Mandzukic as a left midfielder : why does it work ?
Translated from French by Nick Arnaud Ntore.
Mandzukic : histoire d’une transformation
It’s one of the biggest tactical surprise of the season. After a long career as a central forward, Mario Mandzukic has discovered a new role thanks to Max Allegri: left midfielder. That change allowed him to gain a spot in the starting 11… and was very useful for the team in Champion’s League knock-out games.
How did this happen? Last season, Mandzukic was battling with Morata for the number 9 role. For his first season in Italy, he scored 12 goals and delivered 9 assists which was close to his career standards. But he was overshadowed by Morata in the biggest games, being only a secondary role in Champion’s League.
The arrival of Higuain (90M€) was not a good sign for him. However in the first half of the saison, he benefited a lot from the injuries of Paulo Dybala, starting 18 games between august and december. Meanwhile, Juventus were still searching for their best system given the departures of last summer (Pogba, Morata).
Since Pogba left to Manchester, no one filled the void as a left midfielder. Alex Sandro played the role in the 3-5-2 system but that system reached its twilight. The Brazilian left-back also played in the midfield in the 4-4-2 system with Sturaro as a back-up, but the departure of Evra during the winter break definitely gave him the left-back role.
There was consequently a void in the left midfield. Marko Pjaca (bought last summer) didn’t take advantage because of injuries and not being able to convince Allegri : « He must understand that football isn’t all about technique. He got huge qualities but to become a great player, you’ve got to have a great mentality. »
Finally, almost by default, Mandzukic started in that role mid-january (Juve-Lazio). Final score: 2-1 for Juve and an assist for the Croatian in his new role.
A height advantage :
Against Lazio, Mandzukic gave the assist thanks to his height and header quality. He was already a difficult opponent to deal with for center-backs. He’s now more dominant against right-backs which are usually smaller. Since the beginning of the season, he won 70% of his aerial duels and 80% in Champion’s League only (35/45).
Mandzukic is to Juventus what Raul Garcia was to Atletico or Fellaini was and still is to Man Utd. The physical advantage that he has to his opponents is a plus for his side when they are under pressure… And this mainly happens in biggest matches.
Mandzukic’s plays were vital for Juve in Champion’s League. Against Barça and Monaco, he was the main target when the team was under pressure in its own half. In those 4 matches, he won 22 aerial duels (5 against Barça and 17 against Monaco). His contribution in the semi-finals even forced Leonardo Jardim to change his tactical approach between the two legs.
An advantage for Juve’s tactical polyvalence :
Against Monaco, Juventus should have suffered in the midfield because of Bakayoko and Fabinho. They deliberately chose to play long balls to their strikers instead of coming out of their own third with short passes. Mandzukic was another solution next to Dybala and Higuain. Under pressure of 2 or 3 opponents, he covered the ball very well and he liberated space for others.
If he can’t put the ball down to the ground, his head-passes usually find his partners. Of his 31,1 passes in a match, 35% are done with his head. They are more risky and it’s the reason why he has the lowest % of successful passes compared to his partners (72,2% in Serie A). Nevertheless, for Allegri, his importance goes beyond the numbers. He is truly a weapon for his side because he offers something more in the tactical battle.
His striker reflexes are another asset for Juve. When Higuain and Dybala are sollicitated to participate in the build-up, Mandzukic can provide depth with long runs from his left side. Those coordinated mouvements of this « front three » can cause problems when the center-backs are focus on Higuain’s and Dybala’s moves.
An excellent defender :
When you put an striker in midfield, even more in a 4-4-2 system, you are taking a risk. Not with Mandzukic : his new role didn’t affect Juventus defensive stability which stays among the best in Europe.
When he played for Bayern and Atletico, we saw that Mandzukic was unselfish in term of efforts. Heynckes and Simeone exploited this at the highest level. Mandzukic was the trigger-man to press defenders in the opponent’s half… and the one to maintain pressure on midfielders when his team was defending.
« We consider him a lot as a physical player but it’s to forget his technical qualities and his abilities to repeat efforts. He doesn’t have the same engine as others. » (Max Allegri)
Mandzukic always keeps running. He was going up with Higuain and Dybala when Juve tried to prevent Barça to come out of their own third. Opposed to Sergi Roberto, he pushed his runs until Piqué and even Ter Stegen.
What’s new with is new role is his ability to defend apart from pressing. Whn Juve leaves the ball to the opponent, he has to situate himself in the half-space at first, blocking passing lanes and preventing runs with the ball in this area.
His partnership with Alex Sandro is important for the stability of the wing. When Sandro goes high up to press, Mandzukic covers him by taking his left-back role. This tactical discipline is making this side of Juve’s defence very hard to take on. Because the two players are also good 1-on-1 defenders (0,8 missed tackle by Sandro and 0,7 missed tackle by Mandzukic).
On those actions, Mandzukic is directly concerned by the action (pressing, positioning, covering). But for an attacker, the main difficulty is to stay focused when the action is happening on the other side of the pitch.
Even in this situation, Super Mandzo stays active. When the opponent choses to attack Juve’s right wing (Barzagli- Alves), Mandzukic follows the midfield line and covers space inside. He can even end his defensives runs in the back-line, covering the far post if the opponent tries a cross.
What impact against Real Madrid ?
Crowned La Liga champions last sunday, Real Madrid have now their eyes focused on the Champion’s League final. The case of Mandzukic will be studied by Zidane and his staff and they will try to limit his impact, given his physical advantage against his direct opponents (Carvajal or Danilo).
« With his qualities, it’s a player that changed Juventus and not the opposite. » Max Allegri
2 options are possible : first, Real switches his system with 3 centre-backs or puts Nacho as a right-back. Second, the team adjusts to the situations and Casemiro drops in defense when there is a long ball, allowing one centre-back to go for the aerial duel.
But playing the duel against Mandzukic doesn’t offer any guaranty. The main question is: why should we fight for that duel ? The Croatian isn’t a threat 50m to goal… less than Dybala or Pjanic anyway.
The best solution for Real could be to let him win the ball without opposition but then defend on the solutions around him. Seeing the video above, the Croatian is never the real threat but he lures 2 or 3 opponents and liberates space for his partners. Letting Mandzukic alone would mean that Real Madrid would accept to play deeper than Barça or Monaco… and we all know that it’s not something that scare Zidane’s team.
They don’t have the same style of play as Juve’s last opponents. Like Allegri’s team, Madrid can leave the ball and wait the right moment to counter. It surely will be another good test for Super Mandzo in his new role.
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