Finals don’t often come down to pretty football, especially those that go into extra time. That doesn’t mean the tactical battles are any less compelling, as Real Madrid’s 4-1 win in the Champions League final over Atlético showed.
Both managers made strange decisions in their starting lineups. Diego Costa, supposedly fit after his horse-placenta hamstring treatment, didn’t even last 10 minutes for Atlético, while Sami Khedira played a rather ineffective hour in just his third appearance for Real since recovering from a serious knee injury.
Diego Simeone’s decision ended up being the costly one, as his well-tuned team couldn’t hold up against Real for the full 120 minutes without a substitute available to replace an injured Juanfran. He had to carry on with one good ankle, and Atlético paid for it by losing the trophy after being two minutes away from lifting it.
Atlético’s disciplined defense stifles Real for 90 minutes
In typical Atléti fashion, Simeone’s side adopted a largely defensive posture for the majority of the game. The players’ work rate and commitment to the team cause showed again, limiting Real’s deadly counterattack to only a couple chances.
After an Atlético corner kick in the 26th minute, Ángel di María charged down the left flank and had to be fouled to prevent a major opportunity. A few minutes later, Tiago gave the ball away cheaply and uncharacteristically near goal, but Gareth Bale couldn’t direct a shot on target.
Especially in winning second balls, Atlético’s work rate took over the game, causing a series of fouls in the first half in particular. When Koke jumps to challenge for an aerial ball above, three others are within the likely knockdown area, with David Villa on hand in case he manages to flick it forward. The clichéd term for this in football parlance is “hunting in packs.”
The most easily executable defensive formation is a 4-4-2, which Atlético adopted for the majority of the season in games it expected to win on the break. The defensive pairings all over the field — central partners in defense, midfield and forward and the ability to double up in wide areas — make it difficult to break down.
On Saturday, Atlético crowded out the middle of the field with four or five players and pulled two wide to defend Real’s flank play. Atlético applied high pressure in the attacking half but dropped into its shell when Real sustained possession and built from the back.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team started in a 4-3-3 despite playing 4-4-2 in the last few Champions League matches. After 20 minutes, Cristiano Ronaldo struggled to find much of the ball, and Real’s emphasis changed from crowding out the middle to isolating play on the wings and hitting long, diagonal balls to unpack Atlético’s low block.
The switch was fairly simple, to a 4-4-1-1. Ronaldo joined Karim Benzema in the forward line, but he had more freedom to roam underneath, and di María pushed to the left flank, leaving Khedira and Luka Modrić alone in the center.
The payoff didn’t come until about the 70th minute, as Ronaldo finally drifted successfully to the right side to combine more with Bale. The Ronaldo-Bale combination gave Real a couple of late opportunities, but again, Bale was off target.
Real dictates the game
Partly by design and partly by virtue of its one-on-one maestros in wide areas, Real set the tempo and had the vast majority of possession in the match. Usually, Atlético’s wingers can be described as “indented,” with Koke and Arda Turan — who missed the final due to injury — pinching in to support the two holding midfielders.
However, Koke and Raúl García had too much to do defensively in covering Ronaldo, Bale and di María to worry about getting forward very often. Arda Turan would have been helpful in providing some attacking impetus, as would a freer Koke, but Atlético’s defensive and midfield lines were largely occupied with defending this game.
Despite Villa’s best efforts as a shadow striker, Atlético’s sorest lack of presence was in the area patrolled by a true No. 10. Atléti’s passing and heat maps from the match show a reduced number of passes compared to Real, as well as a U shape that exposes the gap between midfield and attack.
One of the most noteworthy numbers of the match is Atlético’s measly eight pass attempts from Zone 14 (the red area in the diagram at right). This is another inherent risk in a 4-4-2 with two defensive-minded midfielders: getting numbers around the ball centrally and linking the back half of the team with the front half.
Despite Villa’s immense work rate, Atlético couldn’t find much play in Zones 14 or 11 (directly behind Zone 14 in the central channel). It didn’t help that Diego Costa’s replacement, Adrián López, had a series of poor touches and misplayed passes from his isolated position.
Persistence in attack pays off just in time
Extra time is attritional, especially for a group as athletic as Real against a team that works as hard as Atléti all over the field. Real needed a set-piece goal in the dying moments of the game to crawl back into it, but once that goal fell, only one result looked likely. Simeone knew the five minutes of additional time at the end of the match did his team no favors, as he complained to referee Björn Kuipers.
Throw in the fact that Atléti had no substitutions remaining when Juanfran suffered a painful ankle injury, and it was only a matter of time before Real scored. The only question was: would Ronaldo, Bale, et. al. find a way through before time ran out? They did, more than once, as Atlético’s players were completely out of gas.
Juanfran was the main target of Real’s attacks in extra time, down Real’s left and Atlético’s right, including on the winning goal scored by Bale.
Two vital missteps on the crucial play show the state Atléti’s players were in at the time: first, Tiago misses on his attempt to corral Iker Casillas’ long clearance (likely because of his tired legs and brain), and then, Juanfran dives into a tackle after being turned around by di María on the dribble, as his injury wouldn't allow him the same mobility he usually enjoys.
Conceding twice more made the final result increasingly harsh on a team that, over the course of the season, showed more fitness and physical ability than most. It’s amazing how well Atlético’s players have stood up to Simeone’s demanding style, not just this season but throughout the past two years.
All in for La Décima
The way Real-Atlético ended was less about tactics and more about individual exploitation and execution. Atlético simply wore down to the point that it was hanging on desperately against one of the only teams that could match it physically.
The end of the match was the culmination of everything the match provided: two master tacticians playing a chess match with world-class players at their disposal who would do anything to win the battle. This final was everything good about the game today, played without fear or timidity on either side, with a commitment to the team cause that brilliantly reflected the personalities of each club. If the 2014 World Cup final has the same combination of elements as the 2014 Champions League final, we are in for another stunning display.