Juventus beat Barcelona 3-0 in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals last Tuesday night in Turin. With three goals in hand, how should Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri approach the return tie at Camp Nou? Martin Connolly has covered brilliantly in his review of the match. Here I will discuss Juventus defensive strategy to complement his analysis and preview a glimpse of what may happen in the second leg.
Barcelona has the most feared front three with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, but they failed to score in Turin. They had their chances, but for the most part, especially in the first half, Juventus has defended brilliantly to contain them. Barcelona managed to 16 shots, but only were four on target. (For comparison, Juventus has shot fourteen times with eight on goal, according to WhoScored.com.) To successfully combat Barcelona, most teams use a high-intensity high press to disrupt their buildups. Juventus also used an occasional high press to pressure them. However, for the most part, they sat in a pretty deep defense. Allegri has designed a spectacular defense scheme while the team executed it to almost perfection.
Juventus' defensive scheme in Tuesday’s game mimicked basketball's "double team" defense. In a basketball game, sometimes two defenders will defend an elite scorer together and leave his teammate wide open if this teammate is not in his shooting range, say the 3-point line. If a player is not efficient in shooting at a certain distance, he poses little threat in that distance. It is, therefore, economical to not defend him but someone else who poses more threat. Juventus played exactly that against Barcelona on Tuesday.
Barcelona had four extremely dangerous players to defend in a 1-v-1 situation. Messi, Neymar, Suarez and Andres Iniesta are excellent at getting past their markers. But the other five or six players posed little threat outside of the box — either because they did not run into the position or they just do not possess those attacking skills. This "double team" defense happened almost whenever Neymar tried to attack Juventus on the left side. Dani Alves received a lot of praise in defending Neymar, but Juan Cuadrado 's performance was under-appreciated because it was him who always came back to "double team" Neymar. Alves blocked his lane toward the byline while Cuadrado blocked his lane to cut inside. Most of the time Neymar could only pass back to Jeremy Mathieu, Samuel Umtiti or Javier Mascherano.
Juventus' players had a very clear idea on which players they had to defend with multiple defenders at all time (Messi, Neymar, and Iniesta) and players they would not mark or leave for a covering teammate if they had to double team someone else (Sergi Roberto, Mascherano, Mathieu):
(When Messi cut inside from the right side, three Juventus players marked Messi but left Sergi Roberto completely open. When the ball switched to the left side, both Cuadrado and Dani Alves only marked Neymar but not Mathieu.)
For the most part — especially in the first half — Barcelona's offense looked very stiffed. Their offensive phase relies on the creativities of Iniesta, Messi, and Neymar. All of these players were guarded by at least two Juventus players, with a third defender — usually Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci — providing cover. Allegri did not seem concerned about Juventus defending the crosses into the boxes. He was confident that Bonucci and Chiellini were superior to Suarez in these situations. With no creativity (other than that brilliant Messi's through pass to Iniesta), no change of the speed of the play (no counter attack opportunities) and inferior physicality up front, Barcelona could only generate very few genuine scoring opportunities.
"Football is very simple; you have to attacking and defending. You need both, and there’s no shame in being good at defending, in fact, it’s just as beautiful as a great attacking move." Allegri and Juventus put in a beautiful and spectacular defense performance in the first half.
Luis Enrique's adjustment
Barcelona had problems both in the defense and the offense in the first half. Offensively they could not find any gap in Juventus's defense. Defensively they could not contain Juan Cuadrado and Paulo Dybala, especially on the flanks. In the second half, Enrique switched to a 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 hybrid shape. He replaced Mathieu with Andres Gomes, who took the central defensive midfield role. Mascherano switched to the center back position while Umtiti occupied the left center back/left back role. Umtiti was an upgrade over Mathieu not only defensively but also offensively because he possesses good passing range that Mathieu lacks:
(Umtiti was able to pick out Iniesta for a vertical pass because Neymar moved close to the flank to drag Cuadrado and Dani Alves and Iniesta was able to move into that space).
Umtiti has the passing range to deliver vertical passes to Iniesta in these situations. With Neymar dragging at least one but sometimes defenders away, Iniesta had a lot of space to explore.
Not only did the formation change, but Enrique also instructed his midfielders, Gomes, Ivan Rakitic and especially Iniesta and Sergi Roberto, to move into Juventus' box area (or right outside) a lot more frequently with Neymar and Messi dropped back.
(While Messi was marked by Mario Mandzukic and Miralem Pjanic, Rakitic's movement to the right dragged out Alex Sandro, Sergi Roberto was able to find himself unmarked in a position previously marked by Alex Sandro).
Sergi Roberto was not simply a ball receiver, but more importantly, he also acted as bait to occupy and keep one of the two Juventus' center back from providing cover. In such case, Suarez would have a chance to attack Juventus defender in a 1-v-1 scenario.
(Messi dropped back with Mandzukic and Miralem Pjanic marked him. Sergi Roberto moved inside and occupied Chiellini, preventing him from covering for Bonucci and resulted in a 1vs1 situation of Suarez against Bonucci. Mascherano's vertical pass was sublime).
Barcelona found more success penetrating Juventus' defense in the second half. In the first half, they solely relied on Messi, Neymar and Iniesta to create chances but they rarely beat Juventus' double team. After the break, both Umtiti and Mascherano took more responsibilities in delivering vertical passes. With Neymar staying wider and dropped deeper, Juventus' defense was stretched further, and there was more space for Iniesta to move in. Very similar scenario happened on the middle/right side, with Sergi Roberto moving in and out of Juventus' box very frequently. These adjustments in the second half allowed them to generate more space for Messi, Iniesta and Suarez to operate and created more chances than they did in the first half.
What is going to happen at the Camp Nou?
Most of the changes will certainly come from Barcelona.
Sergio Busquets will return from suspension. It's hard to see Enrique replacing Iniesta, Messi, Neymar and Suarez in the starting lineup. There is a chance that he may opt to try Arda Turan on the right side to replace Rakitic, although it is still less likely. Who is going to play in defense is the biggest question. Mascherano is injured and not likely to play. Barcelona may field a defense like they did in the first leg — Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique, Umtiti and Mathieu. This set of players featured the most in the recent weeks. However, Mathieu lacks the passing range that Mascherano possesses, which is an important attribute considering Barca need many of their midfielders to stretch and to occupy Juventus' defenders. And Enrique has already decided that this formation is ineffective.
Another solution is to play a back four but with Umtiti as the center back and Jordi Alba as the left back. This lineup requires Busquets to drop back to help initiate the buildup, and they will lack the immediate defense if they lose the ball in the midfield. Moreover, Alba will inevitably push up very high, and they will get caught up even easier than the current setup. But it may not matter because Barcelona needs to score three goals and they need to take that risk. It also does not matter because whoever they play, they cannot defend.
For Juventus, there should not be a significant shift in strategy and tactics compared to the first leg. Barcelona created more chances in the second half with those adjustments made at halftime, so Allegri may want to find ways to counter these tactics. What would be wrong is to think that you go to Camp Nou and play a counter-attacking game. Barcelona is prone to counter-attack, but their biggest weakness is not their susceptibility to counter-attack. They just cannot defend any attack. Of the eight goals Juventus and PSG put past Barcelona in these three games, only one goal was a result of a counter-attack. At least five goals are the direct or indirect results of standard build-up initiated from the keeper. The problem of relying on the counter-attack against Barcelona is that you can end up playing a very passive and reactive game. Barcelona is so good with the ball that you may not be able to force enough errors to generate the defensive-to-offensive transitions. PSG is more suited because they have very physically dominant midfield players that can smoothly transit from the defensive-to-offensive phase. And it was a disaster for them when they tried to sit deep in Camp Nou.
For Juventus, playing counter-attack is even more challenging if they play with the current lineup — and there is no obvious hint Allegri will change anything — and strategies. They need everyone to defend, and it's hard to generate quick defensive-to-offensive transitions. They should not defend and counter-attack. They should defend and attack. What we saw in the first half in the first leg is that even with much less possession, Juventus generated better scoring chances than Barcelona. The reason is that every time Barcelona attacked, they needed to solve three lines of very solid Juventus' defense. But when Juventus attacked (or any other team), there was almost only one line of defense they had to solve. Barcelona's front three posed almost zero resistance:
(just look at how easy Sami Khedira advanced the ball upfield on the first goal).
Their midfield's defense was also very soft. Rio Ferdinand is right when he called out the lazy defense of Barcelona's players.
Juventus will have less "absolute possession" against Barcelona no matter where they play. But they will have more "meaningful possession." Each possession is more meaningful for Juventus than Barcelona because they have less defensive structures to solve. Therefore, the possession is more likely to result in a shot/goal. They did exactly that in the first leg, taking advantages of the situations and scored three goals. If they can keep their calm, they should be able to do it again in the second leg.