Champions League Final Tactical Analysis: Barcelona vs. Juventus

Both Barcelona and Juventus used expected starting lineups for the Champions League final. Once Giorgio Chiellini was ruled out through injury, Bonucci and Barzagli were the natural pairing. This ruled out the possibility of the back three for Juventus, but given the difficulties Guardiola’s back three faced in the semi-final, this always seemed an unlikely option.

The game unfolded in three segments. Barcelona were on top for the majority, but Juventus had a twenty-minute spell after half-time where they were the more threatening team.

Initial impressions suggested Juventus were to use a 4-1-2-1-2 shape in defense, with Arturo Vidal occupying Sergio Busquets in the first build-up phase, and the two strikers splitting onto each central defender.


Juventus’ defensive shape when Barcelona try and build play from their own goal

This high man-to-man pressing scheme caused Barcelona problems in the opening minutes. Javier Mascherano & Jordi Alba each made uncharacteristic errors that created pressure on Barcelona. But once breaking through the initial press, Juventus retreated into a moderately passive 4-4-2, with Pogba & Marchisio fulfilling roles as ‘false wingers’.


Juventus’ defensive shape once Barca were inside the Juve half

The midfield was generally compact, with little space between any of the midfielders. This meant that the space was found on the wings, and that the midfield had to maintain its compactness whilst also shifting laterally. This slight difference in defensive shape meant Barca also altered their build-up patterns, with Iniesta generally playing in front of the Juventus midfield. The wide forwards, Messi & Neymar, also dropped deep in the initial phases of build-up, as well as sticking to the touchline in a bid to maintain width.


Barcelona’s basic build-up shape

Juventus were excellent at denying middle penetration, but also at forcing Barcelona into recycling possession. When Neymar receives the ball from Iniesta, Lichtsteiner pushes up and Marchisio doubles to make nullify Neymar’s dribbling skills. With Arturo Vidal ready to pounce if Iniesta received the ball back, Jordi Alba seemed the only available passing option. However, Juventus’ strikers were often negligent in their defensive positioning and Barcelona’s wide forwards were able to find Busquets, the master of recycling possession.

Even so, Juventus re-adjust well. They manage to structure themselves well and it doesn’t seem many forward passes are available to the man in possession.


Juventus are in a very comfortable situation only moments before the goal

But the man in possession is Lionel Messi. Whilst Juventus do well to create the compactness necessary to nullify the effects of his superhuman dribbling, this forgets that he is also the best playmaker in world football. He spots the 2v1 overload on the weak-side, and plays the 50-yard pass to Jordi Alba.

Whilst Messi was able to switch the point of attack with one pass, there is still much work to do.

Luis Suarez’s movement was perhaps lost in TV translation, but his role in the goal should not be understated. As Alba receives the ball, the Juventus back four is well-spaced and comfortable. But Suarez & Neymar drag their central defensive markers away from each other, creating a large gap between the two.

It is at this point that Andrea Pirlo should fill in. He doesn’t (in fact, he runs the other way). Rakitic & Iniesta both see the space and exploit it. 1-0.

Much of the trouble that Barcelona caused Juventus in the first half came through similar movements to this. Allegri’s side were able to stop Barcelona exploiting the ‘#10 space’, but this is partly because Barcelona never wanted to attack this space. With Messi playing on the right, their most potent threat came when Rakitic moved outside, creating space for the Argentine to run into.

It is a movement that Rakitic has mastered over the course of the season. In our analysis of Manchester City’s defensive structure against Barcelona, we acknowledged Rakitic’s ability to pull James Milner away from his midfield position. It was also vital to Barcelona’s Copa del Rey victory over Athletic. This is so important because it allows Messi to reach the centre of the pitch on his left foot and with room to work in. Barcelona’s decision to opt for Rakitic over Toni Kroos seems completely justified.

Juventus worked hard at ensuring Messi was not able to exploit this space through dribbling, but it is very difficult to nullify his passing range. In the opening period of the game, Messi produced several dangerous cross-field passes. This was generally possible because of the space he was granted from movements of Alves & Rakitic.

In our analysis of Manchester City’s halfspace attacks from 13/14, we talked about Pablo Zabaleta’s runs being instinctive and automatic. The movements of Rakitic & Alves are much the same, and indicate lots of work on the training ground from Luis Enrique and his coaching staff. They understand how to manipulate the defensive organisation that they come up against in order to create space for Messi.

These movements from Rakitic usually come in the form of a diagonal movement from the halfspace to the touchline, whilst Messi drops deeper. Although this depends on the original positioning of Messi, and the defense.

1:

This is the rotation of movements that tends to occur after a quick re-circulation of possession from the left of the pitch. Generally that means the ball is in a fairly deep position, and Rakitic is wary of a potential defensive transition; this means he covers Alves’ forward run. But instead of merely occupying the RB zone as Alves would in a rigid system, Rakitic moving into this zone means he draws a central midfielder out of position and gives Messi space to attack. Suarez moves into the halfspace to provide a forward passing option should Messi need it.

Busquets is almost always available, particularly against Juventus’ 4-4-2 where the strikers did a poor job of occupying him. This means that if the move breaks down, Barca are still able to easily recycle possession.

2:

This is the play triggered by Alves receiving the ball on the touchline. The variation comes with Alves’ movement after he passes to Messi; sometimes he will make his run on the inside of Messi rather than the outside. Being able to underlap is a skill Alves has improved over the course of the season, and it has become far more common throughout this calendar year. This means Rakitic would move wider than usual, on the touchline, and Alves would play in the halfspace.

Both of these variants create problems for opposition defenses. If the movements are not identified prior to the game, then Messi is often able to tear apart the opposition with his dribbling. Juventus did seem to identify this and Pogba (‘false LM’) reacted well. But Messi was still able to impact the game due to his passing range. Sometimes, it is nearly impossible to stop him.

“After it went to 1-1, we had five minutes too when we were fucked”
– Gerard Pique

In reality, it was for twenty minutes after half-time where Barcelona suffered. Busquets was uncharacteristically out of position on a number of occasions, as Pirlo was finally able to dictate the tempo.

This was partly triggered by the re-structuring of Juventus’ attacking shape. Throughout the first half, they were far too narrow as the central midfielders played in the central zones and Lichtsteiner seemed too wary of the presence of Neymar to venture far forward.


Juventus’ negligence towards the right side of the pitch makes it very easy for Barcelona to defend

This was corrected in the second half, as Marchisio played in a wider role. This allowed Pirlo more space in the centre of the pitch and meant Sergio Busquets was expected to push up onto him leaving gaps in the space where you would expect him to usually be.


Barcelona’s counter-press (61:44)

This seems a fairly well-structured press, with almost all passing lanes closed, and Suarez quickly tracked back to cover Pirlo. Busquets is closing off the passing lane to both Vidal & Tevez, with Rakitic in behind both in a bid to slightly cover for Busquets. But as the ball circulates to the right (Barzagli chips the ball to Lichtsteiner, over Neymar), Busquets remains in an advanced position. Vidal steps into the huge space in the centre of the pitch where Busquets would have been expected to be.

At this point Barca seemed to be utilising a man-marking based pressing system. But Iniesta chose to occupy the wrong man, as he pressed Barzagli rather than Pirlo. This meant Busquets had to stick to Pirlo, leaving Vidal as the free man in midfield.


Barcelona’s counter-press (65:47)

Again Iniesta was at fault as he closed the man on the ball, but did not close the passing lane. This allowed the two players to play a one-two around him, meaning Busquets had to step up to halt the danger, leaving a large space behind him. Juventus were able to get Pirlo on the ball regularly, and he was able to exploit that space Busquets abandoned.

In both instances, Busquets could have been less hasty to push forward, but Iniesta put him in a difficult situation; either Busquets had to abandon the counter-press, or forego the space in front of the defense. Xavi’s introduction was more than a celebratory appearance as he chose better positioning within Barca’s counter-press.

Whilst Iniesta made positioning errors in this period, he was also Barcelona’s main threat in attack. Iniesta’s influence was akin to that of when a basketball team loses fluency in pressure situations, so merely passes to their star player and hopes he produces a moment of magic. Messi’s influence in this period was limited, and almost everything came through Iniesta.

But this came to an end as Barcelona were able to transition with speed for the last 25 minutes. Arturo Vidal was often out of position, and Andrea Pirlo is simply not able to defend Neymar, Messi & Suarez in transition. Both of Barcelona’s last two goals came from dangerous counters, with the second again highlighting Suarez’s game intelligence as he starts well behind Evra when Messi takes his shot.


Barcelona’s second goal: Suarez creates an easy open-goal opportunity which should never have existed

The 3-1 scoreline was probably a fair reflection of the game. Rakitic & Alves allowed Messi more space than he should’ve had in a well-organised Juventus defensive structure. They did extremely well to stop Messi from dribbling; the only time he was able to do so was when Pirlo was slow to shift over and the Argentine was allowed to take on Pogba 1v1 before gathering speed. But to stop him dribbling, horizontal compactness is the key, and this leaves you open to being opened up by his passing. They key is to stop Messi getting the ball in these central areas; by catering for the intelligent movement of Rakitic & Alves. If opponents do not do this, we might just see Barcelona be the first team to win two consecutive Champions League titles.

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