Juventus knew exactly what was at stake this week against Real Madrid.
Having again started slowly in the Champions League group stage, the reigning Italian champions knew that they could ill afford to drop all three points again to the Spanish powerhouse if they intended on progressing through to the knockout stage.
Regardless of whether they were hard done by with the red card in their previous fixture, the Bianconeri knew that they needed a top-class effort this week.
Against a Real Madrid side filled with goals this season, that certainly wasn't an easy task to undertake, but to their credit, Juventus handled themselves very well on the night—and were perhaps unlucky not to pick up a win.
The Old Lady seemingly controlled most of the match in the end—including their Spanish opponents. Let's break down the film and see exactly how they did it.
Juventus Exploit Real Madrid's Narrow Shape
When the two teams met a fortnight ago, Real Madrid—for the most part—managed to deal with the threat that Juventus posed in attack. They man-marked Arturo Vidal out of the game and, especially away from home this week, many assumed that they would try and do the same.
Los Blancos set up their defense with their usual four across the back, but few would have picked the lineup, which included Sergio Ramos back on the right.
Having not played out on the right in recent times, Ramos' selection signaled that Madrid would look to stay quite compact at the back and not stretch the wings.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly how they played.
Carlo Ancelotti's plan was to plant his full-backs essentially in line with the edge of the box and invite Juventus to attack them down the flanks. In theory, that would encourage the likes of Kwadwo Asamoah and Martin Caceres to push up and overlap Carlos Tevez and Claudio Marchisio to create space in behind for Madrid to launch their swift, counterattacking raids.
And it must be noted that at times, the plan worked wonders for Madrid.
Ronaldo's near-chance in the ninth minute showed this to be the case, with the clearest example being the quick counterattack that produced Gareth Bale's goal.
Ronaldo was able to get in behind Juventus' defense with a well-timed run and then hit Bale on the counterattack. Regardless of how many defenders dropped back, Bale still scored—such was the swiftness of the raid.
So in many respects, it wasn't actually a bad plan from Ancelotti.
We can see how this unfolded from the image below, with Andrea Pirlo playing a sublime square pass to release right-back Caceres into space down the right flank.
Marcelo—normally a swashbuckling-type player who loves to get forward and wrap around Ronaldo—tucked in very tightly and allowed space for the right-back to press forward. As you'll note, the space that Ancelotti was hoping for his counterattacks to take off from started to emerge behind Caceres, but the manager's plan didn't factor in how isolated he would leave his wide men.
Both Ramos and Marcelo were heavily isolated throughout the match with either a winger and/or an overlapping full-back running at them or down their wing.
It's also important to note here that Pepe and Raphael Varane were far too tight in their marking of Fernando Llorente. That might not have seemed the case—especially on the second goal, which Varane (normally good in the air) won't want to see again—but for most of the night, that duo remained very tight on the former Athletic Bilbao talisman—trying to cut off his poaching threat.
Their restrictiveness in this respect isolated Ramos and Marcelo further.
In the 28th minute, maligned goalkeeper Iker Casillas made a wonderful point-blank stop on a Llorente header, but the issue for Madrid was in the buildup.
Paul Pogba was able to find some space outside of Sami Khedira, and you can see instantly he started to make a beeline for Ramos. With Tevez overlapping him on the outside, Pogba knew that he had the right-back isolated and that he would be able to find the former Manchester City striker in great space, which eventually happened as Tevez whipped a ball into the box.
Nine times out of 10, Llorente's header would have found the back of the net.
In the second half, Madrid looked to try to attack a little more with both Ramos and Marcelo and allow them to really utilize the full width of the pitch—shown below.
As Pepe tries to play the ball out of the back, look how far forward not only Marcelo is on the near side but also Ramos on the far side. Had this been the first half, Ramos would likely have been back at the beginning of that arrow, trying to ensure that he didn't get too wide.
Squawka's Individual Action Areas show just how different the first half was to the second for Marcelo.
However, while this might have been the case in attack, the same "narrow" problem remained in defense. Juventus were able to isolate the wide men, and much like Pogba and Tevez did with Ramos for a near-chance in the first half, Vidal and Caceres were able to hurt Marcelo in the second.
This time, Llorente's header would make it past Casillas.
Despite only having one man in the box (as well as a late-arriving Tevez), Juventus were able to really restrict the Madrid defense and hurt their wide defenders.
Part of the blame needs to lie with both Varane and Pepe for sticking too tight to Llorente much of the night, but it's hard to fault them if this was a plan from Ancelotti. The manager's idea to try to draw Asamoah and Caceres forward was one that left them very exposed in defense, and while it did bring them some success on the counterattack, it came at too big of a cost for the away team.
Real Madrid rely too much on the likes of Marcelo and even their wide midfielders to push forward as overlapping runners to take them out of their attack.
Ancelotti left Ronaldo and Bale isolated in attack; Ramos and Marcelo isolated in defense.
Juventus were able to create several goalscoring chances from utilizing this width, and it is little surprise to see that 50 percent of their total goalscoring chances came from crossing opportunities.
Masterful Pirlo Benefits from Menacing Pogba
There's a wonderful quote from Pep Guardiola for games like this.
"You’ll occasionally win games just because you have good strikers and good defenders," the Bayern Munich manager said via the club magazine.
But he added a clarification.
"Consistent success is impossible unless you have excellent players in midfield".
And therein lies the biggest difference for Juventus here.
With the ageless wonder of Pirlo, the ever-consistent and threatening Vidal and the up-and-coming star of Pogba, Juventus were simply too strong in midfield.
Many will look to the performances of Pogba and Pirlo and say that individually, they were the difference for Juventus. However, what is clear is that this duo were most effective together rather than separate. They might not have had as many passes to each other as several other players on the field, but no other two players directly impacted each other as much as Pogba and Pirlo did.
The former Manchester United youngster was simply brilliant against Madrid; terrorizing their defenders and midfield with his quick skills and silky movement.
An outside-of-the-foot cross nearly drew the first goal for Juventus after some fantastic dribbling created the space, and it was almost like after that moment, Los Blancos decided that they couldn't afford to leave Pogba to attack their defense. Either Khedira or Xabi Alonso had to drop back and try to cover Pogba (and Vidal when he attacked), but all that did was make space for Pirlo.
And space is probably the last thing you want to give Pirlo.
With Pogba and Vidal running into midfield, look how deep both Luka Modric and Alonso have dropped. Fast-forward it a few seconds and Khedira will drop also.
But then look at the space that is afforded to Pirlo.
The 34-year-old is able to essentially stroll into the space and make his pass as he chooses. There is no pressure, and Pirlo can pick whatever pass he sees fit.
His Individual Pass Map (per Squawka) is a thing of beauty.
Pirlo had 109 touches on the night (per WhoScored.com) and finished with an average pass length of 22 metres—longer than any other outfield player for Juventus.
Due to his wonderful range of passing and incredible vision, Pirlo was able to dictate the tempo and flow of the game from his deep-lying position, which is often just ahead of the centre-backs. He was able to drop back and then slowly work the ball forward without any real pressure on him, and then shift the ball wide to either full-back—who also had a mountain of space in front of them.
It's worth noting, also, that Madrid's tactics accentuated this impact.
With Ancelotti looking to try to infiltrate the space in behind Juventus' defenders on the counterattack (as we've already mentioned), both Ronaldo and Bale held quite a high line throughout most of the night. They didn't drop back like a regulation winger would, which on any other day would have been okay except for the fact that Madrid's midfield was dropping back deeper to account for Pogba and Vidal.
When the midfield drops and the attack doesn't, there's going to be space.
And lots of it.
That's not to say that Real Madrid couldn't defend against it, though. What's more, they could have defended it without changing any of their other tactics.
That is, the midfield could have dropped to account for Pogba and Vidal; the defense held their tight line; their wide men remain high to try to exploit space in behind their opposing full-backs. Real Madrid could have applied more pressure on Pirlo than they did without abandoning any of their other tactics, and the answer actually comes to us from Jupp Heynckes' side last season.
When Bayern Munich dismantled Juventus in the quarterfinals, they did so by eliminating the presence of Pirlo through Mario Mandzukic and Thomas Mueller. The Italian made just 16 passes as Mandzukic—and to a lesser extent Mueller and Toni Kroos—suffocated the deep-lying playmaker and his space.
Hence the positional term of "suffoco."
What a suffoco is and does, basically, is drop back from being a regulation No. 10 (or in this case false-nine) to defend heavily against a deep-lying playmaker.
For Madrid, with Ronaldo and Bale pressing as high as they were, this role could have been filled by Karim Benzema. Whether Benzema has the defensive prowess or not to be able to shut down Pirlo is besides the point; it's about limiting his space and time on the ball to pick a pass.
Mandzukic is not the best tackler, but he does it so well.
Had Los Blancos used the central figure of their attack to pressure Pirlo, they may well have shut down some of his importance and significance throughout this one.
They didn't, and they were incredibly lucky to walk away with a draw.
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