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Talkin’ Tactics: Identifying strengths and weaknesses of the Juventus-Barcelona matchup

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How should Juventus approach this tie?

Juventus FC v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Here I review Juventus and Barcelona’s tactics, weaknesses and strengths for the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie on Tuesday night in Turin.

Barcelona's strength

Since their first-leg 4-0 defeat against Paris Saint-Germain on Feb. 14, Barcelona has now used a 3-4-3 formation. The back three is formed by Samuel Umtiti, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano. Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Rafinha form a four-man midfield. The famous MSN (Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar) are the attacking trio.

Compared to the 4-3-3 system that Luis Enrique used before the PSG defeat, the formation provides control in the center while lessening Busquets' workload, therefore allowing him to better positioned to provide defensive cover. When using a back four, Busquets has to drop back between the two center backs to form a back three to facilitate the build-up. With the two fullbacks pushing up to support the attack, Barcelona transforms into a 3-4-3 formation during the offensive phase. Because there are at least two formations during the defensive and the offensive phases, the transitions between the phases requires quite radical movement among different players. Many teams, particularly in the top level, play multiple formations in various phases of the game.

But this strategy poses a problem for Barcelona in their midfield defense: Busquets is the only player specialized for the defensive duty and the physical challenges. He positions himself in two very different areas between the defensive phase (one of the midfield's four) and the offensive phase (one of the back three). When they lose the ball in the center during the offensive phase, there isn't enough muscle to resist the opponent immediately in the midfield, allowing the opponents to face the last line of defense very quickly. Moreover, the constant running back and forth between the two positions increases the workloads of Busquets, making him less effective in the later stage of a match.

The 3-4-3 solves these problems. There is a very stable formation and team shape. Busquets can focus on his midfield duties and provides immediate defensive cover if they lose the ball. The lesser movements between the positions also allow him to preserve his energy better.

Position-wise, during the offensive phase, Barcelona can be divided into five modules. The first module is the goalkeeper and the three center backs. They initiate the offensive phase and advance the ball to the midfield. The second module consists of Busquets, Iniesta, and Rakitic. Once received the ball, they always try to create the passing lanes towards Neymar, Messi and Suarez (the last option is Rafinha). Messi and Suarez form a third module in the center. They are so dangerous in the middle that the opponents have to deploy a lot of players to defend them. This arrangement creates a lot of spaces for Barcelona to operate on the flanks. This year, Barcelona mostly attack the left side through the module of Iniesta and Neymar. Neymar is extremely dangerous, and because of the attention in the middle, he often finds space and 1-v-1 opportunities. He is so good technically that he can take on not one but two players easily and it is obvious why they are so dangerous.

Although initially positioned on the right side, Messi mostly operates in the middle, and the right flank belongs to Rafinha and Rakitic. However, Rafinha is left-legged and mostly cuts into the center, and Rakitic isn't the type of player who bombs down the byline, making Barcelona's offensive phase heavily reliant on the left side. All of the front three modules connect to Busquets because he is a passing option for the back passes from them:

Barcelona is excellent at possession and most of their players are splendid with the ball. Moreover, the front three players are so dangerous and attract a lot of the opponent's attention, so most of the time the opponents will stack most of their players in the defensive third and concede possession. Therefore, Barcelona often controls 60-70 percent possession in a match. One of the most familiar scenarios of a Barcelona match is that most opponents will be defending close to their box area with Barcelona players trying to penetrate them:

(All ten outfield PSG players stayed so close to their box area)

Obviously, if Messi has an inch of space and time, he is extremely dangerous. But he is constantly watched very carefully. Therefore, the obvious way to attack such defensive structure is to utilize the width to stretch the defense. For Barcelona, a pattern emerges:

Messi operates in the middle and Rafinha often positions on the right side. He is naturally left-legged, and there isn't an overlapping player on the same side. Therefore, when Rafinha receives the ball from the right side, he mostly cuts back in. Most of the time he will find a lot of defenders in front of him and will send a cross-field pass to the left side. Once there, either Neymar and Iniesta will combine with each other or use individual skills to create an opening. Because Rafinha is not likely to take part in the first leg, Sergio Roberto/Gomes will likely to replace him. Sergio Roberto is a natural right full-back. With him, Barcelona will likely see more byline crosses from the right. If Gomes is to play, he will likely position in the central midfield. Messi will probably stay on the right with Iniesta pushing forward to support Suarez. In that case, there will be a lot more cross-field passes between the two flanks.

Because there is often a lot of player staying in front of Barcelona in these situations, a common strategy utilized by Barcelona's midfielders, especially Iniesta, is to use overhead and through passes to the blind side of the defender to Neymar.

Many think that it is impossible to defend in your box for 90 minutes and they will instead choose to press Barcelona from entering the offensive phase. One problem with that strategy is that Barcelona is extremely dangerous in the open space. Because the offside rule does not hold up before the midline, the last line of the defense can only stay right behind the midline. Therefore, the three lines of players are stretched across half of the pitch to cover all the space.

Moreover, with goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen and the three center backs initiating the build-up, at least three players are required to apply sufficient pressures in the initial pressing. Considering a team with a typical back four defense and three midfielders are needed to cover a wide area. It creates an exceptionally large workload for these midfielders. To implement this tactic, a team needs to have excellent defensive midfielders because the front five Barcelona has are so technical. With so much space, they can create chances either through passes or take on one or even multiple defenders:

Barcelona almost has no weakness in their attack. They have one of the greatest player (if not the greatest) of all time, one of the best midfielders of all time and an up-and-coming superstar. There is a physical target man to do the dirty work who is also extremely technical. Barcelona has one of the best offenses (if not the best) Juventus has to face this season.

Barcelona weaknesses

Barcelona's major flaws come from their defense.

First of all, Enrique seems to be very satisfied with the 3-4-3 formation. They have since beaten PSG (6-1!) and Sevilla (3-0) using this configuration. While sparring Busquets from over-working and maintaining a constant physical presence in the midfield, this structure lacks balance on the flanks. While the offense is threatening, the defense does not hold up:

Umtiti and Neymar primarily defend the left flanks while Rafinha/Sergio Roberto and Mascherano primarily defend the right side. Neymar and Rafinha are not natural wingbacks and are inferior defensively. Umtiti and Mascherano are center backs — or midfielders converted into defenders — and are not fast enough to defend the flank full time.

Secondly, Barcelona is not disciplined enough in the defensive phase. This is a team full of technical wizards. They can play the ball better than anyone in the world. Most of the time they control more than 60 percent of the possession and the defense isn't a concern for them. A major weakness for them is the defense of the space between the defense and the midfield. On paper, Busquets provides physical and defense presence to the midfield. However, neither Raktic nor Iniesta are disciplined enough to maintain a constant defensive position about each other, making their midfield very easy to be penetrated by simple vertical passes:

Once penetrated, the opponent faces the last line of the defense directly and is always dangerous, considering the slow speed of the Barcelona's backline.

Last but not least, Barcelona's midfield is not robust and physical enough. Their midfielders are not robust enough to apply pressure. And when they want to hold a high press against the other team, their midfielders cannot win too many 50-50 duels.

Barcelona's weakness in the defensive phase comes from their preference for the offensive part of the game. They are very prone to attack that is vertical in nature because they cannot prevent the ball to reach the space behind the midfield. Once there, anyone can have a chance to score at this level.

Juventus' weaknesses

Unlike Barcelona, Juventus has shifted to their current 4-2-3-1 formation since the loss to Fiorentina in late-January. This setup allows Max Allegri to field five of their most potent offensive players together. We have discussed the advantages, characteristics, and performances of the offensive phase of this formation before. Here we will consider the features of the defensive phase of this formation and some systematic weaknesses of the team.

Lack of a physical and defensive midfielder

In this formation during the offensive phase, Juventus's midfield is usually formed by Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira and backed up by Claudio Marchisio. Paulo Dybala also drops back to the midfield quite frequently. In the defensive phase, Juventus transforms into a 4-4-2, with Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic occupying the wide midfielder positions and join Pjanic and Khedira. The problem is that none of these players other than Mandzukic can provide any physical resistance.

Juventus compensates for the lack of the physical presence in the middle by maintaining a narrow and compact shape, with Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Mandzukic and Cuadrado to help out the defensive and physical duties. The defensive and physical workloads of these players increase substantially. It has been a familiar scene that Juventus plays very well in the initial period of the game and the intensity can drop off significantly. One of the reasons must be the fatigue of these attacking players. Not only they cannot cover as much distance as in the earlier period of the game, but they are also not as sharp in front of the goal. Mandzukic's workload is also substantially larger than any other Juventus players. He has to defend as a left midfielder and is always running and providing defensive cover. In the offensive phase, he also plays like a hybrid of a target man and winger. The last time Mandzukic scored a goal was on Feb. 8 against Crotone.

Moreover, when you cover a weakness, it never actually went away. There are often times that the two central midfielders have had to get down dirty. In those cases, they often lose the physical duels.

Losing these 50-50 battles puts a lot of the pressure on the defense because they are stuck in the defensive phase. They are also less likely to produce counter attack opportunities because they don't often get the ball through duels

Systematically, Juventus also gets caught out on the counterattack very often. In March against Udinese, Porto and Milan, there was at least one instance in each game that the opponents were able to create very dangerous chances through counterattacks on Juventus’ right side. They conceded one goal against Udinese and Milan, respectively.

In these games, Juventus was able to control the possession. The opponents were forced to defend in their half. In all those instances, at least seven or eight Juventus players were in the opponents' half. The opponents were able to initiate a counterattack opportunity because Juventus made a wrong pass, and the opponents made a successful tackle or merely because they generated a quick build-up. Juve players were not able to return to the defensive positions quickly enough.

Usually, a strong defensive midfield player could halt such advances because he could immediately attack the ball handlers. The lack of such kind of players meant that the opponents could penetrate to the attacking half very quickly. These chances were tough to handle because the center backs had to cover a lot of area in a 1-v-1 situation. We have seen Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Medhi Benatia suffered in these chances and it suggests that these problems are not player-specific. These opportunities occur mostly on Juventus's right-hand side, possibly because Dani Alves and Stephan Lichtsteiner push up very high during the offensive phase.

Juventus’ build-up problem

Compared to the other top-tier teams, Juventus is more susceptible to the high press:

The problem is simple: Juventus's center backs are not good with the ball under pressures. Bonucci's play-making ability is well known while Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, and Barzagli also have exquisite passing ranges. But their play-making ability does not mean that they are good with dribbling the ball. When they are pressed intensively, they are easily forced to turn the ball to the direction away from the presser because they do not have the ability to stop and dribble the ball.

In this case, they cannot change the direction of movement of the ball, nor they can change the speed of the ball movement. Therefore, the Juventus center backs often pass the ball sideway to the flanks when being pressed. The closer the ball to the flank, the less space it is for Juventus players to operate and they often have to hit an aimless long pass forward.

Juventus' sophisticated defensive structure

Having discussed all these weaknesses, let's examine one the best strengths of this Juventus team.

The defensive structures can generally be divided into zonal-marking and man-marking. Zonal-marking system requires a player to mark the zone assigned to each player. It is passive, meaning that a team will aim to close down all the available space and wait for the opponents to make a mistake. In a man-marking system, a player will mark his assigned opponent's player. A man-marking system is more active than a zonal-marking system. It is because, in a man-marking scheme, the defensive shape of a team is distorted based on the ball movements and leaves a lot of holes in the defense line. Therefore, one needs to attack the ball immediately to minimize the risk of being caught out. In practice, most teams usually play a combination of both systems. A pressing team will play more man-marking while a more defensive team will like to adopt a zonal approach to maintain a stable defensive shape. Most teams play a zonal based system with some degree of man-marking/tackling within the zone. But a general rule of thumb is that a zonal based system is less risky, but it has to be passive.

Juventus' defensive scheme has changed quite substantially this year. In the early part of the season, they use very strict and passive zonal marking in a 3-5-2 formation. The defensive shape gradually changes to a hybrid of 4-4-2 and 3-5-2. After these phases, Juventus has fully transformed into a strict 4-4-2 defensive system. The defensive system has changed from a strict zonal system to a zonal-based system with some aggressive pressing initially when the front players are in proximity to the ball. But a few games after switching into a 4-2-3-1 formation, Juventus' defense has further evolved into a very aggressive zonal system.

The most notable characteristic of this scheme is that Juventus' players were very disciplined in maintaining the defense shape of the team. The whole team moves by the positions of the ball. Not only do the players shift according to the ball, but the players closest to the ball also dictate the opponent's ball movement. Many times, Juventus often tries to force an opponent team to play through the middle:

(Juventus players here made no attempt to attack Amadou Diawara because Dybala, Higuain, Stefano Sturaro and Cuadrado blocked all of the passing lanes towards the Lorenzo Insigne and Piotr Zielinski on the flanks. Diawara was forced to play through the middle area where four Juventus players could assess the ball).

(Here Sturaro blocked all angles where Zelinski could turn to the left. He was forced to play through the middle where Dries Mertens was trapped).

Again:

The idea is this: Allegri wants Juventus to maintain a compact and narrow shape. Such compactness allows the team to be very close to the ball. If the opponent can use the width efficiently, the whole team will be stretched far apart in the offensive phase and causes lots of space in the middle. By deterring the opponents to attack the flanks, they will be able to trap the ball in the middle.

You can compare Juventus' defensive movement with the one used by PSG in the 1st leg game against Barcelona:

You should see that PSG players only waited for Barcelona to pass the ball. They made no attempt to guide or trap the ball. Therefore, their defensive system is very passive.

Only a few teams in Europe play this kind of defensive system. The most notable ones are Juventus and Atletico Madrid. Many teams play very aggressive pressing, but the goal is to disrupt the other teams to enter the offensive phase. Juventus and Atletico Madrid use the pressing to guide the ball to different areas they want to defend. Atleti likes to guide the ball to the flanks while Juventus wants to guide the ball toward the center. The underlying philosophy for the former is that there is less space on the side, so it is easier to defend. For Allegri, he prefers defending the ball in the center because it can limit the movement of his team during the defensive phase. He does not want his team to shift left and right substantially. In either case, both teams display extreme discipline and tactical intelligence.

What is Juventus going to do against Barcelona?

Barcelona has the world's best attack. However, they also have a variety of weaknesses. Their 6-1 victory against PSG was not a fluke, but the same is also true for their 4-0 defeat.

Juventus should not defend Barcelona for the whole 90 minutes like they did against Napoli last Sunday in Naples. Barcelona is used to playing against opponents that form a wall in front of the box deep in the defensive half (basically the whole second game against PSG). Juventus may be very confident about their defense, but a team is certainly getting tired very easily under those circumstances, especially in the later period of the match if Juventus is to defend like that for a long segment of the match. This is especially a problem because we know that Juventus often suffer a loss of concentration in the later part of the game. Sometimes they are too complacent when they feel that they are not going to lose the game. But there are also times that they spent too much energy in the earlier portion of the game and become too tired in the closing stage of the match. You can defend like that in some segments of the game against Barcelona but not the entire match.

Some people suggest that Juventus should press Barcelona high like PSG did in the first leg. The problem with such an approach is that Juventus does not really have very physical defensive midfielders. Like we mentioned above, Barcelona is extremely fast and dangerous if they are able to pass the ball to the midfield. Playing a high press without strong midfielders to clean up the ball or to win the 50-50 duels against Barcelona is very risky.

Juventus will need to apply strong defensive pressure to Barcelona's midfield. They need to utilize either Sturaro and Rincon for some significant minutes in this tie. Pjanic, Khedira and this version of Marchisio are not going to provide enough defensive strength to the midfield. Sturaro or Rincon are not Arturo Vidal or Paul Pogba, but they are still very useful. Sturaro is reckless, but he can also generate intensive pressure to the opponents. Rincon does not cover so much distance, but he has much better positioning and ball control.

Another thing to consider is that whether to start Mandzukic or not. He is obviously playing well and giving his 100 percent in every game. But it may not be necessary to play him if the key is to apply more pressure in the midfield. Why not play Sturaro and let him do all the running? Or play Alex Sandro on the left wing with Kwadwo Asamoah taking the left back duty? In either case, you deploy players with much better defensive positioning than Mandzukic. He may run constantly but he is not a midfielder nor defender, and he does not always mark the zone properly. There will be space available for Dybala, Cuadrado and Higuain to operate and they may not need another striker. Having him coming off the bench can provide some fresh leg up front to close out the game. Sometimes less is more.

It is an exciting fixture because this is the first opponent that requires Juventus's full strength and attention this season. This is also an unknown factor because Juventus has yet been thoroughly tested this season. As a Juventus fan, I believe Juve will triumph in this tie.