Applying modern principles to a defensive system, Torino’s Ivan Juric is trying to make the Granata one of the most solid defensive sides in Serie A
Among all the recent tactical traditions of Italian football, the across-the-pitch man-marking strategy must be one of the most peculiar. Born in Genoa by Gian Piero Gasperini, today we see its last evolutions in Serie A. Not only from Atalanta – managed by Gasperini himself – but also from Torino with Ivan Juric, the first of his pupils.
After a learning path similar to his master’s one – with which he shares experiences in Crotone, Palermo and Genoa – in the last years the Croatian manager has brought Gasperini’s principles to an even more extreme level, first with Verona and now with Torino. Paraphrasing Guardiola, who said that playing against Atalanta was comparable to a visit to the dentist, one could say that playing Juric’s Torino is like having a bad wound stitched without any anesthetic.
Gasperini reinvented a concept that looked extremely old-fashioned (man marking), applying to rather modern principles (high pressing and high defense) with an offensive approach, leaving much freedom to extremely talented players such as Ilicic and ‘Papu’ Gomez. Juric took his master’s work and gave it a strong defensive interpretation, in which the freedom in the offensive third is close to zero. The result is a form of football that is so disruptive to sometimes look very different from the sport we’re all used to.
Here are a few numbers to highlight what we’re saying. Torino, with 14 goals conceded, are the second-best defense in Serie A. They sit behind Napoli (7) but ahead of other teams that can play some of the best defenders of the league, such as Inter and Roma (15) and Juventus (16). This data is not accidental: according to Wyscout data, Juric’s Torino are among the best in the leagues for xG Against (15.18), again only sitting behind Napoli. The interesting thing is not that Torino concedes on few occasions and therefore few goals, but how they are able to do it, given the fact that they can’t play defenders such as Koulibaly, de Ligt and Skriniar.
Again, numbers can back us up to make things clearer. Juric’s team are first in Serie A for PPDA - (Passes allowed Per Defensive Action), the index that measures the quality of one team’s pressing, sitting ahead of Milan, Verona and Atalanta. They are also the best team for the percentage of recoveries in the opponent half (more than 38%). Again, Juric’s team are better than Atalanta (35.3%) and nonetheless than Verona, managed by Igor Tudor and still highly influenced by the Croatian manager’s legacy (35%).
Torino, basically, is one of the teams that press higher up the pitch and in a more aggressive way than the average Serie A side. In this regard, the application of across-the-pitch man-marking is useful for Juric’s players to get the opponent to receive the ball back to the goal, always directing them to one of the two sidelines. In the image below, for example, Torino extends their man-marking application to the limit of the opposing box, forcing Deulofeu to receive with Lukic behind him and only the sideline ahead of him. The Catalan winger will inevitably lose the ball.
By applying this principle, every opponent receiving between the lines will not only have a defender behind him but also all of his teammates man-marked, with the exception of the goalkeeper, who often becomes the only available option for the player in possession if he doesn’t want to risk a dribble or a complicate play. In the image below, El Shaarawy tries to break out from Juric’s cage by attempting a very difficult dribble on Singo, who has an easy time recovering the ball from him. Torino will then have a shot from distance with Pobega.
Torino never presses the opposing goalkeeper - unless he’s put in a perilous situation by a challenging pass – and this says something about what the Granata want with their high and aggressive pressing. In fact, by avoiding moving forward up to the goalkeeper, Juric’s side are able to always have numeric superiority – or parity in the worst cases, on the back, where they obviously can’t ask goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic to press the opposing striker. That’s because, as counterintuitive as it may sound, Torino don’t press so high to create dangers to the opponents, but to defend in a more effective and safe way.
In fact, one of the problems of across-the-pitch man-markings is the fact that it only takes one marking to fail to create imbalances across the whole system. A good example of that could be the goal suffered in the match against Roma, generated by Zaniolo’s uncanny ability to keep Bremer behind him and then by Ibanez’s intelligence in serving Mkhitaryan on the run, who freed himself in the space left empty by Lukic. If Torino conceded a goal, though, it is not because they failed the first man-marking but because they were forced to defend within the penalty box. Mkhitaryan passed inside the box to Abraham, with the contribution of Zaniolo’s masterful fake that brought Buongiorno out of position.
Abraham’s goal explains why Torino defend as high as possible. If man-markings are manipulated on the opponent third or in the midfield, Juric’s side can always run back with one of their sprinters, such as Singo, Djidji or Vojvoda. This was clear in the very same match against Roma, when Zaniolo was served on the run by Abraham but then caught up by Singo’s sprint. Also in the earlier win against Udinese, Beto was able to keep Bremer behind him on the midfield line but Djidji was good with his recovery on Deulofeu.
High pressing also allows Torino to use one of their most-used weapons: tactical fouls. In Serie A, no team commits more fouls than Juric’s side, which averages three more fouls than the second-best team (coincidentally, Verona) in this specific ranking. If the goal is to risk the least possible, tactical fouls become the last resource to avoid the man-marking system collapsing. And if a player is beaten by an opponent, it’s surely better to commit a foul on the opposing third rather than in the midfield or the own penalty box.
Behind the physical intensity and aggressiveness, Juric’s Torino try to hide the necessity to reduce the defensive risks to the bare minimum. And even if they try to do it with modern principles that come from ‘foreign’ tactical schools, ultimately there’s nothing more ‘Italian’ than this.