Juventus retained their lead at the top of Serie A last matchday, claiming a hard-fought 1-0 win against Sampdoria. The club’s manager, Max Allegri, warned against complacency prior to the match, and even went so far as to argue that the players might find their upcoming UEFA Champions League tie against Barcelona easier to handle. “You don’t need to find motivation against Barcelona,” he said. “Samp have beaten Roma, Milan and won the derby with Genoa. They have won five and drawn two of their last seven matches, so we need to be on top of our game.”
In that sense, Allegri would’ve been happy with his side’s ability to play with the required intensity, as it allowed them to achieve victory despite facing difficult opposition. What made Sampdoria so difficult to beat was their tactical approach. They weren’t about to sit back in the manner that a smaller club usually would against Juventus, and instead of that, they came with a high-pressing game designed to limit time on the ball. They lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, and from the off, their front three set about cramping the spaces available to Juve’s deepest ball circulators. The two centre forwards, Fabio Quagliarella and Luis Muriel, pushed quickly onto Juventus centre-backs Daniele Rugani and Andrea Barzagli, while No. 10 Bruno Fernandes earned his money by charging onto the opposition’s deepest-lying midfielder, usually Miralem Pjanic.
From there, Samp supported their forwards with a central midfield trio, who shuffled from side to side in order to pick up not only Juve’s midfield group, but also their wide defender, either Dani Alves or Kwadwo Asamoah, on the near side. The Sampdoria back four also held a high line, so this team wasn’t about to go out quietly. As manager Marco Giampaolo said in the post-match, Samp came out “with the right attitude” as a means through which to play in “proactive” fashion, and early on, this almost enabled them to hit the lead.
Just a few minutes in, Samp pressed up high to take time away from Juventus. Pjanic responded by trying to punch a short, sharp pass in between the lines, but the room wasn’t really there. He hit it so hard that even Paulo Dybala couldn’t control it, and once the ball bounced clear of the Argentine following his sloppy first-touch, Samp were away. Karol Linetty pounced on the loose ball, noticing Quagliarella’s run in behind at almost the same time. He then moved things on adeptly, his through ball played so quickly that Juve’s out-of-position defence had no chance to make up for their loss of possession. Quagliarella controlled the ball on the right-hand edge of the penalty area, but despite a decent first-touch, he couldn’t make the chance count. He fired his low drive across the face of goal, at which point he could do little more than rue his missed opportunity.
After all, strikers often have to feed off scraps when they come up against giants of the professional game, and they have to take advantage of those scraps. Quagliarella, a former Juventus player himself, couldn’t, and from that point on, Samp’s more illustrious opposition slowly started to take command. The Old Lady started to work the ball around more efficiently, and by way of an almost ceaseless commitment to playing out from the back, they found the points from which they could progress the ball most effectively.
For Juve, playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the fullbacks were always going to be important to this process. Samp’s diamond midfield was great at covering the centre but, with only two fullbacks patrolling the wide areas, the flanks weren’t quite as well covered. So Juve started to recognise the need to play through the wide areas first, and only then, once Samp’s central midfield had been forced to shuffle over, could they could think about bringing the ball back towards the centre. This plan began to work, as Juve started to pass the ball out wide initially before either bringing it back inside or hitting a dramatic switch to the far side of the field. It only took a couple of minutes after Quagliarella’s miss, but once Juve found the opening goal through the use of this method, they stuck with it for much of the first half.
They kicked off this particular attack in typical style, passing the ball around at the back. Rugani then shifted possession out to the right-hand side, where Alves was ready to get things going. The Brazilian fullback had to be quick, as Linetty started sprinting towards him to apply some pressure, but he still had enough time to pick his spot. Alves took a touch, looked up and saw Gonzalo Higuain dropping deep to provide an option through the centre. Alves clipped a tidy lofted ball into the Argentine’s feet, and once Higuain had weaved around the oncoming Edgar Barreto, Juve had punctured the opposition press. Samp’s midfield and attack were now out of the equation, Juve just had to be clean with the ball in order to score.
The Bianconeri continued the move with a pass out towards the far side, where Mario Mandzukic drifted in off the left wing to collect possession. He then shifted the ball even wider to find Asamoah launching himself along the left touchline, and with a sweetly hit first-time cross, the Ghanaian curled in the game’s only assist. His cross allowed Juan Cuadrado to head home from close range, and even though this was only the seventh minute of the contest, the pattern had been set.
Samp would press and Juventus would attempt to play through. That was the key tactical battle throughout the course of the game, and despite things changing a little later on, with Juve regularly sitting deep and allowing Samp to make the play, it largely stayed this way. Later in the first half, Juve again penetrated the Sampdoria press, initially with a big switch out to Cuadrado. He made a mess of it from there but so too did Linetty, with the ball then rebounding off the Samp central midfielder and into the path of Higuain. The former Napoli man’s shot was saved and so too were Samp’s chances at retaining their strong recent run of form, and early in the second half, it looked like they might even equalise. Their right-back, Jacopo Sala, pounced on a misplaced pass. He intercepted the ball about 30 yards out from goal, but despite having targets to aim for in the area, he swung his cross over the top of all of them.
This tends to be the trouble for teams who press heavily, as they expend so much energy in the process of winning the ball back that, once they do, their energy is depleted and it becomes difficult to find that quality in the final third. This proved to be the case for Samp. They continued to apply pressure in front of their home fans, and even generated a few quickfire counter-attacks from deeper areas as well, but they just weren’t able to put things together in front of goal. Their efforts were, however, superb in the general sense. Giampaolo’s men kept Juventus to only 9 shots – Allegri’s men typically average 15.2 in Serie A – and lessened their possession to 51% for the game. “Losing is never good, even if you’re losing to a team as good as Juventus,” Giampaolo said in the post-match, “but I liked what the team did today.”
In that sense, he summed up the match nicely. His counterpart, Allegri, was a little less impressed despite enjoying the quality of Juve’s opening half. “Some days you just have to get through it,” he said, “and this was one of those days.”
Interestingly, both sides now move onto big matches in the next round of Serie A fixtures, so this tough tactical encounter should hold them in good stead. Sampdoria play Inter, where they will again try to impose their pressing game, while Juventus play Napoli. The latter is a particularly big deal, given that it’s a battle between two top-of-the-table teams. Allegri will be hoping his players can be a little more precise in possession, as even on the matchday prior to the Sampdoria clash, where Juve defeated Milan courtesy of a contentious late penalty, they turned the ball over too regularly.
Regardless of what happens in those matches, though, this was a fun game to watch. It featured two clubs who backed themselves to play their way, to use the strategies they had laid out in the pre-match in fully committed fashion. Juventus did just enough to take home the three points on this occasion, but in a great tactical clash, Sampdoria also played their part in showing just how fascinating Serie A can be.