Football Features

Can the perfect strike partnership deliver Juventus Champions League success?

By Harry Edwards

Published: 23:06, 16 February 2021

Juventus’ quest for a third Champions League triumph takes them to face Porto in the last-16 with pressure on Andrea Pirlo building ever so slightly.

One of Europe’s biggest clubs, Juventus haven’t won the ‘Big Ears’ trophy since 1996, beating Ajax on penalties. Since then, they’ve been runners-up on five occasions, including back-to-back in 1997 and 1998.

Over the past decade, Juventus have secured domination of Italy, but the Champions League has continued to elude them. However, this season the Bianconeri are in danger of losing their monopoly on Serie A, registering their worst record after 21 games in nine seasons (42 points). So it might be time for them to put all their eggs in the Champions League basket and give Pirlo the biggest boost in his early managerial career.

Given a potentially favourable draw against Porto, Juventus are 2/9 with Sky Bet to qualify to the quarter-finals but 12/1 (fifth favourites) to go all the way and win the Champions League. But to do that, they do still need to get past Porto. (18+ only. Odds correct at time of publication. T&Cs apply. BeGambleAware.)

Different shape, same style

A lot can happen in the two months between the end of the Champions League group stages and the start of the last-16 and for Juventus, it has been a change in formation, albeit not in the way they play.

In the Champions League, both as a starting formation and in-game, Juventus largely went for an Antonio Conte-inspired three-man central defence that allowed security at the back but also encouraged attacking football. They averaged 51% possession across their six group stage matches, although that figure was slightly hampered by the fact they had to play Barcelona twice (averaging 40.98% vs the Blaugrana).

The main star in the Champions League has been Juan Cuadrado in his role as a wing-back, becoming one of the more advanced players on the pitch, though his wing-back partner wasn’t too far behind, both over the halfway line. It’s through the wing-backs that Juventus get all their width, with the rest of the team very narrow, including the two strikers who are practically on top of each other as the above graphic shows.

But it’s also worth noting that the 3-5-2 could also look similar to a deformed 4-4-2 with the right-sided centre-back moving over to cover Cuadrado, though the narrow midfield and lack of cover for the left side do make Juventus susceptible for the counter.

However, in Serie A, Pirlo has favoured a 4-4-2/4-2-4 variation, though that has partly been due to injury problems at the back. The playing style is similar when playing with four at the back, especially in the case of Cuadrado, who keeps his place on the halfway line, but this time there is a gap between the Colombian and his right-sided centre-back.

Again similar to the 3-5-2, the majority of the attacking players are quite narrow, with the two strikers and left winger forming a neat triangle while the right winger is closer to his own touchline.

With the grouping, it’s no surprise that Juventus have their more dangerous attacks down the left flank in both the Champions League and Serie A, although the frequency is split fairly evenly. It’s here where Porto will have to solidify to frustrate Juventus, especially if Alex Sandro comes in at left-back with Danilo likely to switch over to the right to cover for the injured Cuadrado.

The perfect Champions League strike partnership

Whether Pirlo opts for a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2, he’s going to play both Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata, and it’s something that has worked perfectly for him in the Champions League this season.

Between them, Morata and Ronaldo have scored 10 of Juventus’ 14 goals in the Champions League this season, with the Spaniard leading the way on six — the joint-most in the competition so far. The goals have come from Morata and Ronaldo not just getting themselves into good goalscoring positions, but different ones.

Everyone knows Ronaldo is one of the best all-round goal threats in football history, and in the Champions League this season, his Expected Goals through various methods are high. But the one area he has struggled to get chances is with his head, perhaps surprisingly considering his aerial prowess.

Juventus don’t have to worry, though, with Morata perfectly filling in. And it works in reverse too, with Ronaldo covering Morata’s weakness with his right foot and from set plays. Morata and Ronaldo: the perfect Champions League duo.