Atletico Madrid 2-2 Bayern Munich (agg): Atletico progress on away goals
Atletico narrowly progressed from a tight and extremely entertaining two-legged tie, as Bayern struggled to find the most suitable system for breaking down their opponents.
Diego Simeone was without star centre-back Diego Godin at the Vicente Calderon, so Stefan Savic started instead. Fernando Torres returned having served his suspension in the second leg of the quarter-final against Barcelona, and partnered Antoine Griezmann in Atletico’s compact 4-4-2 system.
Pep Guardiola surprisingly omitted Thomas Muller from his starting XI. He fielded two out-and-out wingers, Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman, on their natural flanks to help Bayern stretch the play.
Bayern full-back positioning
We all expected something innovative from Guardiola to cause Atletico’s solid defensive block problems. His approach wasn’t entirely new for him, but it was still interesting to observe. In the first half, Philipp Lahm played as a right-back when Bayern were defending, but drifted inside to become Xabi Alonso’s midfield partner when Bayern were attempting to build play. In response, right-sided centre-back Javi Martinez would drift wide to become, effectively, a right-back – which left David Alaba as Bayern’s sole centre-back. 4-1-4-1 without the ball, Bayern effectively become 3-2-4-1 when they had long spells of possession.
On the other side, meanwhile, Juan Bernat played less of an unusual role, but it was notable that he repeatedly made ‘underlapping’ runs inside Costa and into the channel, rather than going down the outside as you’d expect from a full-back.
The point was seemingly to the space down the flanks to allow Coman and Costa to engage in one-against-one battles with Atletico’s full-backs. Lahm’s narrowness was presumably intended to take Koke inside, too, and Martinez (and Arturo Vidal’s) wider positioning part of a plan to move the ball down the flanks.
Indeed, Bayern’s approach was based heavily around attacking wide spaces. Whereas Guardiola’s approach with Barcelona was all about dominating the centre of the pitch, his Bayern side have unquestionably depended more upon width. Nevertheless, it was amazing to see the emphasis upon wide play here. Neither Coman nor Costa had particularly good games – or, alternatively, both Juanfran and Filipe Luis were excellent. They stuck tight to the wingers, and while this increased the gaps between Ateltico defenders, one of their midfielders – generally Gabi or Koke – would drop into the backline, essentially preserving the four-man defence while the full-back was out wide. This left more space in midfield, but Bayern weren’t looking to exploit this.
When Bayern did have opportunities to cross the ball when Atletico were sitting deep, the delivery wasn’t particularly good. Costa threatened with one burst down the left and a cross which Jose Giminez hacked up into the air, but that was about it. Coman and Costa had one chance to counter-attack dangerously, but Coman’s decision-making was poor.
Bayern were at their most threatening when switching play quickly from one flank to the other. Atletico are so determined to remain horizontally compact that when they shift across to one flank, they leave oceans of space on the other. It was actually slightly surprising Bayern didn’t switch play more regularly, especially with Xabi Alonso deep in midfield.
For long periods, it was notable that Bayern had no-one whatsoever in the number ten position, roaming between the lines. Thiago came deep towards Alonso, Vidal tended to move right. Robert Lewandowski made a couple of runs towards play, but otherwise Atletico were able to be surprisingly open in that zone, simply because they didn’t have to track anyone. It was strange to see space between the lines for players to exploit, yet Bayern instead working the ball down the touchlines incessantly.
Atletico, meanwhile, were more aggressive than expected. Rather than sitting back inside their own third in the opening period, they pressed high up the pitch, causing Alonso, Alaba and Martinez problems in possession. At one point, they won the ball in the opposition half three times in a single minute (although the fact they needed to do so three times indicates they weren’t doing particularly well to keep possession). Gabi moved forward to press Alonso effectively, while Saul’s defensive work rate on the right was also impressive.
Saul also provided the game’s outstanding moment of individual quality with his stupendously brilliant solo winner. It was slightly ironic, considering Guardiola’s gameplan was all about clearing space on the flanks for his wingers to exploit, that his side was undone by a wide midfielder slaloming past tackles through the centre. Unquestionably a brilliant goal, this also underlined Bayern’s lack of traditional defensive qualities in deep positions, with various players failing to tackle Saul. Powerful dribbles weren’t unusual from Atletico – Filipe Luis also embarked upon a direct forward run from the left-back into a number ten position. The graphic showing both sides’ dribbles shows the difference in location very nicely.
Atletico also threatened when playing direct, long balls towards Torres and Griezmann. The former is playing his best football for years and has impressively evolved into a decent aerial force – which, again, exposed Bayern’s lack of traditional centre-back qualities – while Griezmann’s pace caused problems, particularly from a Saul flick-on into the right-hand channel.
Guardiola changes approach
Bayern improved after half-time, essentially when they moved to a more standard system. The full-backs pushed forward in a more natural manner, while Franck Ribery replaced Coman and played on the left with Costa switching to the right. Now the wide midfielders drifted inside more and the full-backs overlapped. Muller, meanwhile, was introduced in place of Thiago to provide an extra penalty box threat, and now Bayern looked far more likely to get back into the game. They were now playing the ball into the final third in a variety of ways compared to the first half.
However, their most threatening moments came from long shots – Alaba stuck the bar with a thundering 30-yard drive. Attempting long shots also forced Atletico to move forward and close down Bayern’s players, tempting them out from their deep block.
Atletico, though, came closest to a goal in the second half when Torres counter-attacked into the right-hand channel and bent a shot onto the far post in the closing stages. That would have sealed a brilliantly effective first leg win. At just 1-0, however, Bayern were very much still in the tie.
Travelling away to Munich with a one-goal lead, Simeone made just one change from his first leg side. Diego Godin was fit to return, with Savic making way.
Guardiola was also able to bring back a previously injured centre-back, Jerome Boateng, which meant Alaba moving wide and Bernat dropping out. He also played Ribery instead of Coman, meaning Bayern played with inverted wingers rather than natural wingers. Finally, he used Muller from the start, in place of Thiago. Bayern were a completely different side from the team which started the first leg, but somewhat similar to the side which ended it.
The introduction of Muller was the most obvious factor in Bayern’s increased goal threat. He played as a half-forward, theoretically a third central midfielder but realistically more of a strike partner for Lewandowski. Atletico looked unusually poor aerially against these two strikers, with Godin possibly not 100% fit and Giminez enduring a rather nervous tie overall.
Bayern’s wide players occupied completely different positions from the first leg. Whereas Coman and Costa hugged the touchlines in Munich, here Costa and Ribery played in the channels, finding pockets of space and opening up room for the full-backs to overlap into.
Bayern’s right-winger in the first game, Coman, only collected the ball wide – but Costa could tuck inside into narrower positions too.
The wingers were still able to send crosses into the box, with Costa’s early inswinging delivery causing Juanfran problems up against Lewandowski at the far post, and Lahm shooting over following a deep ball from Ribery. But they were also able to receive passes in central positions, between the lines. Atletico were being stretched in all directions, and being attacked in so many more ways than in the first leg.
Muller’s classic unpredictable positioning and movement was particularly difficult for Atletico cope with. Two incidents showed his value in this side – first, when he reacted quickly to reach a deflected Costa cross, and his scuffed shot nearly found Lewandowski at the far post. Second, when he made a run in behind to reach a long ball over the top, and surprisingly elected to pass to Lewandowski rather than shoot.
That long pass came from Boateng, and the defender’s introduction was another key feature. Those long passes over the top of the defence have proved particularly useful this season, particularly in the 5-1 victory over Dortmund, when Guardiola actually switched his centre-backs’ positions so Boateng could find space to arrow passes towards Lewandowski. He played his first long ball for the striker within the opening minute of this game, and overall Bayern passed the ball much more quickly than in the first leg, switching play effectively. Boateng regularly bypassed midfield to locate the forwards.
Indeed, such was Boateng’s threat in possession that Simeone seemed to change system in order to shut him down. Atletico’s formation was very changeable throughout the first half: they started in a 4-4-2, then changed to more of a 4-5-1 with Griezmann moving right, but when that was ineffective, Simeone reverted to the 4-4-2 and Atletico made more effort to stop Boateng advancing. Regardless of the system, however, Atletico found themselves unable to get out of defence, partly as Bayern pressed extremely well to keep the ball inside the opposition third.
Over the course of the tie, Atletico were, in general, very disciplined. However, a three-minute spell of indiscipline nearly cost them the game – Augusto Fernandez conceded a free-kick on the edge of the box which Alonso smashed in, via a Gimenez deflection. Shortly afterwards, Giminez fouled Martinez at a corner to concede a penalty – but Jan Oblak saved Muller’s penalty. Atletico were wobbling.
The key change came at half-time. 1-0 down and struggling to hang on, Simeone decided to make, on paper, an attacking change. Fernandez, his most defensive midfielder, was removed with Yannick Carrasco, a quick left-winger, on in his place. This could have simply resulted in Koke tucking inside and Atletico continuing to play in a 4-4-2 system, but instead Simeone changed to his third system of the game: a 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3 shape.
The most interesting thing about this system was the role of Saul. The wide midfielder who scored the outstanding winner in the first leg by dribbling past three Bayern players was now placed in the holding role, up against Muller and tasked with shielding the defence. A curious all-round player who sometimes played centre-back during a loan spell with Rayo Vallecano two years ago, he appears capable of playing almost anywhere on the pitch, and he performed this role effectively. He provided an extra body as Bayern attempted to feed their forwards quickly, and also showed composure in possession when under pressure.
Saul’s positioning allowed Koke and Gabi to push forward and press higher up the pitch, which meant Atletico weren’t under such sustained pressure. It also allowed Griezmann and Carrasco to attack Bayern’s full-backs, and suddenly Simeone’s side provided a counter-attacking threat once again. The goal came after a misplaced ball from Boateng, again attempting to feed the forwards, and then both Boateng and Alonso unsuccessfully pressed Gabi, leaving Atletico space to run into. Gabi fed Koke, who hit a forward pass out to right-winger Griezmann. He swapped passes with Torres, ran in behind the defence and scored.
Guardiola’s hybrid approach
Needing two goals to progress, Guardiola’s only significant change was introducing Coman in place of Costa. He played on the right, stayed much wider, and caused Atletico problems when he picked up possession near the touchline. His decision-making was poor, however, and Bayern instead got back into the game with a left-wing cross. Alaba overlapped Ribery – something that wouldn’t have happened in the first leg – and Vidal rose superbly to see up Lewandowski.
Indeed, it wouldn’t have happened on the opposite flank either. Coman’s width meant Lahm returned to his narrow role, underlapping to provide a dangerous cross which narrowly evaded the front two, then nearly getting in behind after playing a triangle with Coman and Vidal.
Bayern left themselves more open at the back, though, and it was Atletico who had the best opportunity to score a ‘winner’ when Torres was clumsily fouled by Martinez. Torres’ penalty was saved by Neuer, which should have prompted a Bayern onslaught. Atletico, though, defended their penalty box effectively and progressed on away goals.
An extremely tight tie which finished level on aggregate, this was decided by fine margins and small details. Simeone, however, got the better of the tactical battle.
Guardiola’s tactical experiments are always fascinating, but even he must concede that his approach during the opening period of the first leg wasn’t successful. It certainly made sense to stretch Atletico with two out-and-out wingers, but it was peculiar that he decided to omit Muller, the man who can find space no-one else spots, and that Bayern offered absolutely no central threat between the lines. They were unusually predictable during that period, and the fact Guardiola’s changes gradually returned Bayern towards a more traditional set-up (and, arguably, more of the way they played during Jupp Heynckes’ reign) suggests his initial tactics were deemed unsuccessful.
Bayern did lots of things well in the second leg: their pressing in the opening stages, their overall passing rhythm and their crossing towards two strong centre-forwards all caused problems. They lost the tie, however, in Madrid – particularly because they didn’t register an away goal.
Atletico’s performance over the two legs was surprisingly inconsistent: they’ve defended much better than this. Godin’s absence from the first leg, and his (probable) lack of sharpness in the second leg was crucial in this respect.
However, Simeone changed his formation to great effect at half-time of the second leg, and Atletico’s counter-attacking was consistently impressive too. It should also be remembered that they started the tie on the front foot because of their aggressive pressing, and they’re not all about deep defending and allowing the opposition to have possession. That was eventually their solution here, but Simeone showed Atletico are a far more flexible side than two years ago, and they should be capable of going one step further and winning the all-Madrid European Cup final this time around.
Atletico Madrid 2-2 Bayern Munich (agg): Atletico progress on away goals