UEFA Champions League 2016/17 Final: The tactical warfare between Juventus and Real Madrid
It has been a long time since two teams so tactically fluid faced each other in the final of the Champions League. At a time where most people are fixated about formations and the role of each player in his designated area, both Zinedine Zidane and Max Allegri have carved out a system that can’t really be confined to any certain formation.
For the papers, the Blancos line-up in a 4-3-3 formation when Gareth Bale plays. However, without the presence of the Welshman, Zinedine mostly starts with a 4-3-1-2 with Isco behind the strikers, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema or Alvaro Morata.
The 4-3-3: Defensive shape
Like most teams in Europe, the Galacticos, when not in possession of the ball, defend with two banks of 4 players which can be dubbed as the classic 4-4-2. The midfield quartet consists of Casemiro and Toni Kroos in the middle, Luka Modric on the left and Gareth Bale on the right.
One of the major reasons for Gareth Bale’s poor form this season is the fact that he has been burdened with a lot more defensive duties than last season. The moment Madrid get the ball, Gareth Bale finds himself deep on the right-wing with a lot of ground to cover.
But Zinedine Zidane has no other alternative. Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo are the double pivot in attack and burdening them with defensive duties will dent Madrid’s scoring chances, which leaves Gareth Bale as the only viable option.
It is not feasible to play three players without any defensive duties. While it might work against weak sides, it always leaves the Galacticos vulnerable against the more formidable opponents. With two banks of four players defending while unpossessed, Madrid’s system compensates for providing absolute creative freedom to two players.
However, given the narrowness of the 4-4-2 due to the tendency of Toni Kroos/Luka Modric passively shifting towards the centre, Madrid are always exposed on the wings, claimed backed by the fact that the Blancos concede 16 crosses-per-game.
This also puts the full-backs in a difficult position as they often find themselves being dragged inwards by the wingers, leaving open space for the opposition full-backs to run into. But the system also has its advantages.
For one, having two banks of four allows the system to absorb pressure from the opposition players. It also makes it very hard to break Madrid through the centre due to its narrowness. In this shape, the space over the pitch is also covered properly.
The Blancos make 20.5 tackles in every game while maintaining an average possession of 54.8%, which is only bettered by RB Leipzig among the top three teams from the top four leagues in Europe with an average possession of 50% or more.
While this might not reveal much on the hindsight, it does go give the faintest of ideas that the Blancos’ players are always close enough to the opponents to make a tackle and win the ball.
The 4-3-3: Attacking shape
Once in possession, the Galacticos rush to their usual 4-3-3 as Gareth Bale speeds off towards the inside to join Karim Benzema, who drops down a little to act as the supporting pivot to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Further behind, Luka Modric floats forward to connect the midfield to the attack with Toni Kroos just behind him and Casemiro guarding the defence. The problem with this shape is that it relies a lot on the individual brilliance of the players to make the difference.
Almost often, the Blancos have been criticised by their own fans for lacking cohesion—and, as a result, identity—due to the fact that the distance between the midfield and attack in this shape was always too much, to begin with.
While Luka Modric is perhaps the best midfielder in the world, he is not a number 10 and neither is Toni Kroos. With the BBC far ahead of the midfield and almost often inside the box, Modric always finds himself with a lot of ground to cover in order to link the midfield to attack in a 4-3-3.
And this was difficult for the Croat as it resulted in the loss of form for Modric during the middle part of the season. What’s worse, it made Madrid look like a highly unstructured team.
With Gareth Bale out and Isco’s stunning form, Zidane had to come up with a system that brought the best out of his in-form Spanish star. For this, playing the former Malaga man in the middle was an absolute must given that all of his best games in the White shirt came when was operating from the centre.
And so came the 4-3-1-2, or a narrow 4-4-2 diamond, with Isco in the hole behind the strikers. The defensive shape in this system is similar to the one in 4-3-3 as Isco drops to the right wing and Modric or Kroos on the left to make it a conventional 4-4-2.
With Isco, however, the defensive shape works slightly better as the former Valencia starlet is more defensively tenacious than his Welsh counterpart. Indeed, with Isco in the starting XI, Real Madrid have conceded only 26 times in 24 games, which is four goals less than with Gareth Bale in the starting line up in the same number of games.
Whilst in attack they quickly morph into a 4-3-1-2 and this is where Madrid look so much more cohesive due to the presence of the number 22. What lacks in a 4-3-3—someone to link the midfield to attack—is no longer a problem in a 4-3-1-2 as Isco beautifully connects the dots to make his team look like a better unit.
This also allows Luka Modric to play more freely and with less burden since he is not alone in linking the midfield to the attack. One of the prime reasons why the Croat found his form after the slump was because of Isco’s support at connecting the midfield to the attack.
Isco’s graceful demeanour holds the Madrid stars together on the pitch and if the Blancos have looked any close to getting an identity, it is with the Spaniard on the pitch. However, the biggest problem with this system is the lack of width and the added burden on the full-backs.
Both Marcelo and Carvajal not only have to provide the width, but also become susceptible to leaving too much space behind and, as a result, allowing the opponents to run into.