Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Juventus 2-0 Celtic: Juve forwards exploit 2 v. 2 at the back

Juventus put in a vintage Italian performance in a 3-0 win over Celtic at Parkhead, sitting deep and organizing themselves defensively to deal with wave after wave of Celtic's frenetic attack and finishing their few forays into the attacking third with magnificent efficiency. While many an observer of this game will argue Celtic battered their Italian opposition and were unfortunate to lose in the manner they did, the Italians were prepared for this type of game and deserve loads of credit for executing their system and making it difficult for Celtic to break them down in the final third.

Celtic missed a golden chance in the first half when Ambrose, included in the starting 11 despite playing in the final of the ANC Sunday, headed straight at Buffon from 6 yards out. Aside from that, Juventus were rarely stretched at the back to the point of defending desperately- they were compact, organized and able to deal with crosses into the area.

Juventus were without Kwadwo Asamoah who was deemed unfit after playing for Ghana in the ANC third place game Saturday. He was replaced at left wing back by Federico Peluso. Vucinic and Matri partnered up front- Quagliarella, Giovinco and Anelka all had places on the bench. Elsewhere the side was as expected in their usual 3-5-2.

Neil Lennon opted for an interesting, narrow 4-3-2-1 'Christmas tree' formation. Lustig, Ambrose, Wilson and Izaguirre lined up across the back. Brown, Wanyama and Mulgrew formed a central midfield three. Mulgrew and Wanyama tended to stay deeper while Brown was given license to get into more advanced areas on the right. James Forrest and Kris Commons played narrow just in behind Gary Hooper and then would look to make runs out into the channels behind Juve's wing backs.

Neil Lennon's tinkering with his formation was a brave one but made sense given his side's intent on pressing high up the pitch. The 4-3-2-1 shape meant Juventus didn't have a spare man anywhere on the pitch when Celtic pressed and therefore made it very difficult to play out of the back. Commons and Forrest pushed on to the outside center backs Caceres and Barzagli and Hooper pressed Bonucci. Brown tracked Pirlo as he dropped in to try to collect the ball of his center backs, which left Wanyama and Mulgrew to mark Marchisio and Vidal 2 v. 2. Celtic's outside backs Lustig and Izaguirre pushed high up the pitch on to Juve's wing backs. Ambrose and Mulgrew were therefore responsible for defending Matri and Vucinic 2 v. 2 at the back.

Without a spare central defender at the back, Celtic's success was always going to depend on whether Wilson and Ambrose could win their individual battles with the Juve forwards. Against Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk in the group stages Juventus showed how devastating the movement of their two forwards can be against two center defenders. One forward will typically drop into midfield, forcing one of the opposition center backs to follow him into midfield and thereby opening up space for either a diagonal run from the other forward or a burst in behind from midfield by one of the shuttling midfielders Vidal or Marchisio.

With Celtic's tireless pressing denying Juve the time and space on the ball to build any patient attacks, the Italians frequently looked to play balls over the top to their forwards, confident that eventually Matri or Vucinic could win their individual battle and go through on goal. They'd have been pleasantly surprised at just how quickly the strategy came to fruition. Peluso played a simple ball over the top to Matri in the third minute. The Juve forward shrugged Ambrose aside and slotted a shot past Fraser Forster and across the goal line before it could be cleared away.

Juve's second goal highlighted the ability of their forwards to open up space for their shuttling midfielders to make runs in behind the back four. Ambrose and Wilson were again tight on Matri and Vucinic respectively. Matri checked for the ball back into midfield, forcing Ambrose to follow his run and leaving acres of space to the right of Wilson. Marchisio darted past Brown into that space and Matri provided him with a clever flick that the midfielder dutifully dispatched. You can see a screen shot of the build up to the goal below. Marchisio sees Matri making his run into midfield and immediately begins his run in behind as Peluso plays the ball into Matri.

At 2-0 the tie looked done and dusted. When Ambrose was caught in possession in the 83rd, allowing Juve to tack on a third, all doubt was erased as to Celtic's fate in the final 16.

Note: I didn't quite find the time to analyze the Juventus defense versus Celtic attack- obviously quite an important feature of the game given 40% of the game took place in Juve's defensive third. Hopefully I'll have time in the next couple days to revisit this post and add more on that.

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