Tactical Review: Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid - Unstoppable force finally shatters immovable object
Carlo Ancelotti was hired to win La Decima - and he did just that, prevailing over Diego Simeone’s plucky fighters, and in the process equalling Bob Paisley’s three European Cups.
However, the match was a lot narrower than the final result suggests.
The numbers were simple. Real Madrid had scored the most goals in this year’s Champions League (37), while Atletico had conceded the least (6). They hold the same distinctions in La Liga as well, so on paper this was a straightforward contest: Real’s attack vs Atletico’s defence.
But with Real missing their most important functional player in Xabi Alonso, the midfield was weak. This may have motivated Diego Simeone to start Diego Costa, whose physical power and work rate without the ball have been crucial in both of Atletico’s victories over Real in the last 12 months (and of course, the goals). Atletico’s initial tactics were aggressive: they pressed up the pitch and attacked Luka Modric and Angel di Maria, preventing them from passing the ball accurately. In the first hour alone, the pair attempted 86 passes to Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, of which only 10 found their target.
In this regard, Koke and Gabi were exceptional. In attack, they got high up the pitch to compete with Real’s central trio for the ball; then moved the ball quickly when they got it, while also tracking back to deal with Real’s wingers. Sami Khedira has hardly played since November, but he was defensively solid tonight and covered Raul Garcia well, often challenging the tall Spaniard for aerial balls. Godin’s opener aside, Real didn’t put a foot wrong defensively. Modric gave a good account of himself, but there was little he could do in a midfield that Atleti had flooded time and again. Simeone knows that Atletico are at their best when squeezing out space for the opposition, and for the first hour his gameplan worked brilliantly.
It’s hard to pick a specific turning point, but Atletico’s aggressiveness certainly dropped in the 2nd half. Their players came in deeper, and stopped pressing in midfield – and Real’s aura increased.
Here, bench strength was probably a factor. Atletico’s high tempo and defensive solidity are good enough to defeat most sides by the hour mark, but at the end of a season where half the first XI have played over 4000 minutes, Simeone had few options to call upon and one sub wasted because of Costa. Carlo Ancelotti’s rotation, on the other hand, has kept his players fresh. Ronaldo has played 8 minutes in the last 3 weeks, Isco did not feature in the 1st half and high-stamina players like di Maria naturally thrive in the 2nd half, as defences retreat deeper.
But the key change tonight was Marcelo for Coentrao.