This was an European final that got the blood pumping in every football fans’ veins. For casual fans the clash of two European superpowers offered a spectacular game. For the tactics community the issues Zidane’s Madrid had with spacing on the pitch have been well documented. Juventus also have their structural issues when they play possession football in the opponent’s half. I was eager to see what the two sides would come up with to exploit each other’s issues.
Real Madrid started the match in a 4312 formation, with the start of Isco supplying the big talking point before the game. He forced Bale to the bench, who went to school only a few miles from the stadium as a little boy. #narratives
Ultimately the role of Isco was crucial to the game. His diagonal dribbles attracted pressure from opponents, thus giving more space to Kroos, Casemiro and Modric. His press resistance made it possible to escape from the middle third press of Juventus in crucial moments.
When the starting eleven appeared, there was some uncertainty whether Juventus will play with a back three or a back four. In the game their formation was 442 in defence, the phase of play they spent most of the game. Alex Sandro, Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli made a back four, with Dani Alves and Mandzukic playing on either side of Khedira and Pjanic. Higuain and Dybala formed the striker partnership.
The shape of Madrid’s press
In the high press the Madrid shape resembled a 42121, with Casemiro and Modric sitting in a deep, central position. Casemiro barely left the central area in front of the central defenders, mostly marking Dybala. The role of Modric was a bit more complex. He defended between Khedira and Alex Sandro. By staying a few meters behind Khedira, he could prevent the German international getting the ball, but he could still press a long ball from Buffon to Alex Sandro. Kroos marked Pjanic closely, which was a the theme for most of the game.
Juve’s shape was asymmetrical. Chiellini and Bonucci played as two central defenders with the latter in the left half space. Barzagli stood almost next to the sideline, keeping a large distance from Isco, who started his pressing runs from the left half space. Dani Alves pushed a lot higher on the right side, than Alex Sandro on the left side. These dynamics left Chiellini on the left side in space. However for the majority of the game Juventus decided to build up with Buffon playing the ball to Alex Sandro on the sideline, or Mandzukic, who used his aerial superiority against Carvajal to flick the ball onto the overlapping Alex Sandro.
At other times the press looked like a 4132, where Ronaldo was more man oriented on Chiellini, Casemiro man oriented with Dybala, and Kroos marking Pjanic very closely as always. In this pressing shape Alex Sandro was the free player, with Modric having to leave Khedira to pressure the ball when it was played to the fullback.
Khedira in possession
In general Khedira had a few chances to pick up the ball free in midfield, since Kroos was man marking Pjanic. However Khedira struggled to play through the lines in a way that would have caused problems for Madrid. He mostly tried to connect with Mandzukic in the same vertical zone, which resulted in heavy pressure on the ball after the pass. A way to play a vertical pass with less pressure would have been to pass right after he received the ball, but instead he dribbled, thus giving time for the Real midfielders to start pressing him, and make the passing lane to Mandzukic tighter.This way of dribbling until the last second could have worked well by making more space for the wide player – Alex Sandro – by pulling Carvajal closer to the middle. However Khedira didn’t pass wide, failing to take advantage of this dynamic.
Another issue was a team tactical one. When Khedira dribbled forward with the ball, both Mandzukic and Higuain waited for the ball in front of the Real defence, while Dybala didn’t make runs behind the defence out of possession either. The space for Khedira to play in shrinked as he dribbled forward, while the Real defenders could read the next football action easier.
Dybala frequently moved into the space between Kroos and the left winger to ask for the ball from Bonucci. This space was there since Kroos was very man oriented on Pjanic. Ramos always stepped out with Dybala, and applied pressure with perfect timing, forcing heavy touches, or preventing the Argentine from turning on the ball.
Juve’s defensive shape
To disrupt the ball circulation of Real Madrid Juventus defended in a 442 shape in their own half. Dani Alves had a crucial role on the right side, pressing vertical balls in the half space, as well as moving up to press Kroos from the outside when the German international’s body position prevented him from seeing the movement of Dani Alves.
In the beginning Real Madrid had some positional issues on the left wing, which allowed Alves to access Marcelo, while Madrid didn’t have a way to play out of the pressure.
Due to the deep position of Marcelo, Benzema appeared on the left wing, but was tightly marked by Barzagli, with Juventus staying very compact horizontally. Isco had a key role in disrupting this structure with his dribbling followed with runs in the channel, thus making space for Benzema.
Isco was moving back from the space between Pjanic and Khedira, receiving the ball from Marcelo, dribbling diagonally, thus drawing several players, most notably Dani Alves to the ball and creating space for Marcelo. After laying the ball down, Isco made a full speed run into the channel between Barzagli and Bonucci, thereby creating space for Benzema to receive the ball between the lines.
In the ball circulation phase Kroos was playing rather deep in the left halfspace, even though Marcelo was also not pushing high near the sideline. This created an overload in that deep halfspace-wing area, but if Isco couldn’t ask for the ball, Madrid struggled to advance from here due to the lack of numbers in front of the ball, and the horizontal compactness of Juventus.
Ronaldo was either playing between the lines on the ballfar side, or coming too close to the ball on the sideline, thereby taking away the already not so good staggering of Real Madrid on the ballnear side. Ronaldo attempted runs behind the Juventus defence in the ball near channel, but Bonucci and Chiellini covered each other well and started their movement to defend the long ball from Marcelo in time. In the first half there were no players between the lines – asking for the ball to their feet – on the ball side, hence it was easy for the Juventus defenders to read the pass in the absence of other cues.
After 33 minutes the spacing between Kroos, Marcelo and Isco was much better, and the run of Isco resulted in an excellent cross and a close range Ronaldo header. Marcelo received the ball just a little bit behind Dani Alves, which was enough to pick out Marcelo making a run on the blindside of Barzagli.
Real’s midfield shape
The structure of Real’s midfield was quite peculiar, with low numbers in the middle, mainly going for control in the deep halfspaces and wide areas. Kroos was mainly asking for the ball in the deep left hafspace, Modric in the deep right halfspace, while Casemiro had a more static position in the centre. The mobility of Isco was crucial in the ball circulation of Real Madrid as he could ask for the ball in front of the Juventus team shape, dribble diagonally and turn suddenly to play to either Kroos or Modric, who asked for the ball in the space vacated by the shifting Juventus team. Just as important was his ability to receive the ball between the Juventus midfielders, invite the pressure from Dani Alves and Pjanic before laying off the ball.
Dybala and Higuain stayed very close to the rest of the Juventus team, defending on either side of Casemiro, preventing the ball from getting to the Brazilian from Kroos or Modric, and pressing from the blindside if the ball did get to the Brazilian. They won multiple balls this way.
The benefit of the three Real Madrid midfielders playing behind the the ball in the circulation phase was that they could shield the passing lane to Higuain when Juventus won back the ball always falling back to a horizontally compact shape, thus severely limiting the ability of the Italians to move up from their block in their own half. At long balls into the space behind Varane proved to be quicker than Higuain, regularly beating the striker in 1 v 1 scenarios.
Juventus press in the deep half spaces
Kroos and Modric were not under pressure in the halfspaces during ball circulation for the most part, with the exception of when Dani Alves or Madzukic ran up to press them from the side and force them inside, sometimes even dispossessing them. The trigger for these pressing actions was their body position the moment they received the ball. When they received the ball looking diagonally to the centre of the pitch the Juventus wingers could press them with a curved run from the outside.
However the structure of Real Madrid was not the most conducive to playing forward. There were multiple players on the ball side either on the same line vertically or horizontally. Much of Kroos’ passing entailed playing to Isco or Ronaldo moving in front of Pjanic and Khedira from between the lines, who then layed off the ball to Kroos again. These passes were good for manipulating the positions of Dani Alves and Pjanic, but Real Madrid struggled to penetrate. In the second half their ball circulation became quicker and Isco started dribbling diagonally instead of giving the ball back to Kroos, both factors having a part to play in Real Madrid running away with the game.
On the left side Juventus struggled to maintain the same compactness as they did on the right side. When Modric received the ball in the right deep halfspace, Mandzukic was covering the vertical passing lane to Ronaldo in the advanced halfspace, but Mandzukic didn’t move up to press the midfielder, his defending was passive. Carvajal asked for the ball almost in one line with Modric, Alex Sandro had to move out very far from the chain of four to press Carvajal, with Chiellini struggling to keep the distance from the fullback. With the passive defending of Mandzukic, Modric moved into a position where from he could easily find Ronaldo in the space between Chiellini and Alex Sandro.
For Juventus Mandzukic served as a target to play diagonals to, or play to him running into space, attempting to get on the inside of Carvajal. If Mandzukic received the ball on the ground, with a closed body position to the field of play, then Carvajal pressed him tightly.
Juventus high press
In the Juventus press Mandzukic and Dybala were man oriented on the two Real central defenders, while Higuain was on Casemiro. The ex-Real striker stood between Navas and Casemiro, attacking the ball to hurry goalkicks after Real took the lead. If Higuain moved up to the keeper, Khedira attempted to move up to Casemiro, but he was more zonally oriented, and left the Brazilian midfielder free in order to cover the pass to Isco, thus giving an option for Madrid to escape the press. Pjanic marked Kroos in a man oriented fashion on the ball side, which the German exploited by pulling Pjanic wide when Marcelo had the ball, thus opening the space to the central zone to give access to Casemiro.
In the beginning of the second half Real Madrid created two dangerous situations from Marcelo passing to a running player into the ballside channel. The reason this worked was Real having a better structure in front of the ball, one player running into the channel, at least one asking for the ball between the lines, making it more difficult for the defenders to support each other with the long ball behind the defence. In the second situation Ronaldo asked for the ball between the lines in front of Bonucci, and the Italian defender marked the Portugese legend instead of supporting Barzagli in defending the space behind the Juventus defence. In the first instance unfortunatey the video of the game doesn’t reveal why Juventus failed to defend this ball and run, since the start of the defenders’ movement is not in the game video. However this time Benzema appears in front of Bonucci.
Real Madrid started the second half rather aggressively. Not just in the number of late challenges and tackles flying in the moment Juventus broke from the counterpress or pressure, but also Real started pressing rather high in the second half.
Another crucial change was the quicker possession game of Real Madrid, especially in the way they changed sides with the ball. Kroos moved the ball onto Marcelo at times even with one touch, and escaped the pressing of Dani Alves by passing vertically to Isco with similar pace. The diagonal dribbling of Isco also has to be mentioned, for it was crucial in attracting the press from Dybala, therefore making Casemiro free to speed up the pace of the attack again, and play a diagonal to Carvajal, who played almost as high as the Juventus defence, unlike in the first half.
Isco played in a higher position in the second half during circulation. If he got the ball between the lines from Kroos, he offered a route through which Real could escape the press of Dani Alves, and he could keep the ball even with his back to the goal against Bonucci thanks to his excellent press resistance. Dani Alves worked very hard in defence, pressing any vertical pass into the halfspace on his side, pressing Kroos in the deep halfspace if the triggers were there, and also trying to pressure Marcelo next to the sideline. By playing vertical passes in the left halfspace, immediately laying off the ball, and moving it on, Real could manipulate the position of Dani Alves in a way that he was always on the move, never getting into a set defensive position. Even the attack before the second goal of Real came down on his side, after he lost the ball in a counterattack and failed to track back after a long stretch of extensive defensive work.
Kroos’ excellent sense of rhythm deserves credit. His one touch passing was crucial in speeding up the game. Also he kept the ball with purpose – short passes with Ramos – in order to attract pressure from Dybala, thus making Casemiro free in the middle. Thus the Brazilian had time to change the sides to Carvajal. This happened before the second goal, where Casemiro’s diagonal was inaccurate, but Modric won the second ball and set up Ronaldo for the third goal.
At 3-1 Dybala and Higuain became more active in pressing the Real central defenders during the ball circulation. This left Casemiro free in the six space, as Khedira and Pjanic/Marchisio didn’t move together with the strikers, Juventus lost vertical compactness.
The red card of Cuadrado mainly sealed the faith of Juventus. This tweet from @OptaJohan tells it all:
All in all the dominance of Real Madrid in the final can not be questioned. They over performed Juventus in expected goals thanks to a flurry of chances in the second half. It is funny for me to think about last summer, when there was a real chance of Isco leaving Madrid. Now he was a key performer in a Champion’s League final. Life works in mysterious ways.