The UEFA Champions League has always been filled with classics throughout the years. In the semi-finals of the 2015/16 season, Bayern Munich met Atlético Madrid in a battle of opposite styles: Pep Guardiola’s widely acclaimed possession game versus Diego Simeone’s infamous, rugged defensive style. Both managers arguably had their strongest squads in their regime at their respective clubs, making this a top-class fixture.
Bayern Munich (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; David Alaba, Jérôme Boateng, Javi Martínez, Philipp Lahm; Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal; Frank Ribéry, Thomas Müller, Douglas Costa, Robert Lewandowski.
Atlético Madrid (4-4-2): Jan Oblak; Filipe Luis, Diego Godín, José Giménez, Juanfran; Koke, Augusto Fernández, Gabi, Saúl; Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres.
Bayern in possession
Atleti defended in a 4-4-2 mid-block, with the forwards staying compact and moving according to the ball’s position, and Gabi often stepping out to press Vidal. Atleti’s players are extremely disciplined and worked hard to always maintain near-perfect horizontal and vertical compactness out of possession.
As a Guardiola side, it was not much of a surprise when Bayern tried to play from the back. In the build-up, the created a 3-1 structure in the centre, with Alonso dropping between the two centre-backs – they now had a lot of passing lanes to bypass Atleti’s first line of defence. Bayern’s two real centre-backs spread wide, meaning they could exchange passes on one side before freeing a centre-back on the other side, who would be eager to carry the ball forward.
That was demonstrated in the below example, when Bayern Munich’s passes around the left-half space pulled Atlético Madrid’s front two towards that side, and a lot of space was opened for Martínez on the right. The Spaniard then comfortably dribbled forward.
When that happened, Atlético Madrid’s compact shape would quickly shift to overload the ball side, with the ball-near midfielders higher to stop ball progression there, and the ball-far ones deeper to provide cover. Here, we can see right midfielder Saúl deep and central. One solution for the centre-back in these situations – that Martínez demonstrated here – is a direct long ball towards Lewandowski, who could hold up the ball well in most cases and then quickly lay off the ball to a nearby teammate.
Bayern’s defenders could also progress the ball with line-breaking passes towards the wingers, who often moved into the half-space. From there, the German side could attack through either wing with the full-back’s overlap. The wingers could also cut inside to deliver a cross with their stronger feet. That was a familiar scenario, as Ribery and Costa were the most prolific crossers of the night (both with nine). Inside the box, Lewandowski would try to get away from the dominant centre-backs and instead attempted to beat either full-back in the air. Atleti tried to counter this during crosses by having the ball-far full-back and wide midfielder close to their centre-backs when a cross was about to be launched. Here, Koke helped Godín and Luís by coming into the box and heading the ball clear.
Bayern would attack in an asymmetrical 2-3-4-1 formation. The deep midfield three consisted of Vidal, Alonso and the versatile Alaba, who often moved centrally – except when Bayern attacked down the left flank – to help circulate the ball. Here, Alonso launched a pass towards Lahm and then moved up the pitch, while Alaba came inside.
Bayern’s shape was, thus, oriented towards the right. Boateng compensated for this by often moving past the half-way line to become a playmaker on the left half-space. His passing range and vision were exceptional, completing 9/14 long balls, many of which penetrative long balls into the box towards Lewandowski or Müller the “space investigator”, who enjoyed his roaming role and exploits the half-space and channels (gaps between a full-back and the nearby centre-back). In the below example, Müller made a run from out wide towards the space behind Godín in the box, which the Uruguayan was totally unaware of and Luís was unable to keep up with. Boateng found the German with a wonderful ball over the top, but Müller’s lay-off towards Lewandowski was not good enough, and the striker couldn’t finish from a tight angle.
Bayern often overloaded the right side of the pitch. Vidal and Alonso gave support and cover, Lahm hugged the touchline and tried to combine with Müller and Costa, the latter of which often cut inside and cross. In the below example, Costa had space to cross after a wide combination, and launched a cross towards Lewandowski, who was supported by Ribéry’s distracting movements inside the box – Ribéry usually moved into the box when the ball was on Bayern’s right wing in the final third.
This overload helped Bayern a lot in counter-pressing. When an Atleti player got the ball back, he was instantly pressed from all sides, and Atleti players were not good enough with tight combinations. In addition, Bayern’s quality in possession and high numbers in advanced positions pushed Atleti’s shape so deep that they usually couldn’t get out when they won back the ball. Here, we could see Bayern’s all 10 outfield players in a small area, and Alonso’s counter-press forced a bad pass from Gabi.
Atleti in possession
Atleti was mostly suffocated by Bayern and didn’t have any long possession spells. They never played from the back, and many of their long balls from deep were inaccurate; in addition, Torres and Griezmann were no way aerially better than Boateng and Martínez.
They usually attacked through quick counters using wide movements, but Bayern’s high defensive line along with intense counter-pressing made things difficult for Los Colchoneros; their defence and midfield’s passing was not good enough – they often resorted to mindless clearances.
In longer possession spells, they used a 4-2-2-2 in possession, with the wide midfielders tucking in and helped by Griezmann’s dropping movements. They aimed to retain possession through short central combinations, or through the left with Luís’ smart ball carrying and then crosses.
Bayern defended in a 4-2-3-1 similar to their line-up. Their midfield worked hard to overload the area around the ball and then press the ball-carrier from all sides. Most of the time, Bayern quickly won the ball back and launched a quick counter if possible.
At the start of the second half, Yannick Carrasco replaced Fernández. Atleti now played in a 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 with Saúl being the central (and often deepest – he also helped the defenders deal with crosses) midfielder. This weakened their pressing from the front, though Gabi or Koke tried to step out to help Torres disrupt Bayern’s build-up. However, the now had a sided central mid on each side to help defend in wide areas.
In addition, their midfield got even more compact, making it nearly impossible for Boateng or Alonso to find Lewandowski or Müller in or around the box with line-breaking passes like in the first half. In the above image, Boateng attempted a very powerful line-breaking pass, but Godín was the one who got the ball. A wonderful quick combination between Gabi and Koke beat Bayern’s counter-press – probably the only time they managed to pass straight through the opponent’s gegenpress – and a one-two between Griezmann and Torres sent the Frenchman one-on-one with Neuer, and he finished calmly to give Atleti the vital away goal.
The skilful Carrasco combined well with Luís and Koke on the left to help their side retain possession. He also completed three out of four dribbles.
In the second half, Bayern tried to play more on the left, with Lahm now taking Alaba’s central role in the first half. Bayern’s left-side overload forced Carrasco towards the centre and limit his danger. Guardiola then replaced Costa with the right-footed Kingsley Coman, who could instantly cross with his right foot after receiving a quick pass from the left.
Bayern also tried to utilise quick switches of play to help the wide players get the ball with enough time and space. Here, Alonso played a quick one-touch pass towards Ribery, who then found Alaba’s overlap. Vidal rushed toward Luís and beat him in the aerial resulting from Alaba’s cross, helping Lewandowski to score the final goal of the match
This analysis showed that Bayern totally deserved to win this match. They dominated Atleti and created a few good chances (plus a penalty) but didn’t finish well enough, and Atleti’s vital away goal – probably the visitors’ only chance throughout the match – meant Guardiola’s Bayern regime ended in regret. Atleti was the luckier side, but a lot of credit must be given to their solid defending throughout. They went on to lose to Real Madrid (again!) in the final, unfortunately by penalties this time. 2015/16 was still Atleti’s best Champions League campaign up to now.