Having already registered one disappointing result in midweek—a 0-0 UEFA Champions League draw with Sevilla—Juventus travelled to San Siro hoping to rebound with a positive display against Inter Milan.
Sadly for the Bianconeri, it was not to be, as they lost 2-1 against opponents who had previously endured their own poor start to the 2016/17 campaign.
Under new coach Frank de Boer, Inter had laboured both at home and abroad, losing to Chievo and Hapoel Beer-Sheva and also being held 1-1 by Palermo.
Those results had seen the Dutch boss come under intense pressure, but his side were well prepared to take on Massimiliano Allegri’s men, who lined up in the coach’s favoured 3-5-2 formation once again.
The problems with that framework were discussed in this previous post, but De Boer’s use of a 4-2-3-1 with intense pressing only served to expose Juve’s weaknesses further. His tactical approach was almost perfect here, with Joao Mario and Gary Medel working tirelessly to protect the defence.
Ahead of that duo, Antonio Candreva, Ever Banega, Eder and Mauro Icardi turned up the heat on the Bianconeri back line, never allowing them to settle in possession or build the play from the back.
Furthermore, that quartet continually shadowed Miralem Pjanic, whom Allegri had opted to field as the central figure in his own three-man midfield. The Bosnia and Herzegovina international had been left out of the aforementioned stalemate with Sevilla, but he was not allowed to affect this clash either due to Inter’s astounding defensive diligence.
“It was a fine performance from the whole team, and that’s how it works,” De Boer told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia). “The whole side has to move in a homogenous and compact way, but we need to do it every week.”
While the Nerazzurri seek that consistency the coach demands, De Boer's Juventus counterpart must instead find a better balance to a midfield that has failed to impress this term as yet.
Many see the absence of Claudio Marchisio as a key factor in this issue, but the truth is that Allegri has the weapons at his disposal even before the Italy international returns from the knee injury he suffered towards the end of last season.
Mario Lemina has already turned in some notable performances, with the 23-year-old proving himself capable of holding down the same position that Pjanic was pressed into during the loss to Inter.
With Juve’s official website showing that the club paid €32 million to sign him from AS Roma in June this year, he was expected to be the versatile, proactive and creative midfielder the Bianconeri so sorely lacked last term.
But that has yet to become reality. Pjanic missed the opening two games of the season with injury, then he returned against Sassuolo on September 10 and took up a role on the left side of midfield.
As the FourFourTwo Stats Zone graphic in the tweet above shows, the 26-year-old completed 54 of his 62 pass attempts and his one take-on, much to pleasure of Juve boss Allegri.
“Pjanic likes more freedom and can roam, so the other two [Lemina and Sami Khedira] must move as a consequence,” the coach told Sky Italia shortly after the final whistle (h/t Football Italia). “It’s good to avoid giving the opposition reference points.”
The new signing also got on the scoresheet, so it was a surprise to see him dropped for the visit of Sevilla four days later. In his absence, the Juve midfield again looked stifled and blunt, offering little to the attack as the Bianconeri laboured to a 0-0 draw.
All of which brings us to Sunday night at San Siro and Allegri’s decision to deploy Pjanic in front of the defence. The Livorno native defended his starting XI, particularly noting his choices in midfield as he spoke to the media shortly after the final whistle.
“Pjanic was diligent in possession and effective in breaking up Inter’s attacks,” Allegri said at his post-match press conference. “Lemina only started nine matches last season and I considered it too much of a risk to field him in so many matches in a row.”
While the 49-year-old knows his squad better than anyone, the idea that an energetic, bright, young player like Lemina could be too tired after just four matches—broken up by an international break—seems to be something of an exaggeration.
Furthermore, Pjanic’s performance was way below the standards of which he is capable. According to statistics taken from WhoScored.com, he managed just two tackles and 68 passes against Inter.
The Nerazzurri were ready to force others to create, as the graphic above shows. In open play, Inter were happy to defend Pjanic with two players, preventing him from receiving the ball and instead forcing Juve to play long passes upfield. When they did, Medel and Joao Mario shielded De Boer's well-drilled back four, with the duo ensuring there was little space in which Paulo Dybala could become a threat to their goal.
As the game progressed and Inter became more confident in knowing Juve had few players who could hurt them, they denied both Pjanic and Leonardo Bonucci space and time in which to affect the game.
The graphic above shows three Nerazzurri forwards crowding Pjanic, forcing Stephan Lichtsteiner and Andrea Barzagli to take on more responsibility, something that duo are not equipped to do.
It is a waste of the attributes Pjanic possesses—skills he was specifically signed to add to a team that struggled for creativity at times last season. He is wasted in that holding role, a job that much less talented players can fulfil and where it becomes all too easy to pressure his team-mates into looking to supply others instead.
Resting players like Gonzalo Higuain and Lemina for a Week 4 clash with their most bitter rivals appears overcautious; what match are they being saved for at the expense of the Derby d’Italia?
The 3-5-2 may yet prove to once again be central to Juve’s title push, but at the moment, it is akin to driving a high-powered sports car with the handbrake fully engaged; the team is held back by it and unable to deliver upon their true potential.
“I think every now and then a defeat like this can do us good, if we are smart and humble enough to learn from it,” Allegri told Sky Italia (h/t Football Italia) before he headed back to Turin for Wednesday’s meeting with Cagliari.
Nobody needs to digest what happened on Sunday faster than him. Juventus are better than their performances against Inter and Sevilla indicated, and it’s time for the coach to allow them the opportunity to prove it.