Real Madrid 4-1 Juventus: Real initially weak down the right, before dominating that flank

June 6, 2017

Real Madrid became the first club to retain the European Cup in its modern format, after an eventually comfortable 4-1 win in Cardiff.

Zinedine Zidane’s major selection dilemma was whether to pick Isco or Gareth Bale – but it seems Bale wasn’t close enough to full fitness to be seriously considered, and therefore Isco continued. Dani Carvajal was fit to play at right-back, with Danilo on the bench.

Max Allegri picked his expected side, in the flexible 4-2-3-1ish system that has become his established system in the knockout stage of this competition. Andrea Barzagli played on the right of defence, with Dani Alves more a midfielder than a wing-back.

Opening shapes

Juventus started strongly in a high-tempo opening to this game. They pressed well at times, often with Mario Mandzukic or Alves joining Paulo Dybala or Gonzalo Higuain, but they also retreated into an excellent defensive shape, which was essentially two banks of four with Dybala and Higuain dropping deep to prevent Real’s centre-backs playing the ball into midfield easily. The side was very compact, with the defence resisting the urge to drop deep.

Real’s shape, however, was much less impressive. Isco’s role in the opening stages was confused – he drifted around in a free role, starting at the top of the diamond but roughly dropping back to the left of the midfield quartet. His freedom helped to give Real numbers in the centre of the pitch in possession, but he didn’t link midfield and attack effectively during this period, and without the ball his positional uncertainty gave Real serious problems.

Because Isco was tending to move to the left, but the other Real midfielders were operating as a conventional midfield three, it meant Real often played without a right-sided midfielder This opened up space for Alex Sandro to push into, and while the Brazilian wasn’t particularly involved in many key attacking moves, he was the player with most space ahead of him, and helped Juventus move forward.

It was notable that Real fixed this problem after around ten minutes, however. Although there was still fluidity in the midfield and Isco still drifted around, they organised themselves into more of a flat midfield four, and Juventus no longer had such an obvious path into attack.

Mandzukic v Carvajal

Juventus’ key route of attack in the first half was knocking long balls towards Mandzukic, hoping to exploit the fact the 6′3 converted striker was playing up against a 5′8 full-back. They tried this approach around half-a-dozen times, but while Mandzukic generally won the aerial battles, there were few genuine chances created from the approach. Indeed, for all Juventus’ fine organisation in this game, they failed to create a genuine clear-cut chance all night.

20 minutes in, Real took the lead. And while Juve had been attempting to use Mandzukic regularly to expose Carvajal’s lack of height, Real were able to use Carvajal to expose Mandzukic’s lack of speed. Real attacked down the left before switching the ball across to Cristiano Ronaldo and then Carvajal, overlapping past Mandzukic. He returned the ball to Ronaldo, who swept home the ball from an inside-right position, via a slight deflection from Leonardo Bonucci.

It was interesting that Ronaldo started in that inside-right role, and spent much of his time there too. He’s more accustomed to cutting inside from the left, but has often worked the right well in recent weeks. Here, he was crowded out when playing from the left, often thanks to the retreating Alves, but found more space to the right.

Juventus hit back seven minutes later, courtesy of Mandzukic’s quite spectacular overhead kick after Higuain’s touch. It was a truly exceptional individual goal that owed little to strategy – yet it’s worth considering that (a) the goal came from another diagonal out to the left flank to Alex Sandro, who had escaped the attentions of Isco, briefly finding himself on the right, and (b) the goal came precisely because Allegri’s system allows the use of two natural centre-forwards, with Mandzukic coming inside from the left to join Higuain. The use of two proper penalty box strikers was therefore significant for this goal.

Second half

After half-time, Real Madrid took charge. It’s slightly difficult to work out precisely why the game changed so suddenly, but after half-time the contest was played at a slower tempo and Real’s midfielders had far more time on the ball. Isco stopped coming deep in search of the ball and instead linked play much better, while Modric and Toni Kroos spread into wider positions and controlled the game from the channels, away from Juve’s forwards who were attempting to dominate the centre of the pitch with their deep positioning.

The crucial goal which put Real ahead, however, was a rather fortunate goal when Casemiro’s shot took a crazy deflection and spun past Gianluigi Buffon.

Real’s third goal was similar to the first – a right-wing cross, and Ronaldo turning the ball home from an inside-right position. Carvajal was again involved, although this time he slipped in Modric, probably the game’s outstanding player, to cross into the centre. It was odd that Carvajal and Modric had looked the most beleaguered players in the opening minutes thanks to the contrast between the two systems, but they were arguably Real’s key players in an attacking sense later on.

In truth, Juventus never really looked like mounting a comeback from 3-1 down. Allegri’s most significant change was introducing speedy right-winger Juan Cuadrado in place of Barzagli, with Alves dropping back to right-back. But Cuadrado struggled to find any rhythm and played a couple of terrible passes – and a miserable cameo appearance ended prematurely when he was dismissed for a second yellow card after a tangle with Sergio Ramos. That left Juve vulnerable down the right, essentially playing without anyone on that side, which allowed Marcelo to push forward, and he set up the fourth goal for substitute Marco Asensio.

Conclusion

This was a peculiar final, played in a surprisingly open manner in the opening stages. Real’s lack of structure without possession seemed to invite Juve to break into the space down Real’s right, but Zidane and his players fixed this problem quickly, and they ended up causing more damage going the other way down that flank. Modric and Carvajal were both excellent, and Ronaldo remains ruthless despite contributing relatively little in build-up play.

Juve’s sudden decline after half-time was peculiar and slightly inexplicable. Perhaps their players were suffering physically – it’s notable that Alves, Bonucci, Mandzukic and Sami Khedira all went down for long periods after tangles with Real players (or, in Bonucci’s case, after being hit in the head by the ball) and struggled to compete properly, but aside from Modric and Kroos moving wider and dictating play from freer areas, the tactical change between the two halves was minimal.

Real’s achievement in defending the Champions League shouldn’t be underestimated. This is more a great collection of individuals than a team in the true sense of the word, but for a club traditionally determined to buy superstar after superstar, it’s been a surprisingly settled side over the past three years, and that has created fine relationships between various players across the pitch.

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