Juventus Manchester United

Juventus – Manchester United: United’s undeserved win covers up repeating defensive problems (1-2)

The free-roaming forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala never gave United’s midfield a moment’s rest, whilst the ever-brilliant Rodrigo Bentancur continued to shine, this time in a more rigid, advanced role. Despite their dominance, in the most un-Juventus of ways, Max Allegri’s side managed to surrender their one-goal lead inside the final ten minutes to gift United the victory.

José Mourinho made two changes to the side that also came from behind to win at Bournemouth on Saturday afternoon. It saw welcome returns for Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard, both of whom had been sidelined through injury since their Carabao Cup defeat to Derby County back in September.

Most likely for rotational reasons, Max Allegri made three changes himself, following Juventus’ 3-1 victory over Cagliari at the weekend. Giorgio Chiellini, Sami Khedira and Juan Cuadrado came in to replace Medhi Benatia, Blaise Matuidi and Douglas Costa respectively.

Juventus' flexible 4-3-3 against Manchester United's 4-1-4-1Juventus’ flexible 4-3-3 in possession, against Manchester United’s 4-1-4-1 defensive organization

Key changes to Juventus’ possession structure and approach

Juve’s possession against United struck many similarities between this game and the previous encounter between the two sides. A couple of minor tweaks were put into place nonetheless.

The first notable change in approach was that Juventus did not focus play down one side. In the first leg, United’s right side had been targeted as the flank to attack down. This was most likely because of the fact that their opponents might have been more vulnerable with Martial defending down that side, as well as the fact that the right side favored both Dybala and Ronaldo. In this game, Juventus seemed much more willing to be flexible – maybe in anticipation that United would have prepared for the same as last time.

The second change came through Bentancur. The Uruguayan played on the same side of midfield that Matuidi had don, but instead played as something resembling an inside forward, rather than a deep, supporting midfielder. With Ronaldo and Dybala drifting wide and deep at almost every given chance, he was one of the main players that acted as a passer to free up the aforementioned attackers.

Most typically, he would position himself just in front of United’s back four and, when the diagonal angle into the left wing was on, he would make a darting run into the channel between United’s defenders Ashley Young and Chris Smalling. Subsequently, this would drag Young inside and open the flank for Juventus; left back Alex Sandro to receive in.

All of this, however, is not to say that Ronaldo did not hold his position as a more traditional number nine. When he did start from the striker position, he caused Smalling and Victor Lindelöf a host of problems by mixing his runs up, by dropping deep and going in the space behind United’s defense.

When Juventus’ best passing defender – Leonardo Bonucci – had the ball, Ronaldo would always make a run into depth for the Italian center-half. The defender would then clip balls into him, and Juventus could gain easy ground from there. Neither Smalling nor Lindelöf ever got close to Ronaldo when he made on of these runs, either.

Ronaldo and Dybala are the core of progression against United’s more compact defense

United’s defensive shape was much more aggressive then in the home game, as it needed to be. At Old Trafford, the back-six, if you like, left gaping holes between the wide midfielders and central-midfielders, which Juve comfortably overran. For this game, Mourinho had moved to a 4-3-3 shape and with three central midfielders and two narrow wingers, the visitors were more compact and stable.

However, what they still could not get to grips with was Juventus’ free-roaming attackers – Dybala especially. In the midfield battle, Alexis Sánchez would try to block entries into Miralem Pjanić whilst Lingard and Pogba covered Bentancur and Khedira respectively. The issue then was where Dybala placed himself. With United’s defensive shape mostly resembling a 4-1-4-1, Dybala could position himself either side of Matić and gain relatively easy access through the midfield line.

One particularly good example of this was in the eighth minute when all three of Juve’s central-midfielders had dropped deep just in front of the center-backs. In doing so, they drew forward the United midfielders and, as play came across to the left, Dybala was open next to a very isolated Nemanja Matić.

As the Juve midfield drew United higher, Dybala positions himself away from Matić to receive freely from Chiellini.As the Juventus midfield drew United higher, Dybala positioned himself away from Matić to receive freely from Chiellini

Whereas Dybala would pop up centrally a lot more, Ronaldo would usually be placed very wide on either side. In coming wide unexpectedly, he was always involved and also helped to overload  When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. or maintain the ball in certain areas of the pitch.

In the thirty-fifth minute, Ronaldo came searching for the ball down Juve’s right side. He combined with both Cuadrado and Mattia de Sciglio before making a run in behind Luke Shaw. With Matić unable to keep up, Ronaldo’s cutback into the box met the feet of Khedira, who produced a low effort that clipped the outside of the post. It was the first big opportunity of the match and it only backed up what was a dominant first half for Juventus in their own stadium.

United weak in their attempts to break Juve down

Against a well-drilled 4-4-2 like Juventus put up when out of possession, United found it hard to create any openings at all, let alone significant ones. Their approach consisted mostly of the likes of Pogba, Sánchez and Lingard drifting to support the wide player on the ball. Too many United players were offering in front of the Juve defensive shape, rather than inside or behind it. Although approaching it this way can still work just as well if executed right, United’s attempts to do so in this manner failed miserably.

From a Juventus perspective, Allegri had seemed to alter his setup a little. Potentially recognizing how left-sided a lot of United’s attacking play is right now under Mourinho, he narrowed towards that side. Leaving Sandro slightly stretched to pressure Young upon switches to the right, Bentancur would narrow and sometimes push ahead to pick up loose men and pen United in.

The fact United worked it over to the right so many times might well have been a trap set by Allegri, as they had no success breaking Juve down from there and were also without the dribbling threat of Anthony Martial on that side.

Juve’s control grows in the second half

Juve had no problems taking the game to United in the second half as well. Within five minutes of the restart, Dybala had all-too-easily found himself in space inside the box with time to turn and get a shot of. What came of this effort was a delightful curler towards the far-post that rattled the crossbar.

The chance, in many ways, highlighted a great weakness of United’s defensively – getting across to close down players coming through on the flanks. It’s part of the reason why the away side conceded so many decent cutback chances, all of which were being put to waste by Pjanić.

Juventus’ pressure paid off in the sixty-fifth minute. The hosts finally got their breakthrough and it was none of than Cristiano Ronaldo who give them the lead. Testing the center-backs once again, Bonucci nonchalantly lofted the ball in behind as the Portuguese striker connected to put his side ahead. Right on the volley; right into the corner. A stunning goal.

The home sides’ continued pressure kept reaping rewards as Cuadrado found himself on the end of a golden opportunity after combining with Ronaldo on the break. However, he blazed his effort over the bar and squandered a great opportunity to double his side’s lead.

Juve’s 5-3-2 and a miraculous turnaround

The change to bring on Andrea Barzagli for Mattia de Sciglio was a curious one. On one hand, it made sense – tighten up the defense and see out this game. On the other hand, there was no need for such a negative substitution in a game where controlling the ball frustrated United and kept them well away from creating danger.

Resultantly, Juve were now pushed back a bit more. United could attack from whichever side they liked, including their more dangerous left side. For the first time in the match, Martial enjoyed some more time on the ball and had an instant impact. In one of those instances, he combined well in the tight spaces between the defense and midfield, with Blaise Matuidi giving away a free kick just outside the box.

Substitute Juan Mata made no mistake from twenty yards out, converting and equalizing… And, would you believe it? Five minutes later, from another set piece, the ball had managed to somehow bundle its way in – first off Szczęsny, then off Chiellini and finally off Sandro. Anyone of them could have claimed the own goal.

An absurd finish to a match that Juventus controlled completely for eighty minutes. United could not create anything offensively the whole match, but came away with three points nonetheless.


In a week of big tests, Mourinho’s United have passed the first two – even if the performances were far from deserving of victories. United fans will just be relieved that this win will likely have sealed their place in the knockout phases.

Juventus still look like a team that can win the Champions League. It is very easy to criticize Max Allegri for making the wrong move by bringing on Barzagli. Overall, his side more than deserved to win and should be able to secure qualification into the next round.

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Peter (20), lives just outside of London. He’s been writing about tactics and such for over a year now, contributing to a couple of sites during that time. His main club is Arsenal but he’s also followed Real Betis quite heavily since Quique Setién took over last year. This form of writing has become a great passion of his and, although he’s unsure of what his end aim is, he’s enjoying being given new opportunities to continue doing so. [ View all posts ]


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