In one corner, the champions of Spain, and in the other, the champions of Italy. It seems appropriate that this year’s Champions League final in Berlin be contested by two newly-crowned domestic kings, intent on adding the last piece of the jigsaw to what has been an excellent campaign for both Barcelona and Juventus. It is a showdown, the magnum opus of European football that promises to serve up one of the most intriguing tactical battles in recent times.
Will the Catalans reclaim their spot at the summit of European football, four years after their last Champions League triumph; or will Italy’s Old Lady relive the halcyon days of the ’90s with their first European Cup victory in 19 years? After another gruelling, exhausting year of competition, the fate of the Champions League rests in the hands Luis Enrique’s Barcelona and Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus.
A majority of the pre-game discussion has revolved around whether or not Barcelona, buoyed significantly by a sensational run of form, can actually be beaten. On Saturday night, Allegri faces the tactical examination of his life when he sets his eleven players up to face a rampant La Liga outfit, who scored 110 league goals on their way to a 23rd Spanish crown.
Even the mighty Bayern Munich, coached by tactical wizard and Barcelona hero Pep Guardiola, were reduced to quivering wrecks during their harrowing semi-final against Enrique’s men, when the feared triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar ran riot at the Nou Camp, taking advantage of Pep’s naively aggressive tactics to win comfortably 3-0. So how exactly can Allegri crush the seemingly unstoppable force that has swept through this season with, at times, distressing ease?
As a matter of fact, Barcelona can be beaten. Paris Saint-Germain did it admirably at the Parc des Princes back in the group stage of this competition in September. Barcelona have also lost four times out of their 38 games in the Spanish league, so they are by no means invincible. The extra slick passing machine that has been ruthless in comfortably dismantling every opposition they have been faced with was even breached at home, by Malaga, despite Javi Gracia’s men managing only 27 percent of possession.
After that game, Gracia offered an intuitive assessment of how to tackle Barcelona: “[You have to] control the game through good defensive work, not through possession, because you cannot do that against Barcelona,” he said. Therein lies the key ingredient to unlocking the Barcelona defence and emerging victorious. Barcelona will always be better at retaining possession than their opposition as long as they have the likes of Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Ivan Rakitic seeing plenty of the ball, and there is no point in trying to contend with that.
Gracia’s tactical analysis following his side’s immensely satisfying night at the Nou Camp was fascinating and telling.
“The player who wins the ball back must play it forward immediately, to bypass their initial press. The forwards must be waiting for that moment, to offer themselves in the spaces we know will be there if their full-backs are pushed forward. If you do not break and hold the ball against Barcelona, you never get out. They have possession, possession, possession, and in the end you are exhausted – and then you are in trouble.”
This model can be applied to Juventus, who have the right players to execute such a strategy in possession. Interestingly, it is Giorgio Chiellini, the Juve battering ram centre-half, who has played the most forward passes in the Champions League this season with 346.
Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci hold largely the same responsibilities as they did under Conte, but since the swap to a back four, they are expected to instigate passing moves. This has been a recurring facet of the Allegri model, as Chiellini’s haul of 773 passes is bettered only by Toni Kroos (810) and Xabi Alonso (790). Nevertheless, it is a remarkable statistic for a central defender admired more for his mettle and fearlessness than his adroitness with the ball at his feet.
Editor’s note: It has since been revealed that Chiellini will miss the final with a calf tear. His loss, as explained above, will undoubtedly have an effect how Juventus play.
This is exactly where Gracia’s assessment of ‘playing it forward immediately’ comes in; if Chiellini or Bonucci win the ball off Barcelona’s front-line, they must play it to the midfield immediately, otherwise they will be hunted in packs by Messi, Suarez and Neymar, who have proven incredibly adept at winning possession high up the pitch. That trio of players pressing has flourished under Enrique, especially through Messi, who has won possession in the attacking third (12) more times than any other player in the competition this season, followed by Neymar (8) and Suarez (5). Lose the ball to MSN in their own half, and Juventus inevitably dice with the death of their European dream.
During a frenetic and breathless opening 20 minutes to the semi-final first-leg between Barca and Bayern, the former’s forwards pressed relentlessly and aggressively and Juve’s rapid transition from defence to midfield can ensure they don’t suffer the same fate as Guardiola’s overwhelmed Munich, whose defence looked hideously misshapen and kamikaze at times as they chased shadows around the Camp Nou to no avail. Allegri’s Juventus are far more disciplined and regimented than that however, with their victory over Real Madrid illustrative of their organisational capabilities.
Against Madrid’s rampaging full-backs – Marcelo had 33 out of 38 passes completed in the attacking third – Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo sat deep to allow Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba to effectively operate as wide midfielders, offering extra cover to Real’s sustained threat on the wings.
Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, presumably the full-backs of choice for Enrique, will be inclined to get forward as often as possible against Juve, much like they did against Bayern. Alves, for example was frequently seen in both legs pushing right up, joining in on the waves of pressure facilitated by Messi and his attacking partners. If Juventus are to succeed against Barcelona, stopping their threat from wide areas will be as important as keeping the central influence of Rakitic or Iniesta quiet.
When PSG defeated Barcelona earlier this season, their tactics worked perfectly to unsettle and unnerve a floundering Catalan defence. Setting up with two banks of four, PSG made it as compact as possible and allowed Barcelona the minimum space from which they struggled to engineer chances and attack with their usual fluidity and confidence.
Juventus lack the pace of PSG, though they remain robust, dynamic and extremely dangerous on the counter, as Real Madrid discovered in the semi-final. Remember, Malaga managed to overturn Barca with just 27% possession – Juventus must be patient and seize the opportunities as opposed to attempting to out-pass a unit that has possession-based football in its blood.
While counter-attacking is always crucial, Juventus may feel as though the area in which they hold a distinct advantage is set-pieces.
The Bianconeri have scored 19 goals from set-piece situations this season, more than any other team and considering that Barcelona have, statistically speaking, the shortest team in Europe with an average height of 1.77m, the Serie A champions will relish the opportunity at winning corners and free-kicks in attacking areas. Combine Pirlo’s outstanding delivery from dead-ball situations with Juve’s taller players – Chiellini, Bonucci, Morata, Pogba – and Juventus stand every chance of nicking a goal from a set-piece.
Some people have written off Juventus already but that is imprudent, for they did not reach the Champions League final with deficient tactics. Allegri’s commitment to a 4-3-1-2, which has brought out the best in this highly-talented Juventus squad, has coincided with an immediate improvement in the club’s European form.
Whether Juventus go for a counter-attacking methodology or rely on their prowess from set-pieces, they will be hoping that lady luck is on their side. A manager can meticulously formulate and prepare their systems and tactics, but sometimes – especially in the cagey environment of a major final – luck can be the decisive factor. After all the analysis, one question will remain unanswered until Saturday night: who will be the luckier side? It’s perfectly poised to be one of the most fascinating and absorbing European finals in recent memory.
Matt Gault is a new contributor to Tactical Calcio. A long-term writer for These Football Times, he has also featured on the Guardian Sport Network, FourFourTwo, World Soccer, BBC and Huffington Post. You can find him on Twitter @MattGault11.