds because there were no passing options to use. As seen below, the Empoli forwards and Bajrami stay in advanced positions to prevent Juventus from going backwards.
Haas and Ricci are able to press or cover central passing options. Marchizza, the left fullback, is encouraged to step up from the backline to be better positioned to press the oncoming Bentancur.
This strategy could be seen on the opposite flank as well. Instead of Haas pressing, it would be Bandinelli, and instead of Marchizza stepping forward, it would be Stojanovic. The only constant is Ricci who had the responsibility of tracking the deepest passing option for Juventus.
In the rare case that Juventus did get forward, Empoli welcomed crosses from Sandro or Cuadrado. The Empoli defenders were capable ball winners when competing with Chiesa, Dybala or McKennie. When in the final third, Juventus would have either McKennie or Dybala move into the spaces between the ball sided centre-back and fullback.
This was quickly snuffed out by one of Haas or Bandinelli who would mark either of Dybala or McKennie, depending on the side of play. Dybala was often found quite deep, operating in a more traditional number ten role. This offered very little to Juventus, but screamed of a team without a creative player.
Juventus were very poor in this match. The midfield offered very little going forward in terms of creativity, and it lacked the workmanlike presence that might have made up for a lack of footballing IQ. WIth no real focal point until Morata came on, Juventus looked lost when in possession. It seems like a case of not knowing who to get the ball too. Chiesa and Dybala are talented forward players, but were not used well.
Empoli are disciplined from top to bottom. On top of that, they play exciting football with exciting players and outmatched Juventus in every phase of play. This was an excellent team performance, Empoli is greater than the sum of its parts.
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I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___