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Champions League Preview: Midfields

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Real Madrid's individual brilliance versus Atlético de Madrid's collective stoutness.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

This is the third 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 defenses, the next part will focus on the attackers.

Similar to the defense and attackers, Real Madrid will come into this game with arguably superior individual talent across the board in the midfield. Luka Modric is one of the two or three best midfielders alive and is capable of completely controlling a match on his own, Angel di María is a flexible dynamo capable of drastically influencing events on both ends of the pitch, Asier Illarramendi is solid though unspectacular and is considered by some to be Xabi Alonso's natural replacement and Isco has transformed himself from one of the world's best young creative talents into a more complete central midfielder. Atleti's midfielders, with the exception of Koke, are solid players who don't receive nearly the same amount of plaudits yet they've formed an unbelievably cohesive unit this season which is more than capable of knocking off any midfield considered to be more talented.

Atlético de Madrid

Atleti will play with a midfield of Koke, Tiago, Gabi and Arda Turan who picked up a knock against Barcelona in the season finale and likely won't be near 100 percent match fit. Substitutes include José Sosa, Mario Suárez, Raúl García and Adrián. I've written about Gabi before and how he's the linchpin of the center of their midfield, and along with partner Tiago they collective make over seven tackles a game. Usually tackles don't mean much to me as they can be a last resort measure when you've been beaten, but if you watch these two it's obvious that their tackles are smart and are proactive, not reactive. However, Gabi and Tiago are both yellow card risks as they've accumulated 11 and eight of them in the league, respectively, and Turan isn't far behind. With two dead ball specialists in Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale being available, this could be enormous if one of the Atleti midfielders bring down a Real Madrid player on the edge of the box where the Real Madrid superstars can take aim at goal.

Out wider, Atleti will feature arguably the league's best young player this season, Koke, and King Leonidas lookalike Arda Turan. The guy is something straight out of 300. Along with Gabi at times, these two players will drive the offense with Koke being given keys to the car and taking off with them. In the league, only Cesc Fàbregas, who will be watching the game from home, and di María have contributed more assists than Koke. He's also averaging nearly two key passes per game so he's creating the chances his teammates need to be successful. However, he'll potentially be without his favorite target in Diego Costa. Between the four of them, they've scored 14 goals in all competitions.

However, for all their toughness in winning the ball back and for all of Koke's brilliance which will undoubtedly be a calling card for bigger clubs across Europe, Atleti is not particularly skilled with the ball for extended stretches of time. This was evidenced in the first leg against Chelsea where Mou's team played compact in the middle and forced Atleti to play out wide while ceding possession to the Spanish club. What resulted was an extraordinary amount of crosses and stale possession without many threats on goal. When RM played them, the blancos were dominant in possession and did pretty well aside from the first game and the middle 50 minutes in the last game, but don't be surprised if Carlo allows Atleti to hold on to the ball and hitting them on the counter.

Defensively, much like the back line, is where Atleti's midfield shines. Atleti's whole mindset is to compact the game, form a tight unit in the middle and force the opposition out wide to stifle creativity in the middle and force in crosses where Atleti's men can shine in the air. Here is how they were able to stifle Barca this past weekend, they pressed high and hard while forming two incredibly compact lines of four and quickly dropping back as soon as the opposition crosses the center line. Atleti's wingers move more centrally to occupy space which narrows the pitch and forces the opposition out wide where they're highly pressed, while this action also allows for quick, fast passing from Atleti through the midfield where both Koke and Turan are comfortable playing both higher as well as deeper. One might think that an easy way to beat this is to play out wide, but Atleti's strikers will press hard as well and will occasionally force the ball into the middle of the pitch by positioning themselves between the CBs and FBs, thus giving Atleti the advantage through their midfield dominance.

I would suggest reading this for further analysis of their midfield defensive tactics. Simeone has absolutely nailed it when it comes to developing a system that maximizes his players' potential.

Real Madrid

Real Madrid will field Asier Illarramendi, Luka Modric and Angel di María in their midfield. Substitutes include Sami Khedira, Isco and Casemiro. As we all know, Illarra will be starting in place of the injured Xabi Alonso and will serve as the deep man in the three, fighting for balls and hopefully making smart passes (just give it to Luka and get out of the way, kid). Modric will play slightly higher up but isn't afraid to play laterally to the Ilarra/Xabi player and will contribute his fair share on defense before creating magic while on the ball. The wildcard is ADM. Tactically, probably the single most flexible player on the pitch as he could line up in a half dozen spots without missing a beat. While Koke is a fine defensive player, he's arguably the most likely of Atleti's midfielders to get exposed so if ADM is shifted to the left side of the pitch expect to see much of the ball running to him. As previously mentioned, he's the number one assist man not only in the league, but in all of Europe's major leagues by a margin of four assists. Think about that for a while.

What's interesting is to see the strategy that Real Madrid takes. Its three most impressive games this season have been the two Bayern legs and probably the CDR final against Barca, but those are two possession-heavy teams to a fault. RM could go that same route, form two banks of four with either CR or Bale up top with whoever will be playing the striker role and look to give Atleti the ball. This way, RM is more defensively sound while forcing Atleti somewhat out of their element by making them play the possession game. As Atleti thrives on quick counters once the ball is won back and looking to feed the ball to Costa, making them take their time with the ball with potentially no Costa at the top to receive it would neutralize what they're trying to do on offense. As they're a team which doesn't score particularly much, at least not as much as Real Madrid, this could be a viable option for Carlo.

However, I believe that Carlo will return to the 4-3-3 which has worked well when RM tries to go on the offensive and assert their dominance. Atleti will try and force Modric and ADM out wide as they did in the 2-2 draw in order to limit their effectiveness in working from the middle outward to the wings. Another issue with the 4-3-3 is that it could lead to larger areas of the pitch for Modric and ADM to try and control, as opposed to the 4-4-2 which could provide more coverage against Atleti's four midfielders. Carlo will additionally have to see what Atleti's fullbacks do, whether they attack or not and leave space behind them or sit back in a flat four like they did in the 2-2 draw and look to neutralize CR and Bale.

Atleti tends to lean towards attacking down the left wing, naturally as that's where Koke roams, while driving the ball into the middle in order to create shots in the final third. Cutting off the supply in the central area will be imperative for Real Madrid.

Summary

This could go either way and my guess is that the midfield will be what decides the game. If Atleti cuts off the central area and forces Madrid to lob in cross after cross, it could be a long day for the men in white. Atleti also likes to play the long ball from the midfield so running the same high line RM ran in the first meeting of the season could be risky. However, Real has two potentially viable ways of playing this game, with and without possession, while maintaining the advantage. My hope is that Madrid will force the ball wide but not rely on lobs inward, but rather the fullbacks cutting in and looking for CR and Bale making runs into the box.

Advantage: on an individual level it's Real Madrid but we have to look at the entire units so it's a draw for me. Both great midfields.

If you have any input or tactical analysis/corrections to my write-up (please be gentle with me, I'm by no means a tactical whiz), please share them in the comments section below!