Juventus: Projecting a Potential Depth Chart for a 4-3-3 in 2014-15
This season was a phenomenal one for Juventus. The club won their third straight Scudetto—their first three-peat since they won five straight titles in the 1930s—and became the first team to break the 100-point barrier. In fact, their 102 points set a European record.
Some, however, will point to the team's dual disappointments in Europe as a detriment to the season. The team's Champions League crash-out was a huge disappointment, and their semifinal loss to Benfica was gut-wrenching.
Such disappointment makes it easy to forget that this team is ahead of schedule in the plan instituted prior to Antonio Conte's first year at the helm. Still, the team's failings in continental competition are thought of by many fans as glaring blights upon the season.
Many people point to the team's reliance on a 3-5-2 formation as the main culprit of the team's struggles in Europe. The formation does leave the team vulnerable on the wings, but Conte can't be blamed for using the formation that gets the best out of his players. The squad he had to work with this season wouldn't have been able to support a formation like the 4-3-3 on a regular basis.
Conte's experimentation with the 4-3-3 in the Champions League against Real Madrid is a sign that he would like to add such a formation to his arsenal. That's not surprising, given the fact that he started his time at Juve in 2011-12 using the formation before switching to the 3-5-2 midway through the campaign.
Some additions will have to be made to the squad in order for him to use that system reliably, but the team will be able to put out an effective 4-3-3 with only a few tweaks.
How might a 4-3-3 look at Juve next season? Let's look into the crystal ball and see what the teamsheet may look like.
There is no question whatsoever that Gianluigi Buffon will be the man between the sticks for Conte once again.
Still as good as ever at the age of 36, Buffon is the team's talisman. His shot-stopping abilities are still among the top five in the game, and his ability to organize his defense in front of him is unsurpassed.
It is this ability that will serve the team extraordinarily well during a transition back to a 4-3-3. In 2011-12 when Juve first transitioned to the 3-5-2—a system Buffon had never played in before—Buffon was still able to keep the defense organized in front of him. Juve allowed a European-low 20 goals that season, and that defense continues to be solid in front of him.
Marco Storari will likely continue on as Buffon's backup, spotting him in the occasional league match and manning the goal during the Coppa Italia. There's less certainty about the third keeper—a role held by Rubinho for the last two seasons—but if that position ever becomes a factor on the depth chart, things will have gone very wrong indeed.
Antonio Conte will have a wonderful dilemma when deciding who to play at right-back in his new back four. Both Stephan Lichtsteiner and Martin Caceres would be fantastic options.
Lichtsteiner has spent the last two-and-a-half seasons as a wing-back, but he is a traditional full-back by trade and is still the starter at that position on the World Cup-bound Swiss national team. He excels at overlapping wingers to support the attack and plays hard-nosed defense. His motor is practically limitless—put him in front of a brick wall and say "run" and he'll charge the darn thing until he gets through it.
Caceres starts at the same full-back position for the Uruguayan national team and was Conte's choice to man the right flank when he experimented with the 4-3-3 during the Champions League. An incisive runner on attack and very strong defensively, Caceres manned the back three for two months this season when Andrea Barzagli was injured and may have been Juve's most-improved player.
Whichever of the two Conte chooses, he will have a world-class player at right-back.
Unfortunately the left side is another matter.
There is no player on the current roster who can play left-back on a regular basis. Giorgio Chiellini and Angelo Ogbonna both played the position early in their careers—and Ogbonna did so in the two games against Real Madrid—but at this point neither of them should be playing on the left flank on a regular basis.
This is an area that needs to be addressed outside the organization. The team was linked with Manchester City's Aleksandar Kolarov last summer and Goal.com reported as late as March that there was still interest there. A report in February from Tuttosport (via Football Italia) stated that Juve were keeping track of Real Madrid's Fabio Coentrao, who is expected to search for playing time outside of the Bernabeu this year.
Coentrao would be ideal, but cost could be an issue. Would the famously frugal Beppe Marotta, Juve's CEO, shell out the necessary cash for the Portuguese? If he did, he would have three international starters to chose from as full-backs.
Center-back is one of Juve's greatest strengths. The team has three of the top 20 center-backs in the game, and that depth is one of the reasons that Conte originally went to the 3-5-2. With it, he could play all three of his center-backs and cover up his lack of a quality left-back.
The question, of course, in a switch back to a 4-3-3 the question becomes which of the three to bench. Giorgio Chiellini is a lock to be in.
He's one of the five best center-backs in the game and combines the tenacity of a Claudio Gentile with the awareness and technique of a Fabio Cannavaro. He also becomes a deadly presence on set pieces and has been given permission to bomb forward from the back three on occasion.
Often overlooked as simply a destroyer, his game is made up of so much more, both on the field and in the locker room, where he's looked at as Gigi Buffon's successor as captain. He's a lock to start in any formation.
The decision is then between Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.
Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Barzagli brings experience and a fantastic tactical sense. When he is in the lineup, Juve's defense plays with a calm that is often missing when he isn't on the field. He is, however, 33 years old. It's clear that he's lost a step, especially against quicker attackers—although leaving him in the middle of the field may make up for this.
Bonucci, on the other hand, saw a few of the mental gaffes he is so often criticized for sneak back into his game. That said, there was definite improvement in his overall defensive skills this season, and he remains the best ball-playing center-back in the world. There's no clear-cut starter here.
Conte should make this a game-by-game decision based on who may need rest and who the opponent is. If Juve are playing a team that may be able to severely limit Andrea Pirlo's ability to operate in the midfield, Bonucci—whose passing abilities would compensate for such an eventuality—should start. If not, Barzagli should probably start.
Angelo Ogbonna should not be omitted from this discussion. He is clearly the fourth option right now and has been labeled as one of the disappointing signings of the summer following his move from Torino.
To be fair to him, he was thrust into a system he was totally unfamiliar with, and he was competing with four men (the aforementioned three plus Caceres, who also played in Conte's back three) who had played in it for two-and-a-half years or more. He is more familiar with a four-man defensive system and may be able to work his way into the discussion if the opportunity presents itself.
This is a no-brainer.
Juventus possesses one of the best and deepest midfields in the world. Andrea Pirlo will once again act as the regista, lining up his pinpoint passes from deep and contributing the odd mind-bending free kick. This is a role he can perform just as well in a 4-3-3 as in a 3-5-2. As long as he has enough room to operate, he can open up any defense.
Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba will fill out the starting midfield spots.
The Chilean Vidal is the beating heart of Juventus—the embodiment of Antonio Conte's philosophy. He brings elite-level skills in all phases of the game. He is a fantastic passer, one of the best midfield defenders in the game and an elite-level goalscorer. A true box-to-box player, this author has made the argument that he is the best footballer in the world today.
The fact that Vidal has been snubbed by voters for the FIFA/FIFPro World XI and the Ballon d'Or is a travesty.
Pogba, on the other hand, is most certainly the most sought-after player in the world at the moment.
Big clubs have been lining up to make offers for the young Frenchman, but Beppe Marotta has continually insisted that the young wunderkind isn't going anywhere. Possessed of good defensive skills, outrageous dribbling ability and a long-range shot that looks like it came out of an artillery piece, Pogba can dominate a game and turn any match on its head with one of his patented "Pog-booms."
Depth in the midfield is provided in Italy international Claudio Marchisio. A starter for the first two seasons of the Conte era, an injury and Pogba's fantastic early form cost him his spot in the XI, but he is still one of the best box-to-box players in Europe and can take over a game in his own right. If Pirlo, Vidal or Pogba is unavailable, there would be virtually no drop-off if Marchisio takes their place.
Even more depth can be had in the form of Ghana international Kwadwo Asamoah. He has been employed by Conte as a left wing-back since arriving two summers ago but plays as a midfielder for the Black Stars and is another man who could be plugged into the center of midfield and be as dangerous as any one of his teammates.
This position is overflowing with quality. Pity the club that tries to match up player-for-player in the midfield with Juventus.
Of the few drawbacks to the move to a 4-3-3, the biggest one would be that Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente won't often be on the field at the same time. While Tevez could conceivably play as a right-winger, it's not his best position, and the relationship between the two would be totally different than the one they developed over the course of the season with Tevez playing in the hole behind the Spaniard.
Starting Llorente in the middle of the front line would give the attack the benefit of his aerial abilities, and his hold-up play will allow the wings to pinch in for opportunities and the likes of Pogba and Vidal to arrive to help as well.
To start Tevez would turn the formation almost into a Spanish-style false nine.
The Argentine would likely have to sit deep to receive the ball and drive it into the attacking third while the rest of the team arrived to help. The success of this would be predicated on Tevez kicking the annoying habit of dribbling into multiple defenders and giving away possession. Despite his seven assists (eight in all competitions) there were certainly moments where he could have been less selfish with the ball.
Like the Barzagli/Bonucci conundrum, this call would likely be on a match-to-match basis depending on who would be able to attack opposing defenses most effectively. A straight swap of the two can always be used if the strategy needs to be changed, and the two will likely get to play with each other in the 3-5-2 enough in the league to keep everyone happy.
Along with left-back, the wing positions are going to have to be manned by players that weren't on the 2013-14 roster.
Either wing position could be manned by young Domenico Berardi, but Football Italia reported Thursday that the 19-year-old told an end-of-the-year club dinner that he would be staying at Sassuolo for another year. In the long run, that's probably a good thing for his development. Rest assured, though, the Italian wunderkind will be in a black and white shirt soon enough.
A more likely internal option on the right wing is Manolo Gabbiadini, who had a breakout year at Sampdoria and showed his ability to man the wing after Sinisa Mihajlovic took over the Genovese outfit. Blessed with great pace and a howitzer for a left foot, the youngster is finally ready to don the stripes and would be an asset on that wing. It would be in the team's interest to buy back Samp's half of his rights.
The left side is a candidate for Juve's move of the summer. Although internal options Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco can both man the position, neither of them are likely options as starting players. Vucinic is almost certain to be sold, while Giovinco, if he doesn't follow, will likely be used as depth at the position he had so much success in at Parma.
If the rumors are to be believed, Alexis Sanchez will be the man to man that spot. Goal.com reported earlier in the week that Beppe Marotta was very interested in the former Udinese man. England's Daily Star has reported that the Bianconeri have already agreed to personal terms with the player, leaving negotiations with Barcelona as the lone remaining hurdle to a deal.
Marotta knows he needs a big signing this summer, not only for the fans but to keep coach Antonio Conte believing that management is going to give him the players he needs to win both in Italy and in Europe. Signing Sanchez would go a long way toward doing just that, especially considering that the Chilean international is reportedly on Conte's list of wants.
If he is healthy—and this is a big if—Simone Pepe can provide lower-level depth to both wing positions. Able to play on either side of the midfield or the wing, Pepe scored six times in 31 games in his last healthy season (2011-12—stats from WhoScored.com), mostly from the right wing of Conte's original 4-3-3. He is always an option in lower-level games and to provide a change of pace on the wing—if he can get himself on the field.