Guardiola Tries to Capitalise on Wingers in Loss against Compact Atletico

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Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich arrived in Spain, to face Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final tie, with a gameplan. According to veteran right-back Philipp Lahm, the aim was to withstand the early pressure that Diego Simeone’s men would undoubtedly apply. They wanted to get through that initial barrage of pressing and energetic midfield play, before settling into their now familiar possession game.

Yet as the match ticked into its 11th minute, that strategy very quickly unravelled. Saul Niguez picked up the ball, weaved his way through a handful of Bayern defenders and, when confronted with centre-back David Alaba, decided to use the Austrian as a shield. He clipped a side-footed shot just to one side of Alaba, and with Bayern shotstopper Manuel Neuer temporarily unsighted, the ball meandered its way towards the far corner.

It gently bounced in off the bar and, at that moment, Bayern needed to reset. They were playing catch-up after failing to blunt Atletico’s high-tempo attack, and in order to do get back into the match against a side who pride themselves upon organisation in defence, they were going to have to be good.

Atleti, as they always have been under the Simeone regime, were both compact and narrow following their early goal. They tucked in, congested the centre and set about absorbing the Bayern pressure. Most coaches tend to dread the sight of two Atletico banks of four, wondering how they could possibly break down a team who seem to thrive upon the challenge of keeping a clean sheet. But not Guardiola.

As always, he came prepared. He viewed the lack of width attached to Atletico’s defensive structure as an opportunity, and decided upon stretching Juanfran and Filipe Luis, Simeone’s two fullbacks. He did this through the use of his own fullbacks, Lahm and left-back Juan Bernat, who were instructed to take up fairly central positions during Bayern’s build-up play. This allowed the pair to drag their direct opponents, Atletico’s wingers, into positions even narrower than the ones they were already patrolling.

Once this had happened, the idea was to whip the ball quickly into the feet of wingers Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman, who would now find themselves one-on-one with their direct opponents. This approach, at least early on, was most obvious along the left-hand side. Here, Bernat would be the man to instigate things, sprinting towards the middle to draw Saul inside along with him. Bayern would then hit the ball out into space along the touchline, where Costa would delve into his repertoire of tricks, initially to slide by Juanfran before launching the ball into the box. The Brazilian created a shooting opportunity just after Atleti’s opener in this manner, with his deflected cross enabling Arturo Vidal to punch a header towards the top corner, only to see José Gimenez clear the ball to safety.

Meanwhile, on the other flank, Lahm did things a little differently. He would still aim to drift into the middle, but as opposed to the hard-running Bernat, he was more circumspect. He looked to contribute to Bayern’s distribution, picking passes out from slightly deeper positions. In that sense, he was tasked more regularly with starting passing chains rather than getting onto the end of them, but despite the contrasting styles between the two fullbacks, the goal was still the same: to give Coman and Costa the chance to dribble, one-on-one, against their adversaries.

In a lot of ways, this actually worked out pretty well. Granted Atletico were often good enough to recover and provide assistance to their isolated fullbacks, but they still had to endure a few troublesome moments. Costa was particularly impressive, completing six successful take-ons, two accurate crosses and two key passes, while Coman, although often wasteful with the ball, supplied one key pass and two accurate crosses.

Yet it was second-half substitute Franck Ribery, the mercurial Frenchman, who very nearly produced a tangible result from this strategy. He came on for Coman and, as the game made its way into stoppage time, received a pass hard up against the left-hand touchline. The pass came from Alaba, newly installed at left-back but nonetheless remaining in a central location, and as Guardiola had planned, Ribery now found himself one-on-one with Juanfran. Without giving the Spanish full-back any time to intervene, he quickly curled a cross into the box.

Another of Bayern’s substitutes, Medhi Benatia, latched onto it and craned his neck to generate a decent headed attempt on goal, but as Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak clutched the ball to his chest, the chance had gone. A slightly superior header and Guardiola’s gameplan might have come off in that moment, but football is a game of fine margins and, as it stands, the revered tactician will head back to Germany with a deficit to overcome in the second leg.

He will also have to deal with a number of questions surrounding his selection decisions, especially regarding Thomas Muller, who started from the bench. Despite that, it’s entirely likely that Guardiola will persist with the wing-based strategy. It didn’t quite work out at the Vicente Calderón, but it did spark that incredible quarter-final comeback against Juventus in the previous round of the Champions League.

Now, Guardiola will be hoping it will be the catalyst for yet another comeback against Atleti.