Real Madrid remains undefeated in the Champions League, as they fortuitously snuck past Juventus at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Antonio Conte introduced Martin Caceres, Angelo Ogbonna and Arturo Vidal to his starting eleven, following Sunday’s defeat to Fiorentina.
Carlo Ancelotti made four changes to his starting eleven that defeat Malaga this weekend, introducing Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric.
Conte got his tactics right, but an error from referee Manuel Grafe, allowed Real Madrid to sustain control of the match, despite a late scare.
It was always going to be interesting to see how Conte approached this match without the ball considering they haven’t played with four defenders in over year. Yet, Juventus’ shape proved to be pivotal, as they prevented Ancelotti’s men from creating multiple clear-cut opportunities in the first half.
Juventus dropped into a 4-5-1 with Llorente isolated up top alongside Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Tevez kept his eye on Arbeloa, while Marchisio played closer to Caceres to prevent overloads. Pirlo, Pogba and Vidal had little to do from a marking perspective – as Madrid’s midfield trio sat near the halfway-line – so they focused on maintaining a compact shape to limit Madrid’s activity in the final third.
Many questioned Conte’s tactics heading into the match, but Juventus’ shape without the ball was excellent. Their midfield trio stifled space in midfield – in particular, Vidal made several tackles in his own third, preventing Madrid from penetrating.
Juventus’ work-rate and organization without the ball was superb – frankly, they went into half time down a goal, due to two mental lapses and Ronaldo’s composure in front of goal.
While Madrid often dropped into a defensive shape when Juventus had possession of the ball, Ancelotti encouraged his men to press the Bianconeri on goal-kicks, hoping it would prevent them from playing out of the back freely.
This was a logical approach from Madrid, but the quality of the press was poor, and Juventus broke past it with ease. Madrid’s front three pressed Juventus’ back four, so there was always a spare man available, and long-balls were often distributed to Llorente, who admirably controlled the ball and laid it off to his teammates. Bluntly, Madrid dropping into their shape was more effective than their high-press, as it often got Juventus into dangerous areas on the pitch.
Another feat in Madrid’s press was Benzema’s tracking of Pirlo. In the early moments of the match, Benzema dropped deeper into midfield to press Pirlo – which led to a few fouls – but it was shocking to see the French striker abandon this feat. Madrid’s aim to press Conte’s men higher up the pitch failed, but it was shocking to see them allow Pirlo to play freely, considering they had two men free men upfront when Juventus had possession.
Despite Madrid’s great start to the match – based on Ronaldo’s goal – Juventus were the better side for larger portions of the first half. Conte fielded four ball-passing midfielders in his side, while Tevez impressively roamed around the final third and worked the channels.
This ultimately left a 4v3 battle in midfield – with Benzema’s press on Pirlo a forgone conclusion, the 34-year-old was allowed to spray passes out wide and over the top of the Madrid defence. More importantly, Juventus always had a passing option available, which allowed Conte’s men to play quick incisive passes through midfield, guiding them into advanced positions.
However, it was Pogba who thrived in midfield, as Madrid failed to track his runs down the left side.
- In the 12th minute, Pogba ran down the left side of the field unmarked – behind Khedira – and received a long ball from Marchisio. Pogba waited for Ogbonna to make a decoy run to drag Khedira out of position, and he played a lovely ball towards Llorente, but Casillas punched it away.
- In the 16th minute, Pogba made another direct run from midfield, while Tevez and Llorente linked play to break free from Madrid’s defenders. Once again, Pogba’s run wasn’t tracked due to Juventus’ numerical advantage in midfield and he played a lovely ball into Llorente, who nodded down the ball for Tevez, but it trickled into Casillas’ hands.
- Five minutes later, Pirlo played a pass to the advancing Caceres on the right flank, and the Uruguayan defender distributed a lovely ball into the advancing Pogba, who nodded the ball on goal. Casillas did well to make the initial save, but Llorente quickly got his foot to the rebound, to deservedly level the score line. Once again Pogba made a run down the left side unmarked, but it’s key to note that Ronaldo failed to track Caceres’ run – a flaw in Ronaldo’s game – and the initial ball came from Pirlo, who would’ve been pressed in that zone by Benzema 10 minutes prior.
- A minute into the second half, an unmarked Pirlo played a clever ball – from a deeper position – over the top of the Madrid defenders to an unmarked Pogba, but Casillas was quick off his line to punch the ball away.
Juventus’ numerical advantage in midfield allowed them to settle into the match, and Pogba was often the spare man who guided the Bianconeri forward. Unfortunately the match didn’t end 11v11, but Pogba was the key cog in Juventus’ midfield prior to Giorgio Chiellini’s sending off.
Besides Ronaldo’s brace, Madrid was extremely disappointing for majority of the first half. The main issue was the distance between midfield and attack, as Madrid’s midfield trio often sat alongside each other in deep positions. In fairness, Juve’s shape without the ball was compact, and they maintained an organized shape while shifting from side-to-side.
Benzema had limited involvement from an attacking sense, while Ronaldo looked bright when he received the ball on the flank and drifted centrally – avoiding several Juventus challenges.
Di Maria was Madrid’s most lively player in the first half, who relished taking on the inexperienced Ogbonna, as majority of Madrid’s attacks came from that side. Ronaldo and Di Maria rarely dropped deep into midfield to receive the ball, so Madrid’s midfield trio had issues moving forward as a unit, along with facilitating their front three.
As you can see, forward passes from Madrid’s midfield was a rarity, and Ancelotti’s men to lacked penetration in attack, as they didn’t possess a genuine link between the lines. Juventus made the most of their possession, where as Madrid were unable to move forward in unison.
Madrid’s midfield was poor in the first half – their deep positions often left Madrid’s attack disjointed, and their three attackers were deprived of quality service.
Chiellini’s second half dismissal hindered Juventus’ chances of mounting a comeback, as Conte was forced to replace Llorente with Leonardo Bonucci. Llorente started the match slow, but he slowly began to link with Tevez, and his ability to hold up the ball to allow midfielder runners forward was beneficial. However, Conte was confident that his side could still find openings in Madrid’s defence, so he opted to maintain a back four.
Madrid began to push forward as a unit, and Modric began to shine. Juventus became a 4-4-1 without the ball, but as time wore on, energy levels dipped, and Modric was able to slyly tiptoe past challenges and drive forward.
Madrid was patient in possession and their best opening came in the 60th minute when Arbeloa’s overlapping run led to a cross in the box, which Benzema scuffed from six-yards out. Khedira also missed a golden chance to the put the match to bed, but his audacious attempt at a chip, fell into Buffon’s hands.
Kwadwo Asamoah replaced Pirlo and played on the left flank, while Pogba joined Vidal in midfield. Tevez stayed upfront, and although he was outnumbered 2v1, his runs into the channels were pivotal as they allowed Conte’s midfield to get higher up the pitch. Juventus competed despite Chiellini’s dismissal, but there was a vast improvement in Madrid’s attacking impetus – yet, they struggled to get behind Juventus’ backline and created minimal chances.
Final 25 minutes
Ancelotti made three attacking chances in the final 25 minutes, introducing Isco, Gareth Bale and Alvaro Morata. It was evident that Madrid was looking for a third goal, but Ancelotti’s chances affected the balance in Madrid’s shape.
The introduction of Sebastian Giovinco also benefitted Conte’s men. His mobility and pace troubled Madrid’s backline – Pepe and Modric were forced to foul the Italian, while his penetrating run from half forced Casillas to make a fingertip save. With Isco and Modric pushed forward, Madrid lacked a competent shield in front of their backline. Tevez and Giovinco’s movement off the ball began to drag a few defenders out of position, and Madrid looked vulnerable on the break.
Frankly, better decision-making and confidence from Giovinco could’ve resulted in a Juventus equalizer, but Ancelotti’s men hung on once again. Madrid made three attacking changes in the final 25 minutes aiming to score another goal, yet Ancelotti’s alterations disrupted their overall balance, and Juventus looked the more threatening side in the final third.
This was a match of two halves – Juventus dominated the midfield, while containing Madrid’s main threats, but Chiellini’s dismissal resulted in an improved Madrid second half performance.
Madrid was far from impressive on the night, but Ronaldo’s goals bailed them out once again. They’re still a work in progress, and will head into this weekend’s Clasico full of confidence. The lack of a natural link between midfield and attack, along with their inability to penetrate is worrying, as a referee’s error and two mental lapses guided them to three points.
“Tonight we only lost due to a couple of small details, a couple of things that did not go our way,” Conte said.
“We played at the same level as Madrid and we could even have won. Now everything is certainly more difficult but we proved we can be competitive against any opponent. Last year we were outclassed by Bayern while this season we played a great game against a team who are more or less at the same level as the European champions. So I don’t think we are in crisis as many said on the eve of the game – quite the opposite actually,” Conte added.
Unlike last season’s Champions League exit, Juventus were not outclassed – coincidentally, they were the better side prior to Chiellini’s dismissal. The Bianconeri have earned two points in three matches, meaning they’ll need close to maximum points if they intend on progressing to the knockout round. However, Conte’s tactical alterations looked promising, and he may have found a solution to his formation dilemma in Europe.