Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid provided us with a thrilling and incredibly tense battle in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final, and with the Spanish side bringing a very narrow 1-0 lead over to Germany there was still a huge amount to play for – meaning it was bound to be another brilliant game this time around at the Allianz Arena. Fortunately, much to nobody’s surprise, it more than lived up to those high expectations.
The home side made three changes to their starting team from the last match after a fairly poor attacking display from them. Jérôme Boateng was brought in to make only his third appearance of 2016 so far, a change which then also saw David Alaba move over to left-back, while the attacking duo of Thomas Müller and Franck Ribéry were brought back into the team (Juan Bernat, Kingsley Coman and Thiago the players absent as a result). So their shape, on paper at least, was relatively similar to how it was in Madrid, albeit with a more attacking midfield.
Diego Simeone meanwhile had less to adjust than Pep Guardiola, and so the Argentine understandably only made one switch: Diego Godín, now fit enough to return to the team, starting ahead of Stefan Savić at centre-back. That meant their 4-4-2 system, led by Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres, remained intact. More than the personnel, though, this was a tie decided by the tactical tweaks that were made both before and during the match.
Having struggled to deal with Atleti’s excellent ball-orientation and pressing for the most part in Madrid, Guardiola needed to establish a change in order to convert their overwhelming ball control into spatial dominance. The key change for that came in their build-up shape, with Xabi Alonso, their deepest midfielder, playing almost constantly in the same line as his two centre-backs. By being further back than before it was much more difficult for the opposition’s strikers to press him, thus giving him more time on the ball.
He, Boateng and Javi Martínez then had a clear numerical superiority over Griezmann and Torres (something occasionally reinforced by Vidal dropping into gaps near them), and as a result of good positioning and quick ball circulation it was extremely easy for them to play both through and around those two. Alonso didn’t really step out of the defensive line with the ball too much, instead leaving that role to Boateng and Martínez as the wider centre-backs. They could then advance into the big space between Atleti’s forwards and deep midfield line before distributing the ball.
The other significant structural change that was made revolved around Bayern’s wing-based players. Where Coman and Costa constantly maintained extremely wide roles before and were easily closed down by Atleti’s full-backs when the ball got played into them, here Costa and Ribéry regularly played further inside on their respective flanks. Their greater occupation of the half-spaces meant that Alaba and Philipp Lahm made different, more advanced runs around them from full-back, the focus now being split between movements inside and overlapping runs on the outside; the latter of which almost never occurred in the first leg.
By not giving Juanfran and Filipe Luís a clear reference point to play off, finding those wide players in space on the wings was notably easier – enhancing Bayern’s ability to perform switches and long balls in order to change their point of attack. The variance of who was wider out of Alaba and Ribéry was larger in the initial stages, although Lahm and Costa had a clearer pattern of play (Lahm outside, Costa inside) until it changed a little later on.
Vidal and especially Müller also helped in those areas by moving a little wider to offer them support when needed, while simultaneously drifting between the lines and providing a presence in the central areas to combine with the likes of Costa, Ribéry and the striker, Robert Lewandowski. The Polish international also had more of influence in this game, demonstrating some good examples of hold-up play and creating space for others around him with his movement.
That all contributed to giving the German side significantly better spacing across the pitch, and combined with smooth early build-up phases that meant that Bayern had a huge dominance on this game in the first-half. Their possession was no longer forced to occur in deep, wide areas only; it was almost wherever they wanted it to be. So with such control, it was no surprise that they took the lead in the 31st minute.
It was quite unfitting that the goal came from a free-kick, though. Especially a deflected one. But Alonso’s effort found its way through the wall, off the unfortunate José María Giménez and past the otherwise excellent Jan Oblak to make things even on aggregate. There was a fair reason to divert blame towards the Uruguayan centre-back just a couple of minutes later however, when Giménez committed a clumsy foul to give Bayern a chance to take the lead from the penalty spot. Oblak let him off the hook though, saving superbly from Müller to stop the home side from taking a lead that would’ve really changed the complexion of the tie.
Considering how well they played in the first game, and how good a defensive unit they are in general, it was surprising quite how penned in Atleti had become here. After the game, though, Simeone acknowledged that he was up against “the best team I have faced in my career” in the first-half, saying that “the way Bayern played was incredible.” So that gives some perspective into just how well the German side played. It also gives an idea of what their Spanish counterparts had to fight against in order to try and simply stay in the match.
Simeone made one change at half-time, Augusto Fernández coming off for the talented young Belgian winger, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. It was a change that could give them a highly necessary attacking outlet from all the pressure that they were under, but perhaps just as importantly as the offensive change was the defensive implications that it had. Having been in their usual 4-4-2 formation without the ball for the majority of the first-half, they now had greater flexibility and more potential to adjust within that into a five-man midfield line.
There were elements of situation-related defensive shifts from them in small phases of the first-half, which mostly saw Griezmann move out to a wider area and one of the midfielders (any of Fernández, Gabi, Koke or Saúl Ñíguez) pushing forward a little to support the two strikers while the rest of the midfield shuffled over in response. That gave better coverage in the central midfield zones that Bayern were trying to play through, but due to the timing of movements it often meant that it didn’t necessarily have the desired effect at limiting build-up play.
The permanent change in the second-half worked more effectively though. Carrasco and Griezmann occupied the left and right flanks respectively, moving inside to narrow space or press occasionally, while Gabi and Koke – who moved into a central role – pushed forward to support Torres as the most advanced player. Behind them, Saúl, now the holding midfielder, helped to cover the spaces that were left by anybody vacating their position. That all made it into what was basically a 4-1-4-1 shape.
Such changes to their defensive structure were definitely needed. And it wasn’t long after Simeone made them that, though still against the run of play, Atleti got the goal to put them back ahead on aggregate in the 54th minute. The chance came on the break, when Koke’s lofted ball managed to bypass Bayern’s attempt to counter-press in the midfield; his pass creating a great chance for Griezmann and Torres to combine in space in the opposition half. And combine they did, the Frenchman cushioning the ball down to his strike partner for Torres to play a penetrative pass through the Bayern defence. Griezmann then took a couple of touches, carried the ball towards Manuel Neuer, and finished coolly past him with his left-foot.
With that, the game going to extra-time was no longer possible: Bayern now needed two goals to prevent themselves from going out. They made a couple of small tweaks to their shape afterwards in order to gain further control, the most notable one involving Lahm. Rather than sticking as the widest player on the right side, as he had up until now, he moved much further infield, presumably to aid ball circulation and add another option in the ball against Atleti’s trio in that area.
He still moved further towards the right side to support his winger when necessary however, which as of the 73rd minute became Coman (Costa going off in his place). The Frenchman’s role was more like his own one in the first leg than what Costa’s was throughout this game, sticking very wide to receive the ball and then looking to either cross it into the box or cut inside. On the left, meanwhile, Ribéry’s role stayed much the same.
Alaba on the other hand did have a bit of a change of tasks on that side. Rather than going into the half-spaces quite so much, he ended up overlapping Ribéry with greater regularity. Guardiola’s side were rewarded through that with a goal just a minute after Coman came on the pitch, Alaba whipping the ball in from near the by-line towards the far post. Vidal then headed it back across goal, giving Oblak no chance of stopping Lewandowski’s free header from just a couple of yards out. That was the first they needed.
The home side maintained their pressure after that, creating a number of shooting opportunities for themselves, albeit they ultimately yielded no reward. In fact, just like in the first leg when Atleti were under pressure, it was actually Torres who went on to have the best opportunity in the closing quarter of an hour of the game. He hit the post with his chance at the Vicente Calderón, though – and here he had an effort from the penalty spot saved by Neuer, following a foul from Martínez which was controversially thought of to be inside the box.
Torres not scoring there didn’t come back to haunt the Spanish side though, and fortunately for Los Rojiblancos they held on for the rest of the game. So it finished 2-2 on aggregate in the end, with Atleti going through on away goals. Which of course means, sadly for Guardiola, that he won’t have the chance to get a Champions League winner’s medal as a reward for his work at Bayern. Simeone can earn one himself however, after impressively leading his side to their second final in three years. And, once again, it’ll be against their city rivals Real Madrid. Now that’ll be some occasion.