Against Barcelona, and especially in the second leg against Barcelona, Atletico Madrid turned in one of the best defensive performances in recent footballing history. The key to their success is how they were able to handle the individual movement of Barcelona's star players. The Barcelona attack is a relatively straight forward 4-3-3 with Sergi Busquets anchoring the front six, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta shuttling around and making runs into the box, and the magical front three of Neymar, Luis Suarez, and Lionel Messi buzzing around in the box, exchanging quick passes only made possible by the stunning combination of individual genius and chemistry that the three stars share.
That being said, that may have been Barça's problem against Atletico. The magic of this Barcelona is not in an attacking system, as it was under Pep Guardiola. Luis Enrique's tactics are simple, but that's only because they don't need to be complicated given the squad he has. Barcelona is at their best when they get the ball forward as quickly as possible to the front three. From there, the MSN works their magic in tight spaces, exchanging short passes and carving defenses open with preposterously intricate attacking moves.
You can almost say that the difference between Guardiola's Barcelona and Enrique's can be found by simply looking at Iniesta's partner in midfield. Guardiola had Xavi, the greatest possession midfield ever to play the game. Enrique has Rakitic, a player whose overall ability is dwarfed by Xavi but who is a far better fit in Enrique's system because he is more of a box-to-box, vertical passing player who provides quick service to the MSN.
Atletico can master the MSN unlike any other club in the world.
Unfortunately for Barça, Atletico handles teams like this quite well. The only times this season that the Catalans have truly dominated Atletico is when the Rojiblancos played a man down. Otherwise, Atletico have strangled the Barcelona attack in a way no other team in Europe has been able to do since Suarez's arrival in Catalonia. Consider the following three passing charts as examples:
This first chart comes from Barcelona's 6-1 win against Roma in this season's Champions League. There are, by my count, six completed passes into the danger zone, three of which lead to goals:
Rudi Garcia's Roma has generally been decent defensively, but the talent discrepancy there was significant. You might think a more respectable team, like say last season's Champions League finalists and the winner of five straight Scudetti, Juventus would fare a bit better. But you'd be wrong. In last season's final, Barça completed seven passes into the danger zone against Juventus:
Note also that in both cases, the Catalans complete around 180 passes in the attacking third. So in the first game, 3.2% of their attempted passes in the attacking third were completed danger zone passes. Against Juventus, 4% of all their attempted passes in the attacking third were completed danger zone passes.
The match against Atletico... that's a different story:
Though their higher possession numbers against Atletico meant that Barcelona completed more passes in the attacking third, they only managed four completed passes into the danger zone. Of the four, only one is right in the center of the danger zone while the remaining three are on its edge. That's 1.9% of all attacking third passes.
Barcelona simply wasn't able to attack as they normally do because Atletico mastered the movement of the MSN and the rest of the team simply didn't do enough to open the Atleti defense and Enrique's tactics didn't offer anything that might throw off the Atletico defense. The expected goals data from Michael Caley further demonstrates how Atletico dominated Barcelona as they limited the Blaugrana to .8 expected goals:
Compare the chances conceded by Atletico is their two big second-leg stands. pic.twitter.com/xsL4mwoESL— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) May 3, 2016
What happened against Bayern Munich?
Of course, the second graphic in that tweet tells a different story about the Atletico defense. And that brings us to Bayern Munich's approach to attacking the Atleti. After a disappointing first fixture in which Bayern boss Pep Guardiola started the game with Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller on the bench and David Alaba at center back, the Bayern manager took a different approach that could be described as being both more conventional and more radical. The result was a battering of the Atletico goal and a far nervier finish for Simeone's men.
The key to Bayern's success is the way they attacked as a team. The system was incredibly fluid and this allowed Bayern to attack in large numbers and to regularly have players attacking up in dangerous and unexpected positions. The fluidity of the system can be seen in how difficult it is to even describe the formation that Bayern played in the second leg. One way of displaying the Bayern XI is to have them in a very conventional 4-2-3-1 that looks like this:
Lahm, Martinez, Boateng, Alaba
Costa, Muller, Ribery
That said, in practice the Bayern attack often looked more like a 3-3-3-1 system:
Martinez, Alonso, Boateng
Lahm, Vidal, Alaba
Costa, Muller, Ribery
You can see those first two layers of three, with both fullbacks pushed forward either side of Vidal, in this image:
The first line is Boateng, Xabi Alonso, and Javi Martinez. Then ahead of them you can see Alaba pushed directly ahead of Boateng, Vidal on the ball, and Lahm just to his right as he faces the Atleti goal. Ahead of them is a third trio of Costa, Muller, and Ribery all supporting lone striker Lewandowski.
A couple of these shifts are especially important for the Bayern attack. Whereas in the first game Alaba was used as a center back, in this game he played a more typical inverted wingback role that almost amounted to being a central midfielder. The second significant tweak is that Guardiola pushed Jerome Boateng well up the field into more of a typical left back role. This is what happened in the buildup to the foul on the edge of the area that led to the Bayern opener:
The setup to this goal is, in one sense, conventional: The left wing drops the ball off for the left back who whips the ball into the box. The ball is then deflected to the edge of the area where two central midfielders collide, leading to a free kick. But while that is more-or-less what happened, the odd thing is that the left back in question is actually a left-sided central defender and the midfielder who was fouled was, in fact, the left back.
Alaba and Boateng were used in this way throughout the first half. Both are far more versatile than the average defender and both used that versatility to good effect as Alaba could tuck in to support the midfield, stay wide to help Ribery, or drop off and support the back line when needed. Boateng, meanwhile, is one of the best central defenders in the world at flaring out into a wide role to provide another passing option and helping to keep the attack spaced out.
It's this fluidity of movement which caused such trouble for Atletico as Bayern's attackers were constantly popping up in odd places, forcing the Atletico defense to react. This is the key to attacking Atletico. If you allow them to sit in their comfortable, narrow two banks of four (sometimes with a holding midfielder plugging the gap between the two banks) then you'll never break them down, even if your front three is Neymar, Suarez, and Messi. But if you can attack them in ways that force them to move around more, shift positions, and lose some of their defensive shape, then you can find cracks in the defense that can be exploited. Guardiola figured this out in the second half of the first leg and the work continued apace in the first half of the second leg.
In the second half, Simeone's substitution changed the game.
Atletico made a seemingly attacking change at half time, dropping Augusto to the bench and replacing him with wide attacker Yannick Carrasco. However, this meant that rather than playing their typical 4-4-2, they could set up in the 4-1-4-1 they used during their most successful spell against Barcelona. The only difference is that whereas against Barcelona they dropped Gabi in behind Saul and Koke, in this match they shifted Saul into the deep midfield role with the more combative Gabi pushed further forward, presumably to help pressure Alonso and to match up with Vidal. Here is how the shape looked seconds before the Griezmann goal:
This shape not only meant that Carrasco and Griezmann could flank Torres, but also that the midfield four had a bit of liberty to drift further forward because Saul was sitting behind them shielding the back line. Obviously, this helped the Rojiblanco attack. However, it also made their defensive shape more solid as the team now had a holding player sitting between the two banks of four whenever they had to have a prolonged period of defending in two deep banks of four. So the change helped in both the defensive and attacking phases of play.
The other key piece here is that Guardiola still had Bayern pushed extremely high up the field as they chased a goal to put them ahead in the tie. Here they are moments before the Griezmann goal:
As you can see, in this passage of play, Bayern does not have a single player in their own half. Moments after this shot, Bayern would turn the ball over, Atletico would hit on the counter and they had their away goal.
That said, Bayern's attack in the second half was still much more dangerous than Barcelona's often was in the quarterfinals. The key here is the versatility not only of Alaba and Lahm as fullbacks who can tuck in to support the midfield or shift outside to provide width, but also the movement of Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski's intelligent movement in relation to Muller. All of these together meant that Bayern sometimes had as many as eight players pushed into the attacking third, but all popping up in different and unpredictable positions. No team in the world, even one as well drilled as Atletico, is going to be able to comfortably handle that sort of onslaught.
The goal shows how this unpredictable movement could cause the Atleti problems. First, Alaba stays wide and provides an overlapping run which Ribery is able to pick out. Second, Vidal makes a run from deep all the way to that far post in order to win the header that sets up Lewandowski for the goal. The Vidal run is essential because he becomes the fifth attacker who could surge into the box and Atletico simply doesn't know how to pick him up:
Bayern would create a number of other excellent chances, with the heroics of individual Atletico defenders and Oblak being the only thing that kept the Bavarians at bay. While it would be harsh to say Atletico were "lucky" to advance past Guardiola's side, it's also true that the Germans did create a number of good chances against Atleti and were only a missed Thomas Muller penalty away from advancing.
What does this mean for Real Madrid?
Beating Atletico is a team effort. Simply getting the ball to star individuals and hoping they create something isn't going to work. Atletico is masterful at bottling up star players and limiting their scoring opportunities. If they can set down the MSN, they can certainly shut down Real Madrid's stars as well.
That said, the template for creating chances against Atletico exists and Bayern provided a good example of how it looks in practice. If you can attack them from a variety of angles, make it harder for them to anticipate where the attack will build from, and have players able to create in tight spaces, then you can have some joy (though not a lot of it) against Simeone's men.
For this reason, it's likely that the key men for Real Madrid will not be Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom are the sort of attackers that Atletico can shut down reasonably well, but rather Isco and Luka Modric. Bale and Ronaldo may score, but if they do it figures to be a set piece header or a long-distance bomb. The supply lines to both their high-priced stars in open play are going to be cut off. But Isco and Modric, both of whom are clever passes and able to create in tight areas could have a bit more success attacking the Atletico defense.
The other key will be whether Dani Carvajal and Marcelo can supplement the Real attack as Alaba and Lahm did for Bayern. Of course, if that happens one expects that Griezmann and quite possibly Carrasco will be ready to hit them on the counter.
Of course, "coherent, team-based attacking moves that involve 5-6 players" hasn't been Madrid's calling card for some time. The only thing more boring and impotent than Madrid's attack in their Champions League final against Manchester City was City's attack. This is likely why Atletico are considered by many to be the favorites this year. Real Madrid haven't been Atletico in three years in the league and Simeone's men have generally had the mastery of Real Madrid every time they've played in recent memory. Unless Madrid discover some sort of new-found attacking chemistry in the next week, you have to think Atletico will once again stifle their galacticos and limit them to long shots and set piece chances. But, then again, they did that the last time these teams met in a European final and Los Merengues still found a way to win.