Fresh off of the first international break of the season, Juventus returned to action and faced Fiorentina in what turned out to be another early season battle.
This battle, however, did not mirror the seven-goal thriller with Napoli from two weeks ago. Instead, Juventus and Fiorentina delivered a sluggish and lethargic contest that ended in a 0-0 stalemate.
Juve had hoped to deliver a win for coach Maurizio Sarri in his first game on the sidelines but unfortunately, the Bianconeri were unable to garner many goalscoring opportunities against a sturdy Fiorentina side.
Passive Juventus play into Fiorentina’s hands
If you were to tell any coach that their side would hold a team that features Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain to a grand total of just two shots in the box for the entire game, they would be thrilled.
This is what Vincenzo Montella’s side accomplished on Saturday. For the entirety of the match, Fiorentina embedded a game plan that worked to near perfection. In contrast, Juventus simply looked like a shell of themselves.
Juventus made just one change from the win against Napoli, as Danilo came in at right back. Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira formed the midfield trio for Sarri in his conventional 4-3-3 formation, that also switched to a 4-4-2 when needed.
On the other hand, Fiorentina lined up in a 3-5-2 formation that switched to a 5-3-2 when out of possession. The framework for Montella’s side involved pitting Franck Ribery and Federico Chiesa upfront as the two main forwards. But the main component to this set up centered around wingbacks Dalbert and Pol Lirola.
Their workrate and influence in both the attack and defence became a significant factor in deciding just how much success the Viola would have in their risky 3-5-2 setup.
A staple of success for any team operating under a 3-5-2 is just how effective they are when out of possession. For Fiorentina, this translated into how the team positioned themselves along with how they maintained balanced spacing across the pitch under their 5-3-2 setup when Juventus had the ball.
For example, we can clearly see that Fiorentina have their five at the back, a trio of midfielders surrounding the ball carrier and both forwards upfront. La Viola consistently kept this set up throughout the game.
From the opening minutes of the contest, it was clear as day just how Fiorentina were going to approach Juventus.
First, they strived to prevent the Bianconeri from progressing the ball into the final third through the flanks. Juventus had the potential to push play upfield through the pace of their two full backs in Alex Sandro and Danilo. The two were also capable of driving downfield with 2v1 link up plays with either a winger or midfielder – a tactic that worked effectively against Napoli.
How exactly did Fiorentina manage to execute this plan and limit the activity of Juventus’ full-backs? Montella instructed his team to run daunted pressing triggers – a tactic centered on swarming multiple players to press when a specific player receives the ball or when possession is at a certain area of the pitch.
In Fiorentina’s case, they unleashed pressing triggers when Juventus were looking to build play from the flanks.
When effectively executed, this tactic provided Fiorentina with numerical superiority on the pitch, thus giving them a man advantage when they executed these pressing triggers. For example, if play was moving down the right flank, Ribery, Dalbert and Caceres would all move out of their lines to potentially create a 3v2 advantage and either press the ball carrier or shadow potential passing lanes.
See here how Fiorentina responded when Juventus were attempting to build up play from the flanks. With Costa in possession out wide, Fiorentina executed a pressing trigger. It worked as planned with three players surrounding Costa with the team subsequently winning back possession within seconds. This was due to Costa’s limited passing options since a Fiorentina player was closely positioned to the nearest Juventus player.
And here, Fiorentina formed a 3v3 out wide on the left flank. Fiorentina do not have numerical superiority, but they are in position to press and mark each of the three Juve players. Also, Khedira made a run into the box but was immediately met with pressure from a Fiorentina player thanks to their aggressiveness in limiting movement out wide.
This tactic had one simple goal: deprive Juventus of open space down the flanks.
Against Napoli, Juventus enjoyed more room to operate in the wide areas and move into the final third in either on the counter or through quick transitions. But this was not the case against Fiorentina.
With the flexibility and spacing of the 5-3-2, Montella used it to his utmost strength by clogging up room out wide. In some instances, this tactic evolved into a makeshift of an overload, where they had more players on one side of the ball than Juve did.
In essence, Fiorentina were relentless in trapping and pinning Juve on the flanks.
And to make matters worse for Juventus, Costa left the game early on due to injury. So, the team were without a speedy threat that has a reputation in fiercely challenging full backs on the dribble.
Now, the other tactic Fiorentina used was seemingly predictable considering their use of a 5-3-2 setup. To prevent Juventus from barging into the box through the centre, Fiorentina operated under a low block system; it is also known as parking the bus.
Fiorentina did not go to the extreme by piling up every outfield player deep into the box as it would inevitably lessen their ability in orchestrating their pressing trigger tactic. Instead, they based their setup on Juve’s positioning.
As shown below, Fiorentina are set up in a narrow 5-3-2 which left space out wide since Juve were not threatening from the flanks. Fiorentina’s goal here is to congest the amount of space in the center. Even though Matuidi passed into this area for his Juve teammate to move into, the player was immediately met with an organized deep low block in the box.
Fiorentina also added elements of a high press and a man-marking system but for the most part, they remained true to the game plan of trapping the flanks and clogging up space in the centre.
Sarri’s response to Fiorentina’s set up was essentially non-existent
The defending Serie A champions lacked the ability to transition from defense to attack on a consistent basis through their full-backs and midfielders. They were unable to get into open space or into the box which would have opened up passing lanes or outlets of space for teammates to exploit.
Overall, the lack of production from the midfielders caused a domino effect that impacted others on the pitch. Ronaldo and Higuain both were seemingly marked out of the game and had little to no activity impact in the final third. Both players combined for a mere three total touches in the box – a low figure considering their prowess as forwards when on the ball. Neither was able to drop deep into open space nor was any midfielder willing to link up with them for a quick passing sequence.
With the inability to move the ball between the lines, Juve’s midfielders continued to push play out to the flanks instead of through the centre, taking the middle approach just 22 percent of the time.
Juve’s stubborn play from the midfield ultimately cost the team a potential away win. Without an aggressive approach to push play through the centre, Juve became predictable and effortless to defend.
The Bianconeri just continued to play into Fiorentina’s game plan and they desperately struggled to find a link between the midfield and the attacking trio.
As shown below, Matuidi is in possession of the ball but not in an optimal area of the pitch a coach would prefer their midfielder be in given the lack of presence in between the opponent’s lines. And as a result, the attacking trio were often isolated throughout the game.
Comparing Juve’s approach against Fiorentina to how they performed against Napoli is like watching two completely different teams. In their duel with Napoli, Juve were able to string together multiple passes, moving the ball into the final third. More importantly, Juve created goalscoring opportunities from quick transitions and counters at the expense of open space left by Napoli. But against Fiorentina, all of this was seemingly not part of their tactical approach.
What can Sarri takeaway from the fixture?
Juve were certainly fortunate to come away with a draw considering Fiorentina recorded 12 shots in the box and were a constant threat with their quick counters.
Nonetheless, Sarri has more questions than answers after an underwhelming outing. First, he must determine just which two players will be best suited to play alongside Pjanic to form the midfield trio in the team’s setup. Khedira and Matuidi found success in a quicker tempo against Napoli, but the duo were lethargic against Fiorentina. Sarri had Rabiot and Ramsey as options on the bench but did not use either.
Secondly, Juve must look for other options to build up play rather than continue to put a high emphasis on the flanks. Overlapping runs and movements into space can effectively open the floodgates in the attacking third, but when teams like Fiorentina operate with pressing triggers on the flanks, Juve must switch their focus to building up pay from the center and half-spaces.
The team will certainly face another critical test in facing a 3-5-2 next month when they meet Inter. Needless to say, Sarri will certainly have much to analyse when he reviews and goes over just what went wrong in this fixture.