A home match against local rivals Torino, who are hardly setting Serie A alight, might seem the perfect fixture for a Juventus side suffering a sudden dip in form. However, if Il Granata keep their nerve and stick to the audacious tactics they’ve been using lately, they might provide a thrillingly unorthodox threat in the Derby Della Mole.
Against Roma last weekend veteran Torino coach Giampiero Ventura showcased a remarkably brave formation. If he tries it against the strongest side in Italy, the fur will definitely fly one way or the other.
It seems appropriate that Ventura stuck to his guns at the Stadio Olimpico. After all, he was locking horns with the most daring yet inflexible tactical ideologue of them all. The exotic, reckless allure of Zdeněk Zeman is well recorded, of course. How might one describe his swashbuckling style? It’s a bit like Marcelo Bielsa on speed.
He favours a vertical style of play, getting the ball forwards as swiftly as possible, but not in the Route One manner familiar in the UK. Instead, he insists on playing the ball quickly forwards to feet or into space, and commits an insane number of bodies high up the pitch to facilitate this. His players always have positive passing options, or as he puts it:
“In my football I try to eliminate pointless things, so for me a horizontal pass is futile, as it’s just loaning each other the ball. We must always try to do something that will have meaning.”
It leads to a thrilling spectacle as his fast-paced sides tear into the opposing half. The drawback, of course, is that they are horribly vulnerable on the break.
That match against Torino two rounds ago was goalless with twenty minutes left, and it just felt wrong. Goalless draws are rare in Zemanlandia.
But the game offered a fascinating glimpse into how Torino play. It doesn’t get as much publicity as Zeman, but Ventura has come up with a tactic which is possibly even more daring.
He has returned to an old-fashioned 4-2-4, the sort of formation last used widely when Silvio Berlusconi was working the cruise ships! To describe it as bold would be a massive understatement: it’s downright crazy in the context of modern football. Not only does he leave two men in the middle of the pitch, in serious danger of being swamped, but against Roma he started out by playing his full backs as wing-backs!
This led to an intriguing match-up which felt like watching football from a hundred years ago. Zeman favours attacking full backs too, so it was virtually 2-5-3 versus 2-4-4! It was almost as if Ventura, in his eighteenth spell of club management, had decided he might as well throw caution to the wind and enjoy himself!
Perhaps his thinking was partly counter-intuitive: by pushing his full backs up he essentially negated their Roma counterparts, leaving the quartet to cancel each other out on the flanks and reduce the match to a battle for supremacy in the centre of the pitch and in either penalty area. It didn’t work.
The opening half hour was, as you might imagine, terrifically open, with Torino playing early diagonals to their wingers to try and get in behind Roma, but the Giallorossi began to find space behind the two Torino midfielders, and would have taken a decisive lead if their finishing hadn’t been so poor.
Ventura had to react, and he did so by drawing his tactical horns in a little. The full backs were drawn back into much more conservative positions, staying back and tucking in to create a very narrow back four. It was a complete volte face in terms of his approach to the match: having identified Roma’s full backs as their key threat, and keeping occupied and pushed back, they were suddenly allowed free rein down the flanks. Torino instead were stationing four defenders in the box and allowing service to come into the area unhindered, backing their ability to repel it.
It was an approach which worked well: too well for the neutral observer. The two sides, despite still fielding lop-sidedly attacking formations, began to cancel each other out. Roma controlled midfield but there was no space to get in behind a deep, well drilled defence. Meanwhile, the Torino front four were left isolated and didn’t get adequate service.
It took a dubious penalty to give Roma the breakthrough, so Ventura knows his approach can work against strong opposition. But how bold will he be against the Old Lady?
Juventus have been playing three at the back lately and that might just encourage Ventura to take the brave route. If he can pin back Juve’s wing backs he’ll have won a crucial battle, and unlike the psychotically attacking Zeman, virtually all coaches would adapt their approach and become more defensive if faced with four strikers.
If Torino can turn Juventus’ three at the back into a five, with the usually adventurous Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner covering as full backs, then their midfield duo won’t be so exposed, and the attacking full backs will be able to dominate the flanks.
It’s an intriguing prospect, and as Juve have just dropped eight points out of twelve, following up the loss of their record forty-eight match unbeaten run with two losses and a draw in the next four games, they seem mentally fragile. A hostile derby atmosphere and a suicidally-attacking opposition throwing themselves at them like wode-smothered Scots in “Braveheart” doesn’t sound like the sort of combination a nervous side want to come up with. If Ventura has the courage to stick to his principles, this could be a fascinating match.