Real Madrid Use The Flanks To Claim Champions League Crown Against Juventus

CarvaReal Madrid opened the scoring in last weekend’s UEFA Champions League final, played against Juventus, with a lovely piece of play. They moved forward at pace along the left-hand side, through the swift passing of Modric and Kroos. Benzema then took possession in a true centre-forward position, at which point he slid the ball wide to a right-sided Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese may have been tempted to go himself from there, but he did the team thing instead. He noted the powerful upfield surge from right-back Dani Carvajal, who had dramatically outpaced Juventus left-winger Mario Mandzukic, and followed up by feeding the Spaniard with a sharp little ball towards the touchline. Carvajal continued to stream forward, latched onto the pass and quickly hit a first-time cutback. Its placement was such that Ronaldo could sweep home the opener with a simple side-footed finish, and after a lovely free-flowing attack, the Spanish giants had the lead.

That move was a thing of beauty, but it wouldn’t be the last time Real Madrid made use of the flanks. They love this methodology, and it makes sense for them in so many ways. With guys like Carvajal and Marcelo, the latter being the prototypical modern-day fullback, there are always going to be players charging towards the final third. Then, of course, there are the players in the frontline, like Ronaldo, who may start in wider stations but actually prefer to fold infield as soon as possible. Throw in the fact that central midfielders Modric and Kroos regularly filter forward from midfield to join them, and by the time one of the fullbacks is in position to cross or play a cutback, there’s often a number of options to choose from inside the area. From that point on, it’s just a matter of execution.

In the Champions League final, Real were able to execute with frequency. There were a few reasons for this, but the way Juventus lined up certainly helped. The Italian club operated within the confines of a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Mandzukic, a natural centre-forward, and Dani Alves, more usually a fullback, in the wing positions. This wasn’t necessarily a problem for Juve, and at times, it even looked like the Croatian striker might get the better of Carvajal due to his combination of strength, size and striking instincts. Mandzukic’s opener, where he produced one of the best goals ever scored in a Champions League final via a wicked volley, was one such example of that. It wasn’t the only one, though, and when Mandzukic could use his height against the diminutive fullback in aerial duels, there were also moments when Juve looked likely to threaten as a result of this match-up.

It wasn’t until Real regained possession that Carvajal could use his strengths to go to work against Mandzukic. He’s a nippy little fullback, and an adventurous one at that, and he takes every opportunity he can to contribute in attack. If you rewind the opener again, you’ll see how he used these traits to get the better of his direct opponent. Initially, he and Mandzukic are side by side, slowly meandering into the Real’s attacking half as Modric and Kroos exchange passes. Once the attack kicks into gear, however, Carvajal leaves the striker behind. He soon gets the ball, forcing Alex Sandro, Juve’s left-back, to shift out wide in order to cover him, something which enables Ronaldo to find a bit more space in the penalty area. At this point, Mandzukic is sort of pushing back but not with any real intensity, and as Ronaldo lashes home Carvajal’s cutback, the Croatian has essentially come to a stop on the edge of box.

That’s not to say that he’s to blame for the goal, but rather to point out just where Carvajal could best deploy his strengths in the individual battle with Mandzukic. The former Bayern Munich man had the brawn and Carvajal had the speed, but while this was evident when the pair went one-on-one, it’s also important to note that Real’s system is simply geared towards this kind of play. Take, for example, the goal that made it 3-1 for the Zinedine Zidane’s team, where they again tried to attack through the wide areas.

Initially, Casemiro sat in a central location with the ball, looking to generate an opening. Carvajal made a dart into the final third at this point, and even though Casemiro saw it, Modric insisted on directing him to use the Spanish fullback anyway. The Brazilian holder responded by floating a pass out that way, but it dropped short. That allowed Sandro the chance to head it away from danger, only he didn’t quite manage it. His header nearly found Mandzukic but Modric anticipated the moment beautifully, and quickly nipped in to regain possession. He then crashed into Carvajal, who took the ball away from him and, with Mandzukic still a little flat-footed, used the added time to steady himself. He drew Sandro towards him in the process, and when Modric ran in behind the Juve left-back, Carvajal slid the ball in behind the Brazilian. Modric ran onto the ball and crossed from the byline first-time. Ronaldo met it at the near-post, clipped it in and, at 3-1, essentially finished the job.

Marcelo would play a cutback to Marco Asensio late on, and the substitute completed the 4-1 rout with a neat strike of his own. That Real were so dominant on such a big stage was impressive, but the fact that they stuck to their gameplan, creating plenty of chances through a mix of crosses and cutbacks in the process, was even more so. Some of their success was due to exploiting Juventus’ shortcomings and some of it due to making the best of their own attributes, and in a lot of ways, finding the balance between the two is what tactical strategy is all about.

You have to maximise your performance through the use of a workable system, one that considers both your own team as well as that of the opposition, and Real did exactly that to bring home the Champions League trophy for a second year in succession. Zidane got it right, and through the use of the wide areas, he established a coaching reputation that can now happily sit alongside his efforts as a player.