Unlike last year's debacle against Bayern Munich, the Bianconeri went into the Bernabeu and put together a complete and competitive game—only to fall by the slimmest of margins, with some shady officiating being the decisive factor in the outcome.
You've heard and read all about the blatant dive that led to Giorgio Chiellini's red card and the dive that wasn't (per 101greatgoals.com), and there's no point in dwelling on the past. Moving forward, there is only one thing Juve's coaching staff should remember from this game: The 4-3-3 is a viable option—and one that should be exercised more often.
After tinkering wit his formation for the majority of his first season with the club, Antonio Conte eventually settled on a 3-5-2 that allowed him to make full use of the three quality centre-backs he had at his disposal in Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli.
We saw the rise of the MVP-triangle in Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo that matched up well with just about any opponent in Europe. We were introduced to the human metronome that is Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right wing.
The 3-5-2 works because it overpowers the lesser competition in the Italian Serie A and allows for a bigger presence around the opponents' box as opposed to the 4-3-3 and the 4-3-2-1, systems that are used more prevalently in the other European leagues.
The system helped hide the team's lack of quality play at the striker position by putting Marchisio and Vidal in scoring positions more often.
It effectively led the team to consecutive league titles.
But we started to see cracks in the armor toward the conclusion of last season, and those cracks are starting to widen.
The emergence of Paul Pogba was the first real problem.
With the MVP-midfield pretty much set in stone and the French youngster showing too much promise to be wasted on the bench, Antonio Conte was forced to tweak his formation to accommodate four star midfielders as opposed to three, shifting to a 3-4-1-1.
The results were mixed at best.
Claudio Marchisio does his best work as a utility player in midfield, and his diverse skill set was wasted in a more advanced role.
Then there was the pounding the team took from Bayern Munich, the eventual winners of the UEFA Champions League. The Bavarians exposed a fatal flaw in the 3-5-2 by taking full advantage of the matchups out on the wing.
With quality players at both the wing-back position (David Alaba and Phillip Lahm) and in a more advanced role (Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben), Bayern simply had a numbers advantage over Juve's two wingers. It's no coincidence both Ribery and Robben played their best games of the season against the Bianconeri: Give any top player this much space to work with, and they will shine.
The final domino to fall was the arrival of two new strikers in Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez. While the latter has the versatility to play in any system known to mankind, the former is restricted to playing in a central role and requires a steady feed of crosses from the wings to be successful.
Up until the game against Real, Coach Conte had stuck with his beloved 3-5-2 with mixed results, and given the mediocre results of the previous weeks and the embarrassing loss to Fiorentina last weekend, he decided to change things up for the clash with Madrid.
Chiellini moved to a traditional central role, Bonucci was dropped from the squad and Angelo Ogbonna and Martin Caceres were introduced to give the team a basic four-man defense. Llorente was given the start in a central role, with Pogba and Tevez given the freedom to roam behind him.
The MVP-midfield remained intact, and the final result was a fairly traditional 4-3-3.
And it worked.
The score might have been 2-1 in favour of Madrid at the half, but it didn't reflect what we saw on the pitch. Real put little pressure on the Juve defense and took full advantage of two individual errors when Caceres played Christiano Ronaldo onside for the first goal and Sergio Ramos was pulled down inside the box for the second.
Ronaldo, in particular, was kept unusually quiet during the first half, courtesy of a fine performance from the criminally underrated Caceres.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bianconeri were able to muster a handful of good chances against one of the better defenses in world football and moved the ball almost at will. The team made full use of the spaces out on the wing, and a constant stream of crosses toward Llorente put real pressure on the Spanish back line, ultimately resulting in a goal.
All of this was done with two underused wing backs in Caceres and Ogbonna, a striker who is yet to find his best form in Llorente and a central midfielder with almost no experience out on the wing in Pogba. Antonio Conte didn't even make use of the only real winger he has on the roster in Sebastian Giovinco, who was brought on after Chiellini's red card had already changed the dynamic of the game.
The Bianconeri went toe-to-toe with one of the best outfits in the world, using a system the team has little experience with, and were unlucky not to leave the Bernabeu with at least a point. The product on the field was a far cry from the lackluster performance we saw just a few days earlier against Fiorentina.
The 3-5-2 still has its purpose, and Juventus have used it to great effect against Italy's lesser teams that defend for 90 minutes, hoping to secure a draw against the giants of Italian football. In a possession game, the formation provides a numerical advantage that often makes the difference when crashing the box.
But in the Champions League, where space is hard to come by and every team has enough quality of its own, the 3-5-2 has proven to be ineffective.
With Andrea Pirlo no longer able to pull the strings in midfield the way he used to and two attacking players that are simply too good to be wasted on the bench in Fernando Llorente and Sebastian Giovinco, the 4-3-3 can be a solution.
And if what we saw on Wednesday night is any indication, it's the solution the Bianconeri should turn to.