When Serie A finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, lifted the coronavirus embargo on calcio, the Old Lady briefly looked like a youthful version of herself.
For four games, Juventus were humming, stockpiling 33 shots on target to their opponents’ combined total of 12. They outscored Bologna, Lecce, Genoa, and Torino 13-2. Cue the butterfly meme: “Is this Sarriball?” Paulo Dybala was scoring — a lot. Cristiano Ronaldo was connecting with his teammates in more ways than one; his goals weren’t followed by the customary twirly jump, but rather by a trot into the arms of the backup goalkeepers with heartwarming embraces.
Life was good, man.
At no point during this stretch was any sane Bianconeri fan kidding himself or herself by saying Maurizio Sarri’s men were taking on top competition. But still — one might have reasoned — Lecce has been a thorn to top sides all year long, and Torino is a derby game, and Bologna have shown flashes of not being terrible, and Genoa … have a future Juve player? I don’t know. All the same, everybody knew what was coming: a much, much trickier four-game stretch.
Seventy-five percent through that stretch, Juventus have been abject failures. Sarri’s side has blown two two-goal leads, allowed nine goals, lost the possession battle in all three contests (including a staggering 58-42 concession to Sassuolo), and have escaped from the skin of their teeth a handful of times. In fact, Juve are two stupid, lucky handball calls and a masterful Wojciech Szczesny performance away from this being caught in a two-point Scudetto race. Let that sink in.
Dybala is the club’s best and most dynamic offensive player, but playing the No. 10 in the false No. 9 role has not worked against top-level (or even slightly-above-average) competition.
Right now, Juve have no offensive answers against good sides.
Weak points of Dybala at false 9
First, to cut La Joya some slack, the little guy is still getting used to playing this forward position again. He did it frequently in his Palermo days, and I don’t think he’s not capable of doing it, but as Sarri mentioned a few weeks ago, there are still some attacking midfield habits that Dybala is trying to shed in order to truly occupy the central forward position. Namely, he’s trying to figure out how to resist the temptation of tracking way, way back to get a touch on the ball.
Which brings us to the first of several problems with this formation: against better competition, when Juve aren’t seeing a lot of possession, both Dybala and Ronaldo tend to get a little frustrated and retreat further and further just to get their foot on the ball. That can leave a vast amount of vacated space, and there’s nobody to fill it. Rightfully so, because if the midfielders press too aggressively up through that space, the defense is then as exposed as Janet Jackson in 2004.
Whoever is playing right wing, whether that’s Federico Bernardeschi or Douglas Costa, necessarily must track back and put in an impassioned defensive effort, both because whoever is playing right back is probably getting a lot of freedom, especially if that’s Juan Cuadrado, but also because the other two of the attacking trident (Dybala and Ronaldo) do next to nothing defensively.
The whole enterprise loses its shape very quickly, most palpably in the attacking third (which I understand is, to some degree, by design, as Sarri has stated he wants total freedom up there), but you can also see it in build-up and when the team is recovering into a defensive shape.
Lastly, while Dybala isn’t terrible as a hold-up player, he’s certainly no Zlatan Ibrahimović (or Duván Zapata, for that matter) with his back to goal. Continue reading