Real Madrid's First Goal Changed Everything
The match started off in much the way I expected, with Atlético Madrid pressing high and making life extremely difficult for Real Madrid. Within the first few seconds of the game they fouled Casemiro, and then only minutes later did the same to Pepe. In addition to this intensity, their pressing traps were spot on, with Atlético's players diverting the ball where they pleased, thus stifling Real's build-up play.
Atleti pressed RM really well in the beginning, RM couldn't really progress forward with the ball. pic.twitter.com/eQZng7Cy7c— István Beregi (@szteveo) May 28, 2016
Atlético created a good chance from all of this pressure, crossing a ball to Koke in the 5th minute, who botched a clear attempt at goal. But a brilliant Gareth Bale run gave Real Madrid some relief. Soon after, his dipping and swerving free kick, which Casemiro nearly diverted past Oblak, gave Real Madrid a superb jolt up the spine. Atlético still pressed well, but Real Madrid managed to bypass their own midfield with long balls from Pepe, and eventually they grabbed a free kick situation with Toni Kroos standing over the ball. Perhaps taking notes from Guardiola, Zidane set-up this offensive set-piece so that Bale was on the fringes of the box and away from goal. While this meant he couldn't score, it also meant that he created an offensive mismatch against a much weaker player in the air. Taking full advantage, Bale provided a beautiful flick-on for Sergio Ramos to tap home.
From then on, Los Colchoneros were severely rattled. Their defensive structure fell apart, allowing the likes of Luka Modric to easily carve out spaces in behind the frantic Mattress Makers. In addition, Zidane simultaneously asked his side to shrink back into a defensive shape. This didn't allow Atlético to press Casemiro, as they were forced to keep the ball work it towards goal slowly. Whether it was the nerves or the fact that Atlético were just not focused after conceding, their build-up on the ball was terrible, allowing Casemiro to thrive in his destroyer role.
Additionally, Zidane threw in the occasional counterpress, requesting his players to press Atléti high up the pitch when they lost the ball on the flanks. This press only lasted for 3-4 seconds, rarely allowing Real to win the ball. But the simple act of pressing right after the ball was lost, served to disrupt Atléti's rhythm and put them out of commission for the first half.
Simeone's Side Dominated the Second Half
Simeone made the expected change of bringing on Yannick Ferreira Carrasco for Augusto, shifting Atléti into a 4-1-4-1, which was more suitable for attacking. This instantly gave Atlético more verve in offense, as Atlético moved the ball quicker and more efficiently. Zidane, clearly trying to negate his opponent's counter-attacking threat whilst allowing Casemiro to safely do his destroyer work, ceded even more possession of the ball to Atléti and abandoned his sporadic counterpress. This initially seemed like a good thing, but it turned out he was wrong to underestimate his rival's capability to play possession football.
Atlético passed the ball around more incisively and calmly, looking for the inevitable spaces that would pop up in behind Real Madrid's midfield.
Lacking the mental advantage in the first half, Real Madrid's structural deficiencies became more apparent as their horizontal and vertical compactness was exploited well by Atléti.
The play that led up to the Torres penalty incident was a great example of this.
This situation occurred right after Ronaldo lost the ball when trying to launch a potential counter-attack. As expected, Real Madrid's defense were understandably not in position and therefore had abysmal horizontal compactness.
But as can be seen in this next phase of play, Griezmann had few immediate passing options. This allowed Casemiro and Kroos to recover in order to form some decent horizontal compactness. But the problem here is the vertical space between Real's midfield and defense. As this is a counter, some may excuse Real from being caught off guard. But Griezmann dallied on the ball for several seconds, making the penalty incident completely avoidable.
Several things could have been done here from Real's point of view. The Los Blancos player who is the right midfielder in the picture, could've identified the gaping space and moved over to cover it. But this would have left Real Madrid's right flank free, making such a move risky.
The next person to look at is Casemiro. At this point everyone can realize that vertical compactness is more important than horizontal compactness. With Modric occupied with Griezmann, and with Kroos farther away from the ball, it is legitimate to question whether Casemiro should've identified the problem and closed the space down. But with Modric off balance, it is perhaps unreasonable to criticize Casemiro for attacking the ball rather than the space.
Which leaves the final possible culprit - Pepe. Of all people he was best positioned to recognize the complete lack of vertical compactness between midfield and defense. He should've stepped up a yard to shut off Griezmann's passing lane to Torres, but instead he just lounged around.
This allowed the ball to slip through the gaps and caused Pepe to make a stupid lunging challenge. While Torres milked it for all it was worth, it was a completely unnecessary situation caused by bad structural defense.
Real Madrid were probed and exploited in this way time and time again, allowing Atlético to build up their offensive pressure and create good chances.
In another phase of play, Atlético's ball quick circulation exploited firstly Real Madrid's weak vertical compactness, allowing Filipe Luis to just run through Madrid's entire midfield in one burst of speed, and then exploited Real Madrid's weak horizontal compactness with a simple switch of play. This allowed Griezmann to whip a good ball into the box in the 54th minute, which resulted in a corner which Godin won and Savic barely poked wide.
But with Atlético missing chance after chance, it seemed like fate was on Real's side. With Los Colchoneros' dominance seemingly waning, Real finally put together a couple of good counter-attacks from the 70th minute to the 78th minute (Benzema and Ronaldo fired straight at Oblak and Bale straight at a defender from great situations).
But Real's inability to make Atlético pay for their mistakes allowed Atlético to finally get back into the game. Some great build-up involving Gabi and Juanfran bamboozled the Real Madrid defense and set-up Carrasco against a physically inferior Lucas Vázquez, resulting in a deserved goal for the Red & Whites. Uncontested on the ball with little central midfield presence near Juanfran, it was all too easy for Atléti, leaving the Real Madrid defense helpless in the wake of the neat touches of their rivals.
Luckily for Zidane and his man, Atlético took their foot off the gas, seemingly ready to settle for extra time. Real Madrid pushed forward with more verve and energy, but there was little attacking support for BBC as Los Blancos seemed stuck in their defensive mentality.
Unsurprisingly, there was little tactical intrigue or strategical instruction in the 30 minutes following normal time. The little time before the resumption of the match was spent motivating two exhausted groups of players into producing a piece of magic. While Carrasco produced some good moments and Ronaldo had a couple of good shimmies, few players managed to shine except for Isco. With fresher legs than the rest of this teammates, the diminutive Spaniard took control of Real's offensive play, as he used his fantastic ball control and movement into space to advance Real up the pitch. Everything in extra time went through Isco, and he was Real's best hope of sparking a goal before penalties.
A Summary: Pros & Cons of Zidane's Tactics
Pro: Ceding possession of the ball after scoring the first goal made Atlético uncomfortable and preserved the lead extremely well till the end of the first half.
Pro: Playing more conservatively negated the threat of Atlético's press and made Casemiro more comfortable, thus allowing him to dominate the midfield with his excellent tackling skills.
Con: Real Madrid are always suspect when sitting back, especially without precise instructions directing the movements of each player on the field. This caused structural problems in defense and gave the chance for Atlético to possibly win the game in the second half.
Con: Real Madrid's forwards were often isolated, causing them to receive little support in attack and making it nearly impossible to magic their way through Atléti's defense.
While this match was certainly not outstanding from a tactical point of view, it really doesn't matter in the end. Zidane turned a disaster of a season around and somehow engineered a Champions League Final victory. His man-management and motivational capacities have been a particular highlight of the season and I can't wait to see what he can accomplish next year.
But for now, let's just enjoy La Undécima, the 11th Champions League trophy Los Reyes de Europa have won! ¡Hala Madrid y Nada Más!