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The Pogba Dilemma

Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus dropped points at home for the first time since early January as they drew 1-1 with relegation-threatened Cagliari last Saturday. However, although it was unexpected, circumstances rendered the result an irrelevance. The Bianconeri have far more prestigious matters than Serie A to attend to with the scudetto already sewn up, namely a trip to Madrid, where they travel with the intention of overthrowing European football’s incumbent rulers.

With an impressive 2-1 first leg win over Real Madrid, Juventus made a positive start to their first Champions League semi-final in 12 years. Now their task is to defend that lead. Managing an advantage is something the Italian champions are masters of, but this specific situation is a uniquely complex undertaking that will probably require one of their best performances of the season.

Temporarily revisiting that draw with Cagliari, it did have one matter of significance: Paul Pogba returned to the Juventus starting lineup after two months out with a hamstring injury. The return was a successful one. Not only did Pogba score Juve’s goal, but he showed flashes of creative spark that few others are capable of. His return is welcomed, though it poses several important questions pertaining to how Allegri should approach the upcoming clash with Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid.

Question One: How should Juventus set up?

One of the major reasons behind the success story that is Allegri’s time with Juventus thus far has been his ability to change the team’s formation in accordance with the task at hand. Allegri has implemented a 4-3-1-2 throughout this campaign, though on occasion he has reverted back to the 3-5-2 that his predecessor Antonio Conte instilled at the club. The latter formation is a modern Juventus hallmark, but the former has also been admirably effective.

It was in the 4-3-1-2 that Juventus earned their 2-1 home win over Real Madrid. When they overran Fiorentina in the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final to overturn a first leg deficit, they did so in a 4-3-1-2. They also used the system for Champions League knockout stage home wins over both Dortmund and Monaco.

Despite this, the 3-5-2 has become Allegri’s defensive comfort blanket. When he wants to ensure safety and mitigate risk he goes to it without a moment’s hesitation. As a case in point, Allegri brought out the 3-5-2 instantaneously when Pogba walked off injured in the 3-0 away win over Dortmund. Having started with a diamond midfield, the Frenchman’s injury precipitated a switch to a midfield three, with centre-back Andrea Barzagli brought on as his replacement.

It is worth noting that Juventus were 1-0 up at the time and thus had something to hold on to. Nonetheless, Pogba’s injury occurred after just 27 minutes, showing exactly how decisive Allegri can be when spying an opportunity to throw that defensive comfort blanket over a game.

The 3-5-2 was also Allegri’s formation of choice when Juventus travelled to Monaco in the quarter finals, again seeking to defend a one-goal lead. They had less of the ball and far less scoring chances, but held on dearly to their advantage, drawing 0-0 to reach the last four.

At the end of the Cagliari game, Allegri stated his belief that Juve need to score in Madrid to go through and must therefore adopt an attacking approach, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they will lineup in the numerically more offensive 4-3-1-2. What is far more likely is that Allegri will bring out the 3-5-2 and prepare his soldiers for a strenuous battle of attrition, instructing a more direct, transition-based approach with emphasis placed on the central midfield trio to work extremely hard off the ball. This hypothesis provokes a second question: does Pogba suit the requirements of this system, and these circumstances?

Question Two: Should Pogba play?

Thanks to the return of Pogba from injury, Juventus are now spoilt for choice in midfield. Should he; as posited above, opt for a 3-5-2, Allegri must leave out three of Pogba, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal, Roberto Pereyra and Stefano Sturaro. It’s the prototypical ‘good headache’, an idiom thus far only found in football.

Pogba and Pirlo are stylistically clearly divergent to the other four. They are elegant passers of the ball, while the others are ball-winners and/or carriers. Essentially, what this dilemma boils down to is: does Allegri have room for a Pogba or Pirlo in a midfield trident that is probably going to do a lot of its work without the ball?

Generally speaking, Allegri has utilised Pirlo in the 3-5-2 as his creative fulcrum. In Juventus’ majestic shut-down of Lazio the veteran operated in his traditional regista role and set off Leonardo Bonucci for the second goal in Juve’s surprisingly comfortable 2-0 victory. In the very next match – the away game against Monaco – Allegri used the exact same system and the exact same midfield three, with Pirlo again in his deeper-lying role with Marchisio and Vidal in front of him on either side.

Real Madrid, however, are a more dangerous attacking proposition than either Lazio or Monaco. They may have slipped up last Saturday at home to Valencia, drawing 2-2 to all but gift the Spanish league title to Barcelona, but they still had 61% of possession in that match and the chances are they will dominate, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent, in that area in the return with Allegri’s men.

When winning the ball back is the Juventus midfield’s core aim, Vidal and Marchisio are as close to certain starters as it is possible to get. They win more tackles, make more blocks and intercept the ball more often than anyone else in the Juventus midfield. Known as El Guerrero to Chilenos – or The Warrior to you and me – Vidal is the battle-axe in the Italian champions’ midfield machine. As this season has gone on he has began to recapture his impregnable best form and as such he simply cannot be omitted from the midfield trio for a match of this nature and magnitude.

Alongside him, the stoic Marchisio is disconcertingly quiet but actually trumps Vidal in terms of blocks and interceptions. He is an iron fist concealed within a velvet glove and few are more willing than he to pay a physical price for the win. Marchisio has played in Pirlo’s deeper-lying role when called upon, such as the away win over Dortmund when Pirlo was out through injury and, although his passing range is not quite as far-reaching, he is more combative. His resumption of this role in Madrid would make sense and would also make room for one of Pogba, Pereyra or Sturaro to come in.

Sturaro performed well in the first leg on the left-hand side of the diamond midfield, shuttling between defence and attack effectively. However, Pereyra and Pogba offer more than Sturaro  going forward. The case for Pogba is fairly obvious; he is one of the best midfielders in the world. The case for Pereyra is more subtle, yet can be made using the blueprint of the very game in which Pogba suffered his hamstring injury.

When Pogba came off away to Dortmund and joined Pirlo on the injury list, Pereyra, Vidal and Marchisio became Juventus’ midfield three in the 3-5-2 and it worked to perfection. Pereyra put in a stunning display of tireless running tinged with the occasional moment of well-timed adventurism. Before the hour mark, he took the ball from deep inside his own half, shrugged off the attention of his markers and supplied Alvaro Morata, whose shot was saved. Later on in that game another purposeful drive of his would set up Juventus’ third goal, scored by Carlos Tevez. In transitions from defence to attack, Pereyra gives greater cutting edge.

Pogba is a creative maestro but he has only played one hour of football since his return from injury and he ultimately contributes generally less in a defensive context. Playing Pereyra alongside Marchisio and Vidal would give Juventus the requisite pace, energy and work-rate to both harangue Real Madrid’s technically proficient midfield when out of possession and use the ball effectively when possession has been won.

If Juventus are in need of an elaborate escape route, Pogba could be brought on from the bench. In truth however, Juventus are not as reliant on their brilliant Frenchman as some make them out to be and, in a game where Juve may initially find possession to be lacking, his elite skill will be less impactive. What will matter more is how the Juventus midfield holds its shape, how intelligently and intensely they press their opposition, and how swiftly they can get in behind them when transitioning from a defensive posture to a more attacking stance. Among the best midfielders in the world he may well be, but Pogba is not the best midfielder for the specific tasks at hand.

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