We need to talk about Juventus
Juventus is the dominant team in Serie A. They have been dominant for over seven years now, winning title after title, with an average margin of over seven points. They are also well underway to win their eight consecutive Scudetto, currently leading second placed Napoli by no less than thirteen points.
Juventus has scored most goals, conceded least, and won five more games than any other team. They are also still unbeaten, and may even go on to win another league title without losing a single match, after they already joined the “Invincibles” in 2012.
With Juventus set to visit Napoli this weekend, we took a dive in their numbers this Serie A season, to come up with a surprising take. While overall Juventus are still as dominant as before, they are so by virtue of a specific set piece oriented approach. They’re special, just not in a ‘playing-teams-off-the-park’ way.
Open play offense
In a hypothetical world, where Napoli would take set pieces like Juventus have done this season, the Serie A title race would be fully open. In open play, The cutoff between open play goals and set piece goals is sometimes arbitrary. We use 11tegen11’s definition which looks at how a possession spell has started. Napoli can match Juventus’ offensive output. Going into this weekend, Napoli have scored 32 goals from 29.3 expected goals, compared to Juventus’ 33 goals from 25.1 expected goals. In fact, Juventus’ efficient conversion is the main driver for them to outscore Napoli in open play, with a degree of overperformance that is often not sustainable long-term.
By contrast, the numbers that Juventus put up from set pieces are nothing short of staggering, and this is what truly sets them apart from any other team in Serie A. In their 25 league matches so far, Juventus have scored twenty set piece goals. Compare that to Napoli (14), Atalanta (12) and Inter (12). The difference is most pronounced away from home, exactly where it seems likely to suppose most value for set piece routines lies, since offense is usually harder to construct when playing away.
In twelve away matches, Juventus have failed to score from a set piece just five times. By stark contrast, Napoli have only managed three set piece goals away from home all season. It comes as no surprise then that eleven of Juventus’ thirteen points lead in the table are the result of superior performances away from home.
Juventus’ set piece routines have been the focus of attention earlier in the season too, although from quite a different perspective. Euphoric from a come-from-behind victory over Empoli, Paulo Dybala decided to share a moment of great team spirit with his nearly twenty-eight million Instagram follower crowd. Only to realize afterwards that Juventus’ meticulous set piece preparation sheet hung behind him on the dressing room wall.
En el encuentro de ayer, Juventus venció por 2-1 a Empoli, gracias a un doblete de Cristiano Ronaldo.— infoPauloDybala (@infoPD21) October 28, 2018
El primer tanto del portugués fue de penal, tras una infracción a Paulo Dybala dentro del área del conjunto Azzurri. pic.twitter.com/beZxIsW7H1
The information revealed included player-specific tasks for free kicks, split out for different zones on the pitch. Quite the eye for detail in terms of preparation and a testimony of Juventus’ specific attention to this important element of the game. It should by no means be news that a big team prepares their set pieces, but it supports the case about Juventus that already appeared in the numbers.
Juventus’ set piece superiority is most pronounced in two areas: corners and penalties. Both Juventus and Napoli take around seven corners per match, with Juventus just a little more likely to turn a corner into a goal scoring attempt. On average, 36% of Juventus’ corners result in a shot attempt, compared to 33% of Napoli’s corners. The difference lies in the quality of shots created off corners. The attempts that Juventus creates off corners are of the type that goes in in around 26% of cases. For Napoli, this numbers is at just 18%.
Juventus are also superior in chance creation off free kicks, and they were awarded more penalties. Just this element of the game – creating shots off set pieces – gives Juventus an estimated advantage of ten goals scored over a full season. Kind of hard to make up ground then, even if you match Serie A’s best team in open play.
Part of what makes football – like many other team ball sports – such a fascinating game is that with eleven players in continuous uncontrolled motion, one can train patterns and aim for control, but it remains impossible to cover all angles, to plug all holes.
For all their charm and quality, Napoli’s game carries such a hole. An essential element in Napoli’s open play offense is the mobility and constant interchangement up front. This season, the dynamic sparks are mostly provided by creative little geniuses Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens. Juventus, by contrast, provide a more physical lineup, both in midfield and in a front three centered around Mario Mandzukic and Cristiano Ronaldo. All of this makes Juventus’ squad much more qualified for an elite set piece game, on either end of the pitch.
In the public domain, football analysis is almost exclusively focused on open play patterns. Set piece routines and the implications for squad building and first elevens to send out for a particular match are rarely discussed in match previews, but are fully deserving of a much bigger stage.
For sure, a clip of a free flowing multi-pass move resulting in a brilliant goal will attract a bigger crowd than a carefully rehearsed set piece routine. In the end, both are in essence just the process of a goal being scored, with the set piece routine carrying a lot more potential for replication.
It is in this less sexy domain that Juventus has crafted this season’s Serie A domination. They did it to such degree that they – and set pieces as a whole – deserve more plaudits than they get. Just a shame that they conceded two set piece goals in the potential season-defining loss at to Atlético in the first knockout round of the Champions League, their all important target this season.
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