Last week, Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid came up with another fantastic performance against yet another European Giant. Though the plan wasn’t the exact same, ‘Cholo’s’ tactics worked to the same devastating effect against Pep Guardiola and his possession-based system. The result wasn’t an awful one for the Bavarian club, but they failed to grab the all important away goal at the bubbling Vicente Calderon, something that may prove to be essential against a team which looks as comfortable away from home as they are at it.
Should the former Barcelona manager progress to the final, it will be seen as evidence that he can attain the ultimate prize in club football without the likes of Lionel Messi, and whether you believe that or not, a lot rides on Bayern’s next match.
The purpose of Simone’s system against Bayern was similar to the one used against Barcelona, but the pressing was a bit more aggressive. Guardiola’s side have centre-backs in Javi Martinez and David Alaba who are adept on the ball and can send it up to the aerially-strong Robert Lewandowski, and so Atleti sought to limit the opposition defenders’ time on the ball and force the majority of the play to the wings. This concentration of width would’ve been the Spaniards’ undoing had it not been for both the inadequacy of Bayern’s midfield, and the well-disciplined defensive organisation of the Atlético players.
Guardiola likes to send his full-backs towards the centre of the park so that they drag a man along with them and effectively isolate the winger, allowing them to beat their man or cross the ball. This is not what happened. Since no Bayern midfielder occupied the number ten spot, the central two midfielders inside the 4-4-2 were allowed to help overload the possession side of the field, creating double and even triple teams against the Bayern players.
Thiago’s failure to occupy a more dangerous central role is something that can be tweaked, but one figure that stood out due to his poor performance was Xabi Alonso. The pace of the game seemed to be far above a level than that with which he was comfortable and he was dragging back the other two midfielders because he needed help with the pressure. If the German giants are to overcome the deficit and advance to this year’s final, some tactical and personnel changes are in order.
A dynamic 3-5-2 is a system that would be the most likely to breakdown Atlético’s 4-4-2. It would allow for an overloading of the central two midfielders whilst still keeping the width. Since the central two midfielders would be overrun by the presence of at least three opposition players—four if the second striker drops a bit—it would force one of Simeone’s wide players to come inside and help, isolating the winger with the full-back.
The two up top would allow for Bayern’s main striker, Robert Lewandowski, more freedom and the ability to move into space. The first leg saw the Polish forward dominated by the aggressive and physical Atlético centre-backs because he was completely isolated. Putting another player in the forward line would draw attention away from Bayern’s top scorer.
Thomas Müller has played in a variety of positions under Guardiola and has seen success in pretty much all of them. He would be no stranger to playing as or around the forward spot with his 32 goals across all competitions, and since he is the more natural goal-scorer, Mario Götze—more suited to creating chances than scoring them— could be used to overload the central midfield as a more dynamic replacement for Xabi Alonso.
Götze has seen a large decline in form since Guardiola’s arrival, but his inclusion and role in Bayern’s most recent league game suggests that he may seek to get some use out of the World Cup winner. The Spaniard could surprise us all and play the versatile Joshua Kimmich in midfield; it’s not like he hasn’t thrown Kimmich into a baptism of fire before. Either way, Alonso is a non-option.
The brilliance of Simone’s original system was using Guardiola’s preferred width against him by overloading different sides of the field, but if Bayern force Atlético to overload centrally then they’ll get their width back. Once isolated, the Bayern wingers can set up a variety of chances by either sending in crosses or getting past their defender. The wide players will be essential in opening up central passing lanes by stretching the blocks of four in the 4-4-2.
The advantage that Bayern have is that they have experimented with a bevy of different systems and players this season, making them essentially tactically amorphous. Atlético have perfected a style, and it has worked against everyone thus far, but one would be curious to see how they would react to an exposure of their system.