Photo Credit: FC Barcelona Twitter
The learnings from the last encounter between JUVENTUS vs BARCELONA
When it was announced in UEFA Champions League draw that Barcelona and Juventus are a part of the same group, fans all over the world had erupted in joy and excitement with the prospect of watching Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo battling it out on the football field like the old times in Spain labeling Barcelona Vs Juventus as ‘The Classico of Legends’.
However, fate had something else in store with the news that Cristiano Ronaldo has tested POSITIVE in COVID-19 Test devaluing the entire match’s charm and excitement. Barcelona entered into the match as wounded soldiers were suffering a heavy 3 – 1 defeat in the hands of Real Madrid. Juventus, on the other hand, is not playing better than their rivals and will be arriving to play after securing a draw with Hellas Verona and had won 2 matches out of 4, with one victory being handed over due to Napoli not deciding to play their match in Turin.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona side started out as expected, in a 4-2-3-1. Antoine Griezmann operated as a false 9, with Lionel Messi behind him in a free role. Off-the-ball, Griezmann would have the job of pressing the opposition ball-carriers which resulted in his starting position being relatively deeper. Ronald Araújo replaced the suspended Gerard Piqué, pairing Clément Lenglet at the back. Jordi Alba now features in the starting lineup on the left with Sergi Roberto doing so on the right. Barcelona’s formation always has more than a hint of asymmetry due to Messi’s free role. This resulted in different positional play for the wingers as we can see from the pass-map. Miralem Pjanic and Frenkie de Jong formed the double pivot, with the latter having the task of being the ball-carrier more often than Pjanic as always.
Andrea Pirlo, in Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence, deployed a 4-4-2 formation with the entire team shifting into 4-2-3-1 followed by skewed 4-2-4 at the end. At the back, Merih Demiral replaced Giorgio Chiellini pairing with Leonardo Bonucci. Juan Cuadrado was deployed in the starting lineup as right back. The midfield line remained unchanged with Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot as holding midfielders, who owing to their high-energy play had the job of controlling the midfield. They would switch sides fluidly, looking to drag Barcelona’s midfielders out of position for Dybala to find space and drop back towards Federico Chiesa and Dejan Kulusevski took wide positions at the midfield line. The other change was with Paulo Dybala entering supporting Álvaro Morata upfront. The Argentinian played in the role we’ve seen Ramsey play under Pirlo where he has the license to contribute anywhere in the attack, as well as drop back to facilitate the build-up.
Juventus only pressed when the ball was deep in Barca's defensive third. When Barcelona owned the ball in their build-up, Juventus used the front two lines to press high in a 4-2 shape, as shown in the next picture. Barcelona played from the back with a double pivot and the back four. Juventus deployed a man-mark, the holding midfielders pressing the pivots and the wide midfielders pressing the full-backs. The front two were in charge of pressing the center-back and goalkeeper. Even though the ball was in the left flank, the weak side midfielder remained man-marking the full-back. At first, this high press created some mistakes in Barcelona’s build-up. Albeit, Juventus’s lack of cover behind the press’s second line allowed Barcelona’s front four to receive skipping the high press with ease. Tucking in the winger and retreating a holding midfield would have improved Juventus’ defensive action. Once Barcelona progressed the ball to the middle third, Juventus retreated in a compact low-block positioning in a 4-4-2. This next image summarises the game, with Barcelona in possession of the ball in the middle third and Juventus reacting to the Spaniard positional play. In possession in the opposite half, Barcelona turned to a back three with Alba taking the left-wing position and Rudi tucking in. They settled in a 3-4-3 with the two pivots centrally and Dembélé and Alba giving width. The front three played in the half-spaces and central channel with freedom. We saw what Messi could do from a deep position if midfield lines maintain their compact block. But the same problems would face the opposition midfield line if they decide to press the Argentinian in that deep position. Rivals will be tempted to mark him with numbers not to be easily outplayed, losing their compact shape. In the next snapshot, we can see Messi’s deep positioning in the central channel. He committed three Juventus players with his run and passed the ball with perfect timing to create a 2v1 on the right flank. Even though they share the ball possession in the game, Barcelona dominated the game in scoring opportunities generating a 2.31 xG. In this positional play, Messi freedoms become instrumental in breaking low compact blocks. The Argentinean took the same positioning in the weekend derby, dropping deep out of the compact-block. We saw him assisting Alba from this position, who assisted Ansu Fati for its goal against Real Madrid. From the same position, he became a threat to Juventus compact block. In the next shot, we can see the start of Barcelona’s first goal. Messi dropped deep to receive the ball out of the defensive block and assisted Dembélé, who isolated on the right side, forced Juventus lines to run towards their goal, and opened the score with a deflected shot.
Juventus created scoring opportunities on their possession game. Barcelona did not press aggressively, finishing the game with a 15.2 PPDA, deploying a 4-4-2 formation sitting in a mid-block. Pedri and Dembélé withdraw to the midfield line, with Messi and Griezmann forming the press’s front line. Against this mid-block, Juventus positioned themselves in a 3-4-3, as shown in the next snapshot. Danilo stayed in the left as a wide center-back, releasing Cuadrado in the right. Kulusevski tucked in joining the front line, with Dybala with more freedom to drop as a number 10 between the front two. While on the right, Juventus used a more positional play, advancing through combination play and progressive passes; they accessed the left flank through long crosses. The positional play used on the right side forced Barcelona to shift to the ball-side, leaving Chiesa isolated in the far-end. We saw some direct long passes from the center-backs to access the isolated left-wing or through diagonal passes, as depicted in the next picture. In this play, Demiral combined with Bentancur positioned between the midfield line to connect with Chiesa creating a 1v1. Juventus enjoyed more success from their positional play on the right side than switching the ball to the isolated winger. With Kulusevski preferring to play on the right side, and Morata taking a more central position, Juventus ended with an asymmetric shape upfront. This shape resulted in two different ways of attacking, depending on the side. We saw a more positional play on the right side, with Cuadrado and Kulusevski combining, receiving Dybala’s support, as shown in the next picture. This play was one of the three goals ruled out for Morata due to being just off-side. The three players combined, with Cuadrado centering for Morata.
Juventus have adopted a unique approach to building-up which we have seen from Andrea Pirlo’s initial matches, as well as what he stated in his thesis. Forming rhombuses or diamonds allows the team to progress in units, which maintains positional integrity while forcing the opposition to commit more players to the press. The following visualization shows just that. Barcelona’s pressurizing activities were either through the middle to prevent the midfielders from having too much possession and to force the center-backs to pass wide.
This is where the wingers, one midfielder, and a full-back would immediately start pressing Juventus. Especially on the near side, it meant a higher concentration of pressurizing defensive activities as we can see, with less focus in the half-spaces. Juventus would opt to build up from the back, then forming diamonds with one full-back, a center-back, a midfielder, and one forward or Dybala who had the license to roam. This asymmetry is something that Juventus could face a problem with in the future. The concentration of play down the right-wing is highlighted through their progressive passes, which we can see were mostly from right-to-left when transitioning from the middle-third. Once in the final third, there was relatively more of a balance as the same visualization shows us.
Barcelona looked to build from the back with center-backs Clement Lenglet and Ronald Araujo passing to the full-backs, or the pivots. To help in the build-up, Barcelona’s wingers would drop back, while staying wide. This gave the team a free man in the build-up and provided numerical superiority. Well, that would be the case usually. However, Juventus were man-marking de Jong and Pjanic according to where the build-up was from. Simultaneously, Dybala and a winger pressed the backline while Alvaro Morata tried to aggressively pin the defenders back. This pressing system forced Barcelona to play long-balls often, which was what Juventus wanted. As we can see from the following visualization, the majority of unsuccessful passes from the defensive third were long passes. However, this is where Sergi Roberto was able to do his best. Forming triangles on the right with Messi and either Dembele or a midfielder, he was able to frequently dribble progressively inwards.
Barcelona read Juventus’ tactics perfectly when in possession counter-attacking with pace to exploit the offensive positioning of Cuadrado and Kulusevski. Koeman chose Pedri on this flank, using his speed to exploit the space left by the Colombian in their transitions. In the next picture, we can see a counter-attack perform by Barcelona, in which Messi collected the ball in the middle third and connected the youngster with space. Even when Cuadrado was well-positioned, Alba got involved in the same flank, exploiting the forward positioning of Kulusevski. Pedro's forward runs stretched the defensive line, and Alba exploited that gap with pace creating a 2v1. Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 formation in a mid-block; these defensive tactics allowed Messi to be centrally positioned in the front line. This position gave Barcelona another weapon when launching their counter-attacks. Messi placed himself between the back three and the holding midfielders, with no assigned mark. Barcelona could easily connect him centrally, as depicted in the next shot. With Juventus retreating, Barcelona’s wingers burst in pace to join the Argentinian, with Griezmann doing the same. Through a similar play after counter-pressing, the Argentinian combined with Dembélé, with Juventus’ defender conceding a penalty to end the game. The positional play that Barcelona is used to pays dividends with Messi dropping deep to create scoring opportunities. A counter-attacking style is something we will get used to in this team with wingers of the likes of Dembélé, Pedri, or Fati
In the end, Barcelona emerged victorious owing to goals scored by Ousmane Dembele and a 90th-minute penalty scored by Lionel Messi, which gave some relief to the Spaniard team while deepening the doubts in Pirlo’s team. A different story would have been if Ronaldo had been able to play this clash; even in his absence, Juventus managed to create some decent scoring opportunities. Both teams still need to improve a lot if they want to challenge for the trophy this year.