Juventus notched their second win in two matches on Saturday evening, the reigning Serie A champions making a perfect start to their title defence.
A 1-0 victory away to Lazio—particularly this early in the campaign—is an impressive result in isolation, but this performance hinted at an issue for the Bianconeri.
This was a poor overall display, one that saw the Turin giants not only struggle against the late-summer heat in Rome but also battle a distinct lack of creativity throughout the entire 90 minutes.
Before discussing the underlying problems, however, it must be noted there are some mitigating circumstances hindering coach Massimiliano Allegri. He was forced to leave Miralem Pjanic out because of a slight knock, while Claudio Marchisio remains sidelined with a torn ACL.
On top of that, during his pre-match press conference, Allegri told reporters Leonardo Bonucci would be missing "for personal reasons." That trio is comprised of arguably the best three passers in the squad. Without them, it is perhaps no surprise the Bianconeri struggled to unlock a resolute Lazio defence.
A dour opening period passed with little incident, Juve introducing Higuain after the break in search of an opener. But it would not be the Argentinian who struck, Sami Khedira instead netting for the second match in a row, as he exploited the space created by a run from the former Napoli star.
Yet by the final whistle, the team had failed to create many chances, WhoScored.com showing the visitors had just 47.2 per cent possession and managed just five shots on target.
Lazio have undoubtedly been boosted by Stefan de Vrij's return to fitness and the arrival of new signing Bastos, but Khedira was far more concerned with his own side's struggles rather than Saturday's opponent's new-look defence.
"I think, especially in the first half we had not so much movement, but after the break we had better situations and more opportunities to score," the German midfielder told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia) after the match. “In the end, I think it was a good result for us."
The second part of that assessment is certainly true, Juventus supporters happy to see the team with six points on the board after losing their first two games a year ago. Taking victories from tough encounters with Fiorentina and Lazio only adds to that joy, but Khedira's view of the opening 45 minutes presents much food for thought.
Seeing such a limited and toothless performance from Juventus adds to the belief that Allegri should dispense with the 3-5-2 formation. It has been a hallmark of the side since this era of domination began back in 2011, but as they have continued to emphasise their domestic superiority, it has become less and less effective.
Opposing teams have shown Juventus much more respect as this winning cycle has developed, sitting deep and challenging the Bianconeri to try break them down. Indeed, Lazio barely created any chances of note, but they did show strong resistance and resilience in denying Allegri's men an opening.
But the Juve boss also played into their hands with both his team selection and tactical approach. His three-man midfield of Khedira, Mario Lemina and Kwadwo Asamoah was limited by those aforementioned injury issues, but that trio was never likely to carve out a string of chances.
Lemina saw more of the ball than his midfield team-mates, but while the 22-year-old is much-improved after a year with Juventus, he remains a functional holding player rather than one comfortable seeing large amounts of possession.
Opposition coach Simone Inzaghi was happy to let the Gabon international receive the ball, the FourFourTwo StatsZone graphic in the tweet above showing he continually passed sideways—which Lazio were content to allow—rather than forward.
That meant, much like against Fiorentina, Juventus were relying on creating chances out wide. But again, Allegri’s approach appeared to hurt his side. Alex Sandro and Dani Alves have the pace and attacking prowess to cause problems, but they were occupied by Felipe Anderson and Senad Lulic.
Inzaghi countered Juve’s 3-5-2 with a 3-4-3 formation, his wingers forcing Juve’s Brazilian duo back while his own wing-backs, Dusan Basta and Jordan Lukaku, provided security behind them.
The tactical battle also left Juve’s defensive trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Medhi Benatia marking only Ciro Immobile, the image below indicative of how the game played out.
Removing one of those three and adding an extra winger or forward could’ve opened up this game for Juventus, and a shift from 3-5-2 is becoming increasingly necessary. Allegri could have gone away from the framework much earlier, perhaps shifting to a back four with more attacking players operating out wide.
Lazio never troubled goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, and the introduction of Marko Pjaca for his debut showed the visitors are capable of so much more when allowed to break from their normal approach.
Sent on in the 88th minute, his first touch saw him go past a defender and take a shot, his confidence and ability making a notable impact. The prospect of him featuring for extended periods—perhaps working in tandem with another winger—is one Juventus must seriously consider.
On Saturday, that role was briefly filled by Sandro, the former FC Porto man reprising a role he filled to great effect last term, often brought on to play wide on the left as Juan Cuadrado attacked from the opposite flank.
Perhaps with that in mind, it is of little surprise that David Amoyal of journalist Gianluca Di Marzio’s website reported Juve retain “optimism for finding a deal” for the Colombian, hoping to bring the Colombian back from Chelsea before the transfer window closes.
His return would give Allegri some vital tactical variety, with a 4-3-3 formation the first alternative. Another will come when Pjanic and Marchisio recover, the former able to play behind the strikers in a 4-3-1-2 system.
Whichever direction the Bianconeri opt to move, the evidence already this season suggests they should make a shift soon. If an inexperienced manager such as Inzaghi—who was in charge for just his ninth match on Saturday—can negate the 3-5-2, better coaches will begin to pick off this side rather than just limit their opportunities.
The formation still has its place and will certainly warrant use as the campaign progresses, often as a way of protecting a lead—as they did en route to the 2015 UEFA Champions League final.
Yet it has become something of a comfort blanket for the Bianconeri, a default setup they know domestic opponents cannot overcome, but one they are now guilty of hiding under.