Atletico Madrid 3-0 Athletic Bilbao: Falcao wins the Europa League again

May 9, 2012

The starting line-ups

Atletico Madrid lifted the UEFA Cup for the second time in three years.

Diego Simeone named his expected line-up – Tiago was suspended, so Mario Suarez and Gabi played in the centre of midfield. None of the starting XI started the 2010 final.

Marcelo Bielsa’s line-up was also as expected – Fernando Amorebieta was declared fit to start, although he had a poor game, caught out for all three goals.

This was a pretty basic encounter – Athletic dominated possession, but Atletico took an early lead, then were content to sit deep.


For the second year in a row, the Colombian striker was the key player in the Europa League final. Last year he won the competition for Porto with a fine header, but here he showed more all-round ability and constantly worked the channels well, having the beating of both Fernando Amorebieta and Javi Martinez and receiving the ball in a position where he could drive directly at goal.

His stunning seventh minute strike was crucial because it set the tone for the rest of the game – until then Atletico Madrid had been pressing high up and contesting quite an open game in midfield. After that, they were able to retreat into their own half and soak up pressure, a strategy that wouldn’t have been as viable at 0-0. His second goal, a brilliant Puskassed dragback-and-fire from close range, furthered Simeone’s belief that Atletico were able to win by simply counter-attacking.

Numbers game

So what of the tactical battle? This was fairly obvious – Atletico Madrid were 4-2-3-1, Athletic Bilbao were 4-3-3. There was a 3 v 3 in midfield, clear battles on the flanks, then each side had a spare man at the back. Atletico could match Athletic all over the pitch and be content with a safety net in defence, and Athletic struggled to play their way through.

Bielsa’s side had one clear possibility to get a man past his opponent – the Ander Iturraspe versus Diego battle deep in midfield. In the semi-final against Sporting, Iturraspe did very well to shuttle past the two attacking midfielders and catch the opposition number ten out (which actually resulted in Sa Pinto replacing his number ten to bring in a more defensive option who could track Iturraspe). Diego isn’t the best player defensively, wasn’t sure whether to press the second Athletic centre-back or drop goalside of Iturraspe, and his awareness without the ball could have been tested more – but Athletic were surprisingly unwilling to bring Iturraspe forward.

Athletic movement

Athletic’s main strategy was to bring their wingers inside at the start of the game – particularly Iker Muniain, who tried to become the extra man in the middle. But their movement was a little too rushed, too frantic and involved too many players moving into the same zone. They weren’t stretching the play, with Markel Susaeta taking up very ‘obvious’ positions in the centre of the pitch.

There were very few runs like those depicted in diagrams 5 and 6 here – the wingers were always moving central. The full-backs were meant to get forward and stretch the play, but the long diagonals were often wayward, and both Adrian Lopez and Arda Turan did their defensive jobs well.

Atletico tactics

Simeone’s side set out in a fairly standard shape without the ball, with two banks of four featuring two very central, very deep holding players. It was rare to find either Suarez or Gabi out of position, and Athletic continually had to try and play around them as they were unable to go through them – and with their reluctance to go wide, this made things tricky.

Line-ups after Bielsa's half-time changes

The Atletico full-backs tucked in narrow, and the wingers tracked the full-backs, then broke forward quickly to support Falcao. Adrian on the right did a good job in becoming a second striker on the few occasions that Atletico got into the final third. Turan played deeper and contributed more to build-up play, combining nicely with Diego. Atletico also did well to initially press Bielsa’s sides at the start of moves, breaking up their build-up play from the back.

Bielsa’s first and second changes

Athletic needed to change their gameplan, and despite the fact that Athletic didn’t get back into the game in terms of goals, Bielsa’s first change worked well. He made two substitutions – the first was a straight swap, with Iturraspe (who didn’t offer forward drive and was too slow on the ball) replaced with Inigo Perez.

The second change was more important – Jon Aurtenetxe departed, with the highly versatile Oscar De Marcos going to left-back. Muniain moved to the centre of midfield in De Marcos’ previous role, and Ibai Gomez was on down the left. This demonstrated that Bielsa thought Athletic were far too vertical in the centre of midfield when attacking, with both Herrera and De Marcos driving directly towards goal.

Muniain, who plays as a central winger when in the middle of the pitch, was allowed to drift wide to the channels and create overloads with the wingers, who also stayed wider in the second half and stretched the play (of course, it also helped that Gomez does this more naturally than Muniain; Susaeta simply change his role).

Within a minute Muniain had moved wide and forced a corner, although this was on a mini-break and thereafter with Atletico sitting deep, this was less of a possibility as Muniain was making runs in front of the Atletico side, where they could watch him closely. Simeone didn’t bother to change his system, as Athletic were using roughly the same formation.

Line-ups after Bielsa's third change

Bielsa’s third change

His next move was more desperate – the hard-working but technically limited Gaizka Toquero replaced Herrera, which meant Muniain moving deeper and playing as the ‘second’ midfielder in a two, while Toquero went upfront alongside Llorente.

Consequently, Atletico were robbed of their spare man, so Suarez became the game’s key player – dropping in to become an additional centre-back to create a 3 v 2 at the back when Athletic got the ball wide, but then moving forward into midfield to make a 3 v 2 in midfield when Atletico had spells of possession, helping the slow the tempo of the game. He made a lot of clearances, and if Falcao was the star of the first half, Suarez was the star of the second – though the glory went to Diego, with an excellent third on the counter.


Often the tactics play a big part in the scoreline – here, the scoreline played a big part in the tactics. Atletico’s approach changed dramatically but fluently once they had gone 1-0 up, as if that had been part of their gameplan all along and had been drilled on how to adjust. Ultimately Athletic couldn’t find a way through. Bielsa’s sides never score enough goals for their dominance of possession, and tonight was a great example of how easier it is to break down a disorganised, recovering defence, rather than one with structure and balance.

Simeone’s happiness with his formation and shape were summed up by the fact he didn’t use the bench until the 88th minute, when Atletico were already 3-0 up.

The final word must be on Falcao – tonight was a masterclass in how to play the lone striker role in a counter-attacking side – he was ruthless in the penalty box, but also clever with his movement and the manner with which he received the ball, always on the run towards goal.

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