The UEFA Champions League has always been filled with classics throughout the years. In the semi-finals of the 2013/14 season, Chelsea met Atlético Madrid in a battle of the world’s best defensive-minded managers. José Mourinho had been a household name after impressive spells at FC Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan, while Diego Simeone was a rising star, turning a below-average Atleti side into a top team in both La Liga and Champions League.
In the first leg at Vicente Calderón, Chelsea actively sat deep and frustrate the host, successfully holding them to a goalless draw. At the Stamford Bridge however, Chelsea were expected to be more expressive to get a win, and that was also a chance for Atleti to look for the precious away goal.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Mark Schwarzer; Ashley Cole, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanović; David Luiz, Ramires; Eden Hazard, Willian, Azpilicueta, Fernando Torres.
Atleti (4-4-2): Thibaut Courtois; Filipe Luís, Diego Godín, João Miranda, Juanfran; Koke, Tiago, Mario Suárez, Arda Turan; Diego Costa, Adrián.
Chelsea in possession
Chelsea used a 4-1-4-1 in possession, with Luiz the sole pivot. Ramires and Willian played higher and were allowed to roam quite freely in the opponent’s half. The centre-backs remained quite deep and conservative, probably weary of Atleti’s counter-attacking threat. From that position, they understandably couldn’t launch penetrative ground passes, instead leaving the ball progression duty to Luiz and Ramires, or launch long balls towards the box, hoping to win second balls. There was a lot of space between Chelsea’s backline and the front midfield four, which the likes of Turan and Costa could take advantage of in counters.
Atlético Madrid, as usual, defended in their famous 4-4-2. The main aim was to stay compact and prevent central progression. Except when Chelsea’s backline received a back pass, the forwards didn’t press them, instead staying close to protect the centre. As Chelsea’s defence were quite deep,
They often had to progress by passes down the flanks, especially towards the skillful Hazard, who could wreak havoc with his pace and dribbling.
Luiz has a wonderful passing range and was instrumental in Chelsea’s possession game. Apart from the safe short passes, he often launched long balls towards the flanks or the box – the latter was ineffective as Torres’s aerial prowess was no match for the likes of Godín and Miranda.
To compensate for the lack of support from the back, Chelsea’s front players were allowed to roam freely to get the ball. In the below image, Torres dropped deep towards the right to help advance the ball. Ivanović made a central run, while Azpilicueta sprinted down the flank, hoping to receive the ball in space.
On the right, Ramires tried to support the wide players with his half-space forward runs, exploiting the space between Godín and Filipe when the latter moved wide to press Azpilicueta. However, the Spanish often moved more centrally towards the box, meaning Filipe could sit deep and close to Godín, Ramires couldn’t make the aforementioned smart runs, while Ivanović, who was never mobile enough to get past Koke, was isolated out wide. Azpilicueta’s probably positioned high to become an extra target from long balls and crosses, but he didn’t even engage in aerial duel. This, combined with Torres losing all of his two aerials, meant that Chelsea’s long balls towards the box and floated crosses were not at all effective.
On the left, Cole often stayed conservative to let Hazard attack freely. However, his lack of overlapping runs meant Chelsea lacked penetration on the left, their main attacking channel. They heavily relied on Hazard’s individual skills, which was ineffective as he alone had to beat Arda and the ever-reliable Juanfran.
Atletico’s aim was always to overload the ball side, giving the opponents almost no time and space in potentially dangerous areas. In the example below, Adrián, Juanfran and Arda stayed close to cover Hazard’s nearby forward options. Willian then made a smart run, but was closely followed by Mario – Mario and Tiago always kept track of Willian and Ramires’ run. Hazard and Willian tried to combine, but winning a 2v4 was too hard even for players of their calibre. Other Chelsea players didn’t move close to give them a passing option. Chelsea’s short passing game was ineffective as they were outnumbered in all important areas.
Besides overloading the flanks, Atleti also limited opposite wide players’ central passing options. Here, Tiago constantly followed Hazard’s runs, meaning Wiilian’s passing lane towards the Belgian was always covered. Willian had no choice but to go 1v2 against Filipe and Koke, which he lost.
However, Chelsea’s opener surprisingly came from the right wing. Willian made a run behind Tiago, similar to Ramires’ runs described above. Willian wonderfully escaped the press from Godín and Filipe. Azpilicueta got the ball from his teammate and deliver a low cross towards Torres, who found the back of the net.
Atleti in possession
Atleti, of course, didn’t play from the back. Goalkeeper Courtois mostly went long towards Atleti players who overloaded a certain area in Chelsea’s half. The same thing happened when either side had a throw-in – Atleti always wanted to have enough men around the ball to win it back quickly. In their counterpressing situations, the centre-backs would help compress the space around the ball, nullifying Chelsea front players’ dropping movements.
Chelsea defended in a 4-4-1-1 mid-block, with Willian just behind Torres. Atleti’s midfield would then overload an area and combine short to progress the ball. The likes of Koke, Arda and Adrián smartly exploited pockets of space in Chelsea’s shape. The below image showed that Chelsea were neither horizontally nor vertically compact, meaning Atleti players could combine through the host’s midfield time and again.
In the 25th minute, Simeone swapped Arda and Koke’s position. Koke, now playing as a right midfielder, is by nature a central mid and often moved towards the left to combine with Arda and the elusive Filipe. Looking at the below passmap, we could see that Atleti focused on playing down the left, with overloading movements from the midfielders, Filipe and Adrián. They showed flexible movements, making it hard for Chelsea players to keep up.
Left-side overloads helped facilitate both of Atleti’s open play goals. In both goals, Chelsea’s shape shifted towards Atleti’s left, and Tiago sent a diagonal lobbed through pass towards Juanfran’s bursting run into space. The right-back then assisted with a cut back pass.
These goals reflected Atleti full-backs’ style of attack. Luis was more expressive and had the skill to combine and dribble towards the box. Juanfran, on the other hand, was not as skillful and often stayed more conservative, but would surprise the opponents with his late sprints into the box.
Second half changes
In the 53rd minute, Samuel Eto’o replaced Ashley Cole to make a centre-forward pair with Torres. Chelsea now played with a 4-4-2, with Azpilicueta at left-back, and Willian at right midfield. Almost immediately, Atleti switched to a 4-1-4-1 with Tiago at the base of midfield, Koke a central mid, and Adrián at right midfield.
With the precious away goal, Atleti sat deeper, looking to pounce on the counter. When Chelsea had the ball in Atleti’s third, Tiago would drop as deep as the centre-backs, making Atleti a 5-4-1.
The visitors would go on to score two more times, with Costa’s penalty and Arda’s tap-in. They went into the final, which they lost to their royal neighbors, Real Madrid.
This analysis showed that this match was clearly not Chelsea best performance. Their limited attacking scheme was not good enough for Atleti’s solid defence, and their defensive structure lacked compactness. For Atleti, this was a deserved win. They generally defended well as expected, and was able to exploit Chelsea’s bad defensive structure to create clear chances. Simeone clearly demonstrated better tactical prowess over Mourinho.