Attack versus defence in the Champions League final

Clean sheets carried Atletico to the final and will be a priority in Milan

Champions League: It's Zidane vs. Simeone

Champions League: It's Zidane vs. Simeone

After a one year absence, Atlético is back in the Champions League final. They are facing a familiar foe in Real Madrid, whom they lost to in the 2014 final just two years ago. The two teams have played ten times since then, resulting in five wins, one loss, and four draws for Atleti.

Despite all of Atleti´s dominance in the head to head match-ups, Real has still managed to finish just above the rojiblancos in the league. The teams have two incredibly different styles, which you’ll see in the Champions League on Saturday.

Since hiring Zinedine Zidane in January, Real has focused on possession and constant attack. Simeone´s teams have always sat back and played tough defensive football. They go for the clean sheet first and pick their moments to counter-attack and score goals.

Immediately after Zidane´s hire on January 4, Real was off and running with a 5-0 win over Deportivo la Coruña. Aside from two draws at Real Betis and Málaga, Real Madrid dominated the second half of the La Liga season. They outscored opponents 63-15 after Zidane´s hire.

What did Zidane change at the team? The differences can be noted as early as his first game.

Zidane switched to a 4-3-2-1 formation from Rafa Benitez´s 4-3-3. Zidane used Benzema as a loan striker with Isco in the middle and Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale on the wings.

This new formation returned all four of Real´s top attacking players to their natural positions. While they work well together, they are even better by themselves and in space. Each player can dribble into the box and all four have gotten off at least one can´t miss goal this season.

Zidane´s men do not keep possession at the levels of Barcelona, but their 56 per cent share is impressive. Los Blancos spend the majority of the game (46%) in the middle third of the field, with Luca Modric and Toni Kroos keeping possession and allowing the four attackers to move into space.

Atlético, on the other hand, is primarily a defensive team relying on counter-attacks for goals. The team starts and ends with Diego Godín leading a line that has allowed less goals per game (0.47) than any other team in the five major leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France).

Marked improvement from Jan Oblak, Jose Giménez and Juanfran and the return of Filipe Luis made for one of the best defences in the league, and Champions League.

Atleti, on the other hand, relies on the counter-attack. Whether playing the 4-4-2 or the 4-3-3 formation that Simeone has employed so far this season, Atlético always has at least one midfielder joining the defence. The rojiblancos have only kept 48.7 per cent of possession this season.

Gabi, Augusto, Koke, and Saúl focus on defence first before going for goal. Saúl plays a true box-to-box role, placing third on the team in both goals and tackles. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, on the other hand, are more likely to go forward.

Atlético’s attack is also different in that they have relied on Antoine Griezmann for 22 of 63 league goals this season. Fernando Torres is second with 11 goals, but no other colcohonero has more than five goals in La Liga this season.

At Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo has accounted for 35 of Real Madrid’s 110 goals, but Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale are also prolific threats with 24 and 19 respectively.

Ronaldo picked up a knock in training and while he will almost definitely play on Saturday, he may not be at 100%. However, lapses in his play for Los Blancos are not as devastating as the loss of Griezmann or Godin would be for Atlético.

Despite Real Madrid’s offensive firepower, this matchup always goes back to the cliché that defence wins championships. Atlético’s potent backline has led to five clean sheets in the ten games since the 2013/14 final. Another shutout will surely be in Simeone’s game plan on Saturday.

The clean sheet combined with a goal on the break is Atlético’s classic style against their city rivals. Look for Griezmann to cap a career season with another important goal in Milan to win the Champions League.

  • Paweł Kosiński

    Here’s a nice stat for you – BBC scored 3 goals COMBINED in the last 10 encounters v. Atleti.