Juventus' Alex Sandro and Dani Alves show the role of full-backs has never been so important
The Italian giants outfought and outthought Barcelona in their Champions League quarter final.
When a tidal wave was predicted, they stood tall and it barely made a splash. It is a testament to Juventus that when faced with a Barcelona side capable of miracles, having already proven so, very few foresaw many issues for the Old Lady when they travelled to the Camp Nou for their Champions League quarter-final second leg on Wednesday.
Against any other opponent, a three-goal lead from the first game would have been unassailable. Not Barcelona, though, who not only possessed arguably the greatest attacking trident in footballing history, as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were dubbed just a couple of years ago, but they also had form when it came to unthinkable European comebacks.
In just the last round, the Blaugrana hit back from four goals down to beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-5 on aggregate and progress to the last eight of the competition they have won five times.
Such a remarkable achievement told more of the underlying heart and desire of Luis Enrique’s side than it did the quality, which is deteriorating as the players get older and the squad gets thinner. PSG also mirrored a rabbit in headlights that night, particularly in the second half, but in Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Juve had players who could not only match the heart of the Barça players, but keep their nerve, too.
Unsurprisingly, because the result was 0-0, helping Massimiliano Allegri’s side into the semi-finals with barely a scratch, it was that trio, rather than Barça’s fabled ‘MSN’, that came out with the credit. Paulo Dybala’s impeccable performance in Turin has not been forgotten either.
But beating a side like Barcelona, whatever state they’re in, requires everyone to be on song. Juventus were victorious for many reasons, but perhaps mainly because they utilised their system, which is becoming more popular across Europe this season. Their full-backs, Alex Sandro and Dani Alves, were able to provide something Barça had no answer for, because the extra width they provided meant they could hurt them where it mattered.
Once upon a time, until very recently, in fact, Barcelona’s greatest asset was their midfield. In the days when Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets played together, the intensity was so great they could not only pass a team to death but suffocate them without the ball. As time has gone on, the focus of the team has shifted to the strikers, meaning they are more potent but easier to play against.
Busquets was missing in the first leg due to suspension, so not only was there more space in behind the midfield, but either side too. Sandro and Alves had more of an impact going forward in Turin, partly because of Busquets’ return and partly because they had a lead to protect in the second leg. But they were able to cut the supply line to Messi and Neymar, who they were responsible for marking, before getting up the pitch.
Luis Enrique played three at the back in the first leg, and only Sergi Roberto and Iniesta were protecting the defence. The Juventus full-backs had a field day, stretching the play, creating more space for Dybala to get in behind Busquets’ stand-in, Javier Mascherano. Wednesday night was a different story because of the situation Juve found themselves in, but if anything, the game was a further myth-buster of the two Brazilian full-backs’ defensive capabilities.
Striking up this brilliant partnership this season has been a real positive for both. Sandro, 26, has never received the credit he deserves, and joined from FC Porto for a relatively modest £18 million in 2015. His performance over these two legs, not to mention in Serie A, and against his former club in the last round, where he provided an assist for Alves a matter of days before the compliment was repaid domestically against Empoli, have really brought him into the spotlight.
It is worth remembering that fellow full-back Danilo joined Real Madrid for almost double the fee in the same transfer window, and playing back-up to Dani Carvajal at the Santiago Bernabeu has seen his career take a serious nosedive.
For 33-year-old Alves, who left Barça on a free transfer last summer with doubters claiming he was finished, ending his former side’s dream will have brought him sweet vindication perhaps tinged with a little sadness.
Football is a fast-moving sport and the biggest challenge is keeping up. From a tactical point of view, it looks as though now, more than ever, is the era of the full-backs. Juventus began playing three central defenders under Antonio Conte and still do from time to time under Allegri, and that has required wide defenders to be even more versatile as wing-backs, often playing as the sole source of width.
It may not have worked for Barcelona in Turin, but this system is appearing more and more across Europe. A number of Serie A clubs now deploy it, as does Conte in charge at Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur with Mauricio Pochettino and another Champions League semi-finalist Monaco.
Often, but not always, the idea is to take one defender away and put in another creative midfielder. Yet, the most important players in these systems are the full-backs or wing-backs. It is no surprise Monaco pair Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy are in such high demand ahead of the summer transfer window, because it is they who start the expansive attacks which has seen Leonardo Jardim’s team top Ligue 1 as one of the most entertaining on the continent.
Juventus are further proof that systems, formations and tactics can outfox world class players. That ideology was instilled by Conte but has been continued by Allegri. Both Alex Sandro and Dani Alves were seen as misfits when they first signed for the Bianconeri, but they each played a vital role in helping their club close in on a first Champions League title for 21 years.