Juventus, Barcelona, and Beyond: How the Champions League Final Challenges What We Thought We Knew About SoccerJohn Tomac
Thanks to Sepp Blatter, the FBI, a hastily called FIFA press conference, and years and years of unchecked corruption, the state of the game has been the talk of the soccer town this week. Of course, none of that talk has anything to do with, well, the way soccer is played on the field. Thankfully, tomorrow we get the biggest (men’s) soccer game of the year: the Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus.
With championship games, there’s always a temptation to turn the result into a referendum after the fact, to take what happened in the final and retroactively apply it to the season gone by. But if Barcelona lose tomorrow despite their status as heavy favorites, it doesn’t mean they were any less dominant for the six months prior, and if Juventus get blown out, that doesn’t make their unlikely finals run any less meaningful. It’s not the final game that makes the trend; it’s everything leading up to it. And considering the way these teams have been built and how they’ve become successful, tomorrow’s game — however it ends — should be enough to make us question a bunch of things we thought we knew about the sport.
Italian Soccer: Not Dead Yet
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A year ago, Italian soccer was dead.
Juventus and Napoli failed to get out of their Champions League groups, and AC Milan, who’d go on to finish eighth in Serie A, were dumped out in the round of 16 by Atlético Madrid, 5-1. Over in the Europa League, Juventus, who joined in the knockout stage thanks to their third-place finish in their Champions League group, were the only Italian side to make it beyond the round of 16. For a league that had already lost its fourth Champions League spot to Germany the year before because of a run of lackluster results, the situation had only worsened. Domestically, competition was nonexistent, as Juventus won the league by 17 points. And at the World Cup in Brazil, losses to Uruguay and Costa Rica sent the national team home before the knockout round for the second tournament running.
Oh, how things had quickly changed. In 2003, AC Milan beat Juventus in the Champions League final. Two years later, were it not for a Steven Gerrard–engineered miracle, they would’ve won again. And then, in 2007, in a rematch against Liverpool, they actually did. Three years after that, Jose Mourinho led Inter Milan to a European championship of their own. Italy had won the World Cup in 2006. The country seemed to produce a never-ending supply of superstars. And at various points over this century’s first decade, you could’ve claimed that Serie A was the best league in the world — and no one would’ve looked at you like your brain had just fallen out of your skull.
Strangely enough, much of the good times came without Juventus. After the Calciopoli scandal, which involved a number of teams including AC Milan, Fiorentina, and Lazio getting punished for exercising undue influence in picking which referees would oversee their matches, Juventus were relegated to Serie B, stripped of their two Serie A titles in 2005 and 2006, and removed from the 2006-07 Champions League. As a result, many of their best players left for new clubs.
Why, then, did the rest of the league suddenly enter stasis as Juventus slowly pulled themselves back to respectability? There are plenty of reasons — the world financial crisis; most Italian clubs not owning their own stadiums; the fickle, cyclical nature of talent — and before this year, no Italian team had made the Champions League semifinals since Inter won it all. Only three had even reached the quarters.
Earlier this season, it seemed like the downward spiral would continue. Napoli lost their qualifying matchup with Athletic Bilbao and failed to progress to the Champions League group stage. Only Roma and Juventus were left to fly the Italian flag, and Roma, stuck in a group with Manchester City and Bayern Munich, failed to advance. Meanwhile, Juventus finished second in their group behind Atlético and increased the likelihood of a difficult round of 16 draw. Six months later, though, they’re in the final. And in the Europa League, five of the final 16 teams — Roma, Napoli, Inter, Torino, and Fiorentina — were Italian. For comparison, no English team made the quarterfinals in either competition.
Now, that’s not to say Italian soccer is magically healthy again. There are still deep-rooted problems in the league,1 but Serie A’s not as far behind the competition as it might’ve seemed just a year ago. With both Milan teams set to miss out on European competitions for the first time in 60 years and both of the Rome clubs qualified for next year’s Champions League, the balance of power has certainly shifted. But with Juventus just 90 minutes away from a European title, they now look like the leading light among a new group of Serie A competitors, rather than a lone exception in the face of continued decline.
Lionel Messi: Still Not Human
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Just how strained has the “Ronaldo or Messi” conversation become in recent years? Toward the end of last season, we’d reached a point where Lionel Messi’s presence on arguably the greatest club team we’ve ever seen was used as an argument in favor … of Cristiano Ronaldo.
It went something like this: With Xavi and Andrés Iniesta in the midfield behind him and the genius of Pep Guardiola patrolling the sideline at Barcelona, Messi was made to look better than he truly was. That never-ending supply line and the managerial brilliance that created it all served to elevate an earthbound Messi into the stratosphere. Just look at what happens when they leave the Camp Nou and go play for their national teams. Messi is ordinary, and Spain takes home all the trophies.
As constructed, this is not a persuasive argument, and if anything, it totally fell apart once Messi dragged a raggedy group of Argentines to the 2014 World Cup final while Spain’s international dominance came to a screeching halt.2 But somewhere within this swirling cloud of soccer tribalism, unfortunate leg tattoos, and hairstyles that required multiple architects to construct, the Ronaldo stans may have actually had at least some semblance of a point. Last year, Messi scored 28 goals in La Liga in 31 games, and that’s a phenomenal haul for anyone who is not Lionel Messi. For comparison, during Guardiola’s last season with the club in 2011-12, Messi scored 50 in 37. Plus, the Messi we saw at the World Cup was a slower, less explosive, and less dynamic version of the player who’d been blowing our minds for nearly a decade. Entering this season, it wasn’t totally unreasonable to think Messi had now entered a slightly less dominant phase of his career. After all, there’s a reason Ronaldo won the 2014 Ballon d’Or without much argument.
Well, so much for that! This year, the 27-year-old Messi is as good as he’s ever been. It’s not just the 43 goals or the 18 assists; it’s also the breathtaking array of skills and the persistent speed, acceleration, and athleticism that once looked like it might be gone. Messi is a wide forward in transition and a creator in possession. He can play in his old role as a false nine or in his new one on the wing without missing a beat. And as for the system that was supposedly responsible for at least part of his stardom? Xavi is 35 and no longer a starter. Guardiola has been gone for three years, and for all of his genius, he hasn’t been able to get his Bayern Munich team past the semifinals without Messi. Luis Enrique is responsible for the majority of Barcelona’s recent tactical changes, and those adjustments have even marginalized Iniesta, the third member of the supposed Messi makers.
This, of course, is a frightening proposition for Juventus. They’re about to face arguably the greatest soccer player of all time at the height of his powers. With each passing display of breathtaking skill, it seems more and more like Messi was the one who made everything else at Barcelona look revolutionary, not the other way around. Or, as Juventus keeper Gianluigi Buffon put it: “Messi is an alien that dedicates himself to playing with humans. The only hope is that this Saturday he will be from earth, like the rest of us.”
Box-to-Box Midfielders: As Important As Ever
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Not too long ago, the box-to-box midfielder was soccer’s version of the post-up player: the focal point of the offense, aesthetically impressive when done well, and ultimately completely inefficient. The 4-4-2 — with its two strikers, two wingers, two box-to-box midfielders, two full-backs, and two center backs — leans on strikers to strike, wingers to cross, defenders to defend, and the two central midfielders to do everything. As the game has evolved, that formation has fallen by the wayside as managers look for increasingly varied ways to unsettle defenses. Tweaks like inverted wingers cutting in to provide goals, marauding full-backs who provide width, and strikers who provide assists meant that the 4-4-2 quickly became clumsy and outdated.
Instead, teams started employing more specialized players, especially in the middle of the field. In a three-man midfield, the typical setup became a defensive midfielder to sit and protect, a “classic number 10” to conduct the attack, and a shuttler to provide energy and movement to cover the space between the two. There were plenty of variations — some teams would use two shuttlers, others would use their playmaker in the deepest position and put protection in front — but the point still stands: Responsibilities had become increasingly separated.
However, once specialization became the norm, teams began to realize a funny thing: The guys who can do it all, just like the NBA post-up players, were still super-valuable. As more teams began specializing, defenses learned how to better combat those typical three-man midfields. It’s pretty hard to surprise an opponent when each midfielder’s role is crystal clear. However, deploy midfielders who are each capable of playing more than one of the specific roles, and it leaves defenses guessing. Who’s holding? Which midfielder will burst forward into space? Even once the defense figures it out, the manager can just switch it up.
Between them, Juventus and Barcelona will start at least six central midfielders,3 and half will be what you could loosely describe as box-to-box players: Ivan Rakitic for Barcelona and whatever combination of Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, and Claudio Marchisio take the field for Juventus.
For Barcelona, Rakitic’s role varies dramatically depending on the moment, let alone the game. In possession, he often drifts wide to balance Messi’s infield runs. When Barcelona are counterattacking, he can play the pass to key the attack of Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suárez, or make a late run into the box while the opposing defense worries about marshaling the best attack in the world. Much of what’s made this Barcelona team so dominant this season — in addition to that fire-breathing front three — has been their ability to flip between the counter and the trademark possession-heavy approach. That’s a departure from recent years, and Rakitic has been key in that newfound flexibility.
For Juventus, their group of multifaceted midfielders lets them shape a game as they see fit. If they need goals, they can turn it into an up-and-down track meet of chances and transition. If they’re protecting a lead, they can muddy the midfield waters as they all adopt more defensive responsibilities. If defenses want to take Andrea Pirlo, the one midfielder who is decidedly a specialist as a deep-lying playmaker, out of the game, then Marchisio can drop deep into the playmaking role while Pirlo spends 90 minutes as an attention-sucking decoy. Vidal, who has often been asked to play conservatively (and against his own impulses) in manager Massimiliano Allegri’s system, will occasionally be shifted into a freer attacking-midfield role and spend a game unexpectedly blowing up the opposition. Meanwhile, Pogba’s seemingly infinite talents have allowed him to go from defensive stopper to offensive superstar over the course of a single game. That teamwide versatility has been crucial to Juventus’s progression: They forced mistakes out of Borussia Dortmund, took the lead and then put the clamps on Monaco, and then went out and took the game to Madrid in the first leg before hunkering down in the second leg and defending their way to a hard-earned upset.
As we’ll see tomorrow, the box-to-box midfielders of old are still out there, and they’re still doing everything they used to — just not all at once.
How the game progresses will depend a lot on how Juventus decide to go about attempting an upset. Playing against Barcelona is all about picking your poison. Sit back and defend? Barcelona can pick you apart. Get out and try to score? Barca’s devastating front three are lurking on the counter. Ultimately, the most likely way for Juventus to win will be to capitalize on a Barcelona mistake, either catching them with a counterattack driven by a Carlos Tevez or Pogba run, or forcing an error from a defender trying to play the ball out from the back.
“Hoping for a mistake” isn’t the most inspiring game plan, but that’s part of Barcelona’s brilliance: They simply don’t leave opponents with very many options. A comfortable Barcelona win is by far the most likely outcome — though it’s a result that says more about the unbelievable strength of the favorite than the weaknesses of the challenger. It’s easy to see it playing out like so: The first goal comes from a moment of magic from the front three combining to break through a tough defense, and then Barcelona have a barrage of chances on the counter as Juventus try to even it up. Barcelona have been too much for anyone to handle for months, and it’s hard to picture tomorrow being any different. But the game’s only 90 (or 120) minutes, and that’s just enough time to leave us all scratching our heads, wondering about what we thought we knew.
Until then … Barcelona 3, Juventus 1.
Filed Under: Soccer, 2015 Champions League, Champions League, Champions League Final, Barcelona, FC Barcelona, Juventus, Lionel Messi, Italy, spain, FIFA, UEFA, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, Neymar, Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic