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Juventus vs. Real Madrid tactical preview: Can Real’s powerful offense break down Juve’s rock-solid defense?

Will there be a new king of Europe?

FC Juventus Media Day Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Real Madrid is excellent offensively. They have scored 32 goals and average 2.67 goals per game in the Champions League this season. But these figures do not reflect how efficient Real Madrid's offense is.

The aim of the offensive phase of a team is to generate shots so that they can score goals, and Real Madrid is excellent in this area. For example, it takes Real Madrid 28.4 passes to create one shot, which is the best in the Champions League this year. By this measure, Real Madrid is at least 15 percent better than every team other than Lyon in this competition. For comparison, it takes 38.3 shots for Juventus to generate one shot, nearly 25 percent worse than Real Madrid.

Real Madrid struggles on defense, and have conceded 17 goals in the Champions League. This number is inflated because they have played more games than most teams. In fact, they have only conceded 1.42 goals per game, which is 14th lowest. But this number is also deflated because of Real Madrid's dominance in possession (9th most) and Keylor Navas' excellence.

A better quantitative measure of a team's defensive performance is the number of passes an opponent needs to generate a shot on it. For example, an opponent needs 37.9 passes to produce one shot against Madrid, which is the 19th lowest in UCL. In comparison, a team needs 48 passes to create one shot against Juventus (6th lowest in UCL), almost 22 percent worse than Juventus. In fact, combining with Gigi Buffon's brilliance, Juventus only concedes 0.25 goals per game and only through set pieces.

Therefore, this is a final where the best offensive team faces the best defensive team.

Real Madrid Formation

Real Madrid has long used a 4-3-3 formation:

Keylor Navas; Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Casemiro, Toni Kroos; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo

When Bale plays, Real Madrid plays mostly a 4-3-3 in the offensive phase. In the defensive phase, they will also use a 4-3-3 shape if they want to set up a high block/press, but with Modric joining Ronaldo and Benzema as the first line of defense. If they sit deep, they can either use a 4-4-2, with Bale and Kroos taking a right and left midfielder position. Or they can use a 4-1-4-1, with Ronaldo taking the left midfielder position and Casemiro positions right in front of the defense. Recently, Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane has made a change in the starting lineup and replaced Bale with Isco. It 's hard to put Isco in any particular position in the offensive phase. But defensively, Real Madrid play fairly consistently no matter who takes on the field. (Zidane has tried to play a 3-5-2 but the results were not very promising, and he probably will not make such a drastic change in the final.)

Real Madrid’s offense

Real Madrid's maximal usage of the pitch

Real Madrid is exquisite at using the width and the length of the pitch to spread the opponent. This ability is due to the excellent passing ranges of their midfielders. Kroos, Casemiro, and Modric completed 7.9 (1st, 86 percent success rate), 5.4 (6th, 68 percent) and 4.4 (14th, 76 percent) long passes per game, respectively. As a team, they complete 65.2 percent of the long passes they attempt (2nd highest, Juventus is third with 65.1 percent).

With such excellent ability to send long pass, Real Madrid's fullbacks can hug the sidelines and maximally stretch the opponent horizontally. During the build-up, Carvajal and Marcelo do not have to help and can push to very advanced positions. This advantage is because Kroos, Casemiro and Modric have the ability to protect the ball and resist pressure and deliver the ball to almost anywhere they want:

In this case, these three midfielders form a wide midfield base in front of Ramos and Varane. They position to create multiple triangles with the center backs, providing at least two passing lanes to each defender. Once received the ball, they can send it forward to the two full-backs who are free to roam forward. They are as the launching base of long balls for Real Madrid and can send the ball to either flank consistently. Moreover, both Marcelo and Carvajal also have the ability to send the passes to the opposing flank. If the passing ranges to send long ball forwards are blocked, they can always carry the ball forward and combine with Carvajal/Marcelo and Ronaldo, and Benzema or Modric move to the flanks.

Benzema is one of the most important players for Real Madrid, and his importance is under appreciated. He is an excellent target man because he is physically strong and has excellent techniques. His finishing may be off this year, but he is still splendid with the ball. In particular, his ability to play with his back to the defender and re-direct the ball to other teammates is first-rate. When Real Madrid are pressured intensively from the back, he can always be their way out of the trouble.

The long pass ability of Real Madrid is dangerous because it stretches the opponent. It is tough for the opponent to press them. If you want to press them you need pressure, and pressure comes from committing more players to pressure them. When you commit too many players to press Real, you leave too much space, and those long passes can kill you. If you want to maintain defensive solidarity, you can't commit enough players to pressure the Madrid's players, and they can advance the ball and pin you down. And obviously, when you can do the long passes so well, you are always dangerous in counterattacks.

Marcelo and Carvajal

Everyone knows that Marcelo and Carvajal are two of the best fullbacks in the world. There are teams with excellent fullbacks, but very few possess one world-class fullback on each flank (the other teams are probably Bayern Munich and Juventus). Marcelo’s ability to dribble, pace, passing range and shooting are excellent. Carvajal is not as technical as Marcelo, but he is more direct. I am not going to talk about how good they are offensively or to compare them to Juventus' fullbacks. The only thing I will talk about is Carvajal's very odd but dangerous way to cross and shoot.

In a way, "bend it like Beckham" is the Zidane's way to kick a ball. You kick it with the inside of the foot. For a pass/cross/shot to be dangerous, you need accuracy and power. Beckham was excellent with his right foot, where he can send extremely accurate crosses with a very high speed. And the way he kicked the ball allowed the ball to curve and drop very suddenly, adding unpredictability. The problem with kicking the ball that way is that you need to run towards the ball to generate enough power, and it 's hard to send the ball consistently if you are pressured.

The way Carvajal kicks the ball is completely different from Beckham, where he kicks it with the outside of the foot. It is almost like he is poking the ball with a stick and it adds a lot of unpredictability to the ball. There are multiple advantages to kicking the ball that way. First, Carvajal does not always need to run/sprint to generate the power for the kick. When kicking the ball with the inside of the foot, there is a full spectrum of power to the ball. The faster/longer you run, the more the power. For the way Carvajal kicks the ball, there is a limited spectrum of power, but you do not need too much running to generate it, and it is fast enough to cause a problem. Secondly, the ball often has an unpredictable trajectory. It is very hard for defenders or keepers to anticipate the path of the ball.

Technically, Marcelo is much better than Carvajal. He can use both feet, dribble and use the ball well. Marcelo is not a selfish player that likes to hog the ball. But Carvajal is far more direct and dangerous, because no matter how good Marcelo is, he often kicks the ball like most other players, with the inside of his foot. The way Marcelo — or most players — kick the ball means that there is a limit of the power that Marcelo can add to the kick given the pressure of the defender on him. For Carvajal, he can often generate a dangerous pass or shot with high pressure on him, because he can kick it with limited space, time and freedom. The way Carvajal kicks the ball is one reason why he causes so many problems to the opponent. No one pokes the ball as well as Carvajal.

Positional flexibility in the offensive phase

A characteristic for Zidane's team is the positional flexibility of the players during the offensive phase. When Real Madrid attacks, its players do not always adhere to their positions. Each player often shows flexibility in occupying their teammate's position. For example, Benzema often moves into the wide area or drop back to the midfield to help build-up and advance the ball. His position, usually the central striker, will always be occupied by his teammate, such as Marcelo/Carvajal when he moves to the flanks, or Isco, Modric, and Kroos when he drops to the midfield.

The two strikers, Ronaldo and Benzema, are critical to trigger these interchanging positions and players movements. Benzema is a primary target man on this team who can move to the midfield or on the flanks to receive the ball and combine with other teammates. Ronaldo does not play as he used to, where he can take on multiple defenders at once. But he still can operate efficiently on the flanks. It's hard for the other team to defend these kinds of movements if they defend with a strong man-orientation. Even in a strict zonal system, where a defender only cares about his zone, these movements can still trigger confusion because you are suddenly without any player to mark, or you are dealing with different players at different times. Moreover, their willingness to operate in such large areas mean that they can often create overloads when and where they receive the ball:

Real Madrid often advances the ball on the flanks. If the structure induced by these movements cannot overload on one side, they can always switch the ball to the opposite side with the long ball where there is often a lot of space:

Very few teams in the world can play like that. Real Madrid has two strikers who can play the ball well. Moreover, most of their midfielders and fullbacks are also extremely skillful and can use the balls in the ways that are not confined to their positions. Because most of these players can stop and protect the ball, they can always wait for their teammates to combine with them or to generate overloads.

Temporal overloads and Isco

The extreme flexibility of players positions and movements allow Madrid to generate overloading scenarios all over the pitch. This tactic becomes even more dangerous in the last few weeks when he Zidane inserted Isco into the lineup. On paper, Isco plays either on the left wing in a 4-3-3 or the Trequarista in a 4-3-1-2 in the offensive phase.

In reality, Isco plays all over the pitch.

Position-wise, Zidane allows Isco to play with a lot of freedom. He can drop back and connect with the defenders to relieve the pressures when the backline is being pressed, move to the flanks to advance the ball, or stay in front of the opponent's defenders to operate in the zone 14 space. He has very strong tactical intelligence and can move into the space that is left by his teammates. And his skill is so good that it is very hard to displace the ball from him.

Many people have hoped that Bale can recover in time to start in the final. But this Real Madrid team is way more dangerous with Isco in the starting lineup. There is a lot more flexibility, and it is very hard to contain Madrid's ball progression with Isco generating the overloads almost everywhere on the pitch.

Offensively, the champions of Spain are one of the best in the world. A strong theme of the build-up and offensive phase of Zidane's team is positional flexibility. They can play that way because of the superb technical quality of their players. Long passes are also critical to maximizing the above tactics because the temporary overloads drag the opponent's defenders to the ball close side and expose the opposite side. And finally, although I did not mention (because everyone watches Real Madrid will know), their counterattacks are extremely explosive.

Real Madrid’s defense

Real Madrid plays a zonal defense without a strong man-orientation. They occasionally press the opponents. Before Isco was inserted into the starting line-up, Zidane's men often press with Ronaldo, Benzema and Modric. Whoever plays the right winger position will stay in the midfield. One reason may be that Modric is more tactically intelligent than Bale (or anyone who plays there other than Isco). He uses cover shadow well when he attack a defender and can maintain a constant pressure on the defenders.

Casemiro is the player who gives balance to Real Madrid. Every outfield player, other than him and the center backs, are offense-orientated. He always is the first player to tackle and close-out the vertical through pass that penetrates the midfield or the counter attack opportunities.

When Real Madrid retreated to a low block, they often line up as a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Casemiro protecting the last line of the defense. Under Zidane, Real Madrid maintains a more cohesive shape in the defensive phase. With the strong defensive quality of Casemiro in the midfield, their defense is more robust and provides more resistance. There is no doubt that with Casemiro, Zidane has figured out a way to strengthen the defense of his team, the problem is that there are two issues he nor Casemiro can solve.

Firstly, Real Madrid's first line of defense can be very leaky. A problem that Real Madrid often has when they defend in a traditional 4-3-3 formation is that the front three players do not apply enough pressure to the opponent's defenders during their the build-up. Ronaldo, Benzema, and whoever plays on the right wing often allow the enemy's defenders to advance to the half-line and pass with a lot of freedom. It can become a problem because it gave a lot of pressure to their three midfield players, especially with center back that has an excellent passing range or can carry the ball forward. Modric and Kroos have to choose between marking the opponent's midfielders or pressuring the advancing center backs. In turn, Casemiro is left alone to try to guard the space in front of the box, and he is often overwhelmed by the other players who will run into those areas.

The second issue is much more serious compared to the first one. It happens when Real Madrid sits deep and defends in a 4-1-4-1 low block. None of the midfield players — usually Isco/Bale, Modric, Kroos, and Ronaldo — have the defensive discipline to play the zonal marking scheme. The idea to sit deep in their zonal scheme is to close out advancing attacks and more importantly, cut out the passes that aim at the space between the lines. The two central midfielders cannot hold their zones for long. Kroos in particular, are very easily attracted by the movement of the ball and has a tendency to try to intercept or tackle the attackers. However, he and Modric are not good at tackling, and Kroos is very slow. What ends up happening is that Kroos moves out of his zone and leaves a ton of space behind and exposes Casemiro and the two center backs:

Moreover, when you play a zonal scheme, you need to exchange marking duty when a player is moving in and out of different zones. Real Madrid is very bad at it:

The defense then collapses because some players are over-marked while others are completely unmarked. The failure to implement zonal defense principle is a major weakness of Real Madrid, and this is why their defense struggles. They have the heart, but not the skill to play a solid zonal defense scheme.

Juventus vs. Madrid

On paper, Juventus and Real Madrid are very different teams. One team is an expert in defense, and one team is explosive on the offense. But there are similarities.

Juventus and Real Madrid are the two best teams in Europe. They went on a similar journey this season. In their domestic leagues, they have been leading the rest of the packs for quite some time. Both coaches have experimented the formations and the players to find the perfect balance they like: Zidane tests multiple players in that right wing role. His decision to play Isco and the way he uses the player push Real Madrid to a higher level. For Allegri, he has tested multiple formations and settle to the 4-2-3-1. But it is not a strict structure. The introduction of Dani Alves and Andrea Brazagli on the right wing and the right back makes the formation a hybrid between 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2. Like Zidane's, these changes also raise the bar for Juventus. These experimentations and optimizations are evident in the performance in the Champions League. Both teams went through the group stage with not-so-impressive performances and then exploded in the knock-out stage against some very tough opponents.

I do not agree with the common perception about this game is if Juventus can stop Real Madrid. In my opinion, this game is about whether Real Madrid can beat Juventus' defense. It is because Juventus does not have to sit deep and wait for counterattack opportunities to hurt Real Madrid. It can be one way to attack them, but Juventus is fully capable of attack through build-up. Of the seven goals they score against Barcelona and Monaco, only one came from counterattack. Four of them came from open play. Even if Real Madrid has more possession in the final, Juventus can generate enough threats against them through build-up.

On the other hand, Real Madrid has not played against a defense like Juventus this season. Their dismantling of Atletico Madrid is scary, but Atleti’s defensive scheme is very different from Juve’s. Diego Simeone's team is more aggressive in tackling the ball to force transition, and it can favor Real Madrid's players when they are not close down fast enough. Juventus can play very passive zonal defense to shut down space without attacking the ball's handlers. If Juventus plays with more passive zonal defense, it will be a problem for Real Madrid. Their positional swaps will not work if Juventus' defenders stay in the zone and not dragged away. Juventus' zone can shift very fast in any direction, and in that case, Real Madrid's overloads would not work, and they will have to shift the ball to the other side.

Then the question becomes can they do this faster than the shifting of Juventus' defenders?

Real Madrid will need to initiate the offense before Allegri's men settle into the defensive structure. There is always an option to press aggressively to force transitions. Sami Khedira is very likely to start, and he is prone to miss-pass compared to Claudio Marchisio and Miralem Pjanic. But can Real Madrid apply that kind of pressure? None of their front players are very good in that department. And you can bet in a final, Juventus' players are more careful and focused so that they do not make these types of errors.

Against an organized zonal defense, the best way to counter it is to play a direct approach. Benzema is a great target man, and Ronaldo is lethal in those ping-pong balls' chances. But will they play like that? Moreover, Real Madrid's players aren't so physically overwhelming.

There will be chances for Juventus to score. Real Madrid's defense collapses similarly in every round in the knockout stage. Khedira — and maybe Pjanic and Marchisio — will be critical. Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala will be marked very tightly. Khedira's excellent positioning and movement will allow him to get to the right place at the right time. But his finishing has been off compared to early season and chances are often fewer in the final. Mario Mandzukic is always a threat when he is up against Carvajal in a physical duel. And then there are Ramos' headers in the set-pieces or the free kicks from Pjanic and Dybala. Those are the chances that often decide a final.

Juventus is a better team because they are more balanced than Real Madrid. This theme has been their key to the season. But this is a one-game final. A single game tends to minimize the difference between two teams and individual incidents become more important than collective strength.

We will find out who is the king of Europe on Saturday.