Manchester United – Juventus: Paulo Dybala steals the limelight in Allegri’s dominant setup (0-1)

Despite all the pre-printed headlines of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, Paolo Dybala was the standout performer in this match. Juventus manager Max Allegri put on a clinic in a cruelly comfortable win for Juventus. Their domination of the ball and control of central areas never gave United a moment’s rest, as the movements and rotations proved to be far too much to handle.

Coming into this game off the back of a rare impressive performance, away at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, José Mourinho changed nothing to his starting eleven. The only drawbacks came on the bench, where Alexis Sánchez was now completely absent through injury.

As for Allegri’s Juventus, they started this game in a 4-3-3 formation, as they have done all season. The only changes came in the form of personnel, as Giorgio Chiellini replaced Medhi Benatia in defense and Dybala stepped in for the injured Mario Mandžukić.


United defended in a very defensive 4-4-2 formation that sometimes even became a 6-2-2,
against Juve’s flexible 4-3-3 shape.

Juventus take the game to United

From the early stages of this match, it was clear to see that Allegri did not intend to shut up shop and camp deep. In order to exploit United’s shape – which Juventus did incredibly well throughout the match – he chose to overrun the opposition’s two holding midfielders, Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba.

Juventus’ three midfielders stretched themselves right across the front of United’s two-man midfield. Sometimes Rodrigo Bentancur would rotate into the spaces ahead, but mostly the midfielders held these positions wide across pitch. In attack, the forwards were given free roam of the pitch – especially Ronaldo, who was very active. The fullbacks stayed as high as they possibly could.

This achieved a very good structure to circulate the ball on United’s half, and Juventus averaged nearly seventy percent ball possession. To make all this possession actually count, Juventus focused their attacks mostly down the right side of the pitch, potentially aiming to move away from the more defensively solid pair of Marcus Rashford and Ashley Young.

Juventus exploit the halfspaces
One of the most notable features of United’s 4-4-2 / 6-2-2 out of possession is the gap between the wide midfielder and central midfielder on each side. For this reason, Blaise Matuidi and Alex Sandro remained stretched across to the left. If Juventus could not become dangerous down the right, they had an easy path into Matuidi, who was completely free in the left halfspace.  If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the half spaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.

This kind of access diagonally across from the spare midfielder did not only go through to that side, however. This also worked to great effect when they wanted to shift back across to the right. Here, Dybala or Bentancur would drop into the space outside of Matić and connect play back across with some ease.

Even on the ball-side, where play was supposed to be more congested, the gap in the halfspace channel was enormous. Ronaldo and Dybala got so much joy dropping deep – without any United player nearby to close them down. For a manager who is as renowned for his ability to organize a team defensively, José Mourinho did surprisingly little to adjust in the first half.

United’s midfield pair cannot keep up with surrounding movements
It is not much of a surprise that Matić and Pogba, who had to do a lot of shifting and running, had a very difficult time dealing with the constant movement in and out of the midfield from Juventus’ forwards. On countless occasions, Dybala would drop in right through the center of the midfield and then proceed to lay it off into another midfielder. Pogba and Matić were so heavily overloaded When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. and got so little help from surrounding players that they looked lost.

Problems were only worsened by the fact both central defenders were reluctant – or maybe even unable – to track those dropping movements from the attackers. More often than not, the visitors at least kept one attacker pinned on them to free up the space between the midfield and defense. And, even if the center-backs were able to move out of the backline, they were not willing to go as far as the forwards did because they were exposing a lot of space behind them.

Juve’s wide combinations gain access in behind
Undoubtedly the smartest feature of Juve’s attacking setup was their plan to get in behind Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial. With United playing a slightly higher line compared to the match against Chelsea, Juventus could better exploit the space in behind.

So, to do that, Juvnetus showed a couple of coordinated wide movements that aimed to gain access into João Cancelo down a more open flank. Often this featured Juan Cuadrado and Dybala on either side of the full-back. Cuadrado would start high up, next to Shaw, before dropping deep just short of Martial. Sometimes Bentancur could fill this slot, too. By having him come continually deeper when the ball was right beside him, Martial would be inclined to move further out, thus isolating Shaw.

Dybala would pin himself against Shaw whilst Ronaldo occupied the center-backs. Simultaneously, Cuadrado and Dybala would both drop towards the ball, subsequently lengthening the space Cancelo had to get in behind. In support of this, Dybala would make an untracked run towards the space inside, thus giving Juventus greater access into the space in behind, where he could then cut it back for an onrushing attacker.


Juve’s attacking setup for the wide combinations

It was this exact clever attacking mechanism that earned Juve their crucial, match-winning goal in the sixteenth minute, albeit it with a slightly different mix of players still fulfilling the same roles. The goal was coming a long time, and it was very deservedly scored by the very lively Dybala.

United’s stagnant attempts in possession against Juventus’ 4-4-2

In the second half, Mourinho realized Rashford needed to be narrower to prevent easy access into Matuidi. If you make an adjustment against a top team like Juventus and a top manager like Allegri, you know there will always be a counterpunch.

From the moment Rashford defended more narrow, Juventus’ left-back Alex Sandro’s involvements on the ball increased. When Manchester United shifted to prevent the Brazilian from causing danger, Juventus quickly switched the play over to the right to find an even more open Cancelo on the overlap. Juventus were still the better team, and even a bit wasteful with some of these crossing chances.

Contrary to the usual manner in which they approach their attacks, in this game, Mourinho’s side had a tendency to build attacks down the right. This is the side where they’ve had the most success opening up opposition of late and in tandem with this was the free role Martial was granted.

The French winger was allowed to drift where he liked and even picked up the ball in a few good positions that might have helped to link play into the attack better. However, a mixture of factors prevented United from creating anything of note. The numerous sloppy touches, incoherent supporting movements, the failed long-balls into Lukaku and the overall seeming lack of thought in each attacking sequence resulted in very-easy-to-contain attacks from the home side.

What also prevented United from being dangerous in their few spells with the ball was the organization of Juventus’ defense. One of the simpler ways they managed to reclaim possession was through Dybala. When Pogba dribbled inside, looking to spread the play, that would be the trigger for the Argentine to rapidly move in on the midfielder and subsequently smother that space between himself and the centre of midfield.

Juve’s outstanding defensive organization combined with United’s offensive woes led the home side to creating a grand total of 0.29 Expected Goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. off of six shots.

This was a first-class performance from Allegri’s Juventus as they push further ahead in the group. Miralem Pjanić, Bentancur and Dybala were all on their A-game for this one as they put last weekend’s slip-up to Genoa well behind them.

Despite Mourinho’s defensive setup stifling Chelsea, it was no match for a well-prepared Juventus side. Once again, it leaves the board and the fans scratching their heads over whether Mourinho is the man to bring the club to where they expect it to be.


Use the arrows below to see various statistical match plots.

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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