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Champions League Preview: Defenses

Real Madrid face off against the world's best defense.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

This is the second in a five part series examining the units which will be pitted against each other on May 24. The previous part in the series focused on the goalkeepers, the next part will focus on the midfields.

It is no secret that Atletico Madrid's defense has been the biggest key in them beating out Barcelona and Real Madrid in the league, as well as making it to the Champion's League final. It's their biggest strength. Meanwhile, Real Madrid's defense could breathe a sigh of relief if Diego Costa will miss the final but must nevertheless show the defense which we saw against Bayern Munich, not the defense of the last Clasico.

Atletico Madrid

Atleti will not throw any lineup curveballs Real Madrid's way, at least not on defense. The back four of Filipe Luis (LB), Diego Godin (CB), Miranda (CB) and Juanfran (RB) will be their starters as all have played the vast majority of games this season and have developed a strong rapport. Off the bench, Toby Alderweireld is the first defensive option, while Javier Manquillo and Emiliano Insúa could also feature as emergency replacements.

Here's the short and skinny of it: Atleti's defenders are strong, physical but intelligent about their physicality and very good in the air. They've conceded the fewest goals in the league (26) by a seven goal margin and have conceded only six goals in 12 Champions League matches. Of course, they didn't play any offensive power aside from Barca in the Champion League but underestimate them at your own peril, this is still a stifling back four.

Statistically, Atleti does an incredible job limiting shots from the opposition and especially shots on target, an area which is a strength of Real Madrid and which means that the men in white will have to be extremely efficient in their shot selection. They are an incredible tackling unit, leading both the league (24.6) and the Champions League (25.7) in tackles per game. Of course, tackles aren't always necessarily a good thing as a tackle can be a last-ditch measure but it's interesting to note the tackles versus fouls comparison in order to gauge their tackling efficiency, and this shows us that Atleti do a good job of tackling within the confines of the rules as they have been relatively foul-free in the league. However, in the Champions League their cardings and foul calls have gone up so a new set of referees such as the card happy one we'll see might work in Real Madrid's favor.

As Atleti play a 4-4-2, it takes an involvement from every single player to make this defense work. The midfielders ahead of the defense will usually pinch in and form a compact defensive unit and thus forcing the opposition out wide where the fullback quickly press them. However, their strikers will position themselves between the opposition's centerbacks and fullbacks, to prevent any passing out wide and thus shifting the ball into the middle of the field where Atleti's physical midfielders and defenders can boss around the opposing players. Play the ball out wide and their fullbacks swarm on you, play it in the middle and you have to deal with Gabi and co.

For further reading on Atleti's defensive tactics, please give this excellent article a read as it thoroughly analyzes their defensive scheme.

Offensively, Atleti's defenders aren't afraid to get forward as they play a very high line and look to press, and win back, the ball immediately. Their CBs will fan out wide and Juanfran and especially Felipe Luis can cause trouble out wide. While their fullbacks aren't as offensively proficient as Daniel Carvajal and Marcelo, Atleti should be less vulnerable to being hit on the counter when their fullbacks go forward due to their excellent rotations to cover open spaces behind them. Their set piece proficiency is widely known at this point and Real Madrid will have to do everything in their power to try and outmuscle Atleti on jump balls as they've scored seven goals via header this season.

All in all, this will be Real Madrid's biggest defensive nut to crack. Though to play Atleti's defense through the middle, tough to play them out wide and they're good both with the ball and especially without it. Due to Atleti trying to drive play into the middle of the pitch one would assume that Real will look to utilize wide spaces and their speed advantage on the wings.


Real Madrid

The projected back four for Real Madrid are Fabio Coentrao (LB), Sergio Ramos (CB), Pepe (CB) and Daniel Carvajal (RB). Substitutes off the bench include Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Alvaro Arbeloa and Nacho. The big question which everyone has in their minds is will Pepe not only be healthy enough to start the match, but healthy enough to perform his duties at a competent level. While Diego Costa potentially being unavailable does make life somewhat easier for Real Madrid's centerbacks, it will still undoubtedly be a physical battle and if Pepe can't provide his usual output then one might have to consider starting Varane in his place. Marcelo could also be a key player to bring on late should the score be tied or with Real Madrid losing as his offensive skills wide have shown to be a thorn in Atleti's side late in games, as evidenced in the 2-2 draw at the Calderon.

Individually, one would be hard pressed to find a more talented defensive unit than Real Madrid. On a good day, Sergio Ramos is arguably a top-3 centerback in the world while Pepe has been Real Madrid's most consistent defender this season, showing why he is deeply feared by anyone who tries to get past him. However, in Real's strength also lies their weakness. Ramos is prone to moments of boneheadedness such as the one he displayed in the loss against Celta Vigo, while Pepe can be drawn into silly theatrics against physical opposition such as Diego Costa and Atleti.  Dani Carvajal will be incredibly important as his runs forward could prove to be the key to unlocking Atleti's defense while Fabio Coentrao will provide a defensive contrast to Carvajal and will look to quiet down Koke who tends to play on the left side of the pitch.

Defensively, Real Madrid concedes two more shots per game (10.9) than Atletico Madrid while tackling less per game (19.8), intercepting more balls (14.2) and fouling more (11.8). However, Real Madrid is smarter about their fouls as they've picked up nine less in the league due to physical play. In 12 Champions League games, Real Madrid has conceded nine goals, though they did completely shut down one of the world's best offenses in Bayern Munich. They've conceded eight goals by headers in the league and Champions League combined this season, slightly worrying considering Atleti's aerial prowess, but can take solace in the fact that Atleti has conceded seven headed goals as well in both competitions combined and that Real wins 58 percent of their aerial duels while Atleti wins 51 percent.

Defensively, Real Madrid has the option of playing two systems. They can stick with the 4-3-3 throughout on both offense and defense and look to control possession, or they can look to cede possession in a 4-4-2 to Atleti and force the opposition to play a possession-oriented game, something which is less preferable for them. Real's fullbacks will undoubtedly look to get forward, at least Dani Carvajal will, which will put the onus on the midfielders to cover for the gaps they leave behind should Atleti win the ball back and look to counter. Much like Atleti's gameplan, the midfielders and their defensive involvement will be absolutely vital to the team's success and it will be their involvement which will speak the true volumes of how the game is progressing.

Going forward, Real Madrid certainly poses a big threat for Atleti. All three of Ramos, Pepe and Varane are accomplished attackers in the air and Ramos has apparently discovered his inner R9 as he's been a menace to opposing defenders in the past few weeks. As previously mentioned Dani Carvajal will likely play further up the pitch in an attempt to influence Atleti's defense to shift toward him, thus freeing up his teammates to make their runs. As Carva is averaging 1.1 key passes per game (with Marcelo averaging 1.6 and Fabio averaging .5) expect to see at least the diminutive Spaniard make runs forward. Defensively, this will put pressure on Gareth Bale to cover for him should Atleti win the ball back, but it is more likely that Asier Illarramendi will fill that gap. This could be a weak point for Madrid as they've conceded 21 goals from their right side as opposed to 17 from the left in all competitions this season.

All eyes will be on Atleti's defense performing their defensive duties, while attention will be focused on Real Madrid's defenders and how well they can attack due to Atleti not being a possession-oriented team, not to mention Diego Costa potentially being unavailable and thus freeing up Real Madrid's defenders to go forward a bit more with somewhat less hesitation.


The defensive lines present a contrast in style. While Real Madrid's back line arguably has more talent on an individual level in all four positions and certainly with the bench players, Atleti's back line has shown to be the best collective unit in Europe this season and thrives on a swarm mentality. Real Madrid has the better offensive skills from the defenders, superior depth and can toss in a potentially game-changing wildcard in Marcelo late in the game should the title still be hanging in the balance. However, even though they might not have flash or big names such as Sergio Ramos or Pepe, Atleti's defenders are brutally effective on defense and you can never count them out on set pieces. Don't be completely fooled by the aggregate 5-0 enjoyed by Real Madrid in the CDR, deflections and penalties are rare events.

Small edge to Atletico Madrid simply because of their cohesiveness but don't be surprised if both defenses keep this a very low scoring affair.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this matchup below.

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