“This game bears no relation to what happened 10 months ago.” Zidane was adamant in his pregame presser. “This game is totally different to that one. It has nothing to do with what happened then. We did well in that game but this is completely different. The way we set up might be different or it might not, all will be revealed tomorrow”. All was revealed and Zidane played the same hand. Oddly enough, things would turn out to be very similar to the match in Cardiff 10 months ago. The diamond returned with Isco playing a starring role, Varane and Ramos were immense at the heart of defense, Madrid outnumbered Juventus in midfield, Keylor made some crucial saves, and Cristiano was clinical. Even the first goal was eerily similar to those in Cardiff, a low driven cross cut back across goal smashed home by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese deserves all the accolades coming his way. Time and time again he produces when it matters most. At 33 years of age, Ronaldo is in some of the best goal scoring form of his career. It is Ronaldo’s presence and Ronaldo’s goals that set Madrid apart. Though, Ronaldo’s goals would not bear fruition without the labor and skill possessed by the likes of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Isco who all performed at a high level in Turin.
The Return of the Diamond:
The lights were bright, the rain was pouring down, and the tension was at an all-time high in Turin—Madrid had never won a knockout tie in Italy against Juventus. In the previous week, Isco had set the world alight with a superb hat trick for Spain against Argentina. After the match, he claimed he did not have the confidence of Zidane and maybe he had not earned it. Now, in Turin, with everything on the line including Zidane’s job security—Isco was thrusted into the line-up and placed in his preferred position at the top of a midfield diamond with total freedom. Zidane, cool as ever, allowed his actions to speak louder than words—proving he has total confidence in El Mago. The diamond formation has been much maligned this season due to the lack of defensive structure it provides, but it was clear Zidane wanted to take advantage of a weakened Juventus midfield. Young Bentacur was placed as the lone defensive midfielder in a 5-3-2 formation, and Madrid looked to form as many passing options in the midfield to play around Juventus’ three. With Benzema dropping deep and Isco roaming, Madrid’s numerical superiority often looked like a 5v3 in midfield. Case in point below:
The quick interchange between players was crucial to Madrid’s success. Each player looks to create a passing option via triangles for the player in possession.
The one player who has to make the most sacrifices within the 4-3-1-2 is Luka Modric. He is the one player capable of playing almost any position and performing at a world class level. With a diamond midfield, Modric is burdened—he almost plays as a right midfielder.
The diamond squeezes Isco into the team, and he was great, but it’s detrimental to Modric. He gets glued to that right wing with no outlet in front of him.— Matt Wiltse (@MattWiltse4) April 3, 2018
The Croatian’s heat-map says it all. He is glued to that right side of the midfield in order to provide adequate defensive cover to that side of the pitch, but his dominate influence higher and more centrally up the pitch is certainty limited.
Keylor “Toshiro Mifune” Navas Provides a Game Defining Save
All the tactics in the world can be thrown out the door with a simple moment. The game of football is defined by moments. A single moment can turn the momentum and the belief from one team to another despite any prior events in the match. In the 23rd minute, Keylor Navas produced a game defining and possibly season defining moment. Paulo Dybala curled in an inch perfect free kick which found his fellow Argentine, Gonzalo Higuain, who made great contact with the ball and looked to have scored a certain goal against his former club. Had it not been for the insane reflexes of the Costa Rican, Juventus would have equalized and the Allianz stadium would have erupted. The game likely would have turned on its head and Madrid would have needed to weather a likely storm from Juve. There would be no what if’s thanks to Keylor’s heroics. Tactics go out the window sometimes and you need pure individual brilliance to change a game. It wasn’t just Cristiano who provided said brilliance:
Let's not let this moment get lost in the shuffle. pic.twitter.com/KzBXIF9Tux— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) April 4, 2018
That set piece would not be an anomaly. It was a theme throughout the night, Madrid struggled to deal with Juve’s set pieces, especially Dybala’s deliveries in the first half. Keylor would come up big time and time again. His influence in this match should not be undermined.
If It’s Not Broken, Don’t Fix It!
Ah, the old adage—“if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, that seemed to be the mentality Zidane and his staff had in preparing to face Juventus. They had a gold plated game plan for the final in Cardiff and they simply dusted it off and put it to the test again. Modric even revealed Zidane’s game plan to HTV after the final, “He said, as quoted by the World Game: ”Zidane and his staff detected Juventus’ defensive weakness, so throughout the week, in preparation for the final, we practiced return passes…Juventus’ defense is great when it comes to crosses, but not so on low return passes. That is what we worked on and that is how we scored three of our goals in the final. Congratulations to the coach for that detail, which was the key in the final.” It was the same playbook, take a look at Ronaldo’s goals—one from Cardiff and one from Turin:
The same exact personnel were placed out on the field as were 10 months ago for Madrid and the same game plan with a very similar result. It could not have gone better for the French tactician.
As a reader it may have become obvious, more so than tactics, brilliant individual performances were the catalyst to this result. The overall collective structure of the team was not great, yet it was masked by stellar moments—like Keylor Navas save from Higuain in the first half and Cristiano’s mouthwatering bicycle kick. Zidane dusted off his playbook from 10 months ago and rolled out the same starting XI and the same game plan—quick midfield interchanges and low driven crosses, cut back across the goal mouth. As per usual, Ramos pulled out another big game performance, Kroos was the metronome, and Zidane gave Isco all his confidence. The night will go down in history for Los Blancos and Cristiano has etched his name into the Champions League folklore once again.