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All the ways that Real Madrid dominated Atletico Madrid in the first leg

This week’s column: On Atletico’s options in the second leg, their helplessness in the first; and DIEGO Llorente’s surge with Malaga to end the season

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

For the second time this season, Real Madrid put Atletico Madrid into a blender, set it into ‘Ronaldo pulse’ mode, and set the timer for 90 minutes. It was a night where Simeone had no answers for Zidane’s hocus-pocus and pinning scheme. If the plan was to fend off waves of attack and sling back on the counter, the execution just wasn’t there. Koke and Saul, who were supposed to be the trigger-men in transition, couldn’t spur together notable attacks nor could they hit any vertical outlets. Between the two, they created just one chance all game. To be blunt and simple, that’s just not enough to outscore a Real Madrid side that has scored in every single game since drawing 0-0 with Manchester City in the first leg of the semi-finals last season -- a year to the game.

There was something about the semi-final draw that made you think Real Madrid dodged a bullet in drawing Atletico over two legs — not least because Atletico isn’t a formidable side, but because the identity of Simeone’s blueprint has looked like it’s lost a layer of paint this season. Out of all the possible opponents — Juventus, Monaco, Atletico — it was Atletico who would have allowed Real Madrid to slither into their comfort zone the most. Monaco is a high-octane meteorite. They’re fast and incisive — young and athletic. Juventus is an organized Italian bogey-team that Real Madrid have had mixed — an overall detrimental — results against. Atletico were always going to hedge off and absorb — a scheme that Real Madrid hasn’t struggled to break through as they have in years past.

That’s not a knock on Atletico. Absorbing-and-unleashing is their bread and butter. In the last three years, they churned historical defensive performances against the most elite teams on the planet and have come out on top — their scheme, on their day, is second to none. But the efficiency of that design has dropped. On Tuesday, they absorbed — only their sponge that normally swallows and lets loose looked worn-out and arid. There were moments of chaos on Tuesday that didn’t sit right with Atletico’s staunch image. When the waves from Real Madrid crashed on them, instead of hurling a counter-attack, they conceded possession again — pinned alive and overwhelmed. It was like watching an NBA playoff game, where a team just can’t stop conceding offensive rebounds on their defensive sequences.

Case in point, the entire two-minute sequence leading up to the first goal:

In theory, there was nothing particularly wrong with the way Atletico defended. Without the ball, they zigged when they needed to and zagged when it was required. They rotated, hedged on and off, and barricaded themselves into a compact shell. But, there was no end product to their clearances — no release, no outlet, no counter-attack. They defended and punched themselves simultaneously by not having an effective channel to transition themselves into the final third. On the rare occassions they did, Keylor Navas was there as the final stance. Eventually, unsustainable as they were, they broke.

Real Madrid will live with limiting Atletico to the odd opportunity where Navas is required to turn into Spiderman. For all the criticism their defensive lines receives, no one quite stops to think that they blitz through their opponents offensively anyway, and ultimately the goal of the game is to outscore your opponents. But a clean sheet was hard to envision for even the most optimistic Real Madrid fan. It helps, to be sure, that both Sergio Ramos and Varane were stalwarts at the back — all while being fundamental in Real Madrid’s flow from the backline. As they tend to do, they both showed up when it mattered, combining for 127/137 passes completed, and six tackles between them. That they only needed to make a combined three clearances encompasses how little Simeone’s men sapped them. Atletico’s transition from defense to attack was tenuous, and now their transition from the Calderon to the Wanda era is spoiled too. It might still be bonkers in the stands next week, but an almost inevitable Real Madrid goal will deflate the stadium before the cranes do it in the flesh.

Real Madrid are insultingly hard to stop when they play like this. For far too long, fans have screamed for Zidane to impose rather than react — to carry out the Johnny Cage ‘Here’s Johnny’ after scoring a goal rather than sheepishly becoming conservative. Finally, Real Madrid threw the uppercut, and finally, Zinedine Zidane didn’t have to rehash comments about ‘showing focus for the full 90 minutes’ in the post-match presser.

Simeone’s hands are tied now. He has to go out guns blazing Scarface style or let his team die a stick-in-the-mud death. It’s time to curse orthodoxy. Better to go down in a 3-3 dogfight then bow out to a 0-0 humdrum when you’re already down three goals on aggregate. It’s time to unfasten the seat belts and go full throttle -- unearthing every pothole along the way.

His problem is always going to be that giving Real Madrid space to work with is like playing the Golden State Warriors 3-on-5 -- there’s a high risk of getting carved. In the first leg, there were moments where Atletico pressed high and tried to recapture possession. At times, it worked:

But for the majority of the time, Real Madrid weren’t unnerved in the least, and again, Ramos (and Varane, with their precision in vertical passing out of the back) were a huge part of this:

The first gif is a half-hearted attempt to extract some harbingers of life that Atletico can cling to heading into the second leg. They can also cling to the fact that Zidane insists on shoehorning Casemiro into every big game he can. The nitpicker in me will look at Casemiro as the biggest caveat from Real Madrid’s near-perfect night. The Brazilian anchor is the least press-resistant player in Real Madrid’s core, and even when he’s not pressed, finding himself in open water, he might still find himself in a state of hysteria while undoing Real Madrid’s efforts to build from the back:

Atletico need to capitalize on these moments better. We’re not announcing anything particularly revolutionary by saying smart teams have pressed Casemiro into oblivion in the past. Right off the bat, both Sociedad and Celta distressed Casemiro to start the season. Dortmund did it too. The other glaring weakness Zidane’s scheme always had was that teams would try to channel attacks to run at a back-peddling Marcelo. Zidane has masked Marcelo’s defense by sending aid in the shape of defensive coverage and doubling on the flanks from interior players or two-way wingers; but he’s yet to find a solution to the Casemiro problem. But he’ll live with it if Atletico don’t capitalize closing Casemiro in that situation again.

Two Observations

Ronaldo has Marcelo’s back

Poor Lucas Hernandez, the fourth-choice makeshift right back, who ‘would probably not have gotten to this ball anyway — but it put a smile on my face that Ronaldo tracked this run all the way to ensure the flank had proper coverage.

Diego Llorente, rounding into form

For the longest time, the only Llorente that made my ‘observations cut’ was Marcos (which, by the way, if you thought my love for Marcos Llorente was annoying before, buckle up, because). The last time Diego made the cut was when I reflected on his struggles back in January, particularly after a match against Celta Vigo. But hey, Diego is back, and he’s rounding into form now.

After getting blown away by Sevilla in December and consequently losing his spot to Miguel Torres of all people, Diego Llorente has really improved in the past few months. He’s regained his place, had a really good performance in a 2-0 win over Barcelona in April, and finally got his Sevilla revenge by scoring the game-winning goal against them on Monday.

Degree of difficulty on that header: 10/10.

Apart from his heroics on that set-piece, Diego Llorente propped up in good positions all game to thwart Sevilla. He kept Sarabia at bay by making sure Ricca had proper cover on the left; and he stepped in when needed to snuff out space and intercept passes.

Our boy Diego Llorente with 5 clearances and 5 interceptions in addition to his game-winning goal against Sevilla.

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Monday, May 1, 2017

Diego Llorente’s surge here to end the season will give Sam Sharpe and I some extra talking points during our ‘end-of-season Castilla/loanees’ podcast.

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