1. Atleti pressing produces opener – again
Diego Simeone masterminded another tactical triumph at the Vicente Calderón last night as Atlético Madrid kept their 14th clean sheet in 16 Champions League home matches to beat Bayern Munich 1-0. This display might well have been hailed as sensational had it not merely fitted into a series of similar triumphs. Under the Argentine coach, the extraordinary has long become ordinary.
If anything, this game followed a predictable pattern. In his last four games against Real Madrid or Barcelona, Simeone has pressed high from the start and been rewarded with the opening goal. Atlético duly stormed out in their 4-4-2 system to shut down Bayern in advanced areas, with a roaring Calderón cheering every tackle. The Bavarians seemed rocked: Xabi Alonso had a pass intercepted, while Douglas Costa let a simple ball spill out across the touchline.
Chances followed. Fernando Torres cut inside from the right in another glimpse of his old self, until a weak left-footed finish ruined the move. Minutes later, Saúl Ñíguez slalomed past three Bayern players and curled a shot in off the far post. The 21-year-old called it the best and most important goal of his career – few would disagree – but Guardiola will have been aggrieved at the defending, and it was certainly not a goal Atlético would have allowed to happen. Either way, Simeone’s plan had produced the opener again, and after a frantic 15 minutes, the hosts dropped slightly deeper to protect their lead.
- READ THIS Atlético surprise Bayern with no surprises; Real Madrid have "half a ticket" to final
2. Bayern stretch play
Guardiola now faced what is perhaps the hardest task in football at the moment: breaking down Atlético’s defensive wall. Given that los Colchoneros play so narrowly, the Catalan opted to attack down the flanks and deployed a 4-3-3 without Thomas Müller. The preference was for Thiago Alcântara and Arturo Vidal to play in front of Alonso, with quicksilver wingers Costa and Kingsley Coman feeding Robert Lewandowski. The two wingers stayed wide at all times, hardly ever drifting inside, and so it was rare to see the visitors combine between the lines.
This created some danger. Just after the opener, Costa delivered a low cross that José María Giménez sliced into his own box, before the Uruguayan made amends with a frantic clearing header. Brazilian winger Costa later whipped in a free-kick that nearly caught Jan Oblak off guard. A rare counter also materialised in which Coman emerged ominously down the right, but his cross went straight into Oblak’s arms. Perhaps Guardiola had expected more.
3. Guardiola uses inverted full-backs
Either way, this being Guardiola, there was always going to be further elaborations in Bayern’s strategy. It soon became apparent that Philipp Lahm would drift into a central midfield position when his team had the ball. On the other side, Juan Bernat made surging runs infield, but only Lahm spent time as an authentic central midfielder. At times this made Bayern switch into a back three, with Alonso dropping into defence; on other occasions, Vidal would go towards the right as Lahm pushed further forward. On 28 minutes, Lahm actually had an effort just outside the box, but it was blocked by the ubiquitous Renato Augusto.
4. Atlético boss wide areas
The reason why Bayern didn't have more success out wide centred on Atlético’s ability to help out their full-backs. When the wingers dribbled, it was not uncommon to see Juanfran or Filipe Luís backed up closely by wide midfielders Koke and Saúl. Central midfielders Gabi and Augusto provided extra support, and even centre-backs Giménez and Stefan Savić shuffled across. The defensive work was infused by intensity and aggression. At one point, Gabi went down injured, so Augusto sprinted out of position to perform his role down the right.
On other occasions, it was not unusual to see Koke or Saúl going directly up against the wingers, with the full-backs working as a second shield should the first man get beaten. It was a nightmare to get past. Coman was taken off in the second half having pulled off two out of six attempted dribbles, while the relentless Costa managed six out of 16. Second-half substitute Franck Ribéry would find out how tough it was when he had the temerity to run down the left, only to be surrounded and dispossessed by three opponents. When Atleti are in this kind of mood, most such initiatives tend to resemble trips down blind alleys where you eventually get outcrowded, beaten and robbed.
5. Bayern go down the right
This solidity contributed to Atlético's comfort in the first half. In the second, they sank deeper and conceded more chances. They were nearly punished when they allowed a Bayern centre-back to advance unhindered up until about 35 yards; the chance would have been defendable had it been a regular defender, but this was David Alaba, and the Austrian struck a thunderous effort that cannoned down off the crossbar. Two minutes later, Javi Martínez nearly scored from a corner.
Throughout the half, much of what Bayern created came down the right. Vidal played down that side, Lahm grew in influence and Costa switched sides when Ribéry replaced Coman after 64 minutes. At one point, Vidal emerged between the lines to extend a pass to Lewandowski, who shot wide from a tight angle. Generally, however, it was often Lahm who drove moves forward, such as when the right-back lofted a sumptuous pass over the top for Costa, whose lob sailed over the bar. Four minutes later, Lahm’s initiative gave Vidal the time to test Oblak with a stinging drive.
Atlético surprise Bayern with no surprises; Real Madrid have "half a ticket" to final
Still, those chances were never as clear as Guardiola might have liked, and it was Atlético that came closest to scoring when Torres hit the post on a rare break. Bayern could have equalised late on when Vidal mishit a glorious chance, but the visitors ended up leaving the Calderón without a goal – as so many big teams have done before, and will no doubt do again.
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