Juventus must find a way to cope with Dortmund's pressure
The greatest aspect of top-level European competition is the opportunity to witness contrasting footballing styles face one another; pleasingly, despite the globalisation of football and the increased movement of players and coaches across borders, obvious differences remain between Europe's best leagues.
The obvious example from this week's set of Champions League fixtures is the clash between Borussia Dortmund and Juventus in Turin on Tuesday night. Whereas some of the second round ties are frustratingly familiar -- Manchester City vs. Barcelona, PSG vs. Chelsea, Schalke vs. Real Madrid -- these two sides haven't met since the European Cup final of 1997. The clash of styles should be fascinating.
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While Dortmund have been based around heavy, energetic pressing and rapid transitions in recent years, Juventus are much more accustomed to a slow, more languid style of play. Juve themselves play at a higher tempo than the majority of Serie A sides, but Italy is nevertheless still home to a much slower style of play than in Germany, Spain or England.
There are many benefits to this: It means deep-lying playmakers like Andrea Pirlo, David Pizarro and Riccardo Montolivo have time to shine, while attackers like Francesco Totti and Antonio Di Natale can play well into their late 30s, because the game isn't so physically demanding and they can essentially play in bursts. "The pauses allow a player to display his technique," Gianluca Vialli once said.
The downside, however, is that when Italian sides face top-quality opposition in European competition, they often struggle with the pace of the game, which has been a major reason Serie A has dropped to only the fourth-best league in Europe according to UEFA's coefficients.
The most recent example of this problem was on Thursday night at White Hart Lane, where Fiorentina drew 1-1 with Tottenham. Vincenzo Montella's side were happy with that result, although the first half hour featured a Spurs onslaught. Mauricio Pochettino, a coach known primarily for the intense pressing style he's implemented at both Southampton and now Tottenham, told his team to play at a high tempo, close down in advanced positions, and make life uncomfortable for Fiorentina. Once they'd weathered the storm, the Italian side were fine. In truth, however, they could have been 3-0 down and out of the tie.
After the game, Montella responded to questions about these struggles in great detail, and it was fascinating to hear him discuss the issue in relation to Italy as a whole, rather than simply speaking about the contest between two sides.
"In the first 30 minutes we suffered because of the high-tempo, physical game, but we expected that and maybe [Tottenham] paid the price later," he said. "In Italy we play a more tactical game, the tempo is slow -- we [Italians] train at a high tempo, then don't play at high tempo on matchday. Really, we should be doing the opposite!"
Juventus, meanwhile, encountered this problem on their previous trip to Germany. When playing Bayern Munich two years ago, they were unable to cope with the whirlwind start to the game -- they were behind within a minute thanks to David Alaba's long-range strike, and spent the first half almost unable to get out of their own third. Bayern were simply so much more tenacious, more mobile and more energetic -- and the worrying thing, of course, is that Dortmund display that style to an even greater extent. Whatever their problems in the Bundesliga, Dortmund's Champions League performances this season have been consistent, and their demolition of Arsenal in the group stage shows how their tempo can completely unnerve opponents.
In particular, Dortmund will attempt to pressure Pirlo. The Italian has become accustomed to being marked closely in Italy, but often this is simply one opponent, with the rest of the side sitting deeper. It's rare for Pirlo to face such concerted pressure from an entire team, and there's a danger he'll be surprised by Dortmund's energy.
Pirlo certainly makes no secret of his irritatation when facing this style of play. In his autobiography, he memorably describes the attentions of Malta's Andre Schembri as "utterly exhausting ... I didn't enjoy it. Back in the day, coaches would have their best guy mark the opposition number 10 ... but things have changed, now it's guys in my position who have the toughest guy on the other team snapping at our heels.
"All I'm after is a few square metres," Pirlo says.
Dortmund will desperately attempt to deny him such space, and attack quickly. Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp once described his team's pressing as "the best playmaker around."
Against Bayern in 2013, Juventus seemed genuinely shocked by the intensity of the Bayern press. But this time around against Dortmund, they'll expect a strong physical test. They must plan accordingly, and show they can cope in such high-tempo contests.
A major solution is to not entirely rely on Pirlo. Dortmund will probably press in midfield rather than high up the pitch, which means Juventus should have opportunities to distribute the ball from defence. There, Allegri has two players who can start attacks: Giorgio Chiellini can move forward, albeit slightly clumsily, in possession, while Leonardo Bonucci is often capable of being Juve's vice-Pirlo, hitting huge accurate diagonal balls to the flanks from an even deeper position.
Bypassing the midfield zone might be Juve's best bet. When Pep Guardiola faced Dortmund for the first time, he used Javi Martinez in a shadow striker position because he realised Bayern were completely unable to play through midfield against Dortmund, and decided using a tall player upfront as a target for long balls was an appropriate solution. Fernando Llorente, an orthodox striker, will play that role more naturally for Juve.
However, perhaps Juve might also be capable of taking on Dortmund at their own game. The most fascinating aspect of Juve since Pirlo joined in 2011 is that the midfield is essentially flipped: Pirlo is the pure creator but plays at the base of the midfield trio, while Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba are far superior in terms of defensive effort, physical power and stamina. Few midfielders in world football are more dynamic than these two -- and therefore, rather than worrying about living with the pressing, Juventus might be able to turn it around on Dortmund.
That would represent something of a breakthrough for Italian football. Back in the mid-1990s, when Serie A clubs dominated Europe, teams from other countries were forced play at a more relaxed tempo as Italian clubs dictated the play. But the tables have now flipped: Serie A is playing catch-up, and to compete with the best German, Spanish and English clubs, they must be capable of playing high-tempo football too.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.