The Dossier: Can Juventus challenge for the Champions League playing 3-5-2?

The Bianconeri's troubled start to Group B has raised questions about whether the Italians are again destined to fall short in Europe unless they change formation

By Carlo Garganese

When Juventus were crushed 4-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League quarter-finals, the main talking point concerned the suitability of Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 formation. The consensus among experts was that against world-class opposition the Italian's preferred system would always be overwhelmed by a 4-2-3-1, like the one employed by Jupp Heynckes.

This discussion has returned in recent weeks following Juventus' stuttering start to their current European campaign. On the opening matchday in Group B, the Bianconeri were humiliatingly held 1-1 at Copenhagen.

Although the 1985 and 1996 champions squandered a host of clear-cut chances and were denied time and again by the inspired Swedish goalkeeper Johan Wiland, the failure to beat the Danish minnows did not bode well for Juve’s hopes of going all the way in Europe’s premier club competition. This was confirmed on matchday two, with the Italians only managing a dismal 2-2 home draw against a crisis-hit Galatasaray side in their first game under new coach Roberto Mancini.

With just two points from two games and a double-header against Spanish giants Real Madrid to come, Juventus risk going into their final two group fixtures as many as five points behind Galatasaray in the battle for second place.

In Italy over the past two years, the 3-5-2 has proved an overwhelming success for Juve. After scrapping initial plans to use an ultra-attacking 4-2-4, Conte eventually mirrored the setup of then Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri – albeit with a far more offensive mentality – and the Old Lady went the entire 2011-12 league season unbeaten before romping home to a second successive Scudetto in May.

In Europe, though, the 3-5-2 has been far less effective. Last year, four points from the double-header against holders Chelsea and an impressive win at Shakhtar Donetsk were sullied by another Danish draw, against Nordsjaelland, a hugely flattering away victory over Celtic and the aforementioned double-destruction by Bayern.

There are tactical reasons for the disparity between Juventus’ results in Serie A and Europe.

First of all, the 3-5-2 – having first truly arrived onto the global scene with Carlos Bilardo and Argentina at the 1986 World Cup – has enjoyed something of a renaissance in Italy over the past couple of years. There are currently 13 teams in Serie A who regularly use a variation of the formation. As Juventus have the best players, the deepest squad and an excellent coach, they are rarely challenged by weaker opponents playing the same system (although even in Italy this term, Juve have been far from their best and they are currently five points behind leaders Roma after losing 4-2 at Fiorentina on Sunday).

In the continent’s other major championships, the 3-5-2 is very uncommon – a notable exception being Alain Casanova’s Toulouse in Ligue 1. Thus, when Juventus line up in the Champions League, they encounter less familiar formations – particularly the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 which are most popular elsewhere. Rafa Benitez’s Napoli are the only Italian side to utilise the former, while less than a handful of outfits deploy the latter (leaders Roma, perhaps tellingly, use a 4-3-3). As there is a dearth of wingers and outside forwards in Italy, Juventus get little practice defending widemen from higher starting positions.

This proved decisive in the defeat to Bayern, as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery ran riot down both sides. In a 3-5-2, the wing-backs are responsible for patrolling the entire flank. This meant that the German side’s full-backs, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, were left unmarked and could, therefore, motor up the pitch at will to create overlaps. In defensive phases, Robben and Ribery didn’t need to track back, making Bayern even more dangerous on transitions. Against teams who possess top class wingers and full-backs, Juventus are tactically vulnerable in wide areas.

The increased pressing and pace injected by teams from England, Germany and Spain is also impacted by formation. In matchday one, Napoli illustrated how to beat Dortmund at their own game by successfully moving up and down the pitch as a tightly-knit unit – limiting the space between the defensive line and striker Gonzalo Higuain. AC Milan, using a 4-3-1-2, did the same to Barcelona’s 4-3-3 in their 2-0 win at San Siro last season.

One of Juventus’ biggest problems in Europe has been the huge gaps between each department. As there is no official link between midfield and attack, the 3-5-2 can lack fluency against strong opposition. Carlos Tevez has been a revelation since joining from Manchester City and often drops into the hole, but Juve’s action between the lines is limited. The play can become predictable, with most positions fixed, and susceptible to pressing – as evidenced against Copenhagen, when Juventus resorted to more than 60 long balls in each half.

Conte would potentially eliminate many of the above problems by switching to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, but such a modification would bring with it even more difficulties. First of all – as has already been demonstrated with the Italy national team - Juventus’ outstanding back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini is far less formidable when remoulded into a four-man defence. Bonucci is not a marker and struggles in any role other than the centre of a three, while Chiellini would be awkwardly shifted out to left back due to a lack of natural options.

Juve just do not possess the attacking midfielders for a 4-2-3-1 and it would take at least one summer transfer window to revolutionise that area. Juve have regularly been testing the 4-3-3 at their Vinovo training ground, leaving the door open to a potential change of formation, but it is very debatable whether Conte can field three forwards of Champions League-challenging quality. If the struggling Fernando Llorente can live up to expectations, the chances of a successful switch will increase. 

Interestingly, word from the Juventus camp is that Conte may utilise a 4-3-1-2 against Madrid at the Bernabeu. But this system is outdated and there is no natural trequartista in the Old Lady's squad anyway - such a solution is not for the long-term.

Certainly, Juventus may have to embrace change if recent history is anything to go by. The last time a team won the Champions League playing a formation resembling a 3-5-2 was way back in 2001. That team, perhaps tellingly, was Bayern Munich.

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