When Juventus take on Barcelona in the Champions League final on Saturday, you can expect a terrific battle of wits as the Catalan offensive firepower gets aligned against the Bianconeri defensive mettle. There will be multiple sub-plots all over the pitch, but it's the clash between Juve's left and Barca's right that we break down here.
Should Massimiliano Allegri choose to go with four in the back, then it will be Giorgio Chiellini on the left side of the center backs, and Patrice Evra out at left back. If it's a three-man backline, then it'll still be Chiellini in the back with Evra at wingback. In front of them will most likely be Paul Pogba on the left side of midfield and then Carlos Tevez shading to the left up front.
For the Spaniards, the formation is pretty constant at 4-3-3. It'll be Brazilian Dani Alves at right back, Ivan Rakitic on the right side of midfield and Lionel Messi at the right of their attacking trident. The players are very dynamic so it's no surprise to find, say Messi, in the middle, which is what makes Barca difficult to defend against.
Alves is very attack minded and constantly bombs forward on runs. He has excellent vision and a good shot, too, and while he has lost some speed, he remains one of the better right backs in the business today. A study done recently by CIES Football Observatory has him ranked as the best fullback in the top five European leagues. There is a range of diverse criteria taken into consideration for this, with chance creation, take-on ability, ball distribution, recovery and rigor all looked at. Alves fits the role required by a right back in the Barca system perfectly. One of his major weaknesses though lies in his slowness to track back when he loses possession and Barca often 'cheat' to their right when he goes forward to compensate.
That should be one of the chinks in Luis Enrique's armor that Allegri must look to exploit. Juve have reverted to holding strong at the back and breaking forward at pace when playing against sides that enjoy the bigger share of ball possession. In Berlin, there will be opportunities to play the long pass beyond the Catalan back line which is growing long in the tooth and doesn't possess great speed either.
Rakitic has been one of the unsung heroes of the Spaniards' campaign. The Croat has been instrumental in Messi's stellar season. His piercing runs out right have made room for Messi time and again, and his tireless pressuring of the ball carrier has both helped out Alves and created opportunities up front.
He does have some shortcomings, though. Rakitic can be bypassed by the quick ball from the middle into space on the wings. His tendency to over-commit to zealous tackles might see him the target of strategic gamesmanship.
As for Messi, there is nothing left to be said about his abilities. Apart from scoring a boatload of goals this season, he has scored them at critical points of games, too. The way he took the semifinal against Bayern Munich by the scruff of the neck and blew the game wide open and then proceeded to ensure their finals berth is the stuff of legend.
Divine he might be, but he is also prone to the same Achilles heel that his fellow superstar Cristiano Ronaldo suffers from. When starved of the ball and quickly shut down when he does see it, he tends to fade out of the game for periods at a time. But it is that ability too to snap out of the reverie with the speed of a striking cobra that makes them both so lethal. Keeping Messi disinterested might involve over-committing resources on him, with the resident danger that the other two members of the forward trio Neymar and Luis Suarez can pounce to take advantage.
A 4-3-1-2 formation actually looks the best option to neutralize Barca. The four across the back will ensure that there's one extra man to deal with the threat of their forward three. The critical part here though is the three-man Juve midfield. Andrea Pirlo has not been at his best since his return from injury, especially losing the ball more often in dangerous places. His general vision of the game has not been of the sparkling variety fans have gotten used to, but surely Allegri could not drop Pirlo the Legend in a Champions League final? Or could he?
Pogba is one of the youngest shining jewels in the world, but he too has been off since his recent return from injury. When in form, though, Pogba is also capable of the sublime like the superstars. In his last few competitive appearances, the Frenchman has struggled defensively, letting opposing players by him too easily and getting caught out of position too. Juve clinching the title early has helped with easing him back into the pace of the game. So will he start ahead of his fellow Frenchman Uncle Pat?
Stefano Sturaro had an exemplary game in his Champions League debut against holders Real Madrid. Would it be feasible that instead, Allegri begins the game with Sturaro's boundless energy and fearless pursuit to tire and demoralize Barca, and then hit them in the last half hour with Pogba coming off the bench?
Similarly, Claudio Marchisio has been excellent lately when commanding the team from the defensive midfield (regista) position. While not at his best on the right side of midfield, he was deployed there against Real and did decently enough. Does he start there? But again, can Allegri really drop Pirlo in this game? Could Marchisio start instead of Pogba on the left with strict instructions to shadow Messi? Would that then leave Juve bereft of attack on the left and allow Barcelona to camp in the Bianconeri half?
Presumably Arturo Vidal gets the nod at trequartista with Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata up front. The attacking pair provides the first line of defence for Juve as they pressure deep to try to cause turnovers. Keeping Sergio Busquets from getting the ball is a key battle. If Busquets is smothered, it will increase pressure on Andres Iniesta and Messi to drop even deeper to collect the ball, which will give Juventus' defence more breathing room as they setup the barricades.
The next step is to then to keep the Barca players from forming their famous triangles that enable them to distribute the ball far and wide out of midfield. Allegri already has experience in doing this when he led his AC Milan side to a 2-0 win over Barcelona in 2013. The key then was defensive discipline across the board, and a similar effort will be needed to beat the Catalan side this time too.
Strategic Set Pieces
Another element that must be talked about — set pieces. Historically, Barca have not been a big side and especially during the Cesc Fabregas and 'False Nine' era, they always preferred to play the ball out from corners and free-kicks rather than play the long ball in. On defense, despite a couple of hulking center backs, there was always an opening for opponents to take advantage. All that has changed though under Enrique, and especially assistant coach Juan Carlos Unzué. they have been able to turn this disadvantage to an asset, with about 15 percent of their goals in the league this term coming from set-pieces. Defensively this has been effective, too, with only two set-piece goals conceded in the league.
Unzué is a former Barca goalkeeper, and he has implemented a whole catalogue of choreographed routines for the players to go through at dead-ball situations. On his command, and it is his command as Enrique cedes the touchline to Unzué at set-pieces, the players go into various movement patterns which often results in even smaller players like Jordi Alba coming free to score important goals. Similarly, on defence he has instituted a mixed-marking system that starts with Suarez attacking the near post and Gerard Piqué with license to roam and freedom to follow the ball where needed.
All is not lost for Juve, however. The same defensive discipline that was spoken about before will be required when man marking at setpieces, while some trickery and execution from Juventus' free kicks will be needed to nullify their defence. On dead-ball situations that have required Pirlo to swing the ball into the box, we have seen Juve try a few variants with either curling the ball deeper past everyone, for a Juve player to head back across the box and create a chance (Morata's goal at the Bernabeu), or even hitting the ball short of the mass of players and have someone like Evra run back at the ball to flick it over the backline.
When Barcelona has the set-piece, the big center backs usually lumber forward leaving Alba and Busquets as the main backline. If Juventus can quickly clear the ball and then set Tevez and Morata running diagonally to the corners, they can create overloads that could result in opportunities. This is the text-book way of attacking Barca, and it hasn't changed over the years, no matter who is running Camp Nou.
In closing, it must be reiterated that teams do not need to park the bus to beat Barcelona. Letting Barca have all the ball in midfield puts a lot of pressure on teams to keep 10 men behind it. Instead, pressing them higher up the pitch yet retaining the discipline to quickly fall back into a compact structure that cuts out the passing lanes has been shown to work wonders. The final nails in the killing off of the Catalan side then are using counterattacks and set pieces intelligently to score the goals required to bolster the defensive performance required. The game will probably be won or lost by how Juventus' left side performs against Barcelona's right, so watch out for all the little battles that will form there once the whistle blows on Saturday.