First seasons at the helm, first shots at the treble. That’s where the similarities between Max Allegri and Luis Enrique end as both managers head to the poor-yet-sexy, cliché-ridden German capital city of Berlin for the season’s swansong with their respective Juventus and Barcelona sides.
High on confidence and a proud heritage of relentless winnings, the giants of Italy and Spain square off in what promises to be a battle of much intrigue. Only one will stand tall and proud at the night’s end; how I wish the weekend night would never end. This piece is an attempt to tactically break down both Juventus and Barcelona, and analyze how and where the final could be won and lost.
The Old Lady’s semi-final win over Real Madrid on aggregate over two legs owed much to the organizational nous of Allegri. Throughout the knockout stages, they’ve had to face brilliant attacking teams in Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid while also coming through against a disciplined Monaco. Juventus’ 4-4-2/4-1-3-2 was instrumental against Real Madrid’s front three, when they sat in a low block and pressed in a low-medium block, continually forcing the Spaniards into wide areas. The theme looks set to continue against another side (Barcelona) who deploy a front three. This is a basic tactic to always have a numerical advantage in the defensive third against superior opposition; Juve usually play three center-backs when up against two-man attacks, using their full-backs as attacking outlets compensating for the missing man in midfield.
(ED’S NOTE: Giorgio Chiellini has been ruled out of the final due to injury)
Luis Enrique’s Barcelona have shaped into a fearsome attacking unit as the season has worn on, with a settled starting eleven intent on breaking records left, right and center. Their attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar has combined for a record 120 goals so far this season. Barca will, in all probability, line up in their template 4-3-3 with the only dilemma for Enrique being the decision to choose between club legend Xavi, who plays his last for the club, and summer signing Ivan Rakitic who has been an inspired presence on the right side of midfield, alternating with Messi and Dani Alves in some breathtaking attacking phases.
BARCELONA’S PATTERNS OF PLAY: ON AND OFF THE BALL
Barcelona’s pattern of play has a distinctive feature about it; they heavily rely on possession football and choose the strategically strong areas to trouble opposition with the high technical level of their players. The wide areas are used intelligently, and not as strong attacking zones. This is logical as Barcelona have rarely been reliant on proper center forwards in recent times (Zlatan Ibrahimovic an exception). Barca’s active areas in wide attacking phases involve interplay and triangles, which is their fundamental tactic.
Barca’s morphs of formation during transitions in play often has one constant, striking aspect which is their formation of passing triangles which aims at circulating the ball through and beyond Zone 14 through the central areas. Even their wide interchanges end up with the ball carrier inside the penalty box or on the periphery of the penalty box. The idea is, always, to attack through the central areas.
Another utility of passing triangles for Barcelona is they can bypass pressing traps easily. The diagram shows different passing triangles on the left side where they are subjected to zonal pressing. With triangles, these traps can be easily bypassed as the zones are not active at that moment.
(Note: Central areas are strategically more important in attacking play than wide areas because the distance to goal is shorter from central areas than from wide areas.)
Utilization of passive areas is another important feature of Barcelona’s pattern of play. This is helped by their general possession-based game which helps the likes of Neymar to offer little in a defensive sense but cause trouble in lightning quick transitions. With Neymar positioning himself on the wide left touchline, any defence-to-attack transition has a readily available outlet in the pacey Brazilian. This also provides the rationale behind Enrique favoring Mascherano over Jeremy Mathieu (both aren’t center-backs by trade) as the second center-back as Mascherano is a better passer of the ball, which facilitates quicker and more dynamic transitions.
(Note: Passive areas are the zones where the real-time action is minimum, and the ball is a considerable distance away.)
The above diagram is a screenshot from Barca’s 3-1 Copa del Rey win over Athletic Bilbao. As Busquets receives the ball from Messi who dribbles past the medium block of Athletic markers, Mascherano positions himself into an area towards Busquets’ left where he receives the pass. Neymar, on the far touchline, is ready to make a run should the Argentine center-back thread a lofted ball. Mascherano didn’t seek Neymar on that particular occasion and went to Alba with the pass, but Neymar’s activity in a zone deemed inactive by Athletic could’ve seen them in trouble. This is how Barcelona catch relaxed opposition out.
Barcelona average a high possession percentage of 68% and therefore, they are almost always on the ball. Off the ball, the Blaugrana use two triggers, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Barca hold a very high line of defence, a particularly risky strategy but Gerard Pique’s gradual improvement has made it look easy on the eye. They don’t press relentlessly as they used to under Pep Guardiola, and employ a medium pressing block when not in possession (the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Neymar rarely press). The full-backs initiate the pressing traps, and the two players at the far end of the pitch, Neymar and Suarez, act as the triggers (not simultaneously but alternately). This is one reason for the volume of chances Barca create and the goals of Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN).
JUVENTUS’ PATTERNS OF PLAY: ON AND OFF THE BALL
Juventus have been the alpha dog of Italian football for quite a few years now but only this season have they found a semblance of footing in European football after years in the obscurity. They regularly came short under Antonio Conte, who was too rigid with his setups and rarely shuffled packs, and this season, too, they were almost pipped to second by Olympiacos of Greece in group play. However, they survived and a few disciplined performances later, topped by the famous defeat of holders Real Madrid, find themselves in elite company.
Juventus’ midfield dynamics are simpler; Andrea Pirlo’s age means that his energy and work-rate aren’t up to standards, and this requires Allegri to play Arturo Vidal in an advanced midfield role, like the tip of a diamond. Juve’s midfield isn’t the classic diamond because of the predominantly defensive nature of the side. Pirlo sits the deepest, as the half-back or a semi quarter-back and is fundamental in dictating Juve’s transition plays as well as the direction of their attacks when on top. Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio are the wide midfielders in Juve’s purported diamond.
Juventus primarily use their four man defence against stronger opposition. Their 4-1-3-2 gradually morphs into a pendulating back four at times depending on pitch activity and without the ball, the 1-3 midfield changes into a flat-4, congesting the space between the lines both horizontally and vertically which forces opponents to find wider avenues. Juventus are good in the air, and letting their opponents stretch the play into wide areas is always favorable while maintaining their shape and horizontal compactness.
Genius tactical analyst Tom Payne assessed Juventus’ defensive structure and found a recurring theme in games against superior attacking sides. Against Dortmund in the Round of 16, Juve’s intense pressure in the central areas forced the Germans wider, resulting in fewer chances created for Dortmund and a 5-1 aggregate victory for Juve. Against Real Madrid, too, in the semifinals, Juventus overloaded the central areas with their flat midfield four and consequently pushed Madrid wide. This forced them into ineffective crosses after repeated failed attempts to break the Bianconeri ranks through the middle. Juve, being good in the air, only let in 21 of the 66 crosses (32% cross completion) swung in by the Spaniards over two legs, which speaks volumes about Allegri’s tactical expertise.
- Barcelona’s pitch space congestion
Barcelona, as mentioned earlier, maintain a high defensive line. This is surprising given their two center-backs, Pique and Mascherano, aren’t blessed with world-beating recovery pace although their superlative attributes of tackling and anticipation of play paper over the shortcomings. In the diagram (on the right) from the same Copa final against Athletic, Barca squeeze pitch space as their last defensive line is positioned very high. The man on the ball, Athletic’s Benat, could’ve put the Catalans into serious trouble with more conviction in his choice of pass. Mikel Rico starts on a unmarked run behind Dani Alves and had Benat found him rather than going for Inaki Williams, things could’ve looked different today.
Juve’s Andrea Pirlo is one of the best deep-lying playmakers around, and if Juve can find him with the ball in similar phases of play, Barca should be troubled. Barca rarely lose the ball, and therefore their first defensive line rarely presses and should Pirlo find himself in similar areas, he will be expected to find his teammates in the channels with better conviction than Benat did.
- Barcelona’s passive area control
Barcelona’s attacking phases involve control of the active zones as well as the passive zones. This is an interesting facet of their play, one that has contributed to their domineering run under Enrique. Passive area control is considered redundant by most managers; this is primarily because the game being highly ball-oriented and the difficulties faced in perfecting it. Barcelona have been exceptionally adventurous in doing so.
Also given the technical prowess and ability on the ball in close quarters of the Barca players, they can effortlessly switch play from the congested areas of the pitch to unmanned, passive areas which often catches opposition off-guard. In the adjacent diagram, Neymar is seen in his customary wide position, holding his run and timing it as his teammates in the active areas press the opponent with the ball. Once the ball is recovered, his teammate on the ball can either trigger him or find an alternate option.
Two historic clubs, six European Cups between them. Will Xavi have one final bite of the big ears? Or will Gigi Buffon finally hold the Champions League aloft at the place of his greatest career moment? Come Saturday, European football will welcome another fabled giant on the hallowed trophy, the Holy Grail of club football.
– Diagrams created via Tactics Creator
– Follow the brilliant Tom Payne on Twitter here