TFN’s Simon Smith on why Juventus vs Dortmund runs deeper than Catenaccio versus Gegenpress…
Of the various ties in this Champions League last 16 to savour this week and next, there are many sub plots and rivalries to look forward to. Last week’s David Luiz derby might not have been the most enthralling, but with Carlo Ancelotti facing fellow former Abramovic employee Roberto Di Matteo in Schalke versus Real and Arsene Wenger’s reunion with Monaco there shall be no shortage of managerial talking points.Manchester City and Barcelona once again contest the Yaya Toure derby, although the match will most likely be more shaped by their experiences in last season’s clash. But none of this is what I’ve been looking forward to the most.
That would be the other semi-tenuous derby clash, the rematch of the 1997 Champions League final between Borussia Dortmund and Juventus. In tactical terms this is arguably the most intriguing match, and on paper one of the most evenly matched in a round that often provides mismatches for the larger clubs to sail to the latter stages. And, for differing reasons, this probably represents one of the more important ties for the two clubs themselves.
Dortmund are in the horrifying position of being on something of a hot streak – only Bremen’s five consecutive Bundesliga wins is better than their two – and yet having only just climbed out of the relegation zone. Their season would be long over were it not for the fact that their relegation battle is all too real, and yet their form in a difficult group with Arsenal, Fenerbahce and Anderlecht was unexpectedly good. The Champions League represents the best chance of any glory in a season they will hope to forget.
Juventus are in the opposite position of having the League title looking close to wrapped up, and unlike the recent disappointments of their German opposition, will be remembered as a team who dominated football domestically for several years. Nonetheless, the lack of competition in Serie A means the scudetto is expected as the bare minimum and makes progress in Europe imperative. Antonio Conte will always be a club legend for re-establishing the club in Italy, but having failed to build on that in the Champions League, the onus now lies on Massimiliano Allegri to prove his new formation can bring continental success.
Both Dortmund and Juventus are in danger of being forgotten by history, two good sides who achieved too little to be remembered as true greats. Regardless of whether they lose any more players this summer, Dortmund will almost certainly not be in next year’s competition. It is occasions like this, therefore, in which they absolutely must prove that the defeat in the 2013 Final was not a one-off. Likewise, Juventus must establish themselves more in Europe if they are to prevent their domestic success being undermined by the caveat of declining competitiveness.
If both of these teams has similar reasons to hope for a quarter final, then their approach in striving for this could hardly be more different. While Juventus were something of a patient side under Conte, the emphasis on possession has been arguably even greater under Allegri (only Barcelona and Bayern Munich had more than the Old Lady’s 62 percent possession in the group stage); on the other hand, Dortmund are heralded as the masters of the transition between defence and attack. Furthermore, the more languid and attritional style of Juventus could hardly be more different from the gegenpress that has come to define Dortmund’s intensity. Wonderfully talented though he is, not every top European side would find room to accommodate Andrea Pirlo’s immobility.
If the temptation is there to view this as a clash between a proactive, ball retaining side and a reactive and counter attacking one, this must be understood not to be another Guardiola versus Mourinho ideological war. The real difference is more in terms of tempo than possession, and it is this tempo that will decide the tie. As an example, Juventus managed a little over 300 more passes than Dortmund in the group stages, roughly ten percent more than the Germans 3000. But Dortmund racked up this score, still one of the highest of the 32 teams, with just 50 percent possession and at a similar passing accuracy to Juventus. In other words, Dortmund were passing more quickly and with an accuracy one might not expect for a side often seen as relatively direct, fitting in a comparable amount of passes into significantly less ball time.
Dortmund have come unstuck recently because their opposition in the Bundesliga have begun to defend deep and counter them, negating the danger in the transition that eviscerated opposition en route to the all German final of two seasons ago. If Klopp once called their pressing game “the best number ten”, this has been the equivalent of successfully man-marking him out of the game. There is of course a precedent for this, and it was the same situation Mourinho’s Real Madrid found themselves in when La Liga sides recognised their danger with the ball was lesser than their danger on the break. Only Bayern have had more possession than Dortmund in the league this season, much to the detriment of the favoured strategy. It has consequently been no coincidence that they have fared well in a supposedly difficult draw against sides who will want to retain the ball.
Meanwhile Juventus have had the opposite problem in the past, failing to translate the slow and match-killing smothering that has allowed them to dominate weaker sides domestically against intense continental sides who can hurt them on the break. If football were rock-paper-scissors, then we have an unusual situation in which a Bundesliga relegation battle side look favourites to beat the Italian champions.
But this tie should be far more than just another “counter attack beats possession” match. In pressing and passing, each has effectively prioritised one of the two key pillars of Guardiolism and made it the core of the side – should Dortmund triumph it will be an effective demonstration of the importance of the off-ball part of his great Barcelona side that is often underappreciated. If Dortmund have the advantage on paper in terms of their playing style, it must be remembered that Juventus have the option to switch to a more direct Plan B, with the aerial threat of Fernando Llorente, while Dortmund are shackled by an age old conundrum of counter-attacking sides: how to find a plan B when their plan “A” is the traditional plan B of most sides.
Far beyond a clash of two opposite ideas, this is one to flaunt the breadth of the spectrum of football tactics – a festival of formations and smorgasbord of style. So often we group all sides into type A, possessive, proactive, indirect and stylish, and type B, reactive, direct, fast and strong. Here we have a reactive passing side, cautious and slow but technical and possession focused, against a side who will strive to be proactive without the ball, pressing without the intention of dominating possession. The neutral should be in for a treat whichever side comes out on top.