Real Madrid (4-3-3): López – Essien, Albiol, Ramos, Coentrão – Khedira, Alonso, Modrić – Özil, Benzema, Ronaldo
Atlético Madrid (4-1-4-1): Courtois – Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Filipe Luís – Suárez – Costa, Gabi, Koke, Arda – Falcao

Atlético beat Real for the first time since 1999, in the final of the Copa del Rey no less, with José Mourinho condemned to the first trophy-less season of his career. After hitting the woodwork three times (and finding Thibaut Courtois in outstanding form) Real Madrid fell apart after being the dominant side for much of the game.

With Raphaël Varane out and Pepe apparently overlooked for giving his opinion on the Mourinho-Casillas feud it was Raúl Albiol who partnered Sergio Ramos in central defence. Mourinho went for a 4-3-3: Mesut Özil on the right of the attack, with Luka Modrić in midfield alongside Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso, which meant Ángel di María was only on the substitutes’ bench.

Diego Costa, normally Radamel Falcao’s partner up front, played wide-right as Atlético went with a five-man midfield. However, instead of their flat-midfield-five this was a 4-1-4-1 with Mario Suárez as the ‘holder’.

Rather than waiting for Real to attack them, Atlético began their defensive duties with an aggressive stance preventing easy circulation of the ball.

Atlético's defensive starting point

Atlético’s defensive starting point

Once Real Madrid had circulated the ball out of defence – usually via Modrić or Alonso coming deep to collect – Atlético fell back into a standard 4-1-4-1:

Two banks of four, with Suárez (yellow) holding, and Falcao picking up Alonso (blue)

Two banks of four, with Suárez (yellow) holding, and Falcao picking up Alonso (blue)

With Özil starting in a wide-right position but coming inside, Real’s width on the right came from Michael Essien who was often in space (see image above) – Simeone reasoning that allowing Essien room, who isn’t someone who’s going to hurt you with the ball, was a price worth paying for the midfield solidity.

Falcao was detailed to pick up Alonso, but at times the regista stationed himself much higher than usual, giving Real a rather ‘flat’ three-man midfield. This left Falcao in a quandary, if he followed Alonso up the pitch Atlético lacked an outlet, however if Falcao didn’t pick him up that meant either Koke or Gabi having to leave the protective midfield layer Atlético had erected. Simeone chose the former, and with Falcao often in deep positions, the outlet ball was to Diego Costa on the right flank.

The Real Madrid midfield’s standard pressing was Khedira on Koke, Modrić on Gabi, with Alonso to press high up the pitch on Suárez. Benzema’s task was to press the centre-backs and interfere with their passing options:

Real Madrid's default pressing - Alonso marked with blue

Real Madrid’s default pressing – Alonso marked with blue

With Falcao dropping deep trying to pick up Alonso, Atlético’s default was to look for the runs of Costa behind the left-back Coentrão or between the full-back and Ramos at centre-back. This bypassed Real’s trio of Khedira-Alonso-Modrić (and with Özil drifting across it was often a four-man central midfield) and looked to take advantage of any space created by Coentrão’s attacking instincts.

Rather than play through Real's midfield (green), Atlético looked for the runs of Costa (pink)

Rather than play through Real’s midfield (green), Atlético looked for the runs of Costa (pink)

Falcao was often to be found between the lines of midfield and defence – Real weren’t trying to hold a high line, and with Khedira-Alonso-Modrić supporting the attack, the Colombian found space when receiving the ball in relatively deep positions in front of the Real back four.

Falcao (yellow) holds the ball in-between the lines (Real's midfield trio marked with green) as Costa (pink) makes his run

Falcao (yellow) holds the ball in-between the lines (Real’s midfield trio marked with green) as Costa (pink) makes his run

Atlético equalised from a move that encompassed a lot of their game-plan (Real had gone ahead in the 14th minute through a Ronaldo header from a corner). As he approached the penalty area Ronaldo was dispossessed by Suárez who played a quick ball to Falcao 10 yards inside Atlético’s half. Holding off and evading Albiol, he skipped past Khedira, saw the run of Costa, and after a slide-rule pass for the Brazilian it was 1-1. It was quick, vertical, and beautifully executed, taking only 11 seconds from Suárez’s tackle to Costa’s shot hitting the net.

Falcao (path of the ball in yellow) to Costa (run marked pink)

Falcao (path of the ball in yellow) to Costa (run marked pink)

At the start of the second-half Alonso returned to his ‘normal’ position sitting in front of the back-four, moving laterally to escape the attentions of Falcao; Alonso’s slightly deeper position meant that Falcao had less space to operate in and Real weren’t so vulnerable to the runs from deep of Costa (and to counter Falcao’s attentions of Alonso, Sergio Ramos began to bring the ball out of defence).

With Ronaldo and Özil on the flanks often the key figure was Modrić, his positioning intelligent, always looking for the ball, and combining with the wide men well. Below he has has taken up an advanced position, near Özil, looking for space just behind the Atlético midfield.

Alonso (green) to Özil (pink) whilst Modrić (yellow) searches for space

Alonso (green) to Özil (pink) whilst Modrić (yellow) searches for space

Özil's pass (path marked in pink) to Modrić in-between Atlético's lines

Özil’s pass (path marked in pink) to Modrić in-between Atlético’s lines

With Real finding their way through Atlético, predominately via the combinations of Coentrão-Modrić-Ronaldo on the left flank, they created enough chances to have won the game easily – in the second half alone they hit the post three times (and in 61st minute Ozil’s shot was blocked on the line by Juanfran after Benzema’s shot rebounded off the woodwork) – but a wonderful display from goalkeeper Courbois kept Atlético alive (this save from Özil in extra-time has to be seen to be believed).

Throughout the second half persistent tetchiness from both sides escalated (in total there was 15 yellow cards, and 2 red in extra-time for Ronaldo and Gabi), and Real’s sense of frustration-verging-on-injustice became palpable: Coentrão picking up the ball and head-butting it early in the second half when a decision went against him, in the 72nd minute Ozil was booked for slapping the ball at the linesman, and moments later Mourinho exploded off the bench to ‘protest’ at perceived simulation by Atlético (Mourinho was sent off by the referee for his trouble).

Extra-time

After somehow communicating with his assistants Mourinho made a triple change at the start of extra-time, Arbeloa, di María and Higuaín on for Coentrão, Modrić and Benzema, switching to a 4-2-3-1 (López – Essien, Albiol, Ramos, Arbeloa – Khedira, Alonso – di María, Özil, Ronaldo – Higuaín), and all three changes were presumably due to fatigue (Modrić was arguably Real’s central figure whereas Khedira was having an exceptionally average game).

With Alonso and Khedira leaving space behind them as they joined the attack whilst Real looked for the winner (and then equaliser), and the game naturally stretched through tiredness, Atlético started having chances after being almost completely dominated in the second-half. The better team in extra-time, this culminated in the 98th minute when a wonderful delivery by Koke was headed in by the central defender João Miranda at the near post.

The last Real chance came in the 104th minute when Higuaín shot from 7 yards, but Courtois made yet another great save. At the start of the second period of extra-time Real went 3-3-4 (López – Arbeloa, Albiol, Ramos – Essien, Alonso, Khedira – Özil, Higuaín, Ronaldo, di María), but with Ronaldo’s sending off in the 114th minute – retaliation for being scythed down by Gabi – there was no way back for Real Madrid.

This was the worst season of my career. I don’t think Atlético deserve to be champions but they won the title. We had two clear chances on goal, we hit the post three times.” – José Mourinho speaking after the game

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