Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side is a machine that continues to upset the giants of European football and Wednesday was no different. After setting up in a reactive manner, Atletico pressed Bayern high up the pitch to cut off their creative channel and took a 1-0 lead thanks to a solo Saul goal.
Bayern’s ultra-high line and the strong Atletico press
With Pep Guardiola you can almost never successfully second guess what formation or what deviation of a formation he’s going to use. But on Wednesday night in Madrid, it was a fairly simple 4-1-4-1 formation as Guardiola went in hoping to utilize Atletico’s narrowness in defence. With Javi Martinez and David Alaba playing central defence, the idea was to move the ball from back with Martinez and Alaba both very proactive in their ball distribution and movement with the ball. So much so that the two central “defenders” had 210 of Bayern’s 920 odd touches of the ball on the night. But the high line with the two attack-minded defensive players, didn’t quite bear fruit for the German side.
Atletico, who have built a reputation of being as concise in attack as any side in Europe, chose to go even more direct on the night. Long balls were pumped in for fun as Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann continued putting pressure on the backline. But that was not all they did.
The duo pressed in their attacking third and the midfield ganged up on any player that received the ball. It was crazy tempo, reminiscent of what Guardiola’s Barcelona used to do, but only at a more feverish intensity. The Bayern team, set up to build from the back, were almost stunned, turning over the ball four times in the first ten minutes. The pressing was so intense that Bayern defence started to play long balls of their own to avoid the dizzying pressure applied by the forwards, and that is what lead to the loss of possession that eventually lead to the Saul Niguez goal.
The beast called Filipe Luis and Costa’s misery
After an initial pressing spree, Atletico let their foot off the gas for a bit after the goal, meaning Bayern enjoyed possession without much insecurity for some time. But Pep’s game plan of exploiting the wide areas did not materialize. Kingsley Coman, the fleet footed Frenchman starting on the right wing, was kept in check by the monstrous Filipe Luis. The winger lost the ball innumerable times, making misplaced passes, giving away cheap possessions and trying wasteful shots from range, Luis had Coman tamed.
On the opposite wing, Douglas Costa who has been sensational all season, had little joy for himself. Juanfran and Saul often double-teamed the Brazilian and it was only when Alaba made some darting runs from deep, into the blind alleys between central defence and full back, that Costa found himself in a more favourable 1v1 situation, and that is when Costa managed to arrow in his crosses. But those were far and few, leaving Lewandowski cut an isolated figure in the Atletico box.
Coman’s ineffectiveness started to hurt the side and Guardiola wasn’t too reluctant in appreciating that fact, as the Spanish gaffer brought on Frank Ribery for his fellow countryman. With Ribery playing on the left wing, Douglas Costa moved to the right and Bayern suddenly started to look more cohesive in attack. Having two inside forwards not only provided Bayern with the luxury of bombing forward with their fullbacks, but also brought about an unpredictability in attack with both Ribery and Costa showing their ability to cut in as well as take the ball to the byeline. Costa was the one who looked more threatening from the right hand side, despite Luis and Koke not giving him any breathing space. But that wasn’t the most noted substitution Pep made on the night.
Thomas Muller, one of the best big-game players, was on the bench for this one and it was common knowledge that his substitution could prove to be the difference. Muller replaced Thiago Alacantra, but even the German’s introduction couldn’t change Bayern’s fortunes much. Mehdi Benatia came on for Bernat later in the half and that provided Alaba more freedom to move forward. His couple of long range punts were as close as Bayern could manage on the night.
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