A truly hard-earned result for Simeone’s men at the Vicente Calderon. In retrospect, Atletico were the far superior team; they managed to implement their playing style and Fernando Torres should have killed off the tie in the second half. Bayern were far from as poor as some have suggested, however.
The aftermath of the match has raised some interesting questions, but it’s worth taking a look at why these fixtures are so interesting in the first place.
Atletico Madrid’s rise to prominence in the 2013-14 season was filled with many notable achievements; they broke the Madrid-Barca duopoly in La Liga, were seconds away from winning the Champions League and didn’t have much of a budget. Yet, despite those accolades, arguably the most significant statistic from that season was Atletico’s record against Barcelona. Granted, a post-Pep, pre-Enrique transitional Barcelona. But the same Barcelona which had influenced an attacking revolution in Europe, nevertheless. Atletico went unbeaten in 6 games against Barcelona, forcing 2 0-0 draws and winning the game that eliminated them in Europe. Lionel Messi didn’t score in any of those games, and Barcelona’s attack was largely toothless. Atletico, on the other hand, saw Barcelona’s style play into their hands.
That Barcelona still played in a manner similar to the 2010-11 team, albeit at a lower level. Possession was still valued above all, and the side relied on the traditional Busqets-Xavi-Iniesta midfield. Fast forward a few years, and a more physical Barcelona with a more direct style of play manages to win 7 straight games against Atletico, before losing the most important match of all in a comprehensive fashion.
A quick examination of these results is revealing. The Barcelona that was based on midfielders and playing passes through the middle struggled against Atletico. A more direct Barcelona was able to overcome the antithesis to possession football, but even then they struggled against Simeone’s strongest side.
Now the question arises, how would Guardiola’s Barcelona have fared against this Atletico Madrid side? Luis Enrique and Tata Martino are many things, but innovative isn’t exactly one of them. Their sides don’t have the same qualities as the 2010-11 team.
Now, Guardiola’s teams are strong passers through the middle of the pitch, but Atletico are equally strong defenders in the same area. How Guardiola would break them down was the million dollar question. This tie would pit the offensive mastermind of this generation against his defensive counterpart.
Atletico Madrid’s victory over Bayern Munich proved to be a fascinating tactical battle, but not because of the battle in the center of the pitch. During the second half in particular, Guardiola looked to stretch Atletico, daring them to maintain two central banks of 4 by overloading the wings and cutting out their counter-attacks.
Simeone opted for his first choice lineup. Yannick Ferrera Carrasco was unable to play, while Stefan Savic deputized for the injured Diego Godin.
Guardiola sent out a 4-3-3, with Coman and Costa starting out wide and Thiago playing as an extra man in midfield in place of Thomas Muller. Ribery was understandably benched- the Frenchman could have broken down during this physical contest, leaving the Catalan with one less substitution.
Against any Guardiola side, adopting a high press early on is always the logical thing to do. His Barcelona conceded early goals many times, while Juventus exposed them at the Allianz Arena as well. If anything, not pressing a Pep team in the opening stages is a crime, as Juventus experienced in Turin. Atleti have employed a similar tactic against Barcelona to great effect; they have went ahead in every single encounter against Barcelona this season.
Quite why Bayern Munich were so unprepared for this is hard to pinpoint. If anything, they were expecting it, as they pointed out in the post-match press conference. But Saul Niguez’s goal revealed another flaw in Bayern’s defense- they haven’t been very good in individual challenges off the ball. At the same stage last year, it was a common sight to see Messi dribble past groups of Bayern’s players, as they would consistently slide into wrecklessly challenges, only to completely miss the ball. Even for a player of Messi’s caliber, it’s rare to find multiple players run at you, only to commit to evadable tackles. Alvaro Morata’s goal at the Allianz Arena is another example of a player who could simply run through Bayern’s spine.
It was only a matter of time before Bayern settled down, after which Guardiola’s instructions translated into Bayern’s play.
Bernat, Lahm Cut In
A clear feature of Bayern’s play was the attempt to isolate Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa against their full backs. In the past, Guardiola has played Phillip Lahm or David Alaba as deep lying midfielders, but this time he simply asked Juan Bernat and Lahm to cut inside and make runs into the middle of the pitch. Indeed, Lahm played increasingly centrally as the match progressed.
While the full backs did make the right runs, and while the use of Lewandowski up front ensured that Coman and Costa often found themselves alone against Fillipe Luis and Juanfran, Bayern’s strategy was not incisive at all. By half time, Bayern had attempted 11 crosses and only one had even hit a target. Even when 1 on 1 against their markers, Coman and Costa struggled to break through.
Bayern clearly abandoned their attempts to play through the middle as well- Gabi and Augustō covered an immense amount of ground to lock the midfield down.
In contrast, Atletico could simply launch long balls forward to their in form strikers, and Bayern’s high line would be exposed. This happened multiple times during the first half itself.
The first half was ultimately underwhelming from Bayern, they were unable to play through Atletico’s defense, and were continously forced wide. Simeone had the game exactly where he wanted it, and the absence of Thomas Muller only added to the questions posed to Guardiola.
Following a Herculean effort in the first 45 minutes, it’s natural that Atleti looked to sit back. This is where the game began to get interesting, as Bayern had all the time in the world to perform their build-up play.
Midfielders Sit Deep
Arturo Vidal and Thiago, for all their offensive prowess, were extremely deep in the second half. They avoided venturing forward and rarely crossed the edge of the box. Vidal was Bayern’s greatest offensive threat, but even he completed few attacking passes.
After being played through easily in the first half, this was likely to help stop Atletico’s offensive transitions. This worked to an extent, as Griezmann and Torres often chased shadows for the first 20 minutes of the second half.
The deeper midfield also meant that Gabi and Augustō had less marking to do. Lewandowski was already being marshaled by Savic and Gimenez, and naturally, with no midfielders making runs forward Atletico’s midfield block was drawn higher up the pitch. One could frequently see Gabi and Augustō standing on the edge of the box, while Bayern threw their players wide or had them sit deep in the middle. While they weren’t useless, Gabi and Augustō had to move wide or forward to help contain Bayern, unlike against Barcelona, when Iniesta or Rakitic would make forays forward and play into their feet.
This is precisely where it made sense to leave out Thomas Muller. Pep was trying to overload wide areas to create chances, and the only man in the box was Lewandowski. Vidal and Thiago were too far from Atletico’s goal, and Alonso was a crucial pivot, albeit an ineffective one. Replacing Alonso with Muller would’ve sacrificed defensive stability for a player who wouldn’t exactly help stretch Atletico. In other words, Bayern only needed 1 player up top to act as a focal point, leaving Muller with no role.
Splitting Atletico’s Midfield and Defense
With Bayern playing in front of and around. Atletico’s banks of 4, Atletico slowly began to spread both laterally and vertically over time. It was a typical Guardiola move to try and play a 1-2 through Atletico’s defense, however, and despite pulling them out of shape, Bayern only managed to complete 1 of these over the course of the entire match.
Another weakness which Guardiola had identified was the long ball- see Luis Suarez’s goal against this side in January . With the full backs marking wingers and midfielders pressing high, Pep had the players to run into the space between the full back and center back. It was a common sight to see Atleti’s center backs pulled out wide. But again, they coped well and had the quality to clear the ball. When they didn’t- as with Douglas Costa’s chance, Bayern were unable to make the most of the difficult opportunity.
For all their strength in wide areas and passes in behind, Bayern only looked deadly when they took long shots. Alaba hitting the crossbar and Vidal’s brilliant long shot being cases in point, and by the time the substitutions rolled by, Atletico weren’t presenting much of an offensive threat.
After all their plodding and work to stretch Atletico, it was clear that Pep was ready to sacrifice some defensive stability. Thomas Muller’s introduction for Thiago instead of Alonso was slightly surprising considering Alonso’s decline, but signalled intent. Ribery for Coman made more sense, Coman was ineffective and it was worth trying Douglas Costa on the right. Lastly, Benatia slotted in at center back and Alaba was free to move forward.
The substitutions improved Bayern’s quality on the wings, freed some space for Atletico’s attackers, and allowed Alaba to take another long shot.
Ultimately, Atletico simply adapted and were the fitter side. Bayern were predictable, and seemingly settled for the 1-0 result, and were handed a reprieve when Torres hit the crossbar.
Guardiola identified multiple areas in which Bayern could attack Atletico, and despite the prevailing criticism, made a half-decent decision to bench Muller.
As for Atletico, this was far from a vintage performance, yet even then they managed to shut Bayern out. This was the first and possibly one of the last times they’ll be stretched so heavily, and Simeone will be better prepared going into the second leg.
It is surprising that mainstream media didn’t cover Bayern’s poor away form more- they’ve struggled in visits to Spanish Giants and the counterattack in the past, but were still pipped as favorites against a side that shut out the MSN. This was likely down to the respect for Guardiola’s tactical acumen, and this was one of the most important games of his career.
In reality this was Bayern’s best away performance in their last 3 Champions League semifinals. But even then, it might not get them to the final.