When Bayern Munich were announced as Atlético Madrid's Champions League semifinal opponent earlier this month, the conversation about the tie quickly turned into a referendum on tactical nous. Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone are regarded as two of the greatest tactical minds in football today, despite very different management styles. Guardiola is the tinkerer, the mad scientist, always trying out new ideas and even formations. Simeone has turned Atlético into clean sheet merchants, blending a rigid, unflappable defensive structure with quick counterattacks centered on quick one-touch passes. The two coaches matched wits Wednesday, and for the first time in his career, Simeone got the better of his Spanish counterpart by winning the battle within the battle: the midfield.
The two banks of four
Simeone has experimented with a modified 4-3-3 this season - usually when Jackson Martínez or Luciano Vietto were on the team/alive - but since Fernando Torres' resurgence in form, Simeone has relied exclusively on his uber-successful 4-4-2. And it was Torres who helped Atlético start quickly, managing a couple shots shortly before Saúl ripped open Bayern's defense and scored the game's only goal. After the goal, Atleti's defensive organization, built on commitment, overlapping and unrelenting structure, became critical as Bayern retained possession and tried to quicken the pace. The two banks of four - four midfielders, four defenders - managed to keep Bayern out. In the first half, it was mainly the incredible work rate of central midfielders Augusto Fernández and Gabi that limited to the German champions to one shot on target despite 71% possession. In the second half, center backs José Giménez and Stefan Savic kept star striker Robert Lewandowski under wraps as his support was slowly cut off, reduced to long-range attempts. Despite the vast pressure Bayern applied for most of the second half, the rigid, disciplined defensive structure - and a few smart stops by Jan Oblak - kept the clean sheet for Atleti.
Bayern's pace undone by slow buildup
When the teams were announced about an hour before kickoff Wednesday, a familiar name was missing from Bayern Munich's: Thomas Müller. The World Cup-winning midfielder/forward/Swiss Army knife was benched as Guardiola aimed to exploit Atlético's fullbacks with the pace of Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa. That's all well and good - beating Atleti through the middle is almost impossible - but Guardiola's plans were undone by his midfield. Arturo Vidal charged forward with reckless abandon and left Thiago Alcantâra and Xabi Alonso in his wake, which actually hurt Bayern in its attempts to break down Atleti. Thiago and Alonso constantly found themselves trying to "reset" the attack; neither player offered the directness from midfield that Bayern could have used to supplement its wingers. Guardiola figured out this wouldn't work after a while, threw Müller on for Thiago and changed the system. Bayern had better chances late - one of which Müller created by heading down for Vidal - but there was still no way through.
Expect Guardiola to have another plan next week as Bayern will have its backs to the wall at Allianz Arena. Jerome Boateng and Arjen Robben have been injured for most of 2016, but the former could play on Tuesday. Atlético's medical staff has prioritized getting Diego Godín ready for the trip to Munich and Yannick Carrasco should be available to start or come off the bench. This fascinating tactical duel is only half over, with at least 90 more minutes - and possibly that many more adjustments - to go.