Barcelona 3-1 Juventus: Barca pounce to end spells of Juve pressure
Barcelona won the European Cup – and completed a treble for the second time in seven years – with a 3-1 victory over Italian champions Juventus.
There were no surprises on Luis Enrique’s teamsheet. Andres Iniesta had been the only slight injury doubt, but he was fit to start and wore the captain’s armband.
Luis Enrique continued with his policy of using his reserve goalkeeper in cup competitions, which meant Marc-Andre ter Stegen started on home soil, with Claudio Bravo on the bench.
Max Allegri suffered a blow when Giorgio Chiellini was ruled out a couple of days before the final, meaning Andrea Barzagli came into the centre of defence. It also meant Leonardo Bonucci moving to the left of the centre-back pairing.
While it was unlikely to feature from the start here, Allegri has often played with a three-man backline this season. Chiellini’s injury meant there was less chance he would shift to that system midway through the game.
Barcelona were dominant overall, particularly in the first half when they could have put the game to bed very early.
However, while Barca had plenty of strong spells, they actually scored their goals when Juve were causing them problems.
Arguably the key tactical question here was Juventus’ approach without the ball – would they press high, or would they drop in and remain in a deep shape? In the opening minutes, it was clearly the former – the forwards pushed up high on the Barca centre-backs, Arturo Vidal was on Sergio Busquets, and the whole side took an extremely aggressive starting position, almost Barcelona-esque.
This forced Barcelona into a couple of poor passes when they attempted to work the ball forward, something that has been a common feature of their play in the opening minutes of big games in recent years – Real Madrid often used to force a nervousness from the opening whistle with a high press. Juve seemed keen to invite Barca to play the ball to Javier Mascherano, probably their least talented passer, and he twice conceded possession. Juve had a half-chance from Carlos Tevez, and would have been happy with their start to the game.
Barca hit back
Barcelona took the lead after four minutes from their first proper passing move, stunning Juventus at a time the Italian champions seemed to be dictating the rhythm of the game. It was a quite superb team goal, which featured ten Barcelona players in the build-up (everyone apart from Luis Suarez), although realistically Barcelona had spent the first part of that move simply attempting to get a grip of the game, conservatively retaining possession to push them higher up the pitch. Only when Leo Messi quickened the tempo did the passing evolve into a genuine attacking move.
The goal was actually relatively unusual for Barcelona this season. Yes, it was the type of passing move we’ve come to associate with them, but it’s rare to see both Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic advancing into the penalty area together, and combining in the final third. They’ve usually held their position more and left attacking to the front three, and the goal was more typical of Pep Guardiola’s style of play.
Barca switch play to Alba
Messi had quickened the play during that passing move with a sudden, thumped crossfield ball out to Jordi Alba, and this was a noticeable feature of the game in the first half hour – Alba was the game’s freest player, and because Juventus were remaining narrow and compact, both Messi and Daniel Alves would launch long passes towards him quickly. Again, this is reasonably rare for Barcelona – even if they’ve played more down the flanks than in the centre of the pitch this season – because their passing is usually much shorter. These crossfield balls only happened within the first 30 minutes.
On a similar note, Barca’s most likely route to goal in the first half came when Messi darted inside from the right flank, then arrowed passes across the pitch to Neymar running in behind the defence. These two have combined consistently in this manner this season, particularly in the second half of the campaign, and with Suarez quiet in the opening half, knocking longer passes from one flank to the other seemed to unnerve Juventus. Barcelona had an optimistic penalty shout when the ball hit Stephan Lichtsteiner’s hand following the first of these incidents, and then Neymar narrowly failed to make contact with the ball from an identical move.
Both teams compact
Both teams stayed compact throughout the first half, squeezing the play into a narrow band. While they had pressed higher up in the first five minutes, Tevez and Alvaro Morata usually dropped back to position themselves goalside of Sergio Busquets, leaving Mascherano and Gerard Pique time on the ball.
Something similar happened at the other end. Because Juve’s diamond (on paper) meant they were 4 v 3 in the middle, Suarez dropped back and stopped easy passes being played into Juve’s playmaker, Andrea Pirlo, which was partly why Juventus failed to do anything in possession for long periods.
The most obvious feature of Juventus’ play in the first half was the strange performance of Vidal. On his day, the Chilean is arguably the finest all-round footballer in the world – technically excellent, capable of playing in defence, midfield or attack and boasting tremendous ability with and without the ball. He’s also highly aggressive, but here he failed to control that side of the game and played like a headless chicken.
In the World Cup last year he’d helped Chile beat Spain by pressing Busquets relentlessly, and maybe he was trying to recreate that performance.However, he committed no fewer than five fouls in the first half, and his tackles throughout were frequently unsuccessful – he’d dispossess his opponent but the ball would fall to another Barcelona player, and he expended a huge amount of energy contributing little of use. He was the first player booked, was a little fortunate to escape further punishment, and summarised Juve’s struggles at 1-0 down.
Juve disorganised in midfield
Juventus weren’t as organised as we’ve come to expect, particularly in midfield. As seen previously in this competition, their diamond midfield flattened into a narrow four, with Vidal alongside Pirlo in the centre, but there often seemed confusion about who was tracking which Barcelona midfielders.
The fact Iniesta and Rakitic both stormed into the box for the opener is an obvious example, but there were other situations that simply didn’t seem to make sense – at one point, for example, Vidal ended up marking Suarez in open play, which seemed particularly odd given he was at the tip of Juve’s diamond, and Juve had a spare man at the back anyway.
Barca right / Juve left
An interesting battle was happening down the far side, inevitably caused by Messi’s drifts infield. He moved laterally into a number ten position, but often Patrice Evra remained in his left-back zone, with Bonucci moving forward to close down Messi instead. Bonucci was particularly proactive in his defending here, getting tight to Messi and Suarez high up the pitch – in contrast with the sweeper role he plays when Juve are using three centre-backs. He was trying to be the Chiellini figure.
However, while usually we’d see Daniel Alves storming forward on the outside, he actually played strangely narrow. He didn’t hug the touchline anywhere near as much as Alba on the opposite side and was rarely free for switches of play. At one point midway through the first half, he was bizarrely seen pressuring Pirlo in the centre of the pitch, leaving his right-back zone completely free. The probable reason for his narrow positioning is that Barcelona were scared of Pogba counter-attacking into space if Alves was caught in a right-wing position at turnovers, and the Frenchman had little influence on the game in the first half. However, Alves’ narrowness meant Evra had space to move into, and he burst forward dangerously a couple of times.
Juve start second half strongly
Juve regrouped at half-time, and basically settled down and composed themselves. Vidal, in particular, stopped playing like a madman and remained more disciplined, making more intelligent movements when Juventus had possession. Nevertheless, in keeping with the weird pattern of goals being scored in this game, Juve had a strong spell once they’d scored, rather than scoring because they were having a strong spell. The goal came from something that hadn’t previously happened – Lichtsteiner burst forward past Neymar, who showed no inclination to track his run, and eventually Morata was on hand to equalise.
That incident summarised the situation during Juve’s period of strength, which lasted ten minutes when the score was 1-1 – Barca lost all sense of compactness, with the forwards contributing little without the ball. They remained in a position to attack the Juventus backline immediately, which is a legitimate approach, but it asks a lot of the midfielders behind them. And, during this period, Barcelona’s defence dropped deeper but the forwards didn’t follow, which meant Juve briefly had the run of the centre.
In particular, Suarez stopped tracking Pirlo so closely, and this caused a knock-on effect elsewhere.
One Tevez shot from the edge of the box, on 60 minutes, was the perfect example: Suarez was close to the Juve centre-backs, so Pirlo was free, and Busquets moved ahead of Iniesta and Rakitic to shut him down. Then Lichtsteiner poked the ball through to Vidal, who was between the lines, and Barca’s players looked around, unsure how to cope with a player in that zone without Busquets on hand to help. Tevez’s shot was, eventually, not even a footnote in the game, but that incident showed why Barca had lost control – they’d lost their compactness and suffered by being outnumbered in the midfield.
The main feature of this game – Barca scoring when Juve were on top – was partly because Luis Enrique’s side were so dangerous on the counter-attack. This wasn’t always a feature of their game under Guardiola – sometimes Xavi Hernandez would deliberately slow the game down to halt quick breaks – and it still feels unusual to see blaugrana shirts sprinting forward in numbers. Nevertheless, it was their most effective route to goal in the second half.
The warning sign came following a right-wing Juventus corner when the score was 1-0, featured Barcelona breaking five-on-three, and ended with Suarez stabbing a shot towards Gigi Buffon’s near post. It was very similar to the move for the second goal, which came when Juventus had a throw on the right, ten yards from the opposition corner flag, and committed lots of men forward. Barca worked the ball forward quickly, and were soon attacking Pirlo and the back four, which was somewhat exposed. Messi’s shot was parried into the path of Suarez by Buffon, and it was 2-1.
In this period, maybe Juventus were guilty of being too ambitious with the positioning of their players, buoyed by their sudden, unexpected dominance. That said, it would have taken a brave and astute manager to decide his team needed to drop back and be more conservative in this situation, considering how Barca had toyed with Juve at times in the first half, and seemed able to create a succession of half-chances.
Another couple of Barca counter-attacks came, with Alba wasting the best one when slipping inside the box.
Meanwhile, the tactical shapes barely changed. Almost every sub was a straight swap: Xavi for a tiring Iniesta, Roberto Pereyra for Vidal, Fernando Llorente for Morata. Only in stoppage time did the mangers actually introduce different types of players – Luis Enrique brought on an extra centre-back, Jeremy Mathieu, in place of Rakitic, while Evra’s injury meant Kingsley Coman got a brief run-out.
The final sub, Pedro Rodriguez, eventually teed up Neymar for the third goal. Again, it was a counter-attack, again, Juve were having a decent spell – this time simply with a desperate, last-chance, throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it surge up the pitch in the final seconds – there was no time for play to be restarted after the goal.
This was a genuinely good final – an open game with both teams enjoying plenty of decent chances. Either side had spells of pressure, although didn’t always score during their best periods, which added to the chaotic, unpredictable nature of the game.
Both teams broadly played how we expected, in terms of shape and style. Juve pressed surprisingly high in the opening stages but then retreated into a deeper block, while Barca held the ball for long periods in midfield, but were most dangerous when countering, as they did repeatedly after half-time. That new-found counter-attacking ability is the key reason they won this game.
Barca’s goalscorers in recent Champions League successes have been somehow symbolic. In 2009, Samuel Eto’o cutting in from the right and Messi heading home from the centre demonstrated how those two switching positions outfoxed Manchester United, while in 2011 the three goalscorers were the three forwards, and the three assisters were the three midfielders, summarising how cohesive that team was. Here, it was significant the goalscorers were Rakitic, Suarez and Neymar, the three outfielders in this side that have been signed within the last two years. This is a different Barcelona with a more direct style of play, and the newcomers finishing off moves – two of them very direct attacks – shows that neatly.