A tactical breakdown of the 2016 Champions League Final


To build anticipation for this weekend’s Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Juventus, we take an in-depth look at the 2016 Final in Milan.

Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in a replay from the 2014 Final, which saw Real complete ‘La Decima’ after more than a ten-year wait, all at the expense of their fierce crosstown rivals.

That would only add more fuel to the fire for Atletico, who were tipped to play a typically defensive, narrow and counter-attacking style, but an early goal for Zinedine Zidane’s troops would completely change the outlook.


Real Madrid named an expected starting XI with Cristiano Ronaldo spearheading the side, despite some injury concerns throughout the week. Diego Simeone named a familiar line-up also, perhaps Stefan Savic’s inclusion over Jose Giminez the only major talking point.

Atletico’s early pressing

champions league
Marcelo, in possession, is pressured early in the match

Barely three minutes have passed and Atletico are pressing Real Madrid extremely high and not allowing them time to build from the back.

A goal kick is awarded to Real on three minutes and the centre halves split. Keylor Navas plays short for Sergio Ramos, who then finds Marcelo out to the left. He is immediately shut down by his opponent, Saul Niguez, with Gabi stepping up to close down an easy square ball for Kroos.

Atletico playing two strikers means Real’s back four have to be more careful about back passes, with Antoine Griezmann cutting off the lane back to Ramos here. Fernando Torres hovers in-between Pepe and Casemiro, the latter there being the only real passing option for Marcelo at this point. The pressure on the ball forces Marcelo into an error and Torres nearly latches onto a loose pass, but Pepe clears just in time.

Atleti nerves and Real exploiting space

Atletico’s brave high pressing worked well to prevent Real time on the ball, but when the ball was in their own back line they continued to launch low-percentage long balls high up the field, continually dealt with by Real’s back four.

The first warning sign to Atletico was given by Gareth Bale at the five-minute mark, using his pace and strength to exploit the space and hold off on-rushing Atletico defenders to win a foul just outside the box on the right flank. His free kick created a point blank chance for Casemiro, whose run went unmarked, forcing a miraculous reflex save from Jan Oblak.

champions league
Real nearly score from their first set-piece of the game

Gareth Bale was involved once again, this time defensively, on six and a half minutes when he covered for Dani Carvajal after Filipe Luis had skipped past the full back. Real showed a small example of what they’re capable of on the counter, Luka Modric linking with Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos to release Cristiano Ronaldo at the half way line. Juanfran came narrow to foul Ronaldo and give his team time to get back into position; displaying the consequences of Atletico’s high pressing game.

A needless foul on fourteen minutes by Juanfran on Gareth Bale, this time drifting over to the right, was the catalyst for the change in the game’s tempo. The high paced frantic football we saw in the first quarter hour would slowly fade out of the game after Sergio Ramos got on the end of Bale’s flick-on from the free kick to give Real an early lead. Atletico would still sometimes resort to the long ball, even when not under pressure, but slowly became more patient in their build-up play.

Real’s central midfield

Real Madrid had a solid base in central areas, their three midfielders didn’t often roam too far ahead of the half-way line, allowing for Marcelo and Carvajal to push on. Casemiro was key for circulating possession, often dropping between Pepe and Ramos as a spare man.

champions league
Casemiro sitting between centre-halves with options aplenty

This helped Real to build up their play patiently and control the midfield, which they were more than happy to do being 1-0 up. This meant Atletico rarely threatened through central areas in the first twenty minutes as their wide players, Koke and Saul, came narrow to prevent Real overloading in central midfield.

As attacking midfielders rather than wingers it was natural the two of them would do this, but it wasn’t what Atletico needed from both flanks, as they needed their wingers to stretch the pitch. Filipe Luis and Juanfran provided a wide threat but it was a lot to ask for considering they also had to be alert defensively.

champions league
Augusto Fernandez with little options – eleven Real Madrid players sit behind the ball and in their own half

Real’s compactness in central areas completely cut the supply to forwards Torres and Griezmann, the former completing no passes in the first half. He often looked isolated and was given no helping hand by Atletico’s persistence to play long balls from the back in the early goings.

Roles reversed

Real spent the last fifteen minutes of the half giving Atletico a small dose of their own medicine, opting to soak up pressure and try to hit Atletico on the break.

A stat shown in the first half revealed a quarter-hour period late in the first half where Atletico uncharacteristically had 62% possession to Real’s 38%. It was true that Atletico were not used to holding so much of the ball in big matches like this, but the same could be said with Real Madrid’s familiarity of sitting deep and having counter attacking as their main outlet.

champions league final
Griezmann drops off Real’s defensive line unmarked to receive from Koke, then turn and fire a shot from distance.

However, Atletico’s influence on proceedings did grow the later the first half got, Griezmann in particular able to drift into good pockets of space and turn to get a shot off at goal.

Atletico’s lack of penetration, Real working hard defensively

Atletico’s decision to line up with two more ‘holding’ style central midfielders meant they did not offer much offensively through the spine.

This complemented Real in terms of how they lined up defensively, forcing Atletico to play around them rather than attempt passes through them. The defensive burden was shifted to Real’s wide attacking players, with Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema all interchanging and putting a shift in.

On forty-one minutes it was Benzema who showed his work rate and discipline out on the left, tracking Juanfran’s overlapping run and starting a Real counter deep from within his own half.

champions league final
Benzema helps his full back and tackles Juanfran. He then receives a pass from Casemiro to start a Real counter attack.

Going into half time chasing the game, the question was what would Diego Simeone change, if anything, to help his side get back into the game? Also, would Zinedine Zidane be content to see his side sit deep and hold out for a 1-0 win?

Second half changes

Diego Simeone saw the need to force the issue and shift momentum back to Atletico Madrid, doing this by substituting Augusto Fernandez for Yannick Carrasco.

The winger played out on the left, allowing Koke to shift centrally and push on alongside Saul, with Griezmann drifting out wide to the right and Gabi playing deeper to offer the defensive cover in midfield. Torres played as the sole striker in a move which on paper may not appear to change much offensively, but enabled Koke and Saul to play in a more familiar role and take up creative, attacking positions in threatening areas.

Carrasco and Griezmann were offered freedom to roam from either side infield or out, as now whenever one of them cut inside there was an extra passing option with five in midfield.

champions league final
Substitute Yannick Carrasco cuts inside with options either side of him, Filipe Luis to the left and Gabi to the right, who he finds here. Notice Koke and Saul’s high attacking positions. The presence of attacking options from deeper central areas was absent in the first half with Atletico’s use of two central midfielders who aimed to recycle possession rather than make penetrating runs.

Griezmann was finally able to play a forward pass into the feet of Torres inside the eighteen-yard box, who was then fouled by Pepe to award Atletico Madrid a penalty and early route back into the contest. Unfortunately for Atletico, Griezmann could not hold his nerve and fired straight into the crossbar, but the momentum was clearly on Atletico’s side.

champions league final
Zidane’s side were prepared for Atletico’s attacking changes, often shaping up as seen above when their opponents had long spells of possession. Great defensive discipline was placed on the shoulders of their wide players, Bale and Ronaldo sitting very deep here.

Real Madrid with chances on the counter

Atletico looked a different side to the one who barely managed to test Keylor Navas in the first half, with Luis and Juanfran doing well overlapping their wingers and giving Torres something to attack in the box.

Fatigue and concentration played a part very soon when Real broke down an Atletico attack on seventy minutes, Modric picking up the ball deep in his own half with little resistance from Atletico. His through ball to Benzema created a one on one with Oblak and the chance to seal the game, Oblak once again called into action with a brilliant save, but his work was not over yet.

champions league final
The effects of Simeone’s need to chase the game results in a glorious chance for Real Madrid after a move breaks down deep in their defensive half. Nine players remained behind the ball and when Kroos found Modric this is what the Croatian midfielder had in front of him. Juanfran and Filipe Luis are both out of position after being caught in transition and as soon as Diego Godin steps up to close down Ronaldo a giant chasm opens for Modric to play in Benzema

Atletico traded their defensive compactness with two holding midfielders for more attacking options when switching to 4-5-1 and Real waited patiently to take advantage.

Their next chance, two of them in quick succession, came on seventy-eight minutes when Gareth Bale surged past the centre of Atletico’s defence. The ball deflected off Stefan Savic directly into the path of Cristiano Ronaldo, closed down brilliantly by the charging Oblak to block the shot. Atletico had not cleared their lines and the ball fell for Bale who chose to skip past Oblak and fire on his non-preferred right foot towards goal. Savic was the hero on this occasion with his goal-line clearance once again keeping Atletico in it, looking vulnerable to Real’s lightning quick counter attacks.

Atletico’s breakthrough and Sergio Ramos’ tackle

Atletico had to work hard for the equalizer that finally arrived on seventy-nine minutes when Juanfran’s cross found the substitute Yannick Carrasco.

Marcelo was face to face with Juanfran and held him up well as the Atleti man played square for Gabi. The Real Madrid backline had not shifted across to the left very well, with a large hole being left between Marcelo and Ramos. Isco was between the two, but was busy marking Griezmann who looked to exploit that space.

champions league final
Griezmann looks most likely to exploit the space between full back and centre back, with Sergio Ramos opting to hold position rather than shift across to cover the potential danger
champions league final
Juanfran plays a one-two pass with Gabi, neither Marcelo or Ramos reacting quick enough to get into a position to block the cross
champions league final
The ball is played over the top by Gabi to Juanfran, Ramos finally stepping across to block the cross but is too late. Real’s substitute Lucas Vasquez allows Carrasco to get ahead of him moments before the equalizer

Atletico had controlled a majority of the second half and will feel as though they earned the goal.

However, they failed to push on after this moment and it was Real Madrid who looked most likely to grab a late winner. Atletico looked more familiar in a very deep 4-4-2 set-up, Koke now dropping back alongside Gabi in central midfield to offer more passing options for recycling the ball rather than penetrating runs through the middle.

Atletico sat too far back when out of possession and allowed Real to control the tempo of the game from very deep in their own half, Bale and Marcelo getting into some dangerous positions on Real Madrid’s left side late in the game.

champions league final
Casemiro looks for an option late in the second half with a sea of Atletico Madrid shirts ahead of him

Atletico were finally set up to do what all the pre-match analysts were saying they would do from the start; defend deep and attack on the counter. They finally got the chance to do that, nearly to win the game, in the ninety-third minute.

Modric took a Real free kick from some fifty yards out and looped a long ball into the box that Atletico cleared. Pepe was unable to deal with the headed clearance and allowed the ball to drop with Yannick Carrasco latching onto it and darting past an attempted clearance from Modric. Carrasco was nearing the half way line with Danilo, who replaced Dani Carvajal at right back, acting as the last line of defence on his own. Sergio Ramos, who had joined Real’s attack for the free kick, identified the danger and fouled Carrasco.

Ramos used all of his experience to ensure Atletico would not win the game with possibly the last kick, wisely accepting a yellow card for his actions.

Extra Time

Going into extra time it appeared as though Atletico had a slight advantage by still having two remaining substitutions. Real had none remaining after being forced into some early substitutions, most notably when Dani Carvajal came off for Danilo to enter play in the fifty-second minute. It turned out that those two Atletico substitutions were only used when they received injuries themselves and, therefore, seemed more makeshift rather than prepared tactical substitutions.

Atletico controlled the majority of the first half in extra time and looked confident on the ball, but played at a very low tempo and seemed content just to hold out until penalties. Yannick Carrasco looked the most likely to make something happen, isolating Real’s right full back Danilo and beating him convincingly on two separate occasions.

Real Madrid’s counter attacking threat was still present and Atletico had to be mindful when throwing numbers forward. Atletico may have dominated the ball in extra time but it was Real Madrid who created the best opportunities; Ronaldo mistiming a free header from a corner and Lucas Vasquez controlling the ball in the box rather than firing first time meant his chance was snuffed out in the one hundred and nineteenth minute.


A fantastic match worthy of ending the Champions League season, even if it was slightly harsh that it had to be penalties to decide it. Perhaps the fact that it went to penalties was more of a reflection of how close it was between the two sides and how aware they are of each other’s style of play.

We saw Real take an early lead and hold, forcing Atletico into a situation that their starting line-up wasn’t entirely prepared for. A smart half-time substitution changed the game and allowed Atletico’s forwards to play with more options and freedom, ultimately resulting in the equalizer.

It appeared as though Simeone’s physically demanding style of play faded the later the game went and Real finished the ninety minutes with the momentum. Extra time saw chances come scarcely and the dreaded penalty shootout decided affairs. Cristiano Ronaldo provided the heroics with the match-winning penalty; a nice moment to contrast from his overall poor performance.

champions league final


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.