2nd Leg: Stalemate in Catalonia
Juventus and Barcelona were drawn in the quarter-final of the Champions League. The tie pitched the 2015 finalists together, giving the Italian side the chance for revenge. The Spanish champions came into the tie on the back of the miracle comeback against PSG whilst Juventus coasted past Porto. Juventus’ outstanding defensive structure would clash against Barcelona’s world class attackers, an exciting tie lay ahead.
Barcelona in attack
Methods of attacking the channels
One of the key aspects in the first leg was the channels between Juventus’ full backs and centre backs that due to the full-backs’ man-marking of Neymar and Messi. In this game Sandro and Alves carried out similar roles, meaning that when Messi and Neymar in particular, were positioned wide the channels to the centre backs were quite large. In Turin, the wingers were responsible for blocking easy passes through this space. From their narrow positions Cuadrado and Mandzukic could retain access to press Barcelona’s first line, since Barcelona played with a back 3 spanning around the width of the half spaces.
Expecting this, Lucho’s side came with a number of ways of attacking these channels, based heavily around Iniesta’s movements. Potentially intending to further open the channels between full-back and centre back, Enrique played with a back four. This meant that Cuadrado and Mandzukic would need to defend wider if they were to press Alba and Roberto respectively, leaving the channel without the cover it had in the first leg. Alternately, it would require Pjanic and Khedira to assist with covering the channel, reducing their cover of the centre.
At times the Spanish playmaker would make a 3rd man run into this space as Alves pushed forwards to press Neymar. This movement was enough to make the Brazilian full-back more hesitant to leave his position and press on the wing. As such, Neymar was able to receive the ball and bypass Alves by playing Iniesta through to advance the attack, alternately he could dribble infield if Pjanic dropped to cover Iniesta’s run.
On other occasions Iniesta would drop whilst Alba had the ball. Without the threat of Iniesta running in behind, Alves was quicker to press Neymar on the wing. However this was a cue for Neymar to run into depth diagonally to access the space Alves left behind. By dropping towards the ball Iniesta was able to reduce Pjanic’s ability to cover as well as encouraging Alves forwards to press.
Full backs giving depth
Another contrast to the first leg was in the threat that Barcelona posed in depth. Whilst the Catalans sorely missed runners in behind in the first leg, they focused far more on this aspect of attacks in this game. Key to this was the return of Jordi Alba, a full-back with great speed and a great understanding with his timing of runs in behind opponents.
In a trademark Barcelona move, when Messi was on the ball in the right half space, Neymar would move more centrally bringing Alves with him and vacating the space for Alba to run into. This gave Barcelona a means of entering the box and creating dangerous situations.
This was also the case on the right side where Roberto would make similar runs into depth. By playing on one side, and dribbling with the ball, Barcelona could encourage pressure and narrow Juventus’ shape in the process. This would create the conditions for the far side full-back to run, allowing Barcelona to enter the box on the weak side of their opponents’ structure.
However, Barcelona’s increased focus on depth was not always well executed and was often counterproductive to their aims. When the Alba or Roberto timed these runs late, they could enjoy a dynamic advantage as well as having more space to run into since Juventus were not well prepared to cover the runs.
As the first half progressed however, Barcelona began to focus too heavily on advanced positioning from Alba and Rakitic or Roberto on the right. By starting in high positions Barcelona’s wide players reduced the space for them to run into since Cuadrado or Mandzukic would drop to the sides of the defensive line to cover the width. With Barcelona consistently retaining high and wide players on both sides they were increasingly met by a Juventus back line of 6, with Juventus’ wide players defending alongside their full-backs.
The increased focus on depth thus became counterproductive. With Juventus in a back 6 they were able to defend larger width, making the Alba and Roberto runs far less viable. Khedira and Rakitic were still on hand to assist with covering the centre, and Barcelona thus found it far more difficult to access the space behind Juventus’ back line.
Inconsistencies in defensive transition
The home side displayed inconsistency in their ability to control the situations after losing the ball in attack, and this stemmed directly from variations in their positioning with the ball.
When Barcelona lost the ball in the final 3rd, they would counter press intensely, with multiple players pressing the ball carrier whilst aiming to close exit routes through the centre, thus gradually forcing them towards the wings.
However, there were a number of instances where Barcelona lost the ball around the edge of Juventus’ box and lacked stability, and cover of deep spaces on the left flank. This was particularly dangerous considering that Cuadrado (right wing) was the Italian side’s main outlet in these situations. This happened a number of times early on in the game where Alba would start in wide positions and make runs in behind. When Barcelona turned over possession in these instances, Iniesta was often left with too much space to cover on the left side. Pjanic could thus play the Colombian winger in to counter towards Barcelona’s goal.
Later on in the first half, as Barcelona pushed Juve into a back 6 they were more stable in defensive transitions. Whilst the advanced positioning of Alba and Rakitic/Roberto was counterproductive in reducing their ability to run in behind. It forced Juventus’ wingers into deeper positions to defend, thus reducing their threat on the counter attack
Weaknesses in Juventus press
Juventus’ pressing lacked the level of aggression of the first leg on an individual level, aggression here referring to the level of intent to win the ball. This manifests in aspects such as the speed of leaving position to press and the willingness to move in front of an opponent to tackle or intercept. This meant that whilst the away side pressed just as high as in the first leg, they were far easier to play through in these situations. Since Juventus players were slow to react to their opponents’ movement, the likes of Rakitic could create enough separation from their marker to receive the ball with simple dropping movements.
Furthermore within the 4-3-3, Barcelona’s build-up shape was very different to the first leg, crucially with far more width on the 2nd line through the full-backs. Since Juventus’ pressing approach was highly man-oriented, their pressing shape naturally altered in line with Barcelona’s. With the home side positioned in a 2-3-2-3 in build-up situations, Allegri’s side pressed with a 4-1-3-2.
The reduced level of aggression in Juventus’ pressing was highlighted with Chiellini far less inclined to follow Rakitic deep into Barcelona’s half. As such, the Spanish side could create a free man by dropping the Croatian deep. This forced Mandzukic to defend narrower, to maintain access to both Roberto and Rakitic. Since Barcelona players were constantly “ball-side” of their opponents they were able to play first time passes, allowing them to find Roberto in space once Rakitic had drawn his countryman further infield to press.
On other occasions Barcelona were able to bypass the press by playing long to Suarez. Since Bonucci was cautious to remain goal side, he was quite passive, aiming to prevent the Uruguayan from turning, as opposed to intending to win the ball. Suarez could thus hold the ball and wait for the likes of Iniesta to get into position for a lay off.
The second half was rather uneventful, with the tie appearing increasingly beyond Barcelona’s reach. It was not for the lack of trying however, as the Catalans made frequent attempts to load the box with Pique as an emergency centre forward, along with Suarez, Alcacer, Roberto and Messi at times. The consistent use of Messi in central spaces gave Barcelona a way to dribble through the compact centre, provoking pressure from Mandzukic and creating extra space out wide for early crosses.
A 3-0 aggregate win arguably flatters the Italian side slightly, with Barcelona creating enough chances over the two legs to have registered on the score sheet. Juventus’ performance over the two legs however demonstrated how complete they are in a tactical sense, with their high pressing, deeper defending, counter attacking and even build-up play impressing at various stages. The versatility in their defending will be difficult for all the remaining sides to beat whilst defending properly against their threat on the counter attack. Now through to the semi-finals, Allegri’s side will rightly be considered amongst the main threats to win the trophy.
Barcelona could be considered unlucky to come away from both legs without a single goal. They will reflect regretfully on the opening 20 minutes in Turin where they failed to handle Juventus’ pressing and found themselves 2 goals down, with a mountain to climb. The lack of depth for most of the first leg harmed their ability to enter the box, and whilst Enrique made good adjustments for the 2nd leg, flaws in the execution meant they ended up being counterproductive for their aims.