Over the past 3 years, Diego Simeone’s version of Ateltico Madrid has proven harder and harder to break down. The loss of some of their best players to the allure of more established European powerhouses did not impact the progress and identity of Atletico Madrid under the Argentine’s leadership. On their way to their second Champions League final in 3 years, Los Rojiblancos claimed the scalps of the two overwhelming favourites for this year’s title – Barcelona and Bayern Munich, respectively. Pegged back in their own half for 70% of both games, they still managed to put 3 goals past Barcelona and 2 past Bayern Munich. It is therefore fair to say that their route to the final was built on defensive solidity, impeccable tactical discipline and efficiency in front of goal.
Defensive Setup and the Trap
Simeone employs a very structured and well organised yet very fluid defensive system. He sets up his team horizontally, coupling strict man marking and pressing with rigidity around the defensive structure. Upfront, Torres and Griezman setup the trap using a spin-off of the Geggenpressing technique; coined by Klopp at Dortmund. The two banks of four’s main responsibility is to close any gaps that they deem offensively dangerous by aggressively pressing the opposition in their defensive half and keeping the gaps between both banks as minimal as possible. On the surface, it sounds very simple and straightforward to implement but in reality this requires extreme focus and a telepathic understanding between the 8 players to ensure any gaps created from one player leaving his spot to track a player is instantly covered by his teammates while maintaining the horizontal shape and structure.
At the top of the field Torres and Griezman are workhorses that work tirelessly to set up the “passing trap”, which when successful, enables the team to launch devastating counter attacks. When the opposition is playing from the back, the two attackers use high pressure and smart body positioning to force the opposition to pass out wide to one of the two full backs. Whoever is then closer uses the touchline from one side and his body to cut off the vertical passing lane, meanwhile, his partner focusses on cutting the short horizontal passing lane. This subsequently forces the defender to go for the long lofted pass either deep in Atletico’s half which is then easily won back by the defenders or to a wide winger who is pressured by an expected man marker.
Even though the 2-1 win was not sufficient for Bayern to progress to the final, Pep Guardiola hit the tactical nail on the head and provided the recipe for success. Everyone including Simeone would agree that they were lucky to progress to the final after the second game. Withstanding wave after wave of German attacks, Atletico had to rely on Oblak’s heroics, a missed penalty and one successful trap that forced a poor lofted pass which allowed Griezman to break and score the vital away goal.
Guardiola’s master plan was based on two key objectives. His first objective was to disrupt Atletico’s horizontal structure. He did that by asking both his full backs to cut deep rather than hug the touchlines and focus on the overlap. Lahm and Alaba were seen on numerous occasions playing as extra central midfielders. Atletico’s players did not know what to do to counter this movement. On the one hand tracking those players would break the horizontal set up and open up gaps between the now virtual banks of four, while on the other hand leaving them to run loose to maintain their structure meant that Bayern had the advantage of unmarked midfielders. Both options disrupted the solidity of the Atletico defence and allowed Bayern to occupy the 18-yard box for extended periods.
His second objective was to exploit the one weakness in Atletico’s back four – the aerial limitations of both full backs. Juanfran and Felipe Luis are both very solid defending on the ground but in the air, they lack the physical presence and timing of Diego Godin, Savic or Gimenez. Most of Bayern crosses targeted the far post and especially the full backs – Muller and Lewandowski were instructed by Guardiola to drift wide and play shoulder to shoulder with the full backs to win headers from the incoming crosses and set up dangerous chances in the Atletico box. It was this tactic that resulted in Bayern’s second goal but this time through Vidal outmuscling Luis in the build up to the goal.
At Zidane’s disposal are the gourmet ingredients to Guardiola’s recipe. In Marcelo and Carvajal, he has two attack minded full backs that can perform the Lahm/Alaba role very effectively. Only this time Real are not chasing a win. Marcelo is a player that naturally likes to cut deep and run through the midfield so rather than opening up both flanks and exposing counter attacks on both sides, Zidane should focus the structure disruption activity through Marcelo only. Casameiro would then have a relatively easier time in worrying about covering only one flank.
Exploiting the aerial weaknesses of the full backs is where Zidane has hit the jackpot. Ronaldo and Bale are physically superior and are both superb in the air; something that Costa and Ribery were unable to offer Guardiola. Modric and Isco/Kroos are all technically gifted midfielders who will be able to dictate play and pick up Bale and Ronaldo with long balls while also supporting Casameiro with superb defensive abilities.
If Real manage to breakdown Atletico in the first half it would be no surprise if they run away with a very comfortable win on Saturday.