The talk around Turin is that they need to change formation to have a chance of winning but manager Conte is downplaying their chances.
He’s probably right to. After all, it’s only their second season in the Champions League since 2008-09 and after a 1-1 draw at Copenhagen it hasn’t gotten off to the most auspicious start. And another season of departures from Serie A has no one proclaiming that Italy will produce another European Cup winner in the near future. The consensus view is that although Juventus will be strong enough to get through to the knockout stages, they’ll not trouble any of the main contenders. As a team they’re probably a few seasons away from getting enough experience anyway. The question is whether they can do it with their current system.
It’s worth remembering how thoroughly Juventus have been dominating their league. They’ve been champions for the last two years. They were unbeaten for 49 consecutive league games, including all 38 across the 2011-12 season. Playing 3-5-2 obviously works for them domestically. Conte himself sees no reason for change and has said this publically. In their unbeaten season they used to switch between formations depending on the games, switching from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 depending on who they were playing and the players they had available. Since then they’ve seemed to settle into using just the one. The transfer business in the summer had them signing two strikers in Tevez and Llorente and Angelo Ogbonna a young central defender from Torino. If Conte had any plans to change to a back four he would have surely addressed the glaring absence of quality full backs in his squad (His best option as it stands would be to shift Chiellini to left back and move Lichtsteiner back on the right. Not bad but not exactly frightening when compared to say Bayern’s Lahm and Alaba or Barca’s Alves and Jordi Alba). It looks like Conte is serious when he says his team will stick to what they know.
Conte knows that his team’s strength is through the middle of midfield and in central defence and its weakness is down the flanks. His chosen formation both confirms and provokes this. In central midfield Vidal and Pirlo are as good as anyone. Vidal in particular has improved over the last two seasons to become something approaching a force of nature when he’s in form. The strength there has been a big factor in them dominating games. At times last season Conte had Pogba alongside them and Machiso just further forward, fitting four central midfielders in the same team. Conte also likes to have two strikers, either Vucinic or Llorente with Tevez working between the lines. Having three at the back gives them the licence to include two of them without compromising in midfield.
The games that started the debate over whether Juve’s formation might be limiting were the Champions League quarter final loses to Bayern, both of them 2-0. In all honesty they didn’t ever get close to them over the two games. If there was ever a team set up to cause Juve problems it’s the Bavarians, with their cadre of intelligent wingers and attacking full backs. The Italians were outpressed and outrun more than anything, unable to live with their opponents ability to do everything with both precision and speed. Apart from Dortmund (arguably) there wasn’t another team that could live with Bayern in Europe last season. The suspicion remains though that Juventus were almost the perfect opponents for them.
Then there’s the argument that Barcelona have basically been playing 3-5-2 for years without ever doing the decent thing and coming out and admitting it. In the last days of Pep in particular Busquets would often drop back between Pique and Puyol when the full backs pushed forward, often past midfield (especially Alves, who was playing most of the time as more of winger than a full back). No one questioned the formation then. The difference is that Juventus do it with three pure centre backs and Pirlo as the deepest lying midfielder. Bluntly, Barcelona can hope to negate the opposition’s influence through pressing. Juventus at the moment can not.
It would be such a shame for 3-5-2 if Juventus felt the need to change from it only a few short years after it came roaring back from a decade in the wilderness as the hipster formation de jour. Napoli, the other major exponents of it, have recently moved to a back four under Benitez (although Mazzarri has brought it with him to his new Inter). If Juventus fail to make an impact in Europe over the next few seasons it’ll be a blow for variety more than anything. And with their domestic challengers getting stronger, and no one retaining Serie A three seasons in a row in sixty years, Europe is really the only place they can hope to make a new impact.
More than anything it bears repeating that Juventus are a young team in Champions League terms and are getting to be an older one in real terms. It took Bayern years of disappointment and two losing finals before they were able to dominate Europe last season. Juventus have a long way to go before they’re at that point. There’s also the question of when their older players need replacing. After the quarter final defeats to Bayern and the European Championship final loss to Spain it seems almost like sacrilege to say but Pirlo might be finally past running games at the very top level, even with Vidal to do his running for him. Domestically they look set to be there or thereabouts for the foreseeable future. Whether Conte wants to risk refreshing his team in the seasons to come will go a long way to decide whether they can make more of an impact in Europe. That rather than their system will be the deciding factor.