“All the teams that I saw,” said David Moyes, on the morning after the final, “tried to play from the back. Maybe Manchester City focused on this to a lesser extent because, when I watched them, they very rarely took the ball with their central defenders.”
There is statistical evidence to back up this opinion. City’s centre-backs operated with positional discipline and, for example, of the 35 successful passes made by Eliaquim Mangala, who replaced Vincent Kompany in the seventh minute of the last-16 home game against Dynamo Kyiv, four were to his goalkeeper and 27 to fellow members of City’s back four.
Kompany, in the first leg, had directed 21 of his 59 passes to holding midfielders or middle-to-front players. When the same scenario was repeated in the opening minutes of the semi-final second leg in Madrid, 23 of Mangala’s 30 passes were to the goalkeeper or defenders.
More forward-looking distribution was left to Nicolás Otamendi but, at home to Real Madrid, 70% of the centre-backs’ passing was to members of the back line. The construction of attacks relied on full-backs and controlling midfielders. And the goalkeeper. In Madrid, Joe Hart successfully distributed the ball to all ten outfielders, even though 37% of his long passing failed to find a team-mate.
Once again, the two German goalkeepers of the two main possession teams – Marc-André ter Stegen and Manuel Neuer – set benchmarks in participation in the build-up and in the accuracy of their distribution.
During the round of 16 tie against Arsenal, Barcelona’s Ter Stegen failed to find a team-mate with only three of his 67 passes – all three of them passes of more than 30 metres. The quarter-final between Barça and Atlético Madrid allowed the two goalkeepers to illustrate the contrasts in game plans and playing philosophies.
At Camp Nou, Ter Stegen was not overworked, but only one long pass of the 18 he made failed to reach its target. At the Vicente Calderón, his interventions totalled 37 passes (more than Neymar, Luis Suárez or Ivan Rakitić), 13 of them over long distances. All found their target.
At the other end, Diego Simeone’s game plan required Jan Oblak to obviate Barça’s high pressing by playing long. At the Camp Nou, 30 of his 31 passes were long, with half of them reaching a team-mate. In the return, his 18 passes were exclusively long, with a success rate of 44%, compared with Ter Stegen’s 100%. Over the two matches, 12 of Oblak’s 23 successful long passes were received by Saúl Ñíguez, with three apiece dispatched to the front men, Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres.
Wolfsburg goalkeeper Diego Benaglio also opted for a long game during his side’s tie against Real Madrid, when 40% of 57 long deliveries located a friendly target. Other success rates were similarly low: Thibaut Courtois was accurate with seven of 18 long deliveries when Chelsea visited Paris; Arsenal’s Petr Čech with nine of 16 at home to Barcelona.
Although technical observer Ioan Lupescu highlighted PSV Eindhoven’s “typical Dutch philosophy, with patient build-up from the back and through the midfield” when he saw them at home, Jeroen Zoet resorted to long passes 42 times during the second leg against Atlético in Madrid – with 12 of his 22 successful passes hitting main striker Luuk de Jong.
During the semi-final against Atlético, Neuer successfully distributed the ball to nine Bayern outfielders in Madrid and seven in the return, even though, in Munich, the visitors successfully prevented long-range supply to Franck Ribéry, Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman.
A third German keeper, Paris’s Kevin Trapp, was also outstanding in the accuracy of his long passing – notably his ability to feed Zlatan Ibrahimović for direct counterattacking.
Real Madrid’s passing options
“One of the things that surprised me,” reflected Thomas Schaaf after the final, “was that Keylor Navas played long so often. It may have been a deliberate attempt to avoid Atlético’s high pressing but it obliged his team to do quite a lot of work to recover the ball.”
In the four previous matches, against Wolfsburg and Manchester City, the Costa Rican goalkeeper had played long no more than 25 times – in other words, half a dozen per match – with 15 of his passes reaching a team-mate. At San Siro, 24 of his 31 passes were long, with half of them finding a Real Madrid player. In Milan, Real’s building from the back was based, in great part, on passes from centre-back Sergio Ramos to Marcelo and Toni Kroos.
Left-back Marcelo was the chief supplier to Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, while Kroos delivered to all of his fellow outfielders. Pepe, the other central defender, preferred more conservative routes to Navas, Ramos or holding midfielder Casemiro.
Most of the supply to Luka Modrić stemmed from the right-backs, Dani Carvajal and then Danilo. Atlético’s construction work was mostly channelled through central midfielders Koke and Gabi, who jointly accounted for 35% of their team’s passing and confirmed the growing status of controlling midfielders as the modern game’s ‘playmakers’.
However, Zinédine Zidane’s defensive block restricted their forward passing and, although the duo linked 27 times with Griezmann, they were only able to connect on four occasions with Torres, who received just 11 passes during the two hours of play. On the other side, Schaaf regarding Madrid’s midfield as the key to their first-half domination.
“Casemiro performed efficiently in the holding role,” he commented, “and I think that Kroos and Modrić work very well together, as far as ball possession is concerned and playing the forward passes to the fast attackers.”
The above article appears in the new UEFA Champions League technical report for 2015/16: download now