Few things in life make me happier than a well-crafted (American) soccer game book. It describes the basic principles and underlying philosophy of a trainer. It defines how they want to do the big things and, through the games themselves, the little things. As a writer or fan, combing one is guaranteed to learn something about the sport that you already think you know quite a bit about it. (It’s basically the whole reason I have a Scribd subscription – random game books sometimes show up there.)
Thanks to Andrea Pirlo, I now know that it works the same way in football. There are no three-digit playbooks per se, but there are still philosophical books. Pirlo’s master’s thesis, submitted to the Italian Association as part of his pro-license courses, appeared online a few months ago. Translated from Italian into English, it says The Football I Would Like.
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Its existence is both fascinating in that it allows us to see the game with particularly thoughtful, expert eyes, and educational in that it enables us to compare what the Juventus manager wants to what his team actually produces . (Oh, and they are hosting Turin in the derby this Saturday – Stream LIVE, Midday ET, ESPN + (USA) – which gives us another chance to see his work in action.)
(Note: all of the quotes below are translated from Italian and may not be 100% accurate.)
First things first: how is Juve?
You do … okay. Not terrible, but certainly not great, especially by the standards of a nine-time defending champion.
Without the standard win against Napoli, Juve averages just 1.75 points per game actually played, which corresponds to just 67 points in 38 games. Teams with 65 to 69 points average fourth, and only one Serie A champion has had less than 70 points this century: Lazio, 2000-01. They allow the second smallest goals per game, but they only score the seventh most goals on average. Their goal and their xG differences each take fourth place.
Juve haven’t really lost yet, but they don’t finish any games either: they have won three games with a combined 9-1, scored three points over Napoli Standard and otherwise drew five Matches. They have thrived more than any other big club in Europe over the years in close-match situations but they are losing points left and right in early 2020/21.
The good news? Nothing is gross or definitely broken. They are one point behind second place and just six behind a hot AC Milan. They make more shots and better shots than their opponents, they finish more of their possessions in the attacking third, and their average of one point per game in tight games will almost certainly tick up. They also qualified for the knockout round in the Champions League without any problems, albeit in a painfully easy group.
Still, they haven’t played either of the two Milanese clubs – they left both of them in January – and … this is Juventus! I Bianconeri! You shouldn’t rationalize that being a few points away from first place isn’t that bad for Juventus. That alone makes Pirlo’s first season disappointing so far.
That said, aligning with Pirlo’s stated vision would likely spell good things for the future. How’s that working?
Ale Moreno sums up Cristiano Ronaldo’s 750th goal for club and country in Juventus’ win over Dynamo Kiev.
A modern football team playing a modern ball possession game
It’s good to know the keywords – the things the hiring manager is likely to want to hear. For almost any of the 10-12 richest football clubs in the world, they are likely to want to learn about the dominance of ball possession. That’s the name of the game in 2020, and Pirlo hit as many of those notes as he could on his thesis.
– “I believe that a proactive, attacking and quality football can bring great benefits.”
– “The two basic principles of my idea of football are related to the ball: we want to and must keep it as long as possible until we attack, and we have to be competitive so that we can regain it as soon as we lose it.”
– “We want to attack well, defend well.”
Pirlo mentioned Pep Guardiolas Barcelona as one of the teams who shaped his vision of football. The above quotes went straight from Guardiola’s brain to Pirlo’s fingertips.
Pirlo wants to dominate the ball like a big club should do, although Juve has only been doing it that way so far. Among the five major European leagues, 14 teams can beat Juve’s 58.8% ball possession rate. In Serie A they are in second place behind Sassuolo (60.6%) and slightly ahead of Inter Milan (56.9%) and Napoli (55.6%).
Of course there is possession and there is dangerous Possession, often derived from the “Go and get it back when lost” part of the above quotations. Juve starts in the attacking third with only 6.5 possessions per game and ranks 62nd among the 98 “Big 5” teams. They still create good odds – 47% of their possessions end in the attacking third (third in Serie A) and they average 0.18 shots per possession (fifth) – but they don’t put enough pressure on the opposing side of the pitch.
This is illustrated pretty well by looking at a variety of leagues.
In many ways, this is the Ronaldo Effect in action.
Twenty-one players in the Big 5 have scored at least seven goals so far this year, with an average of 18.5 balls between them. However, 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo only has seven and is the least connected to 39-year-old Milanese Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Ronaldo is a one-man offensive structure; In three league games without him, Juve averaged just 1 goal per game and 0.10 xG per shot. In five with him, they averaged 2.4 goals and 0.16 xG per shot. At the same time, they start 8.3 possessions per game in the attacking third without him and 5.4 with him. He creates the style of play for his team, no matter what the manager is up to.
Saturday’s disappointing 1-1 draw against Benevento, played without Ronaldo, was the clearest case study. With Alvaro Morata, the potential Ronaldo successor Federico Chiesa and the slumped Paolo Dybala, who started at the front, Juve had 63.1% possession, started 12 possessions in the attacking third and doubled Benevento’s total shot. But they had an average of only 0.10 xG per shot, Dybala missed one of the few high quality attempts and Juve got stuck.
Gab Marcotti urges Andrea Pirlo to be patient as he tries to steer Juventus in a different direction.
Another type of “Key Pass” (and a Juve strength)
From Pirlo’s (translated) thesis: “In the possession phase, the defenders became the first directors of the team, often taking on the task of building up, given the numerous man-made points to which the game teams are exposed the ‘key goes’ (ball transfer that crosses an opposite pressure line) the central defenders outnumber the midfielders, who have always led the way in this important statistic. “
The idea of breaking a pressure line isn’t overly debated statistically, and big data platforms already have a statistic called a “key pass” that measures something completely different.
Whatever we want to call it, we can measure the concept of level-to-level passing quite effectively by simply looking at the rate of completion of passes from the defending third of the field (D33) to the middle third (M3). As it turns out, this is one of Juve’s particular strengths.
Pass completion rate, striker passes from players other than the goalkeeper (Big 5 leagues) in the middle third:
1. PSG (81.0% in 24.5 passes per game)
2. Real Madrid (77.4% in 27.0)
3. Juventus (74.3% in 28.8)
4th Barcelona (73.5% in 20.6)
5. Sassuolo (73.0% in 28.8)
6th Napoli (73.0% in 24.5)
7th Borussia Dortmund (72.1% in 28.7)
8th. Monaco (71.9% in 24.3)
9. Rennes (71.8% in 31.9)
10. Angers SCO (70.7% in 31.3)
Juve are among the best in Europe when it comes to safely moving the ball from one zone to another, even though that didn’t start with Pirlo. After completing only 66.7% of these passports in 2018/19, they improved to 74.9% last year under Maurizio Sarri. This time they basically hit the same mark. Last season, Leonardo Bonucci and Alex Sandro completed 75% of 341 such passes. This year, Bonucci and left-back Danilo made 78.7% of 89 passes after Sandro was out with a thigh injury.
The quality in this regard has allowed Juve to organize solid attacks without high quality pushing, but it hasn’t stopped opponents from creating chances by pushing themselves. The opponents started 7.4 possessions per game in the attacking third, more than Juve. There is a bug in the ball control matrix.
On the plus side, Sassuolo, another good “D3-to-M3” team, struggles even more in this regard. Structure has potential disadvantages.
What role does a midfielder play? Everything.
While the roles in football have changed and become broader over the years, pushing them puts attackers in the front line of defense while, as Pirlo noted above, center-backs are often the catalysts of proper offensive build-up. We can still come up with fairly well-defined main roles for center-backs, strikers, wingers, etc., but the role of a midfielder has never been so extensive.
Again from the Pirlo thesis:
“After a historic period dominated by physical midfielders (the 1990s), the effectiveness of technical players with a great view of the game has been rediscovered in the middle of the field. To those traits, of course, must be added a good dose of mobility being able to to carry out more functions (e.g. construction and completion) and a particularly mental disposition for the defensive phase, with an immediate renewed attack if the ball is lost. “
According to Pirlo, the midfield as a collective is the key to pressing (“the midfielder” [are] most involved in the re-aggression phase “), defensive solidity in the box (he” enters the line of defense to form a basic 5-a-side line, to defend better in width and to be centrally aggressive ” ) and quick attack transitions () “With midfielders, wingers and strikers on your leg you can quickly restart attacking”). A good midfielder has to be technically excellent, fast and strong. He has to have great defensive instincts. And great offensive instincts. And pretty much every other trait in existence.
This in turn creates an interesting context for the steps Juventus have taken since hiring Pirlo. With this long list of responsibilities, it is easy to see that stability may be more important in this area of the field than in others. Except that Juve didn’t get much of it. They had already agreed to bring in Barcelona’s Arthur (basically a one-man deal for Miralem Pjanic) before Pirlo’s hiring, but they also signed 22-year-old Weston McKennie from Schalke and 22-year-old Federico Chiesa from Fiorentina. year old Dejan Kulusevski was brought back from a Parma loan and included in the list.
The promise and potential is obvious. Arthur is particularly solid at getting the ball into attacking positions – he makes 89% of his passes in the attacking third and wins 60% of his duels in the middle third. The top three in Stats Performs Expected Assists Measure (xA) are Chiesa (1.2), McKennie (0.9) and Kulusevski (0.7). And neither Chiesa nor McKennie have exceeded 250 league minutes!
Even so, injuries and positive COVID-19 tests have resulted in decent instability in the lineup. Of the eight midfielders who have played at least 200 minutes so far, four are new to the team and five are 23 or younger. This was almost guaranteed to create the kind of inconsistency Juve has been suffering from this season.
Juve’s squad were in dire need of youngsters and it could easily be said that they need to go a little further to freshen things up. But if you do, you run the risk of uncertainty, especially when you are doing it in what is obviously the most important area of constellation.
Along the road
This has always been a particularly challenging season for Juve and their title streak. The roster was getting on in years and needed to be refreshed. The club let the mainstays Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi leave for Inter Miami, swapped Pjanic for the younger Arthur and even loaned the 30-year-old Douglas Costa to Bayern. They brought in 27-year-old Alvaro Morata to complement and spell Ronaldo, and the four new midfielders mentioned above (including Kulusevski) have an average age of 21.8.
Upgrading without a hiccup or two is next to impossible. Even Bayern stumbled a little in the Champions League game, if not in the Bundesliga, as they are going through a squad renewal themselves. Combine that with the fact that both Inter and AC Milan have brought their respective acts together over the past few months. Napoli and Roma seemed prepared to improve and we could almost certainly see a race closer than what we saw in most of the 2010s. So far this is being played.
Juve basically got fourth place this year and there’s nothing to say they’ll ever find fifth gear. In all honesty, I’d probably bet against it. But if they do well in key upcoming games – against Atalanta on December 16, in Milan on January 6, at Inter on January 17 and of course in the Champions League round of 16 in February – they could buy enough time to take Pirlos To continue realizing vision, to completely transform into the model of a modern large football club and to play all the trophies they got used to late in the season.