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Juventus FC: Is Antonio Conte to Blame for Recent Struggles?

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Juventus FC: Is Antonio Conte to Blame for Recent Struggles?
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How quickly things can turn in football.

Less than three weeks ago, every analyst from Los Angeles to Tokyo was heaping praise on Juventus. The Old Lady had started the 2013-14 season on fire, blowing the competition for the Serie A title out of the water. Lazio were humiliated 4-1 by a dominant Juve outfit, and no one in Italy doubted that Antonio Conte's men would cruise to a third consecutive scuddeto.

Then came the game against Internazionale.

A 1-1 draw against a fierce rival is never a bad result, but the manner in which the Bianconeri played was far from convincing. That game was followed by a string of mediocre performances against the likes of FC Copenhagen, Verona, Chievo, Torino and Galatasaray. Those are not exactly world-class opponents, but Juventus struggled greatly to break down each and every one of them.

Looking at the Serie A table, you probably wouldn't even notice that there might be a problem. Juve stand third with 16 points with five wins in six matches. 

With the exception of the game against Internazionale, Juve have beaten every team they've faced so far. But the Bianconeri were the beneficiaries of bad calls from the officials in back-to-back games (against Chievo and Torino) and needed a lot of luck in the close 2-1 win over Verona.

The situation in the UEFA Champions League is more worrisome.

After an underwhelming performance in Denmark and an even worse one in Turin, Juve already trail Real Madrid by four points in Group B and will have to beat both Copenhagen and Galatasary in the return fixtures in order to qualify from what should have been an easy group.

Defensively, the Bianconeri look shaky.

The back line is making too many mistakes and Gianluigi Buffon isn't helping with a few uncharacteristic blunders. On the other side of the pitch, Carlos Tevez and company are still scoring goals, but they are taking for too many chances to do so.

So, it would be easy to point the finger at the players, right? Well, some people disagree.

This is what Carlo Garganese, one of the better analysts when it comes to Italian football, tweeted out after the game against Galatasaray

Given that just two years ago we were all hailing Antonio Conte for his tactical brilliance in his utilisation of the 3-5-2, this might seem like a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Conte understands tactics, and he has shown he's not afraid to mix things up if the results are falling in his team's favour.

The problem is, he does it too late.

Watch the highlights of Juventus' beatdown of Lazio earlier this season, and look closely at the team's first three goals. Each and every one comes from a well-placed ball over the top and a perfectly timed run from either Arturo Vidal or Mirko Vucinic.

With players like Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Pirlo capable of dropping any pass on a dime, the long ball can be a phenomenal weapon for Juventus and one that was a little underused last season. At the start of this season, it was clearly working, and with players like Tevez, Vucinic and Vidal, Conte decided to stick with it.

In the past few weeks, it has seemed at times like the long ball was the team's only weapon.

On any given play, Paul Pogba and Andrea Pirlo would try dropping the ball behind the defensive line to make use of the athletic ability of the strikers. But the other teams aren't run by idiots. As soon as it became clear that the long ball was Juve's new preferred method of attack, the opposition responded. 

Teams like Torino and Galatasaray came out with a soft zone defense, choosing to wait for the ball-carrier to come to them as opposed to attacking the ball. Pulling up a double wall of defensive players in front of goal severely limits the space around and in the box, not allowing the strikers to make any runs.

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Torino and Galatasaray chose to counter Juve's attack this way in back-to-back games, and twice the Bianconeri were perplexed. The result was a whole lot of possession around the opponent's box, but very little movement and almost no good chances on goal. 

Does the blame for this rest with Conte? Absolutely.

You could argue that players like Pirlo and Pogba are simply too good to let such a double wall mess with their game so much, but there simply isn't a player in the world who could work in the centre of the pitch with so much traffic in front of goal.

When a team stacks the box, the answer can usually be found out on the wing. Against Verona, Fernando Llorente broke the deadlock with a goal that came from a cross. The same happened against Chievo, with Alessandro Bernardini deviating the ball into his own net. Fabio Quagliarella's headed goal against Galatasaray is another example.

So you'd expect Conte to tell his players to keep exploiting the space out on the wings, right? Well, you'd be mistaken.

Time and time again, the Bianconeri attempted to force the ball down the middle of the park, with the predictable results. Instead of shifting to a 4-3-3, Conte stayed with his base 3-5-2 far too long and played right into what the opponents were doing.

That's simply bad coaching.

Juventus are too good a team to struggle against inferior competition like this, and one has to wonder what the likes of AC Milan and Real Madrid can do against a unit that is currently playing well below its capabilities. The Bianconeri have the quality to hang with anyone in Europe, but in order to do so, the team will have to play smarter. And that starts at the top.

As a coach, there is nothing wrong with admitting that what you're trying to do isn't working. The best coaches are those who can change their approach on the fly and are willing to do so if the situation calls for it. In these past few weeks, Antonio Conte wasn't that coach.

And on Wednesday against Galatasaray, it cost his team the win.

 

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