Survive and advance; that may as well have been the motto for the Champions League quarter finals this season. Nothing can be taken for granted in the UCL, not even a 3-0 away victory. Cristiano Ronaldo said it best, “Anything can happen in football. We did not play well, we must admit it, and it should be a lesson for the future.” It was far from pretty, and for most Madridista’s it was agonizing and torturous to sit through. The second half felt like an eternity. Though, when we zoom out and tactically look at this match, there were two distinct stories from each half—Allegri clearly exploited the diamond in the first 45 minutes, but credit to Zidane for making an immediate switch at the break and solidifying the flanks. The second half ended 1-1 and without a goalkeeping blunder from Keylor Navas, it may well have ended 1-0 to Madrid. In the end, it was Cristiano Ronaldo’s will that dragged Real Madrid over the line and qualified them for an eighth consecutive semi-final appearance.
Allegri Exposes the Diamond:
Zinedine Zidane has rekindled his love-affair with the diamond formation. After a disastrous start to the season, we saw moves to a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 with the diamond featuring sparingly in the months of January and February. Then came the big match against PSG, where Zidane rolled the dice. His beloved diamond returned and it paid dividends for the first sixty minutes or so. Maybe Allegri had planned to play against a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 in the first leg, but he made no mistake in preparing for the second leg. The Italian tactician exploited the diamonds biggest weakness, the flanks. Douglas Costa was sensational and for most of the night, he had his way with his fellow Brazilians, Marcelo and Casemiro. On more than one occasion, Douglas Costa out-muscled Casemiro and drove through the midfield. His searing speed and pure strength had Madrid fans biting their nails every time he touched the ball. The plan was clear from Allegri-- draw out Marcelo on the flank, supply Douglas Costa the ball down Madrid’s left and whip in crosses for the mismatch between Dani Carvajal and Mario Mandzukic. Juventus opted for a 4-3-3 as Dybala was suspended. Their three strikers did a tremendous amount of work off the ball. Higuain in particular worked tirelessly to close down Madrid’s center backs as well as Casemiro. Mandzukic and Costa played in the space between fullbacks and strikers, nearly a whole flank to themselves. That positioning forced Madrid’s fullbacks to step out and with no adequate cover they were left 2v1 on multiple occasions, especially Marcelo. The first goal is a testament to that:
Zidane and his men had one job. One simple job. Not to give up a goal within the first ten minutes. Juventus clearly had other ideas. Casemiro loses possesion with Marcelo higher up the pitch (something that would be a reoccuring theme) Khedira shifts to the open flank with no one tracking him. Ideally, Varane would have latched on to Higuain and given Vallejo the OK to press Khedira. Neither of those things happened. Instead, Varane goes to cover Higuain, likely with no communication to Vallejo, and the young Spanish center back looks to block off Higuain and cover the central space. Khedira has all the time in the world to find Mandzuckic at the back post. Modric failed to track Matuidi leaving Carvajal caught in two minds—mark Matuidi or the big Croatiain—with mere seconds he failed to make a choice and the big Croatian had found the back of the net. PS—note Toni Kroos and his oh so common casaul jog back.
As the match wore on, Juventus allowed Madrid’s playmakers, the likes of Kroos, Modric, and Isco to drop deep to get on the ball. In doing so, this forced Casemiro higher up the pitch to occupy the vacant space. As we have seen on multiple occasions this season, Casemiro then acts as the #10. When the play finally advances up the field, the Brazilian has not retreated and Juventus can counter through midfield with no opposition, literally no stop gap:
dominoes of a ridiculous defensive sequence. Kroos and Modric high up the pitch when Casemiro is already a ST; Marcelo slides in to cover as a DM, and Vallejo being like 'guys wtf someone help me plz'. Dodged a bullet here. pic.twitter.com/up1B30TJkK— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) April 12, 2018
It is moments like these where one questions why Casemiro is even on the pitch? His sole responsibility is to stop counter attacks and break up the play as well as cover for Madrid’s marauding fullbacks, but if he has to push up the pitch to free space for his teammates, then he becomes a non-factor.
If Casemiro is going to play as a #10, what’s the point of having him out there? Switch to a 4-4-2 and replace Case. Get two compact lines of four and counter. We are getting destroyed on the wings.— Matt Wiltse (@MattWiltse4) April 11, 2018
Zidane’s Plan B
Forty-five minutes had swept by and Juventus led by two goals. Despite creating opportunities, it was apparent that tactical changes were needed. The second half would show what Zidane was really made of; a challenge of his tactical nous. The glaring issue from the first half were clearly spotted by Zidane, he needed to solidify the wings. To do so, two changes were made, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio were brought on for a quiet Gareth Bale and a nullified Casemiro. With the changes, came a change in formation to a 4-4-2 with two compact lines of four and the necessary speed and balance on the wings to mitigate the impact of Douglas Costa and Mario Mandzukic.
The amount of ground Lucas covers and the speed at which he can cover that ground cannot be understated. He may not be the most talented player on the roster, but his role is clearly defined and he produced exactly what the team needed. Both Lucas and Asensio helped to solidify the wings and provide much needed cover for Marcelo and Carvajal. Notice in the video above, how quickly the team is able to find their shape in a 4-4-2 after pressing. The midfield and the eleven overall were much more comfortable in this formation.
Zidane opted to leave Benzema on the bench for the whole of the match. Personally, I found that decision surprising given Zidane’s trust in Benzema and the fact that Madrid often lacked a central focal point when Ronaldo drifted out-wide.
The caveat to that, was Isco’s performance. He has continued his fine run of form since the international break. Isco was tremendous in retaining possession and providing vertical passes as well as being an outlet on either flank thus there may not have been an option for Zidane, the Spaniards had to stay on the field. With Luka Modric tiring, Kovacic was the final substitution to freshen up the midfield, but his impact was minimal. Playing Cristiano as the lone striker often means there will be moments with no central point of the attack which played into Juventus hands.
130 - Isco managed to complete each of his last 130 passes (over 4 games) in La Liga & CL including 40 in the first half tonight, his last failed pass came against Eibar on March 10. Vision.— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) April 11, 2018
In many ways it was a tactical chess match between Allegri and Zidane. Allegri would win most of the battles on the night, but Zidane would win the war; mostly in part to Cristiano’s sheer will and determination. The Italians exploited Madrid’s lack of coverage on the wings in the first half and played to their team strengths. Douglas Costa was a menace and with an overlapping fullback, he was able to overload Madrid’s left flank and continually put in dangerous crosses. On the other side of the pitch, Dani Carvajal played well, but had to defend crosses against Mario Manduzick who is 7 inches taller than him. A mismatch to say the least, and a mismatch that Juventus took full advantage of to score two goals. Madrid’s ball playing central midfielders—Isco, Modric, and Kroos—often had to come deep to pick up the ball and find a way through Juventus low block. In doing so, Casemiro was forced into advance positions to free the space for his teammates. In essence, Casemiro was playing as a #10 and his game was nullified as Juventus could counter through the midfield with ease and then isolate Madrid’s fullbacks. Allegri pulled off a tactical master class in the first half. Every flaw of Zidane’s diamond formation was visible. But the Frenchman contested and made changes for the second forty-five. Bar Keylor’s blunder, Juve’s chances diminished due to the adequate defensive coverage provided on the flanks from Lucas and Asensio in the 4-4-2 formation. Zidanes changes helped mitigate the problems, but Madrid could not find a way through. By the 90th minute, the margin of error for either team was razor thin. It would be a last minute error, from Benatia, that would settle the tie. Cristiano, the immortal legend, dispatched the penalty kick with a cool confidence sending the Bernabeu and fans around the world into ecstasy and pure relief. On to the semi-finals, where lessons have hopefully been learned.