Perhaps the Atletico Madrid style of play is not the same type of aesthetically pleasing football that fans of clubs like Barcelona or Bayern Munich might wish to observe. Then again, Atletico is the reason why the players on both of those clubs will be watching rather than playing in the final when it kicks off at the San Siro in Milan on May 28.
Make no mistake, the rojiblanco earned their way into the final despite technically losing their way into the championship game, thanks to a 1-0 result at home last week and a 2-1 result in Munich that sent through the Spaniards on the away-goal rule. Stretching themselves to the utter limit over 180-plus minutes, Atletico thwarted a so-close-to-juggernaut Bayern Munich squad from managing to crack through for the decisive result. Pep Guardiola will take off to England once he finishes his Bundesliga and DFB Pokal obligations with Bayern, having failed to reach the Champions League final once in his three seasons in Germany. And it certainly wasn’t due to timidity or unsound tactics.
In the first leg in Madrid, the visitors generated 20 scoring chances, but seven saves by Jan Oblak and three blocked shots in defense prevented Guardiola’s charges from leaving Spain with a critical away goal. They threw caution to the wind at home, knowing they needed goals more than anything. The pressing paid off a half-hour into the match, when David Alaba was pulled down just outside the box and Xabi Alonso converted the free kick to level the draw on aggregate:
Thomas Muller had the chance for a penalty a few minutes later, but Oblak guessed correctly and neutralized the threat. In the first half the Germans generated 16 chances, but they were still facing extra time if the Spanish side continued to contain the threat. At halftime the teams were still level on aggregate, but Bayern’s inability to land a second goal made their chances more and more precarious the longer they failed to put it completely out of reach.
Atletico’s style is ugly for those fans who are spoiled to root for a particular (read: hyperwealthy) class of superclub that is able to afford the requisite talent to play with a freewheelingly aggressive possession and pressing game that overwhelms opponents at every turn. But it is a beautiful style in its own right insomuch as it allows for counterattacking moments like this:
Was Antoine Griezmann offsides when Fernando Torres threaded him that through ball on the counterattack in the 53rd minute for the away goal? It was surely close, but play was allowed to continue and even a goalkeeper of Manuel Neuer’s quality was going to have little chance one-on-one against Griezmann in that siutation.
The equalizer forced Bayern to have to play for two more goals, and once again Guardiola kept his team pressing. They finished with 73 percent of the possession, and Arturo Vidal and Robert Lewandowski were able to head it around and past Oblak for the go-ahead goal in the 74th minute:
But the hosts did nothing with their seven chances in the final 20 minutes, putting several off target and generally failing to challenge Oblak in any meaningful way. The 2-1 result meant that it was the visitors celebrating on enemy turf as they claimed a second trip to the Champions League final in the past three seasons.
The win further solidifies Atletico’s ascent to a position among Europe’s best clubs. This was no fluke; that “ugly” style has contained the most potent attacks in Europe to reach this point. As much as one might want to look at this as some sort of parking-the-bus strategy, though, it is a tactically sound move that allows other teams to wear themselves down playing a high-pressure, offense-heavy game. It is what allows Torres and Griezmann to connect when Bayern can’t set up the trap in time, lulled into complacency by their ability to keep the ball for long uninterrupted stretches.
Just look at the stats for Bayern in their two legs against Atletico. Over a little more than three hours of gameplay, Bayern Munich managed to create 53 scoring opportunities. But what is interesting is that Atletico mostly forces these chances all toward the spine of the pitch, preventing opposing clubs from really working the wings effectively and narrowing the amount of space in which offenses get to work. Only twice did Bayern shoot from outside the width of the 18-yard box, and the lack of lateral shooting lanes limited what the Germans could do against a compact defense.
Talented clubs thrive on space, and Atletico constricts from the outside inward. They did the exact same thing to Barcelona, forcing all but a few of their 34 attempts to be taken within the width of the six-yard box. With so much of the play clogged up in this space, it makes it that much easier for Atletico to take advantage of turnovers on the counter.
Now the Spaniards will watch tomorrow’s clash back home in Madrid between crosstown rival Real and Manchester City — Guardiola’s future home when he takes over the Citizens next season. We will either see a rematch of the 2014 final in Lisbon, or a matchup of two teams that have never won top European honors before. For whichever club manages to make it through, Atletico will surely be a tough test. (Real lost to Atletico 1-0 in late February; Manchester City and Atletico have never previously played one another.)
We will review the final showdown further once we know who will square off opposite Atletico. Tonight, however, belongs to celebrations for the rojiblanco and their supporters.