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Defense Wins Championships — but Not the Champions League

On paper, most of the signs point to a Juventus victory. Except things like stats and sound strategy haven’t stopped Real Madrid in the past.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Will Juventus become the first team to go undefeated in the Champions League since Manchester United in 2008? Will Real Madrid become the first team to win back-to-back titles since AC Milan in 1990? Here are three reasons why Juventus should win — and one reason why they won’t.

Juventus Gets the BBC

Here’s your elevator pitch for the Champions League final: the best attack vs. the best defense. Forget about counterpressing and half-spaces and trequartistas — sometimes it’s that simple.

Today, many top teams are antidefense. Their defenders are better passers than, you know, defenders, and they’ll sell out to prevent the ball from ever getting into their own defensive third: counterpressing as soon as they lose the ball; playing center backs like free safeties, trying to pick off passes high up the field. But since these players and systems are best at being proactive and not doing “traditional” defending, anytime an opponent mounts some sustained pressure, a simple cross or pass or dribble into the box can turn into a crisis.

That style yields nightmares against Zinedine Zidane’s team. Madrid shoot more than all but four teams in Europe. They score on set pieces at the highest rate on the continent. They’ve notched fewer goals than only Barcelona. They’ve created 10 more chances in the 6-yard box than the next best side. Their Luka Modric–Toni Kroos midfield revives and facilitates the attack better than any pairing out there. Marcelo, their left back, might be one of the 15 best attacking players on the planet. Center back Sergio Ramos’s head was worth seven goals this year. Oh, and they have Cristiano Ronaldo, who averaged over a goal-plus-assist per 90 minutes in both the Champions League and La Liga this year — at age 32.

Except Juventus doesn’t defend like most other teams. With Gareth Bale injured and unlikely to start on Saturday, Juventus now have claim to the final’s best public-broadcasting trio — and it might even have a fourth initial. Thanks to a living god, Gianluigi Buffon, in goal and center backs Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in front — and possibly Andrea Barzagli, too, if they’re playing with a back three — Massimiliano Allegri’s side play a different kind of D.

For Juventus, defending is second nature; they never lose control when they lose the ball. And against an organized defense, a lofted ball into the box might as well be a white flag: If Chiellini doesn’t clear, Bonucci has his back. If not, Barzagli cleans up, and on the off chance that the ball gets past all three, Buffon is always in position to give the shooter the tightest possible angle.

Only two teams in Europe gave up fewer than Juve’s 27 goals conceded this year. In the Champions League, they’ve conceded three goals in 12 games. And their expected-goals numbers rate them right with Atlético Madrid as the best defense in Europe — both from a total and per-shot basis. If there’s any team built to withstand Madrid’s meteor shower of shots and crosses, it’s the one that celebrates goal-line clearances like they’re moon landings:

Remember Those Barcelona Games?

If Madrid has an attacking equivalent — and possibly a superior — it’s the team that has Lionel Messi. While comparing sides across leagues is an imperfect science, Juve has already dispatched Barcelona, winning 3–0 across two Champions League matches. Paulo Dybala was signing autographs with his off-foot after the first leg …

… and in the second leg, the defense went into the Camp Nou and kept Barça at arm’s length:

In their own two games against Barcelona, Madrid tied and lost, essentially playing their rivals to a standstill — save for Messi briefly ascending to heaven:

Not only did Juventus outperform Madrid against Barça; they also found the blueprint for beating their final opponents: rather than worry about the quantity, limit the quality of chances your opponent gets and make sure you finish yours. With the solid backline, dangerous wingbacks, and efficient attackers, Juventus is built to do just that. Plus, Madrid might just play into their hands: While Barcelona hunts out the most efficient shots, working the ball to the endline for cut-backs and often passing up decent chances for even better ones, Madrid has never seen a shot or cross they didn’t like. That might be optimal against Osasuna, but not when you’re playing the top defense in the world.

Only One Team Has an Identity

The idea of “identity” has been twisted around and used in so many different ways that it often ceases to mean anything, and a strict ethos hasn’t always been a good thing for Barcelona. Yet there’s an advantage in knowing what you’re good at and doing that same thing week in and week out.

This is Juventus: They have two world-class wingbacks, Dani Alves and Alex Sandro, who create forward momentum from deep positions, and the two Brazilians are able to take risks higher up the field because they know the guys behind them will bail them out. (How to counter Marcelo? Get two of your own.) Juve’s central midfielders complement each other, with Sami Khedira covering the ground, and Miralem Pjanic circulating the ball and setting up his teammates from deep. After a career as a center forward, Mario Mandzukic gets to play like a target man out on the left wing because he’s able to outmuscle smaller fullbacks and he’s willing to track back on defense. Dybala roams between the midfield and attack, providing just enough unpredictability in a mostly stable system. And striker Gonzalo Higuaín shoots and shoots and shoots. Allegri’s side will limit you to shots that aren’t likely to go in, and while they won’t light up the scoreboard, they’ll create enough on the other end to take advantage of the margin their defense almost always gives them.

As for Madrid, well, let’s ask Toni Kroos:

If Madrid has an identity, it’s, “We’re richer than you. Isn’t that enough?”

In both the quarterfinals and semifinals, it seemed like they’d wrapped up each matchup in the first leg — only to let both Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid storm back into contention in the second. In the second match against Barcelona, Madrid went down a man, pushed for a tying goal, got it, but then kept pushing and were smote by Messi. And even though they won La Liga by three points, so many of their wins in April and March — Leganes, Athletic Bilbao, and Real Betis, to name three — could’ve gone either way. Keylor Navas had to risk decapitation on at least one occasion to preserve a lead:

Madrid’s stats are straight-up elite — shots for, shots against, goals, goals against, and expected goals all say they might be the top team on the planet — but on a game-by-game basis, the team is as volatile as they could possibly be without negating the first part of this sentence. Madrid still don’t know what their best lineup is, and it’s not obvious from the outside, either. Casemiro occupies the Thomas Gravesen Memorial Role: a defensive midfielder whose value to the club seems to exist mainly because he’s a defensive midfielder, and not because he’s a world-class talent. Back in 2015, when the club won 22 games in a row, Carlo Ancelotti played a lineup without a nominal defensive mid, but that system required a complex set of responsibilities for each player and a formation that shifted depending on who had the ball. Madrid’s ceiling would be higher if Zidane could figure out a way to unleash more firepower and control games more tightly, but not everyone has Ancelotti’s ability to squeeze attacking talent into an 11-man lineup.

Instead, Madrid cross the ball a ton and take tough shots. They don’t control the game particularly well for a team at this level — just 55 percent possession — and they don’t press opponents when they lose the ball. Their defense seems to succeed because opponents are afraid to send too many numbers forward with the threat of Ronaldo and Friends looming on the break. They conceded only 41 goals in Spain this season — not due to a cohesive approach, but because they have a ton of individual talent.

Except Juventus has both the defensive talent and an organized system. Their backline never breaks down from the first punch; the way to score is to unsettle them with variation and figure out a second, third, or fourth way in. Madrid doesn’t really have a Plan B.

Through 12 Champions League games, Juventus remain undefeated on the strength of that fearsome organization. Unless the Madrid attack comes up with something special, don’t expect that to change on Saturday.

Except Madrid Always Comes Up With Something Special

Zidane receives criticism for not being as sophisticated a manager as his peers throughout Europe, but here’s the thing: He doesn’t have to be. Sure, Madrid could be even better, but they’re the current Champions League holders and just won La Liga. Slotting the conservative Casemiro behind Modric, Kroos, Isco, Ronaldo, and Benzema, and then telling that quintet to do their thing? It’s not three-dimensional chess, yet it led to 29 wins and 106 goals in 38 La Liga games.

Sergio Ramos decides matches with his head because the team runs plays for him (and because he’d be in the NBA if he grew up in the U.S.). When he’s on the field, Gareth Bale breaks down packed-in defenses with his left foot because he has no peers when the ball’s at his feet and he’s 25 yards from goal. Isco — Madrid’s fourth option — does things like this:

And then there’s Ronaldo. He’s still the best striker in the world, and he won’t ever stop shooting. Flip the ball to him at the back post, drop it to him as he’s crashing into the box, or play him a through ball as he’s running away from goal — there’s no one better at taking what looks like a safe moment and turning it into a shot on target.

Much like in the NBA playoffs, systems can grind to a halt in a final, thanks to weeks of prep time, nerves, and tired legs. As such, one-off games often get decided by an individual moment, rather than a collective performance, and that’s the problem for Juventus: However they’re lined up, Real Madrid still have all the best players in the world.