After narrowly fighting their ways through in the previous round, Atlético Madrid and Bayern Munich, the two strongest teams left in the Champions League, were drawn against each other in the semi-finals. That meant the meeting of not only two world class sides but also a pair of incredible managers, both of whom have superbly implemented their contrasting philosophies for numerous years at the top level. So it was bound to be one hell of a high quality tie.
Both stayed true to their ideals with their line-ups, and for the home side that meant Diego Simeone setting Atleti up in their typical 4-4-2 system. Diego Godín’s absence through injury meant that Stefan Savić partnered José María Giménez (himself only recently back to fitness) at the heart of the defence, but otherwise the line-up was pretty standard; Koke and Saúl Ñíguez playing narrow roles on either side of the midfield line to ensure their shape was horizontally compact.
Bayern had a couple of notable absentees themselves, but the biggest one was made through Guardiola’s own choosing – Thomas Müller surprisingly being left on the bench. The German was left out in favour of a more distinctive midfield three (Xabi Alonso as the deepest of the trio, while Thiago and Arturo Vidal played in a more advanced position), with the dynamic pair of Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa offering the width in what was a shape similar to a 4-1-2-3.
Quite what the exact reasoning was for Müller’s omission is something that you’re best off asking the Spaniard about himself, though the logic for the extra midfielder seemed to be something along the lines of helping to ease their ball progression against Atleti’s excellent pressing and ball-orientation through an overload of the centre. Then in theory that would draw them even narrower, before utilising the extreme width of Coman and Costa to bypass it and create one-on-one situations against the opposing full-backs.
Whatever the theory, it was a huge compliment towards Simeone’s team. And it didn’t work properly either, partly due to a couple of self-inflicted issues but mainly due to the organisation of the unit they were up against. Focusing on Bayern’s faults first however, one of their biggest was regularly poor positioning from Alonso and Vidal which often meant that they were too close to each other and their two centre-backs, who were David Alaba and Javi Martínez. That worsened their structure and slowed the speed of circulation down, as well as simultaneously making the task that Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres had (of blocking direct central passing lanes) easier. Those two could effectively push up and almost cover four players at once, at times.
The result of that and a lack of absence between the lines was that Bayern’s building of play was continually forced into wider areas, predominantly towards Juan Bernat and Philipp Lahm. Both full-backs took up deeper starting positions on their respective sides, making themselves more accessible and providing a route out of the initial press, but from an overall ball progression side of things it was far from ideal. With their potential angles of play already cut in half by the touchline, developing possession in those areas is often much more difficult: even without factoring in the opposition and their ability to press magnificently in such zones of the pitch.
Bayern began to try and counter that issue as the first-half went on by having Thiago and Vidal drift out towards the wing to provide other receiving options; a wider approach that represented their aim to play around, rather than through, the Atleti press. It had more success as the game went on, although for long periods in the opening 45 minutes they were often getting the ball with their back to goal and a couple of opposing players closing them down instantly.
And that’s where we get more onto the specific strengths that Atleti exhibited – the main one being their excellent ball-orientation. Their organisation as a whole team unit is second-to-none, and so they were able to continuously adjust into effective, intelligent positions depending on how Bayern were moving the ball. When Bayern played passes wide, whichever striker and wide midfielder were on that side would shuffle over and press them to prevent the ball from progressing. The central midfielders (Augusto Fernández and Gabi) would then follow accordingly too, and for the most part that stopped any space appearing through the middle. Or if there was, then Thiago and Vidal would be too far wide to be able to exploit it.
Simeone’s team also used man-orientation to great effect further back on the pitch. That was performed on Coman and Costa, with Juanfran and Filipe Luís sticking tight to their winger with little regard for what was happening in other phases of the game. This heavily restricted the ability that those two had to receive the ball in space and create one-on-one situations out wide, usually one of Bayern’s most successful attacking methods, cutting off not only their most direct attackers but also the option to even pass it out to them in the first place.
The home side were able to do this mostly because of the positioning of their own midfielders, with Koke and Saúl often shifting over when the ball was played wide to support their full-backs. Bayern having to contribute lots of players to their build-up play also helped, ensuring that the threat of vertical supporting runs into the half-space wasn’t anywhere near as prominent as it has been in some of their other Champions League matches this season.
It was a defensive display full of intelligent pressing and great reactionary positioning, and thanks to Saúl’s wonderful solo goal in the 11th minute they had something to genuinely hold onto when they were doing it. That also increased Bayern’s need for a goal, of course, even if it probably didn’t really change the general flow of the match too much, and meant that the threat of Griezmann and Torres on the counter-attack was evident throughout a bit more than it may have been otherwise.
The second-half had a very similar feel to it in general, especially in the beginning, although as time went on Atleti began to adopt a deeper structure and were pressing Bayern’s build-up a little less. That happened in tandem with the away side taking up a more aggressive structure with the ball in a positional sense, as they took advantage, pegged Simeone’s team back and played through the centre of the pitch on a more common basis.
Alaba was a big source of that – his vertical run up the middle in the 54th minute which was followed by a speculative long shot that crashed onto the bar being indicative of such a thing. He started pushing forward quite regularly into the half-spaces, and the other full-back, Lahm, did the same on the right side. By being further up the field they gave more support to not only the wingers but also Thiago and Vidal, who still occupied the wider areas but drifted inside more often than they did in the first-half too.
This better spacing and increased depth in possession during the second-half certainly helped, although Bayern still didn’t create too many chances from it. Atleti’s deeper shape was probably the main reason for that, meaning that even though the positions that Guardiola’s team got into were more valuable than before, they were still only in front of the defence. Müller coming on in the middle of the half for Thiago was a change that seemingly aimed to address that and give more support to the quiet Robert Lewandowski, seeing as they had established their advanced positional control by that point, but the German had little impact when he was on the field.
Bayern made two other substitutions as well, Franck Ribéry coming on for his fellow French winger Coman and Medhi Benatia replacing Bernat. They saw Ribéry go onto the left (Costa swapping to the right) and Alaba’s freedom in the middle become yet further enhanced, having been more restricted by his centre-back role in the first-half, however as mentioned it wasn’t to huge avail in the end. Simeone had less reason to make changes, for obvious reasons, and the only one he made was the excellent Saúl going off for Thomas Partey during the closing stages.
Even under all that pressure, it was his Atleti team that had the best chance of the half, actually. After winning possession back in their defensive third in the 75th minute, Griezmann carried the ball forward a long way before feeding it to Torres just inside the penalty area. He shifted his body, fashioning space by turning inside Alaba, and struck it with the outside of his boot – only for his effort to hit the post and bounce out.
The extra goal would’ve been a nice, deserved one for Atleti following yet another superb defensive performance as a team from them, but regardless of that not going in they’re still heading to the Allianz Arena in a very strong position. Bayern meanwhile can take heart from the improved second-half performance and without a doubt are still in the tie: but they’ve both got a big task ahead of them for the game in Germany. It’s impossible to say what’ll happen, though one thing that can be guaranteed is that it’s sure to be another thrilling encounter between the two.