As the dust settled on an emphatic 3-0 first leg victory, the usual suspects were praised for their efforts during Juventus’ demolition of Barcelona. Paulo Dybala of course stole the show with two wonderfully taken goals, the Argentinian striker instantly linked with every top club in Europe only to then sign a new contract with the Bianconeri. Gigi Buffon – a man who has won every major honour except the Champions League – ensured his side maintained a clean sheet, the 39-year-old making some incredible saves from Andres Iniesta and co as the quarterfinal wore on.
Of course Max Allegri was lauded for his tactical approach, the Italian coach unquestionably getting the better of Luis Enrique on this occasion. Indeed, since he abandoned the 3-5-2 system that had been a hallmark of the Serie A champions, the new approach has brought the best from many players.
Juan Cuadrado has been at his effervescent best as he buzzes up and down the right flank, while the impressive Alex Sandro doing the same on the opposite side of the pitch. Playing as the focal point of the proactive setup, Juve have seen Gonzalo Higuain raise his performances to an even higher level, his brace against Pescara on Saturday taking his 2016/17 tally to 29 goals in all competitions. Given that they have only conceded twice in total in the Champions League this term, if he can bag another in the second leg at Camp Nou, it is hard to imagine Barca managing to overturn the deficit.
However, while those players deserve the plaudits showered upon them, the formation Allegri adopted back in January would almost certainly flounder without the presence of Mario Mandžukić.
No, he is not a highlight-friendly superstar like Dybala or Cuadrado, even his very best goals lack the wow factor that comes so easily to many of his peers, but anyone who has watched the Bianconeri over the last three months cannot argue one simple fact; Juventus’ 4-2-3-1 formation would not work without Mandžukić.
You can argue that many of the other players within this system are interchangeable. Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele Rugani offer solid options in central defence while Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner have deputised well for Dani Alves and Alex Sandro. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanić and Claudio Marchisio have rotated through the two midfield slots, while Pjanić and Marko Pjaca covered for Dybala and Cuadrado when called upon.
Even Higuain has been able to take a turn on the bench with Mandžukić spearheading the side, but it is in his usual role on the left of the attacking trident that the Croatian has been simply vital. It is not immediately obvious however, with his only goal since the switch coming via a tap-in against Crotone after goalkeeper Alex Cordaz saved Asamoah’s initial attempt.
But he has still been an effective weapon going forward, often pinning the (usually much shorter) opposition right-back at the far post and using his 6’ 3” frame to win headers. That, along with his sheer selflessness was clearly evident in Saturday’s win over Pescara, the video below showing him snubbing a chance to score himself to lay on an easy goal for Higuain.
His average of 2.8 aerial duels won per game is a team-high by some distance – Chiellini’s 1.7 currently sitting in second place – and provides a useful outlet whenever opposing teams neutralise Juve’s short passing game.
However, it is unquestionably without the ball where Mandžukić has truly shone. He works tirelessly along the flank, cutting off attacks before they threaten to get close to the Bianconeri backline. His heading ability also comes to the fore in defending set pieces, usually given a free role by Allegri and on both corners and free kicks it is usually the 30-year-old who gets to the ball first.
Key to making the whole system work has been the whole team’s effort without the ball, dropping back into a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 shape that leaves Higuain alone up top. The former Napoli and Real Madrid striker has, along with Dybala, pressed harder and more successfully than he has done previously in his career, but it is the distance covered by Mandžukić and Cuadrado that ultimately matters most.
As can be seen in the graphic above, they provide protection for the full-backs behind them while also tucking in narrowly enough to prevent Juve being outnumbered in the central area. His averages of 1.1 tackles and 0.8 interceptions per game don’t seem overly impressive, but often his mere presence frustrates opponents into mistakes.
He was particularly vital in this manner against Barcelona last week, with the FourFourTwo StatsZone graphic in the tweet above highlighting just how effective Mandžukić was at both ends of the pitch. Creating two scoring chances – including a great run and an assist for the second goal – and completing 21 of his 31 pass attempts, he also won three of the four tackles he attempted, made one interception and recovered the ball three times, while also repeatedly aggravating a certain Argentinian star…
The Bianconeri will hope he can do the same again in the second leg, but at this point it would be remiss not to mention talk of other clubs wanting to sign the former Bayern Munich man this summer. Arsenal, Marseille and West Ham have all been linked with bids for him while Galatasaray boss Igor Tudor – himself a former Juventus player – has openly admitted his interest. “Who wouldn’t want Mandžukić? He is a fantastic striker and a great team player, who wouldn’t want him in their side?”
Max Allegri is a fan too. "Mario's track record speaks for itself and he has demonstrated his quality all over Europe with Bayern, Atletico and now Juventus,” the coach said. “He is a top class player.”