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A Tactical Plan to Beat Atlético Madrid in the Champions League Final

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A detailed analysis of Atlético Madrid & Bayern Munich's tactics and what they mean for Real Madrid.

Lars Baron/Getty Images

There is little doubt that Atlético Madrid are one of the most supreme defensive machines of their generation. Having grown immensely since the middle of the 2012/13 season, Atlético Madrid are now more structurally sound, more versatile, and incredibly more threatening on the counter than they ever were before. There exists little conventional way of breaking this team down, driving some coaches to implement unconventional methods in order to do so. One of them is unsurprisingly Pep Guardiola, who perhaps put together the best tactical plan to beat Atleti the world has seen this season. If Real Madrid’s staff had any sense, they would drag Zidane in front of a screen and make him watch hours of Bayern’s offensive play vs. Atleti, which forced Jan Oblak to make 9 saves. But before I get into what Bayern did and how they did it, it is first important to understand how Atlético play.

The Basics

Atlético primarily employ two formations, a 4-4-2 and a 4-1-4-1, depending on the situation. Both provide Atlético with the ability to form two banks of four, aiding Simeone in forming a team naturally set up to defend. The focus of Atlético as a team is to close off spaces that look offensively threatening, so as to force the opposition to uselessly circulate the ball before losing it, which will then allow Simeone’s side to counter. Atlético do this through man-oriented marking, allowing them to snap at the heels of the opposition and pressure opponents into losing the ball. On the surface, this sounds extremely simple, but this system requires immense focus and organization from Los Colchoneros. For a manager, things can get extremely complicated when trying to coordinate a man-marking system whilst closing off spaces that can be created by a free moving attacker. Thus, Simeone employs a fluid defensive system, in which every single player in the line-up is ready to take the place of their teammates’, in the case that said teammate tracks a long-winding run. This allows Madrid to continually maintain their horizontal compactness, whilst staying close to their back four in order to prevent gaps in-between the lines.

Pressing, One vs. One defending, & the Setting of the Trap

This makes it seem like Atlético primarily sit back when defending, but Simeone’s side regularly employs a press to destabilize opponents who are attempting to build play from the back. Torres and Griezmann usually lead this press, using excellently developed one vs. one defending and body positioning to direct passes into any areas they please. Usually the body positioning of Torres and Griezmann, combined with the marking of the opposition’s central midfielders (by Atletico’s central midfield pairing), forces teams to play the ball wide to their fullbacks. Depending on the side, either Torres or Griezmann will use the touchline and their body positioning to cut off central passing lanes and force the pass to a man-marked winger. It is at this point where most teams lose the ball, as they usually attempt a lofted ball or badly placed ground pass, which is easily intercepted by Atlético’s defense. If the ball does reach the winger, Atlético often manage to close down the man on the ball, but sometimes use their body positioning and local compactness to force the ball to a central midfield option. By this time Griezmann and Torres would’ve turned their backs to face their own team, whilst cutting off passing lanes to the center backs and pressuring the central midfielder on the ball. Aiding their strikers would be the wide-men, who would’ve cut off horizontal passing lanes whilst pressuring the man on the ball. Last but not least would be the two pivots in Atleti’s midfield, who would cut off vertical passing lanes and would apply pressure to win the ball back.

The system depicted above is much like setting a trap. Through clever man-to-man defending, body positioning, teamwork, and work-rate, Atlético can control the opposing teams possession phase and win the ball back at will. With Simeone claiming that the game will be "high intensity," you can bet your house on the fact that the Red and Whites will be employing this same sort of pressing scheme.

How Bayern Munich Countered All of This

Off-the-ball movement

Brilliantly articulated in this article from Into the Calderon, Bayern Munich severely threatened Atlético’s goal with unpredictable off-the-ball movements. Using the dynamic ability of Alaba and Lahm, along with the excellent vertical movement of Vidal and the space investigating of Muller, Bayern exploited Atlético’s man-oriented defensive system. As noted in several tactical analyses of the game, Bayern’s fullbacks often acted as central midfielders in addition to providing width through overlapping runs. This seriously troubled the man marking assignments Simeone had dished out, forcing Atlético players to let some opposition players run free so as not to disrupt their defensive shape. As noted in the linked article, this allowed Alaba to draw a foul, which led to the opening goal of the game, as Atlético desperately tried to close down a man who had seemingly apparated near the edge of the box unmarked.

As hard as it was to mark Bayern’s fullbacks, is must have been nothing compared to trying to tie down the free moving Arturo Vidal and Thomas Muller. Vidal made himself a nuisance by continually acting as Bayern’s fifth attacker, often providing a late passing option in the box. As described in the linked article, this movement proved to be crucial, as he redirected a cross for Lewandowski to finish for the second goal of the evening.

But something the article didn’t fully touch upon was the decision to field Thomas Muller as a half forward. Playing as part of the central midfield three on paper, Muller provided another attacking body in the box, whilst causing haywire for Atlético’s defensive structure as they desperately tried to pick him up. This combined with the other number of players streaming into the attacking third allowed Bayern Munich to create numerical overloads in places of their desire, allowing them to create several chances that should’ve been finished off with aplomb.

Creation of Mismatches

Another part of Guardiola’s strategy was to create mismatches in the air versus Atlético’s fullbacks. Clearly trying to avoid Atléti’s dominance in the air at center back, Guardiola had Lewandowski and Muller play on the fringes of the box in order to create headed attempts at goal. In order to prevent Los Colchoneros’ center backs from moving to close down Lewandowski and Muller, decoy runners into the box like Ribery, occupied the attention of Savic and Gimenez and tied them down away from the real threat. It was in this way that the second goal was created, as this time Lewandowski and Muller occupied the center backs, while Vidal outmatched Filipe Luis in the air to assist his Polish teammate.

Counterpressing

Despite all that can be said about Bayern Munich’s attacking brilliance, it must still be noted that Atlético Madrid didn’t seem to be at their best defensively. In the first half especially, they looked quite nervous, as if rattled by the intensity of Bayern Munich’s attack. But it wasn’t the German side’s attack that unsettled Atleti’s defense, but rather their defending in the form of a counterpress.

Known as gegenpressing in Germany, counterpressing refers to an especially intense type of pressing that requires a team to win back possession within 5-7 seconds of losing the ball. The aim is to catch out a team transitioning from the defensive phase to the offensive phase of the game and exploit the inherent structural weaknesses that result from this. If the team fails to do so within that allotted time frame, they should recede back into a defensive shape. While this obviously requires excellent fitness, good team communication, and a fine work-rate, an underrated aspect of counterpressing is positional play in the offensive stage.

In order to successfully counterpress the opposition, your attackers and midfielders need to be perfectly set-up in a structure that will be conducive to pressing once the ball is lost. This means that positional play when you have the ball is of paramount importance, with particular attention needing to be paid to the edge of the box and the halfspaces.

The edge of the box is usually guarded by the team’s three forwards, with perhaps the help of a central midfielder. The spacing of these players in relation to each other is very important, so as to ensure an optimum amount of space can be covered without compromising horizontal compactness. This will allow the pressing team to apply pressure on the back line and create an immediate goalscoring opportunity if the ball is won back.

If a team bypasses this first line of defense, the halfspaces need to be well protected.

As noted in this GIF, if a team leaves one of their halfspaces free, Atleti will exploit it and create a clear-cut counterattacking opportunity. Thus it is paramount that the two wider central midfielders in a 4-3-3 protect their halfspaces and cut out the passing lanes best suited for counterattacking teams.

Pep Guardiola used this strategy to a tee, allowing him to suffocate Atléti’s counters and seriously rattle their defense.

As can be clearly seen in this graphic, Pep instructed his players to defend from the front, with Lewandowski completing as many tackles as Alaba

This complemented Guardiola’s need to create offensive overloads perfectly, as the ability to win the ball back right after losing it allowed Bayern to take advantage of a destabilized defensive structure that was moving into offensive transition.

This also pinned back Atleti in their own half, making it nearly impossible for them to launch counterattacks and employ a press of their own.

How Should Real Madrid Incorporate All of This?

Personnel Selection

The first thing to do is ensure that the right personnel capable of carrying out the game plan are on the pitch. In order to emulate Bayern Munich’s fluid attacking verve, Real Madrid need central midfielders that can play in-between the lines of Atlético Madrid’s midfield and defense. The primary candidate for this is Isco: a player now well accustomed to the duties of a central midfield role, and a player who possesses a clever understanding of off-the-ball movement. As demonstrated against Manchester City and even in previous clashes vs. Atlético Madrid, Isco is a great mover into the halfspace, an area which structured defenses find very hard to mark. Employing Isco in this space will allow Real Madrid to always have a vertical passing option in midfield, something that is essential when trying to bypass Atletico’s first bank of four in midfield. Without such a player in the line-up, Atlético will simply force all of Real Madrid’s passes out wide, thus pressuring Real into the same stagnant play that has nearly always plagued them against their city rivals.

Another reason to play Isco in the final is because of his understanding of the halfspaces in terms of defensive transition. Isco simply has a natural intuition of the left halfspace, perhaps cultivated by his time at Malaga as a left-winger. Time and time again Manchester City (in the second leg of the UCL) tried to exploit the space in behind Marcelo by attacking through the left halfspace, but Isco cut them off every single time. Against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final (where Isco was still learning his central midfield duties), it was Isco’s defending in the halfspaces that prevented much of Barcelona’s central possession play and led to Real Madrid’s first goal.

The second roster decision Zidane has to make is to decide who should be employed as Real Madrid’s deepest midfielder in his 4-3-3. In Real Madrid’s current best eleven, Casemiro occupies the pivot role in the side, and while he has done extremely well over the course of the season, he does not match up well against Atlético. Once an unknown quantity for Simeone when his side first played against Real Madrid this season, Simeone will not repeat his mistake of failing to apply pressure on the Brazilian (which allowed Casemiro to dominate the midfield with his physicality and aerial ability). As the 1st leg vs. Manchester City showed, Casemiro is incredibly uncomfortable under pressure, leading him to lose his composure and needlessly give away possession. Against a much more potent press applied by Atlético, Casemiro’s weaknesses in terms of calmness on the ball and lack of pinpoint passing will be exploited. Real Madrid usually get around this by having Casemiro simply pass the ball off to Modric and Kroos at nearly every opportunity; but against Atleti, Casemiro will not have the luxury of doing that. As discussed earlier, Atlético employ a pressing trap that is designed to isolate midfield pivots by cutting off their passing options. This means that if Casemiro were to play, he would need to play himself out of trouble, by either: dribbling with the ball, or making a pinpoint vertical pass up the field to one of Real’s attackers or advanced central midfielders. No matter how ardent a support of Casemiro you are, you cannot argue with the fact that putting Casemiro in such a situation is not an optimum use of his abilities.

Instead, Toni Kroos is the one who should play as the single pivot vs. Atléti. Famously praised by Ancelotti for being extremely calm and secure on the ball, Kroos is the perfect candidate to beat the Mattress Makers’ carefully laid out trap. Possessing superb offensive awareness and the best passing ability in the world, Kroos is highly capable of playing through Atleti’s press by picking out vertical passes through seemingly risky angles.

When Real Madrid are in the final third, he also possesses the decision making to determine when to retain possession so that Real Madrid can set up for the counterpress, and when to bypass the press because there is a momentary weakness in Atleti’s defensive structure.

However, there are undeniable weaknesses when putting Kroos in the pivot role. No one can legitimately argue that Kroos is better than Casemiro at defending the back line, which is why it’s necessary that Real Madrid counterpress. Defending from the front relieves Kroos of a lot of unnecessary pressure, and ensures that he doesn’t have to sit back and defend, which is where he is weakest.

Being Careful With the Counterpress

There is little doubt that the counterpress is one of the more devastating techniques that can be used to dominate an opponent and create scoring chances; but just like any other strategy, it has weaknesses. Counterpressing requires a team to play a high defensive line, which can be exposed by long balls over the top. Guardiola was undone by this in the second leg vs. Atleti, as Bayern pushed too high into Atlético’s half in order to dominate the opposition. This combined with Simeone’s clever substitution and formation change, allowed a long ball to reach Griezmann, which resulted in a goal.

Real Madrid need to seriously worry about this problem if they employ a counterpress. Varane would have been the perfect antidote to this due to his incredible pace and his ability to defend Real Madrid on the counterattack, but the Frenchman is injured. Luckily for Zidane, Pepe is in better form and has been playing the role of coverer for ages. Well attuned to Ramos’ rash tendencies to abandon his defensive line, Pepe has an incredible positional sense and timing of the tackle that will be crucial in preventing the likes of Griezmann and Torres from exploiting a high defensive line. Thus, Pepe should always stay inside Real Madrid’s own half, carefully marking the movement of Atleti’s central striker in order to prevent the sort of route-one football that always seems to be Guardiola’s demise. Ramos for his part should make use of his aggressive tendencies and challenge for the ball in the air. In this way Real Madrid will mark Atleti’s central attackers from the front and the back, ensuring that Los Blancos are better prepared for a an Atléti counterattack than Pep ever was.

Off-the-ball Movement (The Real Madrid Edition)

As mentioned before, this is the key to combatting Atlético’s defensive structure and tight man-oriented defensive system. Just like Bayern, Real possess two extremely technically gifted fullbacks that regularly contribute in the offensive phase of the game. Marcelo already possesses the aptitude to make runs into the center of the pitch in the same way Alaba did for Bayern in the 2nd leg, as shown by his run in the recent Clásico which created Real’s first goal of the match. Zidane has to recognize this and let the Brazilian loose. Marcelo’s unpredictable movement and superb dribbling ability should play havoc with his markers and create space ahead of him for the front three.

Carvajal can play a similar role, as demonstrated by his run into the halfspace, which created Real Madrid’s second goal in the recent Clásico. But due to the fact that Marcelo should be let loose in a free attacking role, it wouldn’t be unwise for Carvajal to take on a more traditional capacity at times; in which he provides width for crosses and scurries back to form a three man defense.

However, even all of this will not have the intended effect if Isco isn’t chosen to play. Much like the way Muller was the space investigator for Bayern, Isco needs to act as an advanced playmaker that pips in-between the lines and provides a vertical passing option. This will allow Real Madrid to move the ball quickly if necessary, and should give Real Madrid plenty of chances to probe the Atléti back line. While it may be necessary for Isco to drop deeper in order to help Kroos or Modric evade a press, Zidane must understand that Isco will make all the majority of his impact in the final third of the pitch.

Complementing Isco’s deployment must be movement into the channels from Ronaldo, Benzema, and Bale. They need to occupy spaces which puts question marks over who should mark who, meaning that BBC need to dance into pockets of space in between the fullbacks and center backs. If Isco can receive the ball in-between the lines, it is highly possible that he can also slip a through ball into one of the front three making movements into the box.

Creating Mismatches (The Real Madrid Edition)

But only having clever off-the-ball movement isn’t enough. Real Madrid need to attack Atlético three-dimensionally, meaning that they must also provide a threat in the air. This seems to be difficult to accomplish due to Atletico’s aerial superiority in central defense, but Guardiola provided the blueprint to work around that (as mentioned before). This blueprint works perfectly in Real Madrid’s favor, as their two best headers of the ball play on the wings. This signifies that Ronaldo and Bale naturally match up against Juanfran and Filipe Luis, meaning that the latter duo would have to potentially mark the former duo in the air. But too often this hasn’t been the case, as Real Madrid usually only deploy Ronaldo and Benzema in the box. This comfortably allows Atléti to mark their men and theoretically snuff out any credible attempts at goal. That is why it is necessary for Real Madrid to pile players into the box when they decide to cross the ball. Bale needs to make a run to the far post if Marcelo plans to cross, and Ronaldo needs to do likewise if Carvajal plans to swing one in. Benzema has to occupy one of the center backs, and one of Modric, Isco, and Kroos has to do the same. While there is little chance that any of our diminutive midfield wins an aerial battle, their presence will not be ignored, allowing them to act as sufficient decoy targets.

All of this seems rather risky, but it is guaranteed to work. In Madrid’s first clash of the season against the Mattress Makers, a simple decoy run by Ronaldo dragged one of Atlético’s center backs out of position and allowed Benzema to net a headed goal. Now imagine four players in the box, with three of those players acting as decoys, and with the intended target matching up against a fullback. Seems an awful lot like the result will be similar to Bale dominating Alba in the air doesn’t it?

Conclusion

The strategy outlined above is no easy task to implement. Zidane would be taking a risk by changing his starting eleven and by implementing a new strategy. But to win big you have to take calculated tactical risks, especially when Real Madrid’s previous plans have not been working. The good news is that Real Madrid have the raw ingredients to pull this off. A knowledgeable coach is needed to make this strategy a reality, and while Zidane is still inexperienced, he should be well aware of the tools needed to counterpress, as he took private lessons with Guardiola and employed the strategy against Wolfsburg in the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.

There is also the fact that Real Madrid possesses all the personnel to play a high intensity possession-based game, which is complemented by unpredictable off-the-ball movement. Kroos and Modric are supremely gifted passers who should be able to control possession play with ease; Isco, Marcelo, and Carvajal have natural tendencies to occupy positions that are impossible to track and possess the nature to attack opponents from unpredictable angles; Ronaldo is the most intelligent off-the-ball mover next to Muller, and thus should be able to understand how to complement the runs of Marcelo and Isco to a tee; Benzema is used to being a decoy having spent the last couple years of his career acting as a foil for Bale and Ronaldo; and last but not least, Bale has grown immensely in the air, making him a viable target to create aerial mismatches versus Filipe Luis.

The ingredients are all there; it’s up to Zinedine Zidane to mix them in the right way.