Pep Guardiola’s decision to field two out-and-out wingers failed to bear fruit against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.
Cognisant of the compactness of Atletico, who defend narrowly with at least ten players behind the ball, the Bayern manager looked to the wings by asking Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman to hug their respective touchlines. Thomas Muller, normally fielded in a half-forward role on the right, was left on the bench.
Simeone, for his part, sprung his own tactical surprise by asking his players to press the Bayern defence aggressively in the first ten minutes, thus preventing the German side from working the ball forward quickly. Guardiola’s charges were further shaken by Saul Niguez’s incredible 11th minute solo goal, after which the Atletico block lowered significantly.
Pressing in one’s own half was then the order of the day for Atletico and they took to their task as is customary. Gabi, Simeone’s captain, led the charge as always, robbing Bayern of the football seven times in central areas in the first half. Striker Antoine Griezmann also played his part, dropping goalside of Xabi Alonso to cut Bayern attacks off at source.
Bayern mainly looked to Costa on the left touchline to stretch the play, but the Brazilian found himself double marked by Niguez and Juanfran. Coman fared little better on the right, comprehensively losing his one-on-one battle with Filipe Luis. Meanwhile, with neither wide player in close proximity, Robert Lewandowski often found himself completely isolated – finishing the half as the game’s most dispossessed player.
In attack, Atletico were even more direct than usual, firing long balls over the top of an ultra-high Bayern defence to exploit Javi Martinez’s lack of pace. Indeed, Griezmann could easily have doubled his side’s lead on the half-hour mark from this route, were it not for Manuel Neuer’s near post save. Bayern, for their part, only managed to test Neuer’s opposite number Jan Oblak once.
Atletico’s armour did show some chinks in the second half however, with the arms-length comfort of the previous tie against Barcelona conspicuous by its absence. Key to this increased fragility was the decision to pull Torres back behind the ball and operate more defensively, rendering counter-attacking opportunities difficult. As such, Bayern’s territorial advantage increased and they should have scored when Costa got in off Philipp Lahm’s long pass, only to flick his finish over Oblak’s crossbar.
Despite this momentum shift, there was a sense that Guardiola’s in-game changes did little to capitalise on it. Franck Ribery’s introduction, in place of the disappointing Coman, coincided with Costa switching sides and the subsequent usage of two inside forwards running into Atletico blind alleys.
Later, Muller’s introduction to the fray was simply a baffling like-for-like swap for Thiago in the centre of midfield. And finally, the identity of Guardiola’s final substitute, the centre back Mehdi Benatia, simply allowed David Alaba to push forward from left back in place of the removed Juan Bernat. Aside from the orientation of the wide players, the broad structure of Pep’s initial 4-1-4-1 shape was largely maintained.
Atletico, of course, endured a missed opportunity of their own, when a rare 75th minute counter-attack, initiated by Griezmann, ended with Torres striking the post. Koke’s held follow-up was the hosts’ only shot on target of the half, underlining that second half shift in momentum.
Guardiola will surely restore Muller to his usual narrow right-sided role in the second leg to lend much-needed support to Lewandowski. Whether he does or not, it would be difficult to bet against Simeone’s side now.