Atletico Madrid’s defense against Bayern Munich’s attack is the most anticipated stylistic matchup of the season. Under Diego Simeone, Atletico’s defense has become downright legendary.
At various points during the past three years, they’ve beaten every high-flying attack they’ve come across. But the Champions League quarterfinals mark the first time they’ve faced a Pep Guardiola side.
Guardiola’s Bayern Munich are unique. No other team in the world is as the German powerhouse with regard to the aggressively varied ways they use positioning and possession. The two-legged tie will feature the world’s most varied attack trying to worm it’s way through the world’s most proactive defense. It may not always be pretty, but it’s sure to be fascinating.
The futility of formations: Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich are generally referred to as a 4-1-4-1, but that description is wholly inadequate. Their approach to possession is dictated by the skills of the team’s players and their positioning relative to one another. Full-backs are often asked to perform the ball retention and circulation roles normally associated with central midfielders. Attacking midfielders do everything from pull wide to make attacking runs beyond the forward to drop deep (sometimes deeper than an advancing centre-back).
Even centre-backs, usually the position with the clearest footballing purpose in any lineup, are carefully chosen for roles that might differ game to game, half to half or minute to minute. Sometimes they split wide and sometimes they step up into midfield; very rarely do they simply stay home. And all of those actions are taken in relation to everybody else’s actions. It’s also why Munich rarely starts a central defender that any other team would consider for the position. The most likely pairing are Javi Martinez and Joshua Kimmich, two players who would be considered defensive midfielders in a non-Guardiola world.
It’s not like Bayern Munich snap back into a defensive shape when they lose the ball, either. All that movement means the team is, by design, extremely vulnerable to counterattacks and it depends on snuffing out those counterattacks before they happen. If full-backs like David Alaba and Philipp Lahm happen to be deep in the opposition half as the ball gets turned over, their job is to pressure the opposition, not track back into their loosely defined position.
Guardiola has a lot of pieces to pick and choose from, even with Arjen Robben missing due to injury. The most “normal” XI involves Franck Ribery and Douglas Costa on the wings with Robert Lewandowski at striker, Thomas Muller and Arturo Vidal as attacking midfielders and Xabi Alonso behind them. Both Kingsley Coman and Thiago are realistic options as well; Guardiola will almost certainly be tailoring the lineup to where on the pitch he expects his players to end up as opposed to where they start.
Formation futility: Atletico Madrid
As intricate as Bayern Munich are on the attacking side, the same is true of Atletico Madrid in defense. Simeone seems to have settled on a “big game” lineup involving Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres as strikers that also cover the wings from time to time, with Saul, Gabi, Augusto Fernandez and Koke making a very narrow midfield four supplemented by full-backs Juanfran and Filipe Luis.
How and when those full-backs step up, whether the midfielders appear as a flat four or with Fernandez behind Saul and Gabi, and where on the field Atletico choose to pick their battles are all variable and game-specific. Though unlike with Bayern, at least Atletico’s centre-backs will predictably be anchoring the team’s defense the whole time.
The question of who those centre-backs will be, though, is an open one. With the talismanic Diego Godin out, Simeone will likely choose between Stefan Savic, Lucas Hernandez and Jose Gimenez, who remarkably are 25, 21, and 20 years old. It’s a testament to not only how well-drilled the side is, but how much defending is done before the ball gets to the centre-backs that such a defensive-minded team thrives even with such youth in those key positions.
The pure tactical battle
The contest between Atletico and Bayern will be as pure as they come. In most games, teams work at cross-purposes, making it hard to examine what each side is trying to accomplish and consequently, which side is responsible for which trends in the game. Not on Wednesday. The matchup is simple. Bayern Munich are going to attack, Atletico Madrid are going to try and stop them. The aims are clear; the devil is in the tactical details.
Atletico’s signature defensive performances have come against Barcelona and in those games, their defending worked in two distinct phases. Phase one: keep Barcelona’s chief transitional force, Sergio Busquets from getting the ball. Phase two: if he did get the ball, drop back so the entire team was between him and the goal.
Bayern’s buildup play is much more varied. Bayern don’t really have a Plan A, B, and C as much as they have six or seven different and equally deadly Plan A’s. How Atletico plans to deal with that will likely define the course of the game.
There are two extremes to navigate between. The first is to simply refuse to worry about it. Sure, Guardiola’s tactical tinkering might have players moving all over the place, but if Atletico refuse to be drawn out 35 yards from their own goal, it doesn’t matter. Do whatever you like Pep: eventually you’re gonna have to come to us.
The problem with that approach is that even with a great defensive performance, letting Bayern Munich having that much of the ball that close to the net invites a disaster. Whether it’s a screamer from distance, a weird deflection, Ribery shaking free of his markers or Muller finally popping up in a bit of space, if you give a great team enough bites at the apple, they’ll eventually break through, even against a flawless or near-flawless defensive performance.
The other option is to take the fight to Bayern Munich. Press aggressively and contest their ability to play the simple short passes in their own half that give Bayern the time to build their attacks. In effect, try and turn Bayern into a more normal team by denying them the time and space they’re accustomed to. This, of course, is more easily said than done and Guardiola’s sides have a long history of facing teams that try and hurry them, simply passing the ball around them like they weren’t there. Atletico Madrid certainly aren’t just any other team.
The most likely scenario is that Atletico try and balance the two approaches. Juventus had the most success against Bayern and they walked that middle ground. They pressed at select moments, not so much in an attempt to win the ball back but to make Bayern Munich work that much harder to get into good positions. In effect they made sure that Bayern had to break all the tricks out in order to advance the ball, that way, if they lost it, they’d be maximally out of position to deal with a counterattack.
Juventus also had tremendous counterattacking success, not by launching balls over the top to get in behind, but by getting the ball to an attacking player and having him dribble through a recovering defense — this happens to be Atletico Madrid’s preferred strategy. Whether it’s Griezmann, Torres or even the full-backs driving forwards after winning the ball, Atletico thrive at counterattacking simply by dribbling beyond flailing defenders.
Atletico Madrid’s best-case scenario
Bayern prove unable to deal with Atletico’s fierce defensive pressure, which is unlike anything they’ve faced in the past three years. Passes that are usually simple become contested. Atletico force Bayern toward the sidelines but Bayern stubbornly refuse to be corralled, trying more and more dangerous passes in their own half. Eventually one gets intercepted and Atletico pounce with a combination of Koke, Griezmann and Torres working the ball into the box to take the lead. Then Atletico get to do what they do best: defend a lead.
Bayern Munich’s best-case scenario
As good as Atletico’s defense is, it just isn’t able to handle the multiple options of Bayern Munich’s read and react attack. Bayern is able to work the ball through their limited pressure with ease and attack the Spanish side’s young defenders before help arrives. Bayern pry open spaces in Atletico’s staunch defense that other teams can’t and score early before killing the game off with lots of conservative possession.
Neutral best-case scenario
Bayern are able to create some chances with possession but not so many that Atletico break away from their targeted pressing approach. Atletico are able to create some counterattacking chances, but the final pass and shot don’t quite come off. As the game progresses into the last half hour Bayern press harder, exaggerating the likelihood of both teams scoring. Fans get a thrilling last 15 minutes in which Bayern lay on the pressure combined with one or two golden chances for Atletico Madrid, and an outcome which hangs in the balance.