UEFA Champions League 2016/17 Final: Real Madrid 4-1 Juventus, Tactical Analysis
For 25 years, no team had successfully defended the Champions League trophy. The competition, formerly known as the European Cup, underwent a rebranding in 1992 and, astonishingly, it has taken until now to break that particular record.
But the team who finally did it could not have been more fitting. Real Madrid are the kings of Europe in more sense than one; not only did Saturday night’s 4-1 win over Juventus in Cardiff give them their second successive triumph and third in four years, but it was also their twelfth overall, la duodecima, stretching their lead as the most successful club in Champions League history. AC Milan, who last won it in 2007 and have not played in it for three years, are second on the list with seven victories.
In truth, the scoreline flattered Los Blancos, but nothing can be taken away from coach Zinedine Zidane. In the 512 days since he replaced Rafael Benitez in the Santiago Bernabeu hotseat, he has done the impossible in the Champions League and has also won Madrid their first La Liga title in five years.
For Juventus, the future is uncertain. It is tough to see how they could rebuild an ageing squad who, in truth, were geared up to win this competition on Saturday. Have they peaked? We’ll have to wait and see.
Let’s have a look at where the biggest game in Europe was won and lost.
Juventus didn’t go for the kill
Before the game, and throughout the season in Europe, a lot was made of Juventus’ defensive strength. The Bianconeri had only conceded once from open play in their run to the final in Cardiff, despite facing both Barcelona and Monaco, arguably the two most potent sides on the planet, in the knockout stages.
Whether Maximiliano Allegri goes with three, or a more conventional four at the back, Juve are usually solid. Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli made up the defence, and most people expected them to soak up Real Madrid pressure, but in the early stages, it was them who did all the running, until Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal changed the complexion slightly.
The great thing about Allegri’s side is they are not just tough to break down, but they have a great rhythm to their play too, requiring a tremendous level of fitness. In the first half, they showed this excellently.
When in possession, either Dani Alves or Alex Sandro or both were not only supporting the midfield in their wingback roles, but were actually in the attacking third. The outlet they gave, and the free role of Paulo Dybala offered options constantly in attack, despite an originally deep defensive line, and it was Sandro who reached a long ball from Bonucci before laying off for Higuain to set up Mario Mandzukic’s wonderful strike.
When not in possession, they all got behind the ball; Alves and Sandro dropped back into fullback to create a back five, while Dybala and Mandzukic tucked inside, leaving absolutely no space for Real, suffocating Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos and forcing them wide.
It was 1-1 at halftime and it looked as though they were in better shape to win it. But after the break, Dybala stopped roaming, he and Higuain disappeared and gaps between midfield and attack began to show. The game followed the pre-kick off narrative much more from then on, and with more space appearing, Juve were pulled out of position. Barzagli often seemed to be playing at right-back, rather than as a right-sided centre-back. Everything they worked for fell away at the crucial moment.
Zinedine Zidane reacted perfectly at half time
Where Juventus deserve criticism, Real deserve credit. Many people cannot understand why Zidane has had so much success because he isn’t renowned as a tactical genius. Barcelona’s triumphs in the Champions League under Pep Guardiola relied heavily on the approach, as did Jose Mourinho’s at Inter, but Zidane, with only 18 months experience as a top level coach, has supposedly relied mostly on man-management.
And yet, he recognised that Juve had his side exactly where they wanted them. Sami Khedira was patrolling the areas Isco was looking to get into, and Casemiro sat far too deep alongside Kroos and Modric. He told them to press higher from the first whistle after the break and that really set the tone.
Casemiro was now freed up to latch on to loose balls from Juve’s clearances higher up the pitch, as was Marcelo, who in the first half was forced back by the high press of Dani Alves. That allowed the Brazilian to make it 2-1 and cement their position as the dominant force.
Because the whole operation was closer to the Juventus defence, they were able to get at them much more after the break. Instead of trying to pass their way through a wall of eleven players in black and white shirts, the Real midfield could link up with the attack. Isco shone, playing the role many expected from Dybala at the other end.
The Spaniard freed himself of the shackles of Khedira, a former teammate, and began to stay out wide of his own accord, having started in place of Gareth Bale on the right side of a front three alongside Karim Benzema and Ronaldo. He’d pick the ball up and run, while also receiving the overlap from right-back Dani Carvajal at crucial occasions. Suddenly, it was Real who had two on one situations, and that was all thanks to Zidane’s tactical brain.
Cristiano Ronaldo picked his moment
Not only was the Champions League trophy on offer, but the Ballon d’Or probably was too. Had Juventus won, there would have been a real clamour to see 39-year-old Gianluigi Buffon win the prestigious individual award. As it is, Ronaldo will most likely level Lionel Messi on five wins apiece.
The Portuguese star is often criticised for not taking these games by the scruff of the neck. Now 32, his impact on general play has dwindled as he evolves with age, but even at his peak, earlier at Real and Manchester United, he didn’t control matches.
What he has always done, though, is make decisive contributions, and by scoring twice in this game, he proved as much again.
Perhaps it is his choice, perhaps it is Zidane’s, or a combination of the two, but he is no longer the focal point of the team, despite still being the biggest threat. He will not dribble past three players as a winger, nor will he pull defenders all over the place as a forward. Instead, Ronaldo ghosts in and scores, sneaking in behind and finding spaces no one else does, and finishing with remarkable precision.
Saturday was no exception. For his first goal, he drifted into the centre of the pitch from his starting position on the left to link up with a lovely pass from Kroos, the first time the German sprung into action. Carvajal was in support, but instead of bursting into the box after finding him, he stood in the space and waited for the cutback. It was 1-0 as soon as the ball came back to him.
For his second, it was the opposite, but the same outcome. Just minutes after Casemiro’s strike, Carvajal pushed up again and Modric, with Zidane’s instructions fresh in his mind, made the run down the left. Everyone stood still, except Ronaldo, and without looking, the Croatian midfielder hooked the ball into the box, where he was waiting.
Ronaldo is not only the master of goals, he’s the master of space. Zidane has also announced himself firmly as a top coach, but it’s back to the drawing board after heartache for Juventus and Max Allegri.