Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid (AET): Real snatch late equaliser at end of cautious first 90 minutes before becoming rampant in extra-time

May 27, 2014

The line-ups - Adrian replaced Diego Costa after seven minutes because Costa was clearly nowhere near fit

Real won the European Cup final with an impressive late rally.

Carlo Ancelotti selected Sami Khedira as Xabi Alonso’s replacement deep in midfield, and chose Fabio Coentrao over Marcelo at left-back. Raphael Varane started rather than Pepe, who wasn’t 100% fit.

Diego Simeone wasn’t able to call upon Arda Turan, so Raul Garcia started on the right. Simeone gambled on the fitness of Diego Costa, but the Brazilian-cum-Spaniard was nowhere near fully fit, and Adrian Lopez replaced him inside ten minutes.

This looked set to be a classic underdog victory – reactive, counter-attacking and with the winner from a set-piece – but Real’s own set-piece equaliser forced extra-time, and from then there was only one winner.

Overall pattern

The pattern was as expected – two counter-attacking sides playing out a cautious match, and the only two goals coming from corners. There were few clear-cut chances in open play, and despite the intention of both sides, relatively few dangerous counter-attacks either.

Atletico started with their usual 4-4-2 shape but moved to 4-1-4-1 after the break, while Real’s system initially seemed a hybrid of 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, although looked more like a simple 4-4-2 the more the match continued.

Real dominate possession

Arguably the key question was about how Atletico would win possession – they’re capable of pressing high up the pitch and using an aggressive defensive backline, or sitting deep with the strikers occupying space in midfield. Logically, against a fast Real attack it was the latter, and this created a slow, patient contest.

Atletico were excellent at denying Bale and Ronaldo the ball, and in the first 90 minutes there were only two examples of ‘classic’ Real breaks through these two – both when Atletico conceded possession cheaply with terrible square passes. David Villa misplaced a pass and allowed Ronaldo to charge forward, while Tiago played an even worse ball, allowing Bale to cut inside and shoot – probably the game’s best chance in open play.

Otherwise, there were various reasons Real didn’t break well: Atletico’s  good positional play, their willingness to commit highly cynical fouls to stop these breaks, and Bale and Ronaldo simply playing poorly. Another factor, however, was that Real weren’t good at winning the ball to catch Atletico out of position. Khedira wasn’t fully fit after his long injury lay-off, and was unable to provide the energy and tenacity Real required in that central zone – Atletico bullied Real in 50:50 challenges.

Real’s best hope in the first half, particularly in the opening stages, was Karim Benzema dropping deep. He moved away from goal, presumably with the hope of dragging Atleti’s defenders out to create space for others, and tried a couple of clever flicks for Bale.

Atletico attacks

Atletico were poor in open play. Koke tried to instigate moves from his inside-left position, but it was very obvious Simeone’s side were without Turan and Costa – they didn’t have the quick passing combinations on the break of the former, or the pace and aggressiveness of the latter. He’s so good at working Real’s two centre-backs and excelled in this fixture earlier in the campaign, and while Villa battled tirelessly, neither he nor Adrian provided a real outlet.

Villa, incidentally, was the game’s most-fouled player, and the player who committed the most fouls – he tried to become Costa for the evening.

There were a couple of long diagonal switches towards Raul Garcia to use his aerial presence, but they were rarely as effective as in the quarter-final against Barcelona, when this was the game’s key feature. Coentrao’s extra height is probably why Ancelotti used the Portuguese left-back over Marcelo – Garcia’s aerial prowess was arguably Atletico’s greatest weapon.

Atletico crossed the ball a lot, which meant Real’s centre-backs were often called into action – although Atletico’s strikers were rarely in a position to get their head to the ball. Sergio Ramos would eventually be Real’s matchsaver, but Varane was even better in his own box, constantly making crucial clearances.

They couldn’t prevent Diego Godin scoring his second crucial header in the space of a week, however, when Iker Casillas misjudged a high ball.

Carvajal free

As we learned from Atletico’s matches against Barcelona, where Daniel Alves was the key player because he was allowed space down the flank, opposition right-backs are crucial against Simeone’s side. Koke tucks inside and shuttles forward, while Filipe Luis defends narrow. This meant Real’s perennial outlet was Carvajal, allowed to dribble forward throughout the first period.

Carvajal is talented technically but not the best crosser at this stage of his career, and while on paper he was the most dangerous player, his end product wasn’t good enough. Atletico also seemed happy defending crosses, despite Ronaldo moving inside to become a second centre-forward alongside Benzema.

Atleti go 4-1-4-1

The major change at the start of the second half was Simeone switching shape, and moving to a 4-1-4-1 system. It made sense for him to become more cautious with an extra midfielder considering Atletico were now 1-0 up. Koke shifted inside, Adrian moved left and now Atletico were doing a much better job of pinning back the Real full-backs – particularly Carvajal, the first half dangerman, although it left Tiago with a large amount of space to cover.

The line-ups by full-time - Real now a clear 4-4-2, Atletico 4-1-4-1

However, the move also improved Atletico going forward, and in the opening 15 minutes Adrian gave Carvajal some really difficult moments. After all, Adrian was now in his best position and looked much more comfortable dribbling down the flank – he also had Atletico’s best chance of the second half, with a blocked shot following a Godin knock-down. This was an unusual situation, following a set-play, but Adrian was certainly the liveliest player at the start of the second period.

Ancelotti changes

After an hour, Ancelott made two subtle but positive changes. Marcelo replaced Coentrao and bombed forward much more down the left, helping Real make inroads down that flank. Simeone quickly turned to Jose Sosa in place of Raul Garcia, who had tired and could therefore no longer track his man.

In the centre of the pitch – with Real now unquestionably a 4-4-2 – Khedira was predictably removed and Ancelotti went for Isco, a much more attacking option than Asier Illaramendi, to bring more creativity.

Real were now playing an absurdly attacking midfield – two natural number tens and two wingers. Adrian looked to move inside into the space between the lines, but never collected possession in that zone. Atletico could have done more to counter-attack in this period – although had they not conceded the late equaliser, we could have considered this a perfect strategic and defensive performance.

Both managers used their final change to replace tired/injured players – Benzema and Filipe Luis were struggling, and therefore placed by Alvaro Morata and Toby Alderweireld respectively.

Di Maria

The real star of Real’s comeback, however, was Di Maria. The Argentine was fantastic all game, helping to connect midfield and attack (something Bale did poorly when Real had spells of possession) and charging forward on mini-breaks. He rarely provided an incisive pass at the end, but this was often because of Atletico fouls. Amazingly, no fewer than three Atletico players were booked for hacking down Di Maria before the game reached 75 minutes.

Di Maria had a burst of pace and whipped in a stream of crosses from the left, which was Real’s zone of strength. Marcelo supported him effectively and played some neat combinations, while Ramos also moved forward from centre-back to help down that side. Although Atletico were reasonably happy defending crosses, this was still Real’s best hope of getting back into the game – they didn’t seem to have enough space to break down Atletico’s defence from central zones. Marcelo to Di Maria was the game’s most frequent passing combination, despite the fact they were only on the pitch together for half of the 120 minutes.

Equaliser

Ultimately, the pressure created half-chances and Ramos headed in deep into stoppage time, forcing extra time. Atleti might regret allowing Sosa to shoot (poorly) from a 91st minute free-kick – they surely needed to take the ball into the corner and waste time.

Atletico will inevitably be criticised for not defending with men on the two posts for the corner, but this is surely amongst the laziest pieces of football analysis around. Atletico were defending with ten outfielders – one stopping the short corner, the other nine inside the penalty box.

Failing to put a man on the posts isn’t some kind of stupidity, some kind of obvious oversight – it’s simply because Simeone wants those two players to defend the first ball, and play offside from the second ball. He believes this is more effective, and considering Atletico have defended set-pieces brilliantly all season there’s no reason to disagree. The hundreds of times Atletico have successfully cleared the first ball this season has partly been because they haven’t defended with men on the posts.

Extra time

Into extra-time, there was only one winner. Real had momentum following their late equaliser and also simply seemed much fresher – partly as they had dominated the game and forced Atletico to chase, partly because they had more rest coming into this game having given up on the league three weeks ago, and partly because Atletico were absolutely exhausted having played a terrifyingly intense midfield pressing game throughout the campaign. Simeone surely regretted wasting his first change gambling on Costa’s fitness, however.

Atletico tried to sit back and deny Real space to break into, but simply seemed exhausted. Di Maria continually drove forward marvellously, and was rightly awarded man of the match – his dribble and shot created the crucial second goal, for Bale. The Welshman’s finishing throughout the night had actually been extremely poor, with his teammates visibly frustrated by his refusal to pass.

Atletico had no way back at 2-1 down, and Real’s subsequent two goals were all about Atletico being too tired to get in (proper) challenges – Marcelo found himself in a goalscoring position almost accidentally to fire in, before Ronaldo won and converted a late penalty.

It was no coincidence Real’s three goals originated from the left flank, not merely because that’s the zone they’d been working all night, but also because Atletico right-back Juanfran was hobbling throughout extra-time. 4-1 was harsh on Atletico.

Conclusion

Atletico were two minutes away from a classic cup final victory. Strategically they did nothing particularly exciting, and a little like last weekend’s Liga ‘final’ against Barcelona (their sixth meeting against Barca this season), their fifth meeting with Real smacked of a contest between two sides who knew each other inside-out.

It was the standard Atletico blueprint, with the caveat that Turan and Costa’s absence meant their counter-attacking wasn’t effective. They were superbly organised at the back and used their aerial strength for the opening goal. It’s amazing they were denied an unthinkable double because they failed to defend a set-piece properly – that’s the one thing you expect Atletico to do effectively.

It’s incredibly harsh that their campaign has ended in such bitter heartbreak, but Simeone and his players should still be regarded as one of the the teams of the century so far, for winning a two-team league as the third team. It’s only surprising that they wilted in the European Cup, rather than over the course of a 38-league season, but both competitions came down to incredibly fine margins.

Real’s long wait for a tenth European Cup is over, although it’s difficult to pinpoint precise tactical reasons for the triumph in this final. Ancelotti’s changes were broadly effective and Di Maria was superb, but their star players were underwhelming.

Still, Ancelotti has created an organised side boasting excellent technical footballers, and it was impressive they didn’t fall apart defensively with such an adventurous side after the hour mark. They also deserve great credit for their fitness levels – that, more than anything else, was why they prevailed.


Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid (AET): Real snatch late equaliser at end of cautious first 90 minutes before becoming rampant in extra-time

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