Juventus 0-0 Inter: Cuadrado-Mandzukic combination can’t quite provide the winner

December 11, 2017

This match pitted six-time champions Juventus against surprise league leaders Inter, and produced an old-school Serie A game: patient, tactical, defences on top, but very much enthralling.

Juventus manager Max Allegri omitted Paulo Dybala from his starting XI – after an excellent start to the campaign, the Argentine has been off-form in recent weeks. Allegri opted for a more secure system with three central midfielders, plus Juan Cuadrado on the right and Mario Mandzukic wide-left.

Inter boss Luciano Spalletti has been very consistent with his team selection so far this season. The biggest area of change has been in midfield. Today, Matias Vecino returned, Marcelo Brozovic continued, and Roberto Gagliardini was left out.

Midfield battle

Allegri’s formation decision was about competing in the centre of the pitch, effectively matching Inter’s three-man midfield. This shape is effectively a return to the type of midfield Juventus used a few years ago, when the energy of Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal allowed Andrea Pirlo to sit deep and create. Here, it was Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi pushing forward, leaving Miralem Pjanic in front of the defence.

In the opening stages, though, Juventus’ midfielders spent more time pressing Inter’s trio rather than building attacking moves. Matuidi and Kheidra were instructed to press Inter’s two deeper midfielders, usually Vecino and Borja Valero, who have a good relationship from their Fiorentina days. However, Inter got the upper hand in this zone by rotating their three: Brozovic came deep to create overloads, while Ivan Perisic moved inside from the flank to further outnumber Juventus.

Juve struggled to cope with this, and were forced to break up the play by fouling: Pjanic clattered Brozovic in the early stages, and Matuidi tripped Valero. Inter had started better.

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Inter attacking

The problem, though, was that Inter’s possession was largely fruitless. It wasn’t like Juventus were entirely happy to allow them the ball – they were attempting to engage high up the pitch – but transferring the ball into the attacking players proved difficult for the away side. Brozovic’s movement towards the ball meant Mauro Icardi was isolated for long periods, and Valero seemed more likely to provide the connection with unseen late runs from the left.

Out wide, Perisic was peripheral, marked out of the game by Mattia De Sciglio. He also miscued badly on one occasion after a good switch of play, while Antonio Candreva looks off-form and got little change from Alex Kwadwo Asamoah. Juve’s left-back made one mistake, a slip which allowed Candreva in, but the magnificent Giorgio Chiellini covered well. Chiellini also brought the ball forward from the back effectively, in a Juventus system which appeared as both a three-man and a four-man defence at times, with Asamoah a full-back/wing-back and De Sciglio a centre-back/full-back. Juve’s tactical flexibility has become second nature and is now taken for granted, but no other side in Europe can shift between systems as effectively.

Stikers invisible

After the midfield battle, the second major feature of the game was the complete lack of involvement from the two Argentine striker, Icardo and Gonzalo Higuain. Both were up against two centre-backs and received absolutely no service, despite making good runs off the ball. Icardi did get Mehdi Benatia booked, however, when the Moroccan defender followed him into the opposition half and slid in front behind. Icardi was having to move considerably deeper than usual to receive any service.

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Towards the end of the first half, both Icardi and Higuain were caught offside within the space of a minute, both when starting runs from behind the defence and coming towards play. This was no more than a coincidence, but it summarised the fact they had an identical experience throughout this game.

Juventus attacks

After being on the back foot for the opening half hour, Juventus gradually started to dominate possession. Their best move of the first half forced a good save from Samir Handanovic, and was a perfect demonstration of their midfield play. After a rare example when Juventus successfully pressed to win possession in the opposition half, Pjanic found himself in a pocket of space, and chipped the ball forward to Matuidi, breaking forward to the edge of the box, who chested down for Khedira to unleash a volley. It would have been a brilliant strike, and goal that summarised Juve’s system: Pjanic creating from deep, the other two shuttling forward.

But Juventus’ main route to goal was very, very obvious. They continually looked right to Cuadrado, who got the better of David Santon, and he launched huge, deep crosses to the far post, where Mario Mandzukic would arrive late , turning from a left-winger into a second striker. This must have happened at least five times, including in the first 10 minutes after Inter’s centre-backs defended the cross poorly, allowing Mandzukic to sneak around the back and force Handanovic into action, before his foll0w-up effort was cleared off the line by Miranda. Another of Cuadrado’s deep crosses was also the final major action of the first half, when an identical situation resulted in Mandzukic heading against the top of the crossbar.

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Juventus take charge

In the second half it was the same story. On 51 minutes, Cuadrado crossed deep for Mandzukic, who didn’t read the bounce of the ball – it hit him and bounced into the arms of Handanovic. A minute later, Cuadrado crossed deep for Mandzukic again, but Inter right-back Danilo D’Ambrosio headed clear. Cuadrado was clearly the dangerman, and then exchanged passes with Higuain and had a headed attempt at goal himself. Shortly afterwards, Santon was cautioned for hacking down the Colombian, which resulted in Santon hurting himself and being replaced by Angel Dealbert. You suspect Spalletti probably would have replaced him anyway, such were his struggles against Juve’s key attacking weapon.

Juventus simply appeared fitter than Inter going in the final 25 minutes, and were far more likely to grab a winner. The substitutions reflected the managers’ different approaches: Spalletti replaced Candreva and introduced defensive midfielder Gagliardini to protect the defence, while Juventus moved to more of a 4-2-3-1 with the removal of Khedira and the introduction of Dybala – who, it must be said, looked completely off the pace during his 15 minute-cameo.

The game ended in a fitting manner: Cuadrado launched yet another cross to the far post for Mandzukic…who slipped over. Juve’s approach was promising, their execution not quite right.

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