Lazio Roma – Juventus: Inzaghi masterminds Sarri to come from behind and further tighten the Serie A title race (3-1)
When building attacks, both sides found one another frustrating in equal measure. In the end, Juve were the side with more questions than answers as Lazio’s one-trick plan reaped the rewards to seal a huge victory.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
If you overlook Lazio’s Europa League results, you will see a side that has not lost since September, and that loss came at the hands of high-flying Inter, no less. Coming into this match off the back of six successive league victories, and now the chance to move within three points of the title favorites, their opponents here, this was a big opportunity for them to continue to progress.
Manager Simone Inzaghi dared not tamper with the side that has brought him so much success of late, so it was the same exact 3-5-2 setup, with the same names, featuring a strike partnership of Ciro Immobile and Joaquín Correa.
Maurizio Sarri’s Juventus have been equally robust this season and came into this game having not suffered defeat in any competition so far this season. With Inter keeping up the pace but dropping points the night before, this provided them a great opportunity to leapfrog their title rivals.
Following last week’s surprise 2-2 home slip up against Sassuolo, Sarri seemed content nonetheless to field almost the exact same eleven. The diamond system kept its place but with Rodrigo Bentancur replacing Emre Can and Paulo Dybala stepping in for his Argentinian counterpart Gonzalo Higuaín.
Contrasting shapes struggle to make progress
Lazio’s initial attempts to beat Juve’s press were slow and laborious. The away side’s flat 4-3-3 press did a good job at nullifying short progression, featuring a midfield base that shifted itself towards the ball-side to block off nearby options. This included keeping the free number six constantly locked in the central presser’s (Federico Bernardeschi) cover shadow. When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played.
The issue was that Lazio’s shape, vertically speaking, was too stretched. The wide central midfielders were happy to hide behind Juve’s midfielders and offer as more of a second ball threat, however, the host’s defenders often seemed reluctant to play to that side of it. Consequently, there were drawn out spells of pointless passes slowly being played across the back-three and the goalkeeper within their own box.
Lazio’s overly-stretched buildup shape being contained by Juve’s 4-3-3 press.
Juve were the polar opposite in terms of the area they covered. Their diamond was all too guilty of not providing enough width, even in most rotations down the ball-side. Just like Juve’s midfield did, Lazio’s trio were typically very tight to the ball-side, albeit in a much deeper area of the pitch meaning there was virtually no space between them and the backline. Due to that, and the persistent center-forwards chipping in, they were able to force Juve into an equally slow and laborious rhythm of possession play.
Even in spite of this, Juve still had themselves to blame in terms of how they looked to create options on the ball. Usually, the central ball-holder tasked with finding the forward pass was either fullback but, particularly down the right, the midfielders and attackers were not so in-sync with their interchanges. At least not to begin with.
There were too many times when Dybala and Bentancur would attempt to rotate but still remain within the cover shadow of Lazio’s wide central-midfielder, who was the designated presser of the ball-holding fullback as this could allow the wing-back to get tight to any short wide receivers, and keep the gaps between the defenders tight.
Juve find a hole to exploit
There was a weakness to Lazio’s shape, which was the space left in-behind. Seen mostly down the left on Cristiano Ronaldo’s side, he would occasionally pull deep and wide to allow Blaise Matuidi to run the inside channel. One of the best chances from this came without much rotation but still from a fullback starting the play.
In the fifteenth minute, Ronaldo had space to make a run through the middle thanks to the ball-holder drawing out the wing-back and Bernardeschi occupying the central defender nearest with a matching run. And, although his touch took him wayward of goal, Ronaldo was eventually able to stand up a cross to Bernardeschi at the back post, which he narrowly headed wide.
Juve’s attacking play was beginning to gain some real substance, even in the center where they had struggled. There were now fluid and constant exchanges from the midfield to the attack, playing in and out, pulling open pockets of space to help maintain control.
Eventually, their good pressure paid off; in off the right, a better rotation saw Bentancur come much shorter to offer free inside meant he was able to play first time into Dybala. As the two then proceeded to rotate, Dybala exploited the more open midfield channel towards the far side to access Ronaldo. The star man then had Bentancur in place to combine with, whom he initially found through a clever lofted pass, and was then met with the perfect return cross to tap in and give Juve the lead.
Lazio bite back in straightforward fashion
Similar to how their opponents had been doing, Lazio wanted to exploit the space in behind, too.
Even through their slow passages of play between the defenders, still occurring up in Juve’s half, there was always one player afforded time, and that player could look to get his head up and pick out a run. This predominantly occurred when a left-sided ball-holder spotted one of Sergej Milinković-Savić’s timed runs from deep to get in off the blind side If a defender looks one way, an attacker can try to make a run behind the defender’s back, on the side where he is not looking. This is called the blind side. of the already-occupied central defenders.
Although this exact route was not entirely successful at first, a similar version they resorted to higher up did prove its worth. In Juve’s third, Lazio found it easy to work it from side-to-side with only their three midfielders making up the ground in front. Through the ease at which the wing-backs could receive in crossing positions, they were comfortably able to execute the planned move of having them cut in and play in-swingers towards the back post, where Milinković-Savić and Immobile awaited.
In the 55th minute, Immobile almost made his chance count following a Manuel Lazzari shift inside, but he could not keep his volley down.
Heading into first half stoppage time, the hosts cracked the case with the same method but from a corner. They worked it short, seeing Luis Alberto square up to Bernardeschi before cutting in and whipping a ball towards the back post, and there waited Felipe Luiz to, again, overload the far-sided fullback and get a forceful head on the ball, drawing his side back level.
Both sides suffer from the closeness of play
The second half was not such a fiery affair to begin with. It seemed as though Sarri had told his attackers to offer even closer to the ball, with Bernardeschi occupying far deeper positions than he had done in the first half. This was ultimately no more successful than anything they had tried before.
Even though they were using up the room between the lines fairly well, Lazio had no problems shutting them down once they reached their defensive line. So much of it was predictable; there were no runs from deep, or even coming in off the far-side to test the home side’s back-line.
Inzaghi’s side were guilty of this too. The short linkups in Juve’s third were a far cry from being anywhere near incisive or even purposeful.
Both sides resorted to long passes – by their standards – to progress the ball up the pitch.
The balance tips in Lazio’s favor
Having had a chance gifted to them and wasted two minutes prior, Juve would go on to rue their missed chance as – after being reviewed by VAR – Cuadrado was sent off for bringing down Lazzari on the counter, which had stemmed from Juve’s distinct lack of protection on the edge of the box at a corner. The decision, in truth, was harsh but it nonetheless proved to be a big turning point.
Just five minutes following this, Lazio took the lead. With that bit more space for the deeper ball-holders wide on either side to take their time, Alberto was able to field another diagonal into the box which this time found Milinković-Savić’s timed run across, where, again, the center-backs were unaware until the last moment due to the strikers’ occupation of them. However, it was the Serbian’s first touch that made made the goal what it was. Plucked perfectly out of the air at pace, the midfielder proceeded to nonchalantly slot it into the far corner to complete a quite outstanding goal.
Setup for Milinković-Savić’s goal on the diagonal.
Lazio were not without chances to definitively kill off Juve, though. A few minutes later, following other examples of the strike force’s excellent defensive work, they combined to close down a routine pass into Miralem Pjanić, the pair were then suddenly on their way. Correa’s run burst past the outside Leonardo Bonucci to tear through on goal prior to being brought to ground by Wojciech Szczęsny, winning his side a penalty. Immobile then stepped up… but failed to convert. And failed on the second time of asking, too, as the goalkeeper kept his side intact.
This did little to ignite a ten-man fightback, though, as the link-less 4-2-3 formation, which had just led to them giving away a penalty, continued to have little impact on the Lazio defense. It was fortunate for the home side that this was the case since their decision-making and ball retention in the closing stages was very poor.
To wrap up this Christmas gift, Felipe Caicedo fired the killer blow on a simple counterattacking move following a free kick where the visitors had pushed everyone forward. He had to get it via a rebound but the Ecuadorian would not have cared in the slightest.
Inzaghi’s side continue to march on as they extend this quite remarkable run of wins to seven, beating Juve in the league for only the second time this decade. Now, they must set their sights on an away win in Rennes if they are to stand any chance of a place in the Europa League knockout stages.
An overall disappointing performance will have only added to the frustration of facing his first competitive defeat as Juve manager, as well as now being two points behind Inter. The positive news for them is that they can focus on a kind run of festive fixtures with their Champions League spot all wrapped up.
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