Om Arvind writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League final that finished Juventus 1-4 Real Madrid
The 2017 Champions League Final was well set-up to be a classic. All the familiar clichés – “unstoppable force meets immovable object” – were being trotted out and two truly world class teams were raring to go head to head. It was the exciting, goal-friendly, and superstar-filled Real Madrid, against the impenetrable, tactically disciplined, and hard-working Juventus.
Leading up to kick-off, both sides had reason to be optimistic. Real Madrid had brushed Napoli aside in the round of 16 before blowing Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid out of the water in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively. Juventus were only slightly less spectacular, as they followed a solid 3-0 aggregate victory over FC Porto with a stunning destruction of Barcelona and a decisive sweep of AS Monaco. As a result, both sets of fans were expecting a largely even and tight affair, something that turned out to be far different from what actually occurred.
From the off, Juventus controlled the first half, as they started with greater intensity and easily exploited the lack of horizontal coverage in Real Madrid’s diamond midfield. While Cristiano Ronaldo struck first and against the run of play from a counter, Juve’s barrage of uncontested crosses and cut-backs gave Real no respite. With Madrid on the back foot, Mandzukic scored a brilliant overhead kick to deservedly tie the game. That goal had Real reeling, but the scoreline held at 1-1 till half-time.
When Los Merengues came out of the tunnel fifteen minutes later, they looked like a side transformed. Previously content to sit back and counter, Modric and Kroos grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and dominated possession inside Juve’s half. The pressure finally told when Casemiro blasted a shot from range that deflected off of Khedira’s foot and into the back the of the net.
With the tide now firmly redirected in the favor of the All Whites, Real pressed even harder, scoring a third goal off the boot of Ronaldo only three minutes after their second. The game was over from then on, but Marco Asensio added insult to injury with a clean strike in the 90th minute after excellent work on the left by Marcelo.
Thus, Real Madrid completed the feat of all feats, becoming the first team to win back-to-back Champions Leagues since its format change in 1992.
Real Madrid (4-4-2 Diamond): Navas // Carvajal – Varane – Ramos – Marcelo // Casemiro // Modric – Kroos (Morata, 89’) // Isco (Asensio, 82’) // Ronaldo – Benzema (Bale, 77’)
Juventus (4-2-3-1): Buffon // Barzagli (Cuadrado, 66’) – Bonucci – Chiellini – Sandro // Pjanic (Marchisio, 70’) – Khedira // Alves – Dybala (Lemina, 78’) – Mandzukic // Higuaín
Juventus’ Build-up vs. Real Madrid’s Diamond in the 1st Half
There were big worries from some analysts that Zidane’s choice to deploy a 4-4-2 diamond would have negative repercussions versus Juventus. Despite beating heavyweights Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid and sealing the league title with this formation, Real looked far from stable defensively. The lack of a true engine in either Modric and Kroos made it very difficult for Real to cover the flanks, creating horizontal compactness issues that could be exploited in transition. Due to Juve’s stellar wing-backs – Dani Alves and Sandro – and potency down the flanks, there was fear that Real’s narrow structure would finally be exploited properly.
This certainly seemed like it was going to be the case in the first half, as Juventus continually bypassed the opposition’s diamond midfield to deliver several free(ish) crosses.
To cope with this, Zidane asked his side to transition to a 4-4-2 on defense (Isco shifted to the either the left or the right flank, depending on his position in possession when Madrid lost the ball), but this only occurred when Los Blancos sat in a deep block. When Madrid were higher up the pitch, they chose to sit narrower. This was probably because it was more optimal to stay in their positions and close players down after losing the ball higher up the pitch, as opposed to not closing down in favor of trying to re-organize into a wider shape.
While this provided defensive overloads as Madrid’s four midfielders shifted to the first flank Juve attempted to penetrate, simple lateral ball circulations allowed the Bianconeri to bypass Real’s defensive block and make use of the space on the opposite wing.
Once in the final third, Mandzukic would move into the box to aid Higuaín, while Dybala, Khedira, and Pjanic would make runs to the edge of the box to latch onto cut-backs.
As well as Juventus took advantage of this, they could have exploited the weaknesses in Zidane’s system much better had Allegri made better personnel selections. For whatever reason, the Italian manager chose to employ a 4-2-3-1 with Dani Alves on the right-wing and Barzagli at right-back. The result was a set of attacking patterns that skewed to the left, since Barzagli – a natural center back – offered nothing going forward. It is possible that Allegri thought that the presence of a defensive right back would free up Dani Alves to attack more, but all it did was isolate the Brazilian on the wing, nulling his ability to exploit Real’s lack of defensive width on his side of the pitch.
Allegri would sub on Cuadrado for Barzagli (Dani Alves moved to right back) when his side was 3-1 down, but it was a change that came much too late to impact the game.
Juventus’ High Press in the 1st Half
To ensure that Juventus imposed themselves on the game, Allegri instructed his team to press high up the pitch.
Instead of maintaining the 4-2-3-1 shape Juve used when in possession, he asked his side to change into an asymmetric 4-3-3. This involved a constantly changing structure that saw either Alves or Mandzukic press up front with Higuaín and Dybala. Due to this, the press was only initiated when Real circulated the ball to the wing. If the ball was on the right, Dani Alves would press the fullback, and if the ball was on the left, Mandzukic would press the fullback. This would often force the ball backwards, triggering aggressive pressing actions from Higuaín and Dybala as they moved to close down Real’s center backs. To prevent Real from simply switching the ball over and to the side of the press, the far-side wide man (Alves or Mandzukic) would drop deeper to guard the space. This is what created the 4-3-3 look of the shape: one advanced presser on the wing, two advanced central pressers, and a wide man positioned deeper in line with Pjanic and Khedira.
This well-organized structure, coupled with Real’s poor positioning in-between the lines, allowed Juventus to successfully win the ball high up the pitch on several occasions, forced Real to give away the ball cheaply, and relegated Zidane’s men to opportunistic counter-attacks.
However, the Black and Whites did press improperly on one occasion and Los Blancos punished them severely for it. After Dani Alves lost the ball near Real’s box on the right flank in the 20th minute, Juve decided to apply immediate pressure to cut out the attack.
With Alves still recovering, Pjanic had to block off both Modric and Kroos, and was left with ground to cover when Madrid’s Croatian laid the ball off to his German teammate. However, Kroos isn’t a particularly quick player and it was disappointing to see Pjanic give up on chasing his man down, allowing Toni to burst free and release a pass that saw Madrid enter the final third with significant numbers. With a whole host of options bearing down on goal, Ronaldo chose to lay the ball off to Carvajal on the right, who played a low cross back to the Portuguese hitman to finish off. 1-0.
Real Madrid’s Strategies & Issues in Possession in the 1st Half
As has been common with Zidane’s Madrid in the past, Real’s midfield structure in possession was rather questionable. Even when facing a formidable wall of players and a well-organized press, Zizou still asked Modric and Kroos to sit in front of Juve’s defensive lines and to the sides of Casemiro. The reason for this is that Zidane always wants Toni and Luka to construct play from deep and doesn’t trust Casemiro to take on said duties. Thus, instead of Kroos and Modric pushing up in the half spaces to receive the ball from Casemiro behind Juve’s defensive block, they sat deep and looked to carry out those distributive actions themselves.
However, Modric and Kroos often had no one to aim to. One reason for this was Isco’s poor choice of movement. Clearly failing to recognize that there were already too many players sitting deep, Isco would sometimes make the mind-boggling decision to drop deeper than even Casemiro to receive the ball from his center backs. This would leave only Ronaldo and Benzema to provide central occupation, who didn’t do so through no fault their own. In what was clearly a pre-planned strategy, Zidane instructed Ronaldo and Benzema to make runs down the wings or into the channels. The objective was to attack Juve’s back-line with speed and create chances in the way that Mbappe had done against Juventus in the 1st leg. While this did get Real into the final third a couple of times, Juventus’ defenders dealt with the strategy well. With no real plan B to fall back upon, Madrid ended up circulating the ball uselessly in front of Juve’s defensive block, before trying to make difficult advances down the wing to cross the ball. Thus, aside from their one counter-attack that resulted from a series of Juve mistakes, they did not get near the Italians’ penalty box.
Real Madrid’s Different Approach in Possession & Preparation for the Counterpress in the 2nd Half
Recognizing that Juventus were clearly the superior team in the first period of play, Zidane made some much needed changes to Real Madrid’s approach. While they still looked to make direct advances down the wing, there was an effort to vary their approach by attacking through the center.
While Kroos and Modric still remained rather flat, Isco began to truly move in-between the lines to pop up as a central passing outlet for Marcelo and Carvajal to pass to.
This allowed Madrid to move up the pitch in a more controlled manner, providing time for Real’s players to push forward as a unit. Once in the final third, Los Blancos would circulate the ball wide, but instead of crossing immediately, Zidane instructed his men to patiently probe for a better opportunity. This involved switching the ball from flank to flank through short sideways passes, which were enabled by the intermediaries Modric, Kroos, and Isco. While this more measured style in possession didn’t directly lead to any goals, it did allow for good preparation for the counterpress.
Because Madrid’s players were given time to advance up the pitch and because the midfielders had to take up zones in front of the box to switch play from side to side, they were automatically put in positions that created an overall structure favorable to winning the ball back immediately after it was lost.
The result was dramatic. Juventus, who had dominated so much of the first half, could hardly get out of their own half, as Real’s counterpress ensured a monopoly over possession and enabled them to push forward relentlessly. Eventually, the sheer force of Madrid’s unending pressure caused Juve’s iron defense to crack. With Real looking likelier to score after every passing shot, Casemiro provided the breakthrough in the 61st minute with a screamer from range that was helped on its way by a deflection off of Sami Khedira’s foot.
Only three minutes later, Luka Modric executed a successful counterpressing action near Juve’s box that enabled him to deliver a cross that Cristiano Ronaldo duly converted.
From then on, the game was over. Stunned into submission, Juventus didn’t muster a single noteworthy attack for the rest of the game. Madrid, sensing the capitulation of their opponents, surged forward joyfully in search of more goals. Another one finally arrived in the 90th minute, when substitute Marco Asensio put away a cross following an excellent move by Marcelo on the touchline.
If there were any doubts about Zidane’s ability as a manager, those have surely been eradicated after Real’s convincing 4-1 victory over Juventus. While there are certainly some things that the Frenchman can still improve on, there is no doubt that he does more right than wrong. Following a mediocre half where his tactics were largely to blame, Zidane made subtle shifts in Real’s approach to the game that completely turned the tide of the result and ensured that Madrid accomplished a feat never before achieved in history – back-to-back Champions League trophies.
However, it would be unfair to forget the players that played an equal part in this historic success. Main man Cristiano Ronaldo was undoubtedly the player of the tournament, as he used his unparalleled goal scoring ability to batter Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid, and then Juventus into submission. With the most goals and assists in Champions League history, 4 Champions League trophies, and 4 goals in 3 separate Champions League finals (a record), he has surely made his case to be considered as the greatest player the competition has ever seen.
But he didn’t do it alone. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos deserve immense plaudits for the way they dominated a diversity of midfields and adjusted to the rigorous demands of a diamond structure that clearly did not suit them. While Modric was spectacular in his own right, Kroos, in particular, has risen to the fore in a way that should probably have him regarded as the best central midfielder in the world.
As for Allegri and Juventus, they can hold their heads high. While the Italian manager arguably hindered his side’s chances of success with his personnel selection, his general tactical decisions and adjustments made after the departure of Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, and Andrea Pirlo, have been nothing short of extraordinary. There is no shame in losing to this Real Madrid team and Allegri is surely cultivating a powerhouse that should still be able to compete for Champions Leagues in the future. Don’t count them out.
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