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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo still has room to build all-time great legacy at Juventus’ expense

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For the first time in over a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the main topic of discussion of a major cup final featuring the Portuguese star. With Real Madrid on the verge of being the first club to retain the Champions League, the Portuguese forward has occasionally floated amongst the peripheral this season.

Nevertheless, the trials and tribulations of eight years in Madrid may result in Ronaldo’s greatest achievement since moving to the Spanish capital. A La Liga/Champions League double at the expense of city rivals Atletico, and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona would validate their dominance as world football’s alpha club. All this in the latter stages of the 32-year-old’s career.

A career that was supposed to be on the decline continues to enjoy the success that many could only dream of. Ronaldo equally remains one of the key components to Zinedine Zidane’s outfit, as the transition from high-flying roaming left-sided forward to a clinical forward has been seamless.

“Obviously what I want the most is to play more freely up front,” Ronaldo said. “That is the opportunity Zinedine Zidane has been giving me as a No. 9. I play freely. I play on the wing, down the middle. I play whenever I think I should.”

From a silverware perspective, the last 12 months have been the greatest Ronaldo’s ever experienced. Yet, oddly enough, the final in Cardiff means more. Not solely to build on Real’s trophy haul, or representing the focal point in another Champions League milestone. For once, this is about Ronaldo.

No mentions of Lionel Messi. No distraction of a summer move from Old Trafford to the Santiago Bernabeu. With guidance from Zidane, Ronaldo has been working hard for this moment. A chance to produce a display that will be cemented in football history for years to come.

Perhaps that’s one of the few, if not, sole criticism left in the anti-Ronaldo arsenal. Although it can be deemed extremely harsh, very few can argue that greatest players of our generation delivered genuine world-class final’s moment. Whether it be Lionel Messi’s 2011 Champions League final master-class, Xavi’s metronomic control in both the 2009 Champions League Final and 2008 European Final or Ronaldo’s goals in the 2002 World Cup final, the small group of players that dazzled over the past 20-years have shifted the game in some manner.

At the conclusion of his career, Cristiano will be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned greats, but what sets him apart is the lack of a truly defining moment. The infamous Copa del Rey winner in 2011 along with the goal that practically clinched La Liga in 2012 were magnificent moments in Real history, but on the biggest stage, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to provide the extra bit of quality we’ve grown accustomed to.

This is not to say that Ronaldo “doesn’t show up for the big games.” Frankly, the 32-year-old’s ability to score goals is unparalleled and he epitomizes the ultimate modern day “big game” star, but even when you examine his performances in recent title triumphs, the Portuguese forward has been fairly underwhelming.

During the earlier stages of Ronaldo’s prime at Manchester United resulted in the opening goal in Moscow, yet he was subsequently denied by Petr Cech in the shootout. The following year, Ronaldo was merely a bystander in a fairly one-sided defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Oddly, Ronaldo’s significance decreased in Real’s success over Atletico. However, the 32-year-old still managed to score a penalty in both finals – with last year’s goal securing Real’s second Champions League title in three years. Even in last summer’s European Championship, Portugal defeated host nation France following the captain’s first half departure due to injury.

Frankly, much of Ronaldo’s inability to showcase his optimum talent on the biggest stage has been associated with fatigue. This year, however, Zidane’s altered his talisman’s training regimen and opted to rest the Portuguese international in pivotal domestic games against inferior opposition.

“He knows himself that sometimes he has to not play,” Zidane said following Real’s first leg semi-final victory over Atletico. “It’s not just this year; it’s an accumulation over the years. He knows that himself because he is intelligent.”

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In return, Ronaldo discovered the best form of his career post-May since the turn of the decade, which has witnessed the forward single-handily guide Madrid to the final in Cardiff.

He arguably eliminated two favourites en route to the final with hat-tricks against Atletico and Bayern Munich, scoring 8 goals over both legs. Likewise, Ronaldo scored six goals in Real’s final four league games to edge out Barca in the final week of the La Liga season.

Though, far from tactically competent, and still lacking balance in certain areas, Zidane’s Real compliments Ronaldo’s transition into a conventional forward. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are two of the finest ball-playing midfielders in world football, whilst Marcelo and Dani Carvajal offer crossing from advanced full-back positions.

If Zidane prefers width, Karim Benzema can operate in the channels, whereas Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez have offered pace and defensive discipline from wide areas. Then, there’s Isco who has helped Real overload central areas but also provides the guile Madrid can lack if Kroos and Modric aren’t floating around the penalty area.

Where Mourinho’s counter-attacking Madrid benefitted Ronaldo’s pace, power, and trickery during his prime, Zidane’s version – stemming from Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival that led to a proactive outlook of the game – provides ample service for the reliable Portuguese goal-scorer. Under Mourinho, Ronaldo was the ultimate counter-attacking player, but his evolution along with the Real methodology alteration under Ancelotti and Zidane suggests he’s now the ultimate forward.

In truth, although Ronaldo continues to maintain an unprecedented level of excellence at 32, the decline many have harped about could limit what would be an advantage for the newly-crowned Spanish champions. On paper, Ronaldo charging into space behind Dani Alves and running at Andrea Barzagli appears to be an area that would concern Juventus in previous seasons.

But this version of Ronaldo may prefer to exploit the Juventus defence with his athletic and aerial superiority. Apart from a few moments of brilliance from Lionel Messi, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve have been susceptible defending crosses from wide areas – a route to goal Ronaldo utilized to dispatch Bayern and Atletico – and will encounter difficulties preventing the 32-year-old from scoring.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Ronaldo’s first Champions League triumph, and despite the various heartfelt narratives surrounding the final, football’s biggest stage is still about him. At 32, he remains the best, and most dangerous player on the pitch, capable of deciding a match within seconds.

History beckons in Cardiff, but with nothing else to prove to the cynics, the possibility of being the first team to retain the Champions League in this era presents Ronaldo with another opportunity to enhance his football immortality with one memorable performance against Juventus.

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Zidane’s Real Madrid wins battle in wide areas against Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich

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Real Madrid’s quest for a historic European cup/league double was under significant threat when they drew Bayern Munich in the semi-finals, but as typified under Zinedine Zidane’s tenure, the reigning European champions squeaked past Carlo Ancelotti’s men.

Notching two away goals at the Allianz Arena placed Real in a great position to knockout the tournament favourites, and stylistically, suggested the hosts would receive opportunities to break on the counter.  With Gareth Bale unavailable due to injury, Zidane altered his side’s shape to a 4-3-1-2 with Isco floating behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Zidane’s tactical tweak was possibly intended to ensure Real dominate the midfield zone, whilst providing space for the full-backs to push forward to provide width. Real’s heroic first leg fight-back was largely responsible to the proactive positioning of Dani Carvajal and Marcelo to exploit Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery’s reluctance to track-back, and it was likely both outfits would aim to dominate wide areas.

Ironically, the hosts encountered issues in the opening stages of the match in wide areas. Bayern’s first legitimate goal-scoring chance involved David Alaba overlapping Ribery in half space to pick out Thiago, but Marcelo blocked the Spaniard’s shot, while Robben smashed the rebound into the side-netting.

Robben also made similar moves into half space to receive passes from Philip Lahm, but Bayern’s productivity in wide areas – specifically Alaba’s crosses – was underwhelming. The away side equally received space in the channels to break in transition, but the likes of Ribery, Robben and Lewandowski failed to launch these swift transitional moves.

But where Bayern easily found space behind the Real full-backs in the channels, the hosts’ full-backs still surged forward behind Ribery and Robben. The other issue Bayern encountered was Xabi Alonso’s immobility ahead of the back four – he played extremely poor passes, was dispossessed when pressure was applied, and easily overrun in midfield – and Real breaking into space behind the full-backs.

Carvajal delivered a cross into the box that Manuel Neuer pushed into the path of Sergio Ramos, but the Spaniard’s effort was cleared off the line. Ronaldo also wasted a chance when he broke into a breakaway down the right channel, and also spurned an opportunity that stemmed from a brilliant solo Marcelo run.

Nevertheless, what proved to be an extremely open match in the first half swiftly changed as Bayern took ascendancy by retaining possession for extensive periods, whilst persisting with creating overloads in wide areas. Kroos and Modric’s protection decreased as the match wore on, thus leaving Carvajal and Marcelo unable to cope with Bayern’s wide threat.

Alaba and Ribery combined down the left with the former charging into half-space to create Robben’s chance that was cleared off the line. While Robben subsequently attacked the aforementioned space to earn a penalty that was converted by Lewandowski. Lahm and Robben continuously overloaded Marcelo with the latter lofting balls to the far post and attempting to clip forward passes over the Real defence, as Vidal, Alaba and Ribery spurned chances in the box.

Zidane, however, deserves credit for sacrificing Benzema for youngster Marco Asensio, and eventually Isco for Lucas Vazquez as Real reverted to a 4-1-4-1 to ensure there was proper protection for the full-backs. Real remained deep out of possession but with ensured structure, thus enabling Carvajal to lead a 3v2 counter-attack which should’ve resulted in a goal.

The general pattern of the match altered in the latter stages with Bayern’s sole chances stemming from Robben attempting to clip balls from the left over the defence, whereas Real began to locate Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese forward struggled throughout the match, but similar to Real’s first leg triumph, Ronaldo eventually isolated Lahm to level the score-line.

Coincidentally, Thomas Muller’s introduction pushed Thiago deeper alongside Alonso, thus providing Lewandowski support around the box.

Bayern fortuitously regained the lead via a ball over the top for Muller to chest into the path of Lewandowski, and although the Polish striker didn’t score the goal, the move highlighted the shift in the away side’s approach following Zidane’s formation alteration. Robben also attempted a pass over the top for Muller in half-space to tee up Vidal but the Chilean’s shot was blocked.

Ultimately, Vidal’s harsh dismissal drastically shifted the pattern of the match. Ancelotti turned to Joshua Kimmich for Lewandowski, which pushed Muller upfront and the young German alongside Thiago in midfield. Bayern were now heavily reliant on Robben’s counter-attacking threat from the right, whereas Marcelo’s running also proved crucial.

Ronaldo began to locate pockets of space in the final third to receive possession, and although his final two goals were offside, it equally highlighted the Real talisman’s evolution into a classic goal-poacher. Mistakes from the match officials will continue to dominate headlines, but in pivotal moments throughout the tie, Ronaldo’s ability to adopt dangerous positions was the decisive factor.

In a tie heavily dominated in wide areas, where Bayern were deprived a fully-fit Lewandowski, Real could rely on arguably the best no.9 in the sport. Albeit Bayern’s potential second half fight-back, Real were worthy winners, and Zidane deserves credit for making significant alterations over both legs to ensure Real preserved their status as Europe’s dominant club.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Juventus 3-0 Barcelona

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Similar to Barcelona’s trip to PSG last month, Juventus’s emphatic first leg triumph further highlighted the Spanish champions’ issues under Luis Enrique.

There were no real surprises to Juventus XI. Gonzalo Higuain started ahead of Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado. Meanwhile, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira protected Max Allegri’s experience back-line.

Enrique was without the suspended Sergio Busquets, which forced the Barcelona manager to field Javier Mascherano in midfield, whereas Jeremy Mathieu was a surprise member in the away side’s back-line.

Juve’s wonderful start to the match was a combination of exploiting the away side’s weaknesses along with their imbalanced shape, which ultimately defined the overall tempo of the match.

Juve squeeze early

One of the key elements to Juve’s success was their quick start. In the opening minutes, Higuain had already spurned a free header from six-yards out via Pjanic’s free-kick.

But from open play, Juve’s high-pressing ensured Barcelona couldn’t settle into their preferred tempo. Higuain and Dybala monitored the Barcelona centre-backs and Cuadrado occasionally stepped towards Mathieu to make it 3v3 at the back.

An attempt to overturn Juve’s press witnessed Mascherano slot into a deeper zone, which therefore offset Khedira to push forward to limit the Argentine’s influence from midfield. Barca were marked across the pitch due to Juve’s cohesive pressing: the full-backs were tight on the Barca wide players – Dani Alves succumbed to an early booking due to concessive fouls on Neymar – Suarez was isolated upfront, while Pjanic tracked Iniesta’s movement in midfield.

Enrique was infuriated by goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen’s reluctance to play passes over the top for Suarez to chase into the channels and viciously showcased is disappointment within the opening five minutes. Obviously, Juve were unable to sustain this press throughout the match – nor was it likely their intention to do so – but it still represented a significant feat to the Italian champions’ positive start.

Barca’s flawed system

The other key factor associated with Barca’s issues was the initial set-up. What appeared to be a 3-4-3 ahead of kickoff was a back three in possession, but supposed to be a back four when Juve broke forward. However, Enrique’s men were uncertain of their duties from front to back.

Sergi Roberto left his right-back zone to help overload central areas, whilst making vertical darts into the channels to provide penetration going forward. Mathieu, on the other hand, rarely ventured forward in the opening stages despite the hosts allowing the Frenchman space to step into their half to play passes out the back. Perhaps Allegri wanted Mathieu in advanced positions so Juve could break into the right channel in transition, along with the fact that the Barcelona centre-back isn’t the strongest defender on the ball.

Iniesta was unable to control the game – though it’s not one of the traits the Spaniard is renowned for – whereas the other issue stemmed from the left flank. Iniesta started the match as the widest midfielder, but his narrow positioning along with Neymar operating as a wide forward meant there was no cover on the flanks, which therefore forced Mathieu to step to the left to cover space against Cuadrado.

Essentially, there was ample space in the channels for Juve’s wide players to manipulate, and it’s unsurprising that the buildup to both of Dybala’s goals stemmed down the flanks.

Dybala goals

Slack defending contributed to the simplicity of Juve’s opening goals, but the fact that the buildup was nearly identical justifies Allegri’s approach. Higuain switched the ball to the right flank to place Cuadrado in a 1v1 situation with Mathieu, which ultimately resulted in Dybala ghosting into the box and quickly firing the opener past ter Stegen.

Subsequently, Juve sprung on the counter-attack down the left flank for Mandzukic to run at the recovering Sergi Roberto before pulling the ball back for Dybala, who curled another super effort past the Barcelona goal-keeper. Towards the end of the half Alex Sandro broke past Rakitic down the left to provide a pull-back opportunity for Higuain that ter Stegen nearly pushed away into danger.

Barcelona encountered difficulties protecting pull-backs from half spaces, but more worryingly was their reluctance to track Dybala, Higuain and Khedira’s late runs towards the box. Juve’s crucial first half chances followed the aforementioned template that highlighted Barca’s issues in wide areas – against the wide players and tracking Dybala’s movement to the flanks – along with Busquets’ absence ahead of the back four.

Messi Magic

The other aspect of Juve’s quick start meant the hosts could drop deeper, remain compact, and swarm the away side when they attempted to penetrate in central zones.

Busquets’ absence was critical to Barca’s issue because Mascherano failed to dictate the tempo of the match with his passing and lacked the range and confidence to play penetrating passes from deep. Meanwhile, out of possession, the Argentine was culpable for being caught on the ball via pressure and failing to track late runs towards the box.

Therefore, Barca were devoid of creativity in midfield: with Rakitic and Roberto unsure of their roles, and Iniesta marked out of the match, only a dangerous cross from the often open Mathieu nearly troubled Juve, but Giorgio Chiellini blocked Suarez’s diving header. Ultimately, it took brilliance from Messi – forced to beat at the minimum two players whenever he found space on the field – to create the game’s best chances.

The first opportunity involved a breathtaking reverse ball that bisected the Juve defence to play in Iniesta, but his poor finish witnessed Gianluigi Buffon push away the Spaniard’s attempt seconds prior to Dybala’s second goal. Frankly, Messi was involved in two other major chances in the second half that should’ve resulted in away goals.

First, a failed combination with Neymar led to the Argentine sliding a low effort inches wide of the far post. Then, Messi received the ball in a pocket of space to bamboozle Chiellini before playing in Suarez who rolled Bonucci, but fired his shot wide. Majority of Barca’s attacking play was bland and lethargic, and it’s surprising they failed to record an away goal given the several chances created through Messi’s greatness.

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Second Half

Enrique removed Mathieu at half time for Andre Gomes, meaning Mascherano moved to centre-back, Samuel Umtiti operated as a left-back and the Portuguese midfielder sat at the base ahead of the back-line. The tactical alteration ensured Barca had cover at left-back, and although Sergi Roberto still charged forward into midfield, Rakitic often moved to the right touchline to maintain width.

While the tactical shift slightly improved Barca’s shape, Juve’s best period of the second half – the build up to Chiellini’s third goal – witnessed Mandzukic charge down the left create another pull-back for Khedira, and Cuadrado also charging into the aforementioned space that led to an identical move where Higuain’s tame effort was easily handled by ter Stegen. Minutes later, a quick free-kick over the Barca defence should’ve sealed the match but Higuain’s preference to shoot rather than play the ball across goal to an unmarked Mandzukic led to another important ter Stegen save.

Barca dominated possession for majority of the match following Chiellini’s goal, while Juve maintained a deeper line and slowly turned to defensive options off the bench to secure the result. Enrique’s men still found pathways to goal via Suarez getting the better of Bonucci on numerous occasions, but largely through Messi finding space in midfield to create.

Conclusion

Juve were deserving winners, here, despite producing a far from perfect performance. Allegri exploited the systematic flaws in Enrique’s unorthodox XI by breaking into space in the channels, combined with the intelligent positioning and individual brilliance of Dybala – who scored two great goals and forced the away side into fouling him across the pitch.

Juve’s initial energetic pressing flustered Barca, and they took a commanding lead, protected key zones around their box for large spells to neutralize Barca’s key attackers in the final third. However, Barca’s poor set-up and Busquets’ suspension was also pivotal at full-time, along with poor finishing around the box as Messi created the two best chances of the match.

Allegri has been the victim of a second leg collapse at the Camp Nou in the past, and though a supreme performance from the Barca front three isn’t farcical, the experience of the Juve defence combined with their tactical discipline and organization suggests Barca may not have enough to turn the tie. Enrique may need more than the individual brilliance of his three star attackers to overcome this well-drilled Juventus side.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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PSG 1-1 Arsenal

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Alexis Sanchez and David Ospina’s heroic performances earned Arsenal a valuable point against a superior Paris Saint-Germain side.

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Arsene Wenger recalled Alexis back to the XI following a 2-1 victory over Southampton on the weekend. Alex Iwobi replaced the injured Theo Walcott meaning Olivier Giroud started the match from the bench.

Unai Emery’s 4-3-3 featured Angel Di Maria and Blaise Matuidi flanking Edinson Cavani. Meanwhile Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot operated as shuttlers ahead of Gregory Krychowiak.

PSG dominance was showcased over extensive periods of this match, but their profligate finishing combined with Arsenal’s resilience provided an entertaining draw.

1-0

It’s difficult to assess the significance of an early goal. Many tend to believe that it gives the superior team the onus to either increase their lead by exploiting the oppositions nerves, or provides the luxury to maintain a compact defensive shape and break on the counter. But the simplicity over PSG’s opener, here, was alarming.

PSG took the lead within the opening minute through a simple passing move where Serge Aurier stormed past Iwobi, and Di Maria’s movement pulled Laurent Koscielny out of position, thus enabling Cavani to attack the right-back’s cross at the near post. Perhaps the early goal highlights Arsenal’s lack of preparation, but surprisingly it didn’t alter the general pattern of the match.

It would be foolish for Wenger’s men to chase a game after falling behind in the opening 45 seconds, but the French side were less eager to swarm the Gunners higher up the pitch. However, the goal presented Wenger’s men with a stylistic dilemma as to whether they should persist with their initial approach – the XI suggested they intended to play on the counter – or push men forward away from home.

Arsenal’s attacking issue

The decision to field Alexis as a central forward has been quite interesting solely based on the notion that his all-round talent should transcend in central areas. This season, however, the Chilean’s difficulties as the lone striker is evident, which is partially down to his style and Wenger’s approach.

PSG’s centre-backs were pleased to see Alexis drop into midfield in search of possession – if Ozil was deeper Krychowiak would pick him up, or else Marquinhos would step forward and tightly mark the Arsenal forward. Alexis was an isolated figure throughout the first half, yet when he did receive the ball en route to goal, the wide players nor Ozil attempted to charge behind the PSG defence to offer a goal threat.

Ozil was often marked out of the match by Krychowiak and when he moved to the left, Verratti shifted to ensure Arsenal couldn’t create overloads. Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain solely posed a threat when they carried the ball in transition, but rarely threatened during spells of possession. And while the full-backs rarely surged forward to offer width, both Monreal and Hector Bellerin lacked a focal point to deliver crosses to within the box.

With their key attackers struggling to find space in the final third, and the double-pivot swarmed in possession, the away side created few chances from open play. There were no aerial targets in the box which explains minimal crosses from the wide players, and PSG’s narrow defensive shape easily coped with Arsenal’s attempt to play quick intricate passes in central areas to bypass their back-line.

Aurier dominates right aids PSG

Although PSG monopolized more possession than the Gunners, neither side truly posed danger to the opposition from open play in the first half – a worry for Arsenal who scored both goals over the weekend via set-pieces. Rabiot and Verratti harried Cazorla and Coquelin out of possession, and then cycled the ball into wide areas opposed to playing penetrative passes beyond the Arsenal back-line.

This wasn’t necessarily an issues for PSG as they outmuscled and out-passed the Gunners in midfield, but their possession superiority suggested perhaps Emery’s men could have been more adventurous in the opposition’s half. Despite PSG’s inability to maintain Emery’s demanding energy levels to press and regain possession in Arsenal’s half, the French side cleverly combined and created overloads in wide areas.

Ultimately, the key player throughout was Aurier. The Ivorian created Cavani’s opener, yet he also surged into space behind Iwobi to constantly provide an outlet from the right flank. The Arsenal youngster failed to track Aurier’s running from right-back, and his first involvement subsequent to the opening goal was a quality cross through the six-yard box that forced Shkodran Mustafi to clear his lines for a corner.

Wenger’s attempt to fix the issue resulted in Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi swapping flanks, yet Aurier’s threat persisted against the former and Nacho Monreal. The first attempt rolled into the side netting, whereas David Ospina was quick off his line to keep Arsenal in the match.

Aurier was undoubtedly one of PSG’s few goal-scoring outlets, here, as the right-back he drifted into key areas in the final third on several occasions and was unfortunate not to increase the French side’s lead.

Cavani

Where Aurier was the game’s key player, Cavani was heavily involved in the overall outcome. The summer departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic presented the opportunity for the Uruguayan to play in his preferred central role, but Cavani’s developed a habit of squandering great big game chances during his spell in Paris.

For the most part, Cavani’s performance, here, was peculiar: where his movement was exceptional, the finishing was woeful. The Uruguayan played off the back-line’s last shoulder to receive lofted balls from midfield. Wenger’s defence were poorly organized and easily pulled out of position which proved beneficial to the hosts.

First, Verratti shrugged off Coquelin’s challenge before his reverse ball was deflected into the path of Cavani who rounded David Ospina, but guided his shot wide of the net. Cavani then made a quick diagonal dart between Bellerin and Mustafi to chest down Di Maria’s chipped pass over the top, but he failed to make contact.

Cavani broke past Koscielny twice in the final 20 minutes of the match, but the keeper was quick off his line to deny the PSG striker from point blank range. In truth, Cavani’s profligacy in the final third proved costly, and it’s difficult to determine the current issue with the striker.

The best forwards in the world execute in 1v1 situations with the keeper, and though Cavani was once capable of doing so, his current issues in front of goal is plaguing PSG’s growth during this transitional period. Many strikers can learn from the movement that flustered the Arsenal back-line, but the finishing was surely forgettable.

Wenger makes personnel changes/Substitutes

Wenger’s substitution was evidently a key facet, here, and it may have been inspired by Alexis creating Arsenal’s best chance – the Chilean dropped into a pocket of space in the left channel, but his reverse ball into Oxlade-Chamberlain resulted in a last-ditch Thiago Silva tackle. Wenger subsequently brought on Giroud for Oxlade-Chamberlain and than Granit Xhaka for Coquelin, meaning Alexis moved to the left.

Xhaka’s physical stature and ball retention helped the Gunners sustain possession in PSG’s half, whereas Giroud presented a threat to the PSG centre-backs and kept them within the box when they retreated into their deeper second half base shape. More so, the minor alterations benefitted Alexis who freely occupied pockets of space on the left before charging forward to play reverse passes to advanced runners.

Alexis’ movement into this zone, along with his ability to shrug off Krychowiak’s challenge was pivotal to his equalizer. The Chilean dispossessed Motta and ignited a break down the left shortly afterwards that should have won the match for the Gunners, but Iwobi was denied a historic match-winner.

Aurier’s constant involvement during the first 70 minutes was superb, but as the match wore on, the right-back’s reluctance to track back into position also provided space for Alexis to exploit on the counter. With the Gunners pushing for a winner, Motta equally struggled to cope with their pressing, whereas Pastore’s introduction saw the Argentine create Cavani’s final chance that Ospina palmed away.

Furthermore, Wenger’s changes shifted the balance of match in the second half and it was fitting that Ozil and Alexis were involved in the equalizer considering the initial set-up limited their influence. Alexis offered penetration and intelligent movement, which thus led to runners springing beyond the Chilean to provide service, whilst providing space to run at defenders from deep.

Conclusion

Although this is the group-stage round, sometimes a bit of fortune is required to gain results in Europe. Arsenal were nowhere near the best in Paris, but they displayed the resilience and fight that’s consistently been missing within Wenger’s side.

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It must be said that Wenger’s decision to leave Xhaka and Giroud on the bench was odd, but he deserves credit for making the required changes to gain ascendancy. The defence still lacks familiarity, a Cazorla-Coquelin midfield is possibly to light to function as a midfield duo in Europe, whereas Giroud remains integral to Wenger’s setup. Still, this was Arsenal’s toughest match of the group and Wenger will take the point and aim to locate the correct balance throughout the XI.

Emery must be wondering how his side didn’t record maximum points following their dominant display throughout the opening 70 minutes. Ultimately matches between the best sides are defined by small margins, as the combination of Ospina’s heroics and Cavani’s poor finishing provided Arsenal a lifeline to nick a point. It appears Emery will persist with the 4-3-3 that’s been successful in recent years, but with no top class replacement available, the PSG manager must get Cavani back to his ruthless best.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Juventus 2-1 Real Madrid

TURIN, ITALY - MAY 05: Alvaro Morata of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images) Credit: Marco Luzzani / stringer

TURIN, ITALY – MAY 05: Alvaro Morata of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Credit: Marco Luzzani / stringer

Juventus recorded an impressive home victory against reigning European champions Real Madrid, courtesy of goals from Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata.

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Massimiliano Allegri was still without Paul Pogba in his preferred 4-3-1-2, and handed Stefano Sturaro a place in midfield alongside, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo in midfield.

Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo formed a pacy strike partnership upfront in Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-4-2. Sergio Ramos maintained his makeshift role in midfield with Toni Kroos, whereas James Rodriguez and Isco drifted infield from the flanks.

This was something of a traditional European Juventus performance under Allegri: the Bianconeri attacked directly with balls into the strikers, and once they regained the lead in the second half, showcased the ideal manner in closing out a match through organized defending.

Juve welcomes pressure

The most interesting tactical approach throughout full-time was Juve’s approach in the first half. Most Serie A teams are often ridiculed for their inability to cope with intense pressing and dynamic opposition, but under Allegri, Juve have managed to overcome the stereotype.

Similar to their victory over Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16, Juve intended luring Real forward with patient passes in their half, and then bypassing the press with simple lofted balls into their strikers. Real, however, weren’t keen on blitzing the hosts with pressure in the opening minutes, and were at times reluctant to move higher up the pitch as a unit. A simple Leonardo Bonucci punt saw Morata’s presence fluster Pepe, but the Spaniard’s audacious chip nearly fooled Iker Casillas.

Nonetheless, with Vidal dropping deeper into midfield to create overloads, Juve were free to play vertical passes into advanced positions, and Tevez shifted into space behind Ramos and Kroos. It was Pirlo’s ball into Tevez between the lines that led to Sturaro recording Juve’s first shot on target. Following a terrific Juventus passing move, it was Tevez again that drifted into an ocean of space between Marcelo and Raphael Varane to receive a pass from Marchisio, and fire a low shot at Casillas, which ultimately resulted in Morata’s tap in.

Juventus goal real madrid

This was a brave decision from Allegri, but Morata’s positioning on the last defender stretched Real’s shape, and the Spanish side’s reluctance to press, combined with Juve’s overload in central areas, enabled Tevez to find space between the lines.

Real sloppy in possession

Juve was equally proactive without the ball in the early stages. The shuttlers pushed forward on the wingers, and while Kroos was free to retain the ball, Juve’s centre backs weren’t scared to step forward ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

There was a moment when Chiellini stepped forward to dispossess Bale, which resulted in Tevez receiving the ball in space and firing an audacious effort wide of the net. Sturaro also nicked the ball off Ramos in the opening half and broke down the left channel before cutting the ball back to the Argentine striker, but his effort was poor once again.

More importantly it was Morata who led by example: the Spaniard forced Casillas into a poor pass to Marchisio that led to a Vidal penalty shout, and dispossessed Varane in Real’s box, but was harshly penalized for a foul. While lackadaisical play from several Real players resulted in several Juve transitional moves, the hosts’ discipline to quickly close down their markers proved beneficial.

Real attacks

Real eventually settled into the match once Juve dropped deeper into two narrow banks of four. This was the identical shape Real adopted when Juve monopolized possession, but where the Italian champions appeared perplexed when required to break down the opposition, the away side overcame their issues through width from the full-backs.

With James and Isco moving infield, central areas were congested, which could also explain the former’s delivery into the box for Varane serving as Juve’s first scare. Prior to Ronaldo’s goal, it was the Portuguese forward’s diagonal run between the centre-backs to meet Isco’s delicate through ball that stretched the Juventus back-line.

However, Juventus’ deep positioning prevented Ronaldo and Bale space to run into, and their narrow shape limited Real’s creative players from sliding incisive balls behind the back four. Where Juve bypassed Real’s midfield band with balls into the forwards, the away side countered their issue by pushing the fullbacks forward. Coincidentally, the duo completed the most passes in the attacking third at Juventus Stadium.

Marcelo Carvajal juventus

It was Dani Carvajal’s clever ball into half-space for James that bamboozled Juve’s defence and allowed the Colombian to deliver the cross for Ronaldo’s equalizer. It was one of many long passing moves – and also similar to Juve’s patient buildup for Morata’s opener – that eventually prevailed due to width. Real nearly took the lead minutes from half-time from a similar move that saw Marcelo and Isco overload the left flanks, but James’ nodded the latter’s cross off the bar.

Second half

Juve started the second half with the energy that was displayed in the early stages of the first. Allegri’s men pressed higher up the pitch once again to prevent Real from playing out the back, and created the first legitimate chance of the half when Tevez turned Pepe and fired a shot directly at Casillas.

Although the home side’s ambition to win possession higher up the pitch was successful in the first, the initial ten minutes of the second was stop-start due to Real constantly breaking lines. Stephan Lichtsteiner, Sturaro and Bonucci all committed cynical fouls to half Real breaks, and it appeared the match was shifting in Real’s favour with every passing minute.

2-1

Then came the equalizer. While it may have been another direct move involving the two Juventus strikers, it was rather fortuitous then planned. Still, Real were caught on the break, a situation Ancelotti should have been wary about heading into this tie – particularly following Juve’s triumph over Dortmund earlier this year.

Marcelo’s shot ricocheted off Kroos, igniting a 2v2 break between Juve’s strikers and Real full-backs, which resulted in both men being fouled – Carvajal clipping Tevez in the box. Tevez notched his 29th goal of the season from the spot, but also shifted the match back into Allegri’s hand despite a nervy start to the second half.

Both managers react

The goal forced both managers into significant system alterations. Ancelotti turned to his only fit striker, Javier Hernandez, to replace Isco, as Madrid effectively became a 4-3-3. Allegri instantly reacted by inserting Andrea Barzagli into defence for Sturaro to make Juventus a 3-5-2 that eventually transitioned into a 5-3-2 out of possession.

Bale Ronaldo Juventus

Bale was finally involved in the match, receiving space downn the right flank, but Real’s attempt to blitz the penalty area with hopeless crosses proved unsuccessful, as Juve’s experienced back trio and Gianluigi Buffon coped well. In theory, the move was supposed to provide a focal point upfront, but also offer more service into Ronaldo, but the Portuguese star’s threat in the final third was scarce.

Juve, however, comfortably managed the final quarter of the game. They were organized defensively, whereas Morata held up the ball well to bring his teammates forward. Allegri’s substitutions were equally impressive, replacing Morata for compatriot Fernando Llorente, and Tevez for the energetic Pereyra.

Llorente was involved in the two best chances of the match subsequent to Tevez’s winner. Once again a simple Marchisio ball over the top troubled Varane – who had a poor outing – enabling Llorente to round Casillas, but Carvajal intercepted his pull back to the onrushing Pereyra. Then, from a stoppage time Pirlo free kick, the Spaniard nodded a tame effort at Casillas.

Tevez’s winner forced the Italian managers to alter their approach, but in terms of preparation and overall efficiency, Allegri outwitted Ancelotti.

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library

Carlos Tevez of Juventus celebrates as he scores their second goal from a penalty during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) Credit: Michael Regan / staff

Conclusion

The overall pattern of the match went as expected when you assess Juve and Real’s road to the semi-finals. Ancelotti has often relied on width from the full-backs to overcome narrow defensive lines, whereas direct balls into Morata and Tevez has been Allegri’s method of bisecting the opposition’s pressing.

But Juve’s method of baiting Real into pushing higher up the pitch was interesting. Yet it’s difficult to understand Ancelotti’s approach in this tie. Surely several players performed poorly – Bale, Varane, Ramos, and to an extent Marcelo – but Real appeared flabbergasted by Tevez’s movement in the opening stages, and constantly looked vulnerable when balls were played into the strikers.

It’s unlikely that Real will perform this poorly at the Bernabeu, but they haven’t been entirely impressive at home this season.

Allegri’s second half changes preserved a positive home triumph over the reigning champions, and it’s likely he may stick with a three-man defensive system with the wingbacks maintaining cautious positions, and rely on quick counters led by their dynamic front two in the return leg at the Bernabeu.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Bayern Munich 6-1 Porto

thiago jackson

Bayern Munich overturned a poor away leg result with a convincing performance at the Allianz Arena.

 Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 5.35.17 AM

Pep Guardiola made one change to the side that suffered a defeat at the Dragao, introducing Holger Badstuber alongside Jerome Boateng at centre back.

Julen Lopetegui was without his first choice full-backs, which saw Diego Reyes and Marcano slot into Porto’s makeshift back-line. The Portuguese club’s front six was unchanged.

This was the antithesis of Bayern’s performance at Dragao, as they comfortably monopolized possession, whilst focusing on width to create chances.

Porto’s shape

The most interesting feat prior to the second leg was whether Porto would replicate the effective pressing that thwarted the Bavarians at Dragao. In Portugal, Lopetegui’s side pressed in phases out of possession, but here, the away side displayed considerable caution by dropping deeper into their half when Bayern surged forward.

Jackson continued to position himself goal-side of Xabi Alonso to prevent service into the Spaniard, along with preventing him from dictating the tempo from deep. Ricardo Quaresma and Yacine Brahimi moved towards the Bayern fullbacks, with only Hector Herrera pushing forward to aid the front three.

For the most part, Lopetegui’s makeshift back four weren’t keen on surging into advanced areas, and Porto often sat deeper in a 4-5-1 with the wingers pegged back due to Bayern’s adventurous fullbacks. The Porto wingers couldn’t dribble away from pressure, and with two makeshift fullbacks – who are natural centre backs – the decision to play a highline would be too risky.

Guardiola adjusts

However, the main talking point surrounded Bayern’s set up. In the first leg, Bayern’s 4-3-1-2 deprived the German side of natural width, and they equally encountered difficulties getting service into their attacking players.

Gotze Lahm Porto

Guardiola reacted to Bayern’s insufficiencies at Dragao by moving to a natural 4-4-2 with Phillip Lahm and Mario Gotze as wingers, while Lewandowski and Muller formed a natural strike partnership. Lahm aimed to combine with Rafinha and Muller, whereas Gotze stuck wide and drifted infield to create space for Bernat to surge into.

Thiago Alcantara porto

Both elements of width were non-existent in the first leg, enabling Porto to congest central areas and easily regain possession. Here, their initial shape was stretched, which presented more gaps for the likes of Thiago and Alonso to play into. But with both men faced with the task of evading Porto’s pressing in midfield, Badstuber and Boateng continuously pinged passes into wide areas.

Ultimately Gotze and Lahm’s wide positioning benefitted Lewandowski and Muller, as they effectively thrived as a natural strike duo. Lewandowski, renowned for his ability to operate as a poacher and a player to drop deep, was at his supreme best here.

Apart from the goal, Bayern’s best moves were created from the front two’s movement – Lewandowski would drop deep, whereas Muller would charge into the space behind the Porto defence. Bayern’s first legitimate chance was a prime example. Lewandowski dropped to the centre circle to receive service, and subsequently flicked the ball into space for Muller, thus leading to Fabiano making a good save, and the Pole hitting the post.

Although a traditional 4-4-2 is quite simplistic in the modern era, Guardiola’s alteration solved the main attacking issues Bayern faced in the first leg. Lahm and Gotze’s width created space for Alonso and Thiago to control the game in midfield, whereas Muller and Lewandowski operated as a classic strike partnership and attacked crosses into the box.

Bayern’s goals

Bayern’s superiority was evident throughout the first half, and width was equally crucial in the buildup to their goals. Coincidentally, their lone away goal in the first leg stemmed from a Boateng cross, and in the first half, Guardiola’s men continuously launched balls into the box.

Initially it was Rafinha’s over hit cross that fell to Gotze, and his lay off to Bernat saw the Spaniard run past Quaresma to deliver a devastating ball towards the near post, which Thiago nodded past Fabiano. Badstuber and Boateng rose high to combine, as the latter nodded in Alonso’s cross from a short corner for Bayern’s second.

bayern goal porto

Still, it was the third goal that epitomized their approach. It was a truly superb goal that witnessed a 26 pass move conclude with a wonderful Thiago diagonal to the right flank and three magnificent first touches: Lahm instantly delivered the ball into the box, and Muller directed it into the path of Lewandowski who finished superbly.

As expected, the Bayern dominated possession, but Porto couldn’t cope with countless crosses into the box, which epitomized Guardiola’s successful tactical modification.

Second half

Both managers reacted to Bayern’s first half onslaught with caution: Ruben Neves replaced Quaresma as Porto transitioned into a 3-5-1-1 with Brahimi behind Jackson. Porto’s additional ball playing midfielder helped the away side enjoy longer spells of possession – Bayern’s pressing decreased – while the wingbacks pushed higher up the pitch to prevent Bayern’s fullbacks from storming forward.

Porto’s changes were made to gain control of the match through possession, and direct balls into Jackson led to a goal and great chance shortly afterwards. Jackson was still isolated upfront, and though Herrera assisted his side’s sole goal, the Mexican and Brahimi rarely combined with the Porto striker.

 Alonso Muller Brahimi

Bayern’s intent to close the match out through possession saw Guardiola move to a 4-3-3 with Lahm moving into midfield. Yet, Bayern’s best chances prior to Jackson’s consolation goal stemmed through deliveries from the right flank. The German outfit won the tie with a terrific first half performance, and the final 45 minutes were merely based around preventing further embarrassment.

Conclusion

Bayern were heavy favourites to mount a comeback in the second leg, and this was a truly remarkable display. Surely Porto displayed increased caution and pragmatism in comparison to their first leg triumph, but this was more about Guardiola altering the mistakes made in Portugal.

Put simply, Bayern focused on width and crossing to overturn the first leg result: it was a simple, yet effective approach. This was another example of Bayern’s augmented flexibility and evolution under Guardiola.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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