Coming into this game, the opening match of this season’s Champions League for both of these two European heavyweights, things looked very different for Man City and Juventus. Where the home side had cruised to five wins out of five in the Premier League and added depth to an already strong squad in the summer, the Italians had sold a number of key players and struggled to just one point of a possible nine in Serie A so far. So before kick-off, there was undoubtedly a favourite for this game.
Even if the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal are no longer there, though, one thing that the Bianconeri demonstrated that they haven’t lost is their incredible defensive organisation. Max Allegri set his team up excellently and managed to nullify the attacking threat of the home side for the majority of the game, and combined with a clinical edge in front of goal their tactics in England rewarded them with three points on the night.
At times in the first-half it ended up as a 4-4-2, but Juventus’ shape was primarily a 4-5-1 throughout the game. Álvaro Morata’s positioning without the ball was the decisive factor in this – sometimes he joined Mario Mandžukić centrally and pressed higher up the field, whilst at most others he took his place on the left side of the midfield. Juan Cuadrado, meanwhile, filled in on the right flank.
Having Morata perform a mixture of these things was an important factor of his side’s defensive success. The former part, which involved him and Mandžukić blocking passing lanes and slowing down Man City’s build-up play, gave the rest of the team an important bit of extra time to get into their shape. The latter, meanwhile, when he was positioned on the left, allowed Juventus to be even more compact in both a horizontal and vertical sense. That, in particular, was a crucial thing to do against Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
Playing in their preferred 4-2-3-1 system, Man City are one of Europe’s most lethal teams when it comes to exposing gaps between the lines and attacking half-spaces. By being so compact, though, and stopping them from developing possession quickly, Juventus denied them any space in those areas. The third receiving line was completely blocked and David Silva, the creative heartbeat of the side, was choked out of the game.
This meant that a lot of Man City’s play was in front of not only the opposition’s defence, but their midfield as well. Fernandinho and Yaya Touré – as well as Vincent Kompany who regularly stepped out with the ball too – had a lot of possession, though despite their best attempts to find him, Silva only had any luck with getting on the ball when he dropped very deep or pulled out to the touchline.
Some specific credit for that should be given to Hernanes, who often sat a little bit deeper than the rest of the midfield five. Morata’s role helped to allow the Brazilian to do such a thing, due to the extra body in the central zone, and this made even less space between the tight lines which Juventus’ midfield and extremely well-positioned defence already held.
It was a team thing overall though, and beyond Raheem Sterling’s good chance in the second minute (after Fernandinho brilliantly won the ball in the very rarely open midfield and charged forward to give it to the winger) Man City failed to test Gianluigi Buffon in the first-half.
If the home team created little in those opening 45 minutes, though, then the away side created even less. From an offensive point of view their shape had quite a big impairment on their ability to counter-attack, with Cuadrado and Morata out wide and Mandžukić the only attacker permanently in a central area. Paul Pogba charged forward a few times from deep (and actually had a goal rightfully ruled out for a Morata offside) with great skill, but the lack of support meant he, like the rest of the attackers, was also often isolated.
This made it easier for Man City to pick off these few attacks: and Fernandinho and Touré, as well as the two centre-backs, were very quick to shut them down and limit space. Fernandinho particularly shuttled well defensively and recovered the ball on numerous occasions, such as he did for that Sterling chance, and Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala had a notably nice understanding with their positioning together in defence. Combined, both sides created just one shot on target between them in the first-half.
In terms of tactics, the second-half began in a similar manner to how the first went. Juventus started to be a little more expansive in possession initially and knocked the ball around nicely as they typically do but produced nothing, whilst Man City continued to struggle to pick apart the wall which stood in front of them.
The first time that the home side circulated the ball at a quick tempo, however, in the 56th minute, paid off massively. They broke the first line of pressing. Fernandinho carried the ball forward again towards the Juventus midfield. He had a messy tangle with Hernanes who ended up on the floor, but Silva recycled the ball back to Touré. There was now space to play it through the midfield for a change, into the still onrushing Fernandinho. The Ivorian obliged. And now Man City were in the final third with space for a change.
Whilst they didn’t score directly from that attack, they did end up getting a corner very soon (26 seconds from Touré’s line-breaking pass) afterwards. It was from that which they got their goal. The unfortunate Giorgio Chiellini headed into his own net under – possibly unfair – pressure from Kompany, and it was, harshly on Juventus, 1-0 to Man City.
With the Italian side now needing a goal, their defensive structure instantly became a bit looser. Rather than focusing on compactness, the emphasis changed to trying to press and win the ball from their opponents. This added space ended up giving Man City more chance to play passes into the third receiving line (and Silva) which was previously blocked up, and resulted in another excellent chance for Sterling to make it two just a couple of minutes later. Buffon again saved the opportunity though, keeping the game alive.
In attacking phases, meanwhile, Juventus’ attacking shape became somewhat more asymmetric from this point onwards. Cuadrado was the attacking outlet on the right wing, whilst Morata began to take up more permanent central positions rather than having to move into them from the left. This created a void on that flank which Patrice Evra pushed into to provide the necessary width. Pogba also drifted over into that area, giving the full-back an inside option.
It didn’t take too long for that new attacking combination to be successful, and following spells of trading possession in that time they drew level 13 minutes after Man City took the lead. After receiving the ball from Chiellini, Pogba played a first-time pass into Evra – and this drew both Samir Nasri and Fernandinho towards him. The ball was then quickly returned to Pogba, who now had a ton of space in the midfield, and he put a truly wonderful cross into Mandžukić to give the Croatian a chance which he buried. Juventus had their equaliser.
A few substitutions were made within the next few minutes, with Pellegrini bringing on Kevin de Bruyne and Nicolás Otamendi for Sterling and the excellent Kompany. Paulo Dybala came on for Mandžukić, too, but other than Juventus’ defensive shape going back to being a little more compact again nothing notable really happened or changed until they took the lead in the 81st minute.
The goal came after a long aerial ball from Leonardo Bonucci spun the Man City defence – and a failure to deal with it properly (or, probably more fairly, an unlucky touch off Aleksandar Kolarov’s arm) saw it fall for Morata on the edge of the box. Most of the hardworking Spanish striker’s good contribution throughout the game had been done in defensive phases, but he finished this chance with a sensational left-footed curler.
With Juventus now leading, the final two subs of the game were made. Sergio Agüero came on for Nasri, to give Man City some attacking threat other than the largely ineffective Wilfried Bony, whilst the away side brought on Andrea Barzagli for the scorer of what proved to be the winner, Morata.
This saw Allegri’s side defending in a 5-4-1 shape for the remaining 10 minutes or so of the game, in a similar kind of manner to how they were set up for the rest of the game; tight, solid and compact with little space between the lines.
Man City were unable to break the defence, with their ball circulation again being too slow and predictable as it had for the majority of the game, and Juventus were rewarded for their excellent shape with three points from what is arguably their toughest game in the group stage. Overall, it was a very good performance from the Italians.