Preview: Atlético Madrid in the semi-finals

Justin Separator April 24, 2016

Before the game we talked with an Atleti fan from Scotland. Kinga follows Atlético since 2007 and gives us some insight in a team that has reached the top European level in recent years.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers? Where are you from and how did you become a fan of Atlético Madrid? What’s so special about your club?

Hi, my name is Kinga and I’m from Scotland. I started supporting Atlético Madrid in 2007 after the club signed Simão Sabrosa, whose style of play I’d become completely captivated by during the 2006 World Cup (and not just because he scored a penalty against England!). The 07-08 was a fantastic season for the club and got me completely hooked. It hasn’t always been that enjoyable, and things got really quite bad for a while before Simeone steadied the ship, but suffering is all part of being an Atléti supporter – and boy do they make us suffer!

Atlético is again having a great season in La Liga and also in the UEFA Champions League. Diego Simeone is a big part of your success. What’s his philosophy and why is he so successful with Atlético?

Since the very first day that Simeone took over, the club has had a completely different outlook. He’s a winner, and he’s instilled that same mentality into all the players, making them believe they are better than they are. There is a mutual trust between the players and Simeone, and this is very evident on the pitch. He likes his team to play with intensity and determination, making efficient use of set plays, counters and exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition. Effort is non-negotiable!

There are some rumors about him leaving Atlético. How do you feel about that?

It’s inevitable that he’ll move on at some stage, and I’ll be gutted when he does, but I don’t think Simeone’s work here is done. He’s clearly building for the future and it is very unlikely that he’d leave in the midst of a pending transfer ban. He also has a deal until 2020, as do the backroom staff, so I won’t be doing much worrying until then!

Diego Simeone lässt während eines Spiels nichts unversucht.(Foto: Alex Grimm / Bongarts / Getty Images)
Diego Simeone gives everything during the game.
(Picture: Alex Grimm / Bongarts / Getty Images)

What’s your opinion about the “best league in the world” discussion? How do you rate La Liga compared to the Bundesliga? What image does German football have in Spain?

I’m biased, but I do believe that La Liga is the best league in the world. You only have to look at the success of Spanish clubs in European competitions to see the quality of the sides in the league. La Liga, much like the Bundesliga, is seen as having an uncompetitive title race, and there’s a huge disparity between the haves and have-nots, though things have got much more exciting since we’ve started to push Real Madrid and Barcelona. Where the Bundesliga trumps La Liga is the organisation; Spanish football clubs are terribly run – and I include Atléti in that bracket – whereas German football clubs appear much more stable, and the TV money distribution is much fairer than it is here in Spain.

Since Barcelona dropped points in the last games, you are back in the title race in La Liga. How big are your hopes about winning the title and could the title race be a problem for the Champions League? Especially your defensive line has suffered some injuries in the last weeks.

At Atléti we follow Simeone’s mantra of ‘partido a partido’, meaning we take one game at a time, so in that sense having something to play for doesn’t really impact the team’s mentality or the way we approach each game. Of course I believe that it is possible, but ultimately it is not in our hands as Barcelona have a head-to-head advantage over us. Our fixture list is also arguably the most difficult of the three, especially as we have games against Bayern in-between. In saying that, I think if you asked Atléti fans what they wanted more, the majority would say the Champions League. We have had quite a number of injuries in defence recently, and it looks like Diego Godín will miss the first leg of the tie at the very least, but we’re very blessed to have four highly talented centre-backs at the club. Our system makes it really easy for players to slot in and out.

Let’s talk about the upcoming semifinals. How do you expect your team against Bayern? Does Simeone have different tactics for the home and the away game in the CL?

I expect us to play in a similar fashion to what we did against Barcelona, the only difference being Bayern are a physically much stronger team. For the home leg we’ll probably play 4-3-3 and put a lot of pressure on Bayern from the first minute, hopefully grabbing an early goal. We will then probably drop back a bit deeper and let Bayern have the majority of the ball. Away from home we’ll most likely play a narrow 4-4-2, with Gabi and Augusto in the double pivot, and play on the counter.

I expect us to line up: Oblak, Juanfran, Giménez, Lucas, Filipe, Augusto, Gabi, Koke, Saúl, Griezmann, Torres.

Which players are your key to success and how could Atlético surprise Bayern?

The first player I’d say will be key is Koke. When Koke plays well, Atléti play well. Our upturn in results in the last few months has coincided with Koke’s return to form, and this is no surprise. Koke is the focal point of creativity in the team, especially since Arda Turan left to join Barcelona. Simeone has given him more of a central role in attack lately and this has really paid off. He’s also an incredibly hard-working player, and he’ll cover every inch of the pitch, tracking back and pressing the opposition.

Another two key players, especially against Bayern, will be our fullbacks Juanfran and Filipe Luís. Both are essential to our attacking play; making runs, moving the ball quickly inside, providing an outlet further up the pitch and delivering balls into the box. Bayern’s wingers will provide a great test of their defensive capabilities, though they are rarely ever left to defend 1-v-1, with one or two other players going wide to assist them.

As for surprising Bayern, I don’t think there is much unpredictability to our play, but Ángel Correa has proved a deadly substitute this season, and we are experts at creating chances from set-pieces.

Where are your weaknesses and where do you expect weaknesses in Bayern’s game?

Our main weakness is scoring goals. Generally this isn’t a problem given the amount of clean sheets we keep, but I think it’s unlikely that we won’t concede against Bayern. On the flip side, I think Bayern’s biggest weakness is at the back – so I do see us scoring! While there are a lot of great footballers in Bayern’s defence, I wouldn’t say they were the best defenders. It will be interesting to see if Boateng returns for either.

If you could pick one player from the Bayern squad, who would you go for and why? Is there something that you like about Bayern?

Since scoring goals is our main issue, I’d take Robert Lewandowski. He’s got great strength, can find space in the box and is a magnificent finisher. He is also very good in the air, which is something I think suits our style of play. Bayern are a wonderful team with a lot of fantastic individual talents, and the pace with which they attack is frightening, especially down the wings.

What are your expectations for both games and who will reach the final?

I expect it to be an amazing tactical showdown between two very different styles of football; an unstoppable force against an unmovable object. I think Bayern are favourites to reach the final but psychologically that suits us. Hopefully we can finally put the ghosts of the ’74 final to rest.

With Atlético Madrid Pep Guardiola meets his alleged kryptonite. An almost unbelievably compact, robust team that can generate excellent transitional moments.

When Bayern drew this opponent, they all agreed: it could not have come harder for Bayern. In addition to their special way of playing, Atlético brings so much more to the table that is synonymous for Bayern to reaching a dead end in the Champions League. The Colchoneros (mattress makers), as the Red and Whites are known for their striped shirts, have gone through much in their history.

1962 they won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and 1974 the Intercontinental Cup. Also in 1974 they lost against Bayern in the final of the European Champions’ Cup. In the 70s, Atlético was one of the best teams in Europe, but then came a big slump. Under President Jesus Gil y Gil (1987 to 2003) the club aimed at their big city rivals Real Madrid. The transformation from a workers’ club to a glamorous giant didn’t work out. In 2000 the relegation followed.

This experience should, however, become a self-cleaning process. In 2002 they were promoted to La Liga again and since then things have steadily gone uphill. 2010 the Rojiblancos even won the Europa League. One year later Diego Simeone took over, who lead the club into Europe’s top flight.

2012 Atlético Madrid again won the Europa League. 2013 Simeone’s team won the Spanish Cup and 2014 the team did not only reach the Champions League final, but also broke through the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid and won the league title. In the current season they have a good position in the league. Thanks to the short-term crisis of the Catalans both teams are at 82 points. Real Madrid is the closest pursuer, only one point behind.

Atlético has kept a clean sheet in 22 of 35 league games and only concede a total of 16 goals. Barcelona (29) and Real Madrid (32) each have conceded significantly more goals. Especially in the Vicente Calderón, where Bayern are headed for the first leg on Wednesday, the team of Diego Simeone seems to be difficult to be defeated. In the Champions League Atlético scored only five goals. Seven of the ten previous games the Colchoneros finished without scoring.

These figures clearly show what Bayern can expect in both games. Coach Diego Simeone emphasises his defense. One can argue about superlatives, but there are some who call Atlético’s system as the best 4-4-2 in the world. Against the ball they keep the distances close to perfection. Even fast switches from side to side they can absorb through good movement. Both vertically and horizontally, the players are so well positioned that it is difficult for the other team to get between the lines. The playing philosophy is the star at Atlético. Thus the team was able to repeatedly cope with serious setbacks.

One of these is Diego Godín, who has injured his thigh and will be out for at least the first leg. Thus his duel ratio of 73% in the Champions League is also missing. He is undoubtedly one of the best defenders on the planet. Although José Giménez returned, but he hardly was able to collect match practice. The central defense could thus be a sore point in Atlético’s lineup.

To control the center with aggressiveness and ball-winning ability – that is the goal of this team. They reach this goal in almost every game. In addition, the adjustments in their 4-4-2 are very important. The movement to the ball near side and the closing down of certain zones are almost perfectly timed. There will only be very few moments in which Atlético will open up spaces with they defensive movements towards the ball and that’s what makes this team so special.

With the ball, the focus is primarily on the half spaces. Situational halfspace overloads and resulting fast combinations are the most popular means of the Rojiblancos. While the 4-4-2 is set in stone defensively, offensively this changes. In the past the two wingers, mostly Koke and Saúl Niguez, have often moved into the half-spaces and created a 4-2-2-2 formation. But even a 4-3-1-2 is a perfectly possible option. Against Barcelona this worked very well. In the first leg Torres and Carrasco started in the first line, while Griezmann played a kind of No. 10.

Bayern will have to be wary of the overloads. Striking the right balance is important, because if they get carried away into too much chaos, this plays right into Atlético’s hands. In these transformation moments Koke and Griezmann are the key to success. They are directly involved in most goals and they are driving the counterattacks. Here the counter pressing of Bayern must engage immediately, otherwise they are countered mercilessly.

Gabi is the central anchor of the team. In the Champions League he wins 50% of his tackles, brings 85% of his passes to a teammate, sets up 2.3 shots per game and averages 93.7 ball touches per 90 minutes. If Atlético controls the central midfield around him, Bayern will be in deep trouble. Koke has the same kind of importance. He is oriented more offensively and usually takes over the right half space. The Spaniard sets up 3 shots per game in the Champions League, has a passing accuracy of 82% and accounts for approximately 92.3 ball touches per 90 minutes. In the League Koke has 13 assists and five goals. Accordingly, he is the most dangerous midfielder of the team, compared to Saúl (four goals, two assists) and Gabi (1 goal, 3 assists). One possible option could also be that Simeone fields Griezmann as a striker and reinforces the midfield with Augusto.

Up fron Atlético has a luxury problem. Griezmann is set. He plays either something hanging on the ten or as a second striker. The Frenchman covers a lot of ground and mostly helps in the spaces where he can create overloads. With his pace and his technical skills he is very dangerous, especially in moments of transition. It could be that Guardiola will use Alaba to take Griezmanns pace out of the game. The variable striker already scored 20 goals in the league, and assisted five more. In the Champions League he was able to contribute six goals and one assist.

Fernando Torres is now frequently set after initial difficulties. In the league he scored nine goals and assisted four. Correa and Carrasco supplement the attack. Both are very good players and ideal counterattack strikers for Diego Simeone. A two striker setting consisting of Torres and Griezmann is probably the most likely scenario.

In summary, Bayern must achieve one thing: Control the center. Can they manage to win their duels there, both with and without the ball, they have a good chance of progressing. Gabi, Koke and Griezmann should be stopped from getting into their game. Should Bayern fall behind in the first leg, the incredible atmosphere at the Vicente Calderón also will kick in. Diego Simeone will propel this audience. Bayern must remain cool and believe in its offense despite of all difficulties. Too vertical play could result in inaccuracies. Nevertheless, the pace must not be neglected.

The team of Pep Guardiola meets their supposedly kryptonite, but also has the necessary tools in order to overcome that. An accurate counter pressing, good positioning in midfield and a fluid ball circulation are the basic skills that Bayern needs to get in the duels with Atlético. Turnovers can never be excluded, but the simple ones should be minimized.

The whole of Europe can look forward to a duel between two top teams, which couldn’t be more different. In these games, there are no favorites anymore and the team that reaches the final in the end, will be decieded on a tactical level as well as on the current form and even luck.

90 Minuten im Estadio Vicente Calderón können sehr lang werden.(Foto: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images)
90 minutes in the Estadio Vicente Calderón can be very long.
(Picture: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images)


All games against Atlético Madrid

  • FC Bayern 1:1 AET Atlético Madrid (European Champion’s Cup, Final 1974)
  • FC Bayern 4:0 Atlético Madrid (European Champion’s Cup, Final 1974)

All-time record

  • The two teams haven’t met that often. In two games Bayern eventually prevailed in the 1974 final and thus won the European Champion’s Cup.

Fun Facts

  • Diego Simeone Atlético reached the semi-finals of the Champions League for the second time in three years. Bayern reached this stage for the fifth time in a row now.
  • In a European Cup semi-finals Atlético have never lost at home. Three wins and a draw is the balance sheet.
  • The last home defeat against a team from the Bundesliga for Atlético was in the 1996/97 season against Borussia Dortmund. Since then there was no German victory in five games. Overall, they won 11, drew 2 and lost only 3 games in their 16 home games against German sides.
  • Atlético has won 24 of the last 29 European matches at home. In addition to FC Rubin (2012/13 in the Europa League) only Benfica was able to win at the Vicente Calderón during that time.
  • Bayern were eliminated twice in a row by Spanish teams in the semifinals.
  • Bayern could win only two of the last twelve games in Spain. Eight were lost and two ended in a draw.
  • The total balance in Spain for Bayern: 23 games, 6 wins, 5 draws, 12 losses.
  • Bayern played 49 games against Spanish clubs in European competitions. 23 wins, 12 draws and 14 defeats is the balance sheet.
  • Guardiola won only two of his last nine away games in the Champions League.
  • Since the 2:0 win at Arsenal in the knockout stages of the 2013/14 season Bayern couldn’t win any of their last seven knockout away games.
  • As a coach there was only one meeting of Simeone and Guardiola, the Catalans won (2:1 for Barcelona at Atletico on February 26, 2012).
  • As Barcelona coach Guardiola played ten times against Atlético, he won eight games and lost two.
  • Atlético kept 101 clean sheets in 208 league games under Simeone. However, Bayern failed to score only 23 times in their last 208 league games.
  • Bayern won nine of the last ten games, Atlético the last five league games.

Five bold predictions for the semi-finals

  1. In the first leg less than three goals will be scored.
  2. Bayern will not win in the first leg.
  3. The second leg Bayern will win.
  4. Bayern will score in both games.
  5. Bayern will reach the final.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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