In a match-up where each team was hoping to complete a treble-winning season, the Champions League final between Juventus and Barcelona was set to be an intriguing fixture between two of Europe’s best. Barcelona were the favourites going into the match and did not disappoint, ending up as 1-3 winners on the night equalling Bayern Munich and Liverpool (at the time), with five Champions League trophies in their collection.
Barcelona set up in their traditional 4-3-3 formation under first-year manager Luis Enrique whose tactics had been criticised throughout the season for adopting a more direct and aggressive style in-possession. His counterpart Massimiliano Allegri set up in an expected 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation which had seen them dominate the 2014/15 Serie A season, finishing 17 points ahead of second-place Roma.
This tactical analysis aims to highlight key events that occurred within the Champions League final between Juventus and Barcelona and attempts to unpick each team’s tactics and the impact they had on the outcome of the game.
Juventus’ defensive set-up
What became apparent early on was Juventus’ aggressive pressing tactics when Barcelona attempted to play out from the back using their goalkeeper. Marc-Andre ter Stegen himself would not be pressed to avoid Barcelona taking advantage of a free man higher up the pitch. If Juventus pressed ter Stegen this would mean a Barcelona player in a potentially more dangerous position would be left free. Subsequently, he was allowed time on the ball and was forced to find a passing option which could risk playing into pressure as evident in the picture below.
As soon as the ball is played out to Javier Mascherano (yellow arrow), Alvaro Morata presses him aggressively (red arrow), and Arturo Vidal and Marchisio follow up behind to support the press and shut off passing options.
Mascherano is closed down instantly with no clear passing options, and he attempts to evade the Juventus press by playing a long ball over their front four. This is read by Claudio Marchisio who cuts out the pass, and Juventus gain possession in the final third. Marchisio is cleverly positioned in what is known as a ‘half and half’ marking position between both Jordi Alba and Iniesta. This position gives him time to react to Mascherano’s pass and be at a close enough distance to press either player.
Juventus now have an early opportunity to create a goal-scoring chance as Marchisio intercepts and passes across the box to an oncoming Carlos Tevez, pictured above. Barcelona’s ‘high and wide’ formation utilised when ter Stegen has the ball to create space to facilitate their build-up play is exposed. Mascherano’s turnover causes Barcelona’s players to retreat instantly (blue lines) to close down the spaces they created and prevent a scoring opportunity for Juventus. Juventus would maintain this pressing tactic throughout, forcing ter Stegen to play unfavourable longer passes to evade the pressure instead.
An advantage of Allegri’s 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation is that Juventus remain extremely compact in central areas of the pitch, with Andrea Pirlo at the base, Marchisio and Paul Pogba on either side and Vidal at the top of the diamond. Juventus adopted this shape predominantly when Barcelona had the ball in central areas. This made it extremely difficult for Barcelona to play vertical passes through the Juventus midfield. The diamond shape naturally provides cover for players centrally as they are positioned on different lines to each other, affording opportunities for interceptions to be made (as opposed to a flatter four), and subsequently forcing Barca into wide areas instead.
Above, Lionel Messi has dropped deep to receive the ball and looks for a forward pass. Juventus maintain their 4-1-2-1-2 formation, reducing space for Barcelona players to receive in central areas ahead of the ball. As a result, Barcelona midfielders Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić commonly positioned themselves on either side of the diamond formation when looking for space to receive the ball. This is also seen above as they are positioned on either side of Messi.
To counteract Barcelona’s midfield positioning, in addition to the attacking threat of Barca full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, when the ball entered wide areas Juventus dropped into a flatter 4-4-2 formation, shown below. This meant Juventus were able to avoid Neymar and Messi, two of the worlds best players in attacking 1 vs 1 and 2 vs 1 situations, isolating Patrice Evra or Stephan Lichtsteiner near the touchline.
With the ball on Juventus’ left side in the picture above, Pogba’s position on the left of midfield provides support for left-back Evra when looking to stop Barca creating a potential 2 vs 1 overload in wide positions, as seen above with Messi and an advancing Alves. Vidal drops in centrally alongside Pirlo, allowing Pogba and Marchisio to position themselves on the left and right of a flat midfield four. Additionally, Tevez and Morata position themselves either side of Sergio Busquets to prevent Barcelona using their midfielder as an outlet to play out of pressure and change their point of attack.
Barcelona in possession – first half
With Juventus maintaining numerical superiority in central positions, Barca attempted to make use of the wide areas. Pogba or Marchisio would crowd these spaces and were supported by Juve full-backs Evra or Lichtsteiner who stepped out of their back four to meet the ball. As a result of the Juve full-backs stepping up high, Barcelona used either Alves or Rakitic to occupy the vacated space, forcing Juve’s remaining back three player (Leonardo Bonucci in this case) to shift across to cover. Alves and Rakitic’s movement into this space is critical as it pins Bonucci to the left side.
An example of this is pictured above, Evra (circled red) has stepped up aggressively to meet the ball, whilst Juventus drop into their flatter 4-4-2 with Pogba supporting Evra just behind him on the left. Dani Alves instantly makes a forward run to exploit the space Evra has left behind him. Consequently, Juventus defender Bonucci steps across to cover the space vacated by Evra. As a result, space is created on the weak side for Jordi Alba to exploit at the bottom of the picture (circled blue).
As Juventus attempt to overload the left side of the pitch, Jordi Alba remains unmarked on the opposite flank remaining wide, but not high, yet. Barcelona’s ability to recognise when to change the point of attack in these situations leads to them opening the scoring early on in the first half.
In the picture above, once again Evra steps up to meet Messi who looks to receive the ball. This time it is Rakitic who looks to enter the space in behind Evra whilst Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli shuffle across to cover the potential danger ball-side. As Busquets also provides a passing option centrally, Vidal recognises this and steps out of the flat midfield four.
Above, Vidal creates a compact 4-3-3 pressing between Morata and Tevez, however, Juventus are unable to cut out Messi’s accurate switch of play to Jordi Alba who has made a late run down Barcelona’s left channel (out of picture). Additionally, with Luis Suarez occupying Barzagli just outside the box inside the D, Neymar (out of picture) has cleverly drifted inside playing between Lichtsteiner and Barzagli in order to pin Lichtsteiner inside. The Juventus right-back must prioritise covering Neymar’s central position first as it is more dangerous (nearer the goal). This provides Alba with even more space to exploit higher up the pitch, and more time when he receives the ball from Messi’s switch of play as seen below.
As the ball reaches Alba in space on Barcelona’s left wing, Lichtsteiner must leave Neymar and get to the ball shuffling across to block the cross whilst leaving Neymar unmarked in a dangerous position in the box. If Alba had started in a high and wide position, Juventus may have seen him as a threat and reorganised accordingly. The key to Alba’s run was the timing, staying wide, but arriving late and thus unmarked in the final third with space to cross.
Barcelona’s defensive set-up
In line with Barca’s philosophy, Luis Enrique demands an aggressive counterpress when the ball is lost in the opposition half. Despite still being one of Europe’s best teams at maintaining possession (61% in this game), under Enrique, Barca has adopted a more direct approach. By playing forward earlier before they are in an organised offensive shape, Barca risk giving away possession more frequently and have subsequently created more counterpressing opportunities within the opposition half as a result.
Upon analysis, it is evident this allows them to regain possession high up the pitch and is something that Juventus struggled to deal with after winning possession in their half. By committing significant numbers into the opposition half, when Barcelona lose the ball they instantly have three to four players close to the ball with the nearest player applying pressure to the ball and supporting teammates shutting off any immediate passing options. Furthermore, upon winning back possession, Barca has enough attacking players high up the pitch to attack quickly in offensive transition.
Above, Juventus win the ball in their box and manage to play one pass to Pirlo before he is swarmed by four Barcelona players, leaving him little to no time to get his eyes up and search for a pass out of pressure.
Within five seconds Barcelona has forced Pirlo into a misplaced pass to Neymar and subsequently regain possession just outside the Juventus box, with six players within the final third to attack with (see above).
Juventus’ attacking options
To evade Barcelona’s effective counterpress upon winning possession in their half, Juventus found more success utilising the more direct outlet of Tevez and Morata. By beating the counterpress using longer passes, Juventus were able to bypass the pressure near the ball and progress higher up the pitch quickly, if possession was retained by the front two. Due to the attacking tendencies of both full-backs Alves and Alba, Tevez and Morata were able to position themselves in the empty channels and isolate the Barcelona centre-backs Mascherano and Gerard Piqué at times.
In the picture above, Barcelona attempts to press aggressively in Juventus’ half to win the ball. Instead of playing short and inviting pressure, Lichtsteiner plays a direct, long pass into the channel behind Alba, where Morata has isolated Mascherano in a 1 vs 1 situation.
Morata successfully used his strength and body positioning to shield the ball and roll past Mascherano who is too tight. Tevez stretches the pitch for Juventus, occupying Piqué (out of picture), whilst Pogba and Vidal make forward runs in support of the front two. Although seemingly inactive, Tevez’s position creates a large distance between centre-backs Mascherano and Pique. This allows Morata to exploit the space available down the channel leaving Pique with a large distance to cover if he needs to come across and engage Morata.
Despite going in at half-time trailing 0-1, this is how Juventus predominantly achieved their success during attacking transition in their half. Playing out of pressure early with a direct pass as opposed to short combination play which allowed Barcelona to swarm the ball and press effectively.
In the second half, Juventus were rewarded for their disciplined, yet adaptable tactics which varied predominantly between a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond and a 4-4-2. After affording Barcelona space in wide areas, Juventus would attempt to overload these spaces to force turnovers. If the ball was switched to the weak side, Juventus would then have time to press the ball as it travelled across the pitch.
Above we can see how Juventus attempt to suffocate Barcelona on one side of the pitch crowding it with eight players on a Barcelona throw-in. This leaves Barca with little space to play in and as a result, Alves attempts to switch the play across the pitch. Lichtsteiner (not in picture) attempts to cut the pass out (red arrow).
Due to the distance of Alves’ pass, Lichtsteiner has enough time to get to the ball, successfully intercept it, and play it forward to Marchisio. Juventus’ transition from defence to attack in seconds with good numbers enables them to attack the box.
Juventus now have a 2 vs 2 situation with space to attack behind Mascherano and Alba. Marchisio produces an excellent backheel to set Lichtsteiner down the right side for a crossing opportunity. By committing significant numbers into Barca’s half, Morata and Tevez can fill the box with Pogba and Vidal in support. Lichtsteiner finds Tevez in the box, who’s shot is parried by ter Stegen, only to fall to Morata who equalises for Juventus.
Barcelona’s use of the counterattack in the second half
Juventus’ attempts to equalise and get back into the game in the second half resulted in Evra and Lichtsteiner contributing more to their teams’ attacking play. This would not go unnoticed by a lethal Barcelona whose devastating front three of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar managed to catch Juventus out on the counterattack on numerous occasions in the second half, especially from corners.
The individual quality of Barcelona’s front three meant there would be minimal room for error for Juventus defensively. In the last 25 minutes of the second half, Juventus began to commit more players forward. Upon losing possession, Allegri’s men were left in a disordered defensive shape and were punished in defensive transition as Barcelona switched play quickly and evaded Juventus’ pressure. Both the second and third goal came from counterattacks within Barcelona’s half, exposing a disorganised Juventus team who had committed significant numbers forward (see below).
Above, Barcelona clears the ball from a Juventus corner and breaks away decisively, leaving six Juventus players behind them.
Neymar runs with the ball attacking the space afforded to him whilst his teammates fill the lanes as they invade Juventus’ half in a 5 vs 3 counterattacking situation. By locating themselves across the width of the pitch, Barca prevents the Juve back three from forming a compact shape as they can be hurt with a pass down either side. As a result, Juve’s defenders must maintain some distance between each other, which subsequently creates passing lanes for Barca to play through to runners in behind.
Once Neymar draws Barzagli out to press him, he releases the ball to an onrushing Alba as Barcelona reach the box in an advantageous 4 vs 3 situation. Barca’s success on the counter is underpinned by their desire to commit men forward quickly, beyond the ball carrier. Immediate forward passing options allow Barcelona to penetrate at a fast pace with the positioning of these players continually disrupting the opposition’s defensive shape.
These events would eventually decide the game, occurring four more times. Two lead to a disallowed goal and an emphatic save by Gianluigi Buffon, and two resulting in Barcelona’s second and third goal, highlighting their efficiency in counterattacking situations.
Barcelona ended up the deserved winners in what was a hard-fought victory against an excellent Juventus team. Throughout the first half of the season, many of the Barcelona faithful criticised the teams’ direct tactics in possession under Enrique, favouring the more patient build-up play which they had enjoyed under Pep Guardiola. To Luis Enrique’s delight, Barcelona’s second and third goal seemed to truly highlight his imprint on this Barcelona team; a style which he had described as an attempt to ‘evolve the team and make them more unpredictable.’ Barca reaped the rewards when it mattered most, on the biggest stage, clinching an unprecedented treble.