Atlético Madrid : analysis of defensive excellence

The following article has been translated from the french version.

Historically in the shadow of their giant neighbours, Atlético Madrid’s fans are living a dream for few years. Indeed they are battling every year for each title that can be won even if they are far from the richness of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
This year again they had been the only team able to fight with Enrique’s armada in the Liga … and why not in Champions League?
What is the Colchoneros’ magic recipe to strive with top teams while they lose each summer their “best” players? (Falcao, Diego Costa, Filipe Luis, Miranda and Turan)

Start with the player

We often hear coaches, chairmans or players say that they did maximum according to their means. Recently Willy Sagnol explained that he has to deal with his players and their limits because he didn’t have enough time to improve them.

I’m not a teacher. You need patience and time to teach, but you don’t have time when you coach – Willy Sagnol

It’s quite clear: Willy Sagnol is more a manager than a teacher.
Atlético Madrid are always congratulated for their mindset, because their players are able to be concentrated and aggressive for 90 minutes. For sure that’s Simeone’s touch since he wasn’t different as a player. This statement is mostly used to proof that Simeone is a manager, meaning that he mainly enhances his team through the mental side. Obviously no one let aside his tactical abilities since his team is among the hardest to play for years.
However his ability to improve his players is barely unnoticed whereas he’s undoubtedly an excellent teacher. Indeed Atlético’s players have a solid individual basis on which the collective is built. Especially the three following defensive techniques are key in Colchoneros’ play:

  • Prevent the opponent to turn with the ball
  • Defend on the passing lane (cover shadow)
  • Adapt behaviour to the situation (numerical superiority)

The first one is a cornerstone of fullbacks’ role since they have to prevent the winger to turn if he receives the ball. Juanfran and Filipe Luis are amazingly good to do so.

 

The second technique isn’t for fullbacks anymore but is about the two first line of the Atleti’s block (forwards and midfielders).

Don’t mark a player; cover the space between two players – Pep Guardiola

This is a basic idea but amazingly efficient when done properly. Indeed defending on the passing lanes means that you let an opponent behind you with space to receive. But Atlético’s players are terrific to dynamically covering passing lanes, some seem to have eyes in the back to adjust their position immediately.

The last technique is basic because it’s obvious that you don’t defend same way in a 1v2 or in a 2v2. Every player get that theoretical knowledge, but every game show that all aren’t able to translate it on the pitch. We all seen players running like mad dogs while they were outnumbered or others running back while they were in numerical superiority.

This clip shows Simeone’s training at Atlético Madrid, in which he worked a defensive technique in isolation (defending in 1v2). Simeone often trains in isolation, as many other Argentinian coaches (examples: Simeone / Berizzo / Bielsa). That’s definitely proving Simeone isn’t just going as high as possible with his players and their limits: he’s also improving them. Diego Simeone is more than a manager, he is also a teacher. And because we can’t let it aside, he is a nice tactician.

From the player to the team

You need to have a clear idea of your whole picture when you teach such specific techniques to your players. Indeed you don’t need to defend on passing lanes with a man-oriented defence and it’s quite useless to prevent opponent to turn if you decide to not following him when he drops. So, techniques trained are related to Atlético’s collective principles.
I will analyse Atlético Madrid to understand these principles. To do so I’ll look on defensive structure when the opposition have a secured possession:

  • High block
  • 4-4-2 mid-block
  • 4-1-4-1 mid-block
  • Low block

What a pressure!

Atlético Madrid are often described as a defensive team, who play most of their match with the bus parked in front of their box. So you might be surprised to start the analysis with the high block. But I’m just following the reality of the match since Simeone’s players use to begin games by pressuring opponents high up the pitch with a lot of intensity. They want to prevent their opponents to build from the back since the very beginning.

Lots of teams are beginning their games with such mindset to take the lead in the psychological battle. But the Colchoneros aren’t hunting the ball carrier as Bielsa’s Bilbao did few years ago. Firstly block is settling high according to their shape (4-4-2 for example) and stays ball-oriented. As soon as a forward starts the press, two first lines must quickly close down short passing solutions. Obviously that trigger isn’t long to pop up as Simeone don’t want his team to stay high without applying pressure on the ball carrier.
Space orientation lie on the ability to control the space in the block: you can limit spaces in the block with a great compactness (horizontally and vertically). However you can’t be compact vertically with forwards on the edge of the opponents’ box (since the defence must stay near the halfway line). Then switching to a man orientation is necessary.
That’s why Atlético Madrid are very man-oriented when they are pressing high. Ideally the striker who triggers the press curves his run to make the play predictable. Then his teammates “just” have to control half of the pitch.

 

It’s quite interesting to notice that Atlético press high more to prevent opponents to build-up than to intercept a ball. Indeed as they quickly close down passing solutions, they almost force opposition to not try these passes. If they wanted to intercept the ball high up the pitch, they should (as Bayer Leverkusen do) use some traps.

Forwards aren’t ones who will get the ball back. They must close down without being eliminated. Then ball carrier will overplay his pass – Guy Lacombe in Comment regarder un match de foot

Atlético’s aim isn’t getting the ball back with their first line but forcing the long ball. As pressure must not drop, forwards have to push their runs to keeper on a back pass. The opponents must not be able to breath and try a new build-up.
We can summarize Atlético’s high block:

  1. First players are space oriented and position themselves according to the team shape
  2. Then a forward starts the pressing with a curved run
  3. Players in the two first lines of the block switch to man orientation to prevent short passes.
  4. The pressure must be maintained if back pass to the keeper

By forcing long balls there are lots of recoveries in the centre of the field. Sometimes they can create a big chance from this recovery as the opponent is stretched on the full width and on a half-length.

This is obvious with this movie that even best European teams are struggling to build from the back against the Atleti’s high block and they are soon forced to play long.
However this high press is generally applied during 20 minutes as it requires intense long runs and doesn’t allow much rest. Atlético Madrid use it since the very beginning to suffocate opposition.
As soon as the high block doesn’t fit anymore to the situation, whether physically or tactically, Atlético Madrid are dropping into a mid-block with their midfielders positioned few meters back the halfway line.

Mid-block

Most of the time Atlético Madrid are defending with a mid-block. They can do so with a 4-4-2 shape (as in the high block) or with a 4-5-1 shape. I will analyse both shapes because defensive mechanisms are different from one to the other. But before analysing the mid-block, let’s talk about staggering.

Midfielders are artists: they play accordion

This paragraph is about how midfielders are positioning, especially when they are in mid-block. Later I will talk more in-depth about midfielders’ movements, here I just want to say that even if we discuss about “midfield line”, actually this is not a line.

Staging

Players in deeper position can cover their partners, then it’s far harder for opponents to break through the middle with a pass. That’s why the midfield staggers itself when the ball carrier is looking for a penetrative pass.
There isn’t a video in this paragraph because you will be able to notice staggering in following videos. It will be up to you to keep an eye on these movements!

The well known 4-4-2 shape

This shape is undoubtedly the one associated with Atlético Madrid. I’m sure that when you imagine the Colchoneros, you think about their two lines of four players behind their two forwards. So am I.
Some coaches think you can’t anymore play with 2 forwards in modern football (Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps said that). Nonetheless Atlético surely can play with 2 forwards, and they do it pretty well.

Atlético-442
4-4-2 is perfectly drawn. The timing is not rigor when the opponent does not seek to penetrate.

Their 4-4-2 shape is very space and ball-oriented so they are compact in front of the ball. Midfielders spread on the box’s width and forwards remain in the centre of the field. Atlético Madrid are looking to hinder build-up from opponents’ centre-backs with their first line of 2 players. According to the opponent it can be a 2v2 or 2v3 if a midfielder drops. Whatever they have the same aim: forcing centre-backs to play towards their fullback.

The aim is to force the opponent to play in a suitable area for recoveries. This means you should close some passing lanes, and forwards are the only ones who can do so as they are close to the ball. They don’t need to rush, they must induce the opponent to play it wrong. Then you rush when the ball is played where you want it to be played – Jean-Claude Suaudeau, again in Comment regarder un match de foot

This quote sums up well what’s done by Atlético. Forwards don’t have to rush to assault the ball carrier. On the contrary they must curve their runs to force the ball carrier to turn towards his fullback.
Moreover the forward’s run is a trigger for his closest teammates who must close down passing solutions in the centre. Again we can notice that Atlético Madrid are switching from a space orientation to a man orientation as soon as the press starts.

Both forwards are working together to force the opponents to play towards the touchline. Do you know why they like that much the touchline?

Touchline is the best defender in the world – Pep Guardiola

Sad news for Florentino Perez, you can’t sign this one.
The reason behind this sentence is quite simple. You have no more than a half field to play when you have the ball near the touchline. Then it’s much easier for the defender to anticipate.
Let’s back to Atlético’s trap. Let’s say that the trap is settled on the right flank, with Koke as right midfielder, Gabi is the right central midfielder, Juanfran is the right back and Torres is the forward. Ball is coming from the left centre-back to the left back, shut by the touchline.
As soon as the ball is played to the left back, Koke closes him down quickly. Juanfran marks tightly the left winger, Gabi slides to cover Koke and Torres continues his run to prevent any back pass. And to be as accurate as I can, Koke forces, by his body shape, the left back to play down the touchline: he doesn’t mind about letting an easy pass to the winger as he well knows that his fullbacks are able to prevent the winger to turn with the ball (remember the second defensive technique?).
That’s diabolic and amazingly efficient!

Avoiding this trap has become a major issue for opponents as the collective mechanism is so well mastered by Atlético Madrid. For example players must mark several opponents during the whole trap because they have to shut down passing solutions while sliding. Great coordination and communication are needed to ensure that marking are well transferred from one Atleti’s player to another. You should pay attention on that point in the following video, that’s really beautiful to see.

 

Even with such a level of collective performance there are some loopholes which can be exploit by their opponents. For example Sevilla avoided well the pressing trap by altering their structure to allow fullbacks to play behind the Atlético’s midfield line. They did so by dropping a pivot between centre-backs who can then play wider than usual.

Seville-antitrap
Krychowiak dropped to form a back three, allowing fullbacks to be higher

Atlético Madrid had to let freedom to the wide centre-back who was able to easily switch the play with diagonal balls.
The Colchoneros won 3-0 however Emery’s team ended the game with 25 shots, no team ever take as much shots against Atlético this season.
We can also notice that the ball-oriented 4-4-2 shape can’t allow a great access on the far side. Their trap near the touchline is amazingly efficient but the team can hardly prevent the opponents for progressing up the field with a diagonal pass. Their access on the wings isn’t bad so they can quickly get back between the ball and their goal, but the ball carrier can progress with the ball and force Atlético Madrid to defend lower than mid-block. Not critical but nor ideal.
I think this is the main reason of the alternative 4-1-4-1 shape.

4-1-4-1 shape

Before any tactical considerations we can say that there’s no way to guess that Atlético Madrid are playing with a 4-1-4-1 shape with just names of players lined-up. Simeone takes advantage of his players’ versatility to change the shape without the need to use specific player.

compos
The players are very versatile and can occupy many positions. The possibilities are not all listed here.

As the 4-1-4-1 isn’t a way to line-up a player who can’t play in a flat 4-4-2, the reason behind this shape must be tactical.
As I said previously this system is more efficient to prevent their opponents for progressing with the ball, thanks to a better access on the wings compared to 4-4-2 shape.
However the ability to get the ball back isn’t as good because of the lonely forward. Indeed with one player upfront Atlético Madrid can’t expect to force their opponents to play in specific areas (towards touchline). That’s why Simeone isn’t asking his forward to track opponents’ centre-backs when playing in 4-1-4-1. He rather expects him to disconnect the pivot from the rest of the team with a tight marking.
However defending in mid-block without mechanisms to get the ball back is a bad idea. And Simeone isn’t the kind of guy with bad ideas.
Instead of trapping their opponents near the touchline (while playing in 4-4-2), Atlético are preventing them to progress by pressuring regularly their centre-backs to force them to get rid of the ball. This specific task falls to Gabi, Saul or Koke (central midfielders) who must push up to close down centre-backs and force the error.

As with the forwards’ curved runs in 4-4-2, midfielders must not just run towards the centre-back as fast as possible. Indeed they must be careful about players in their back, so they have to cover shadow free player while they close down the ball carrier. When a central midfielder pushes up, his teammates position themselves to cover him: the defensive midfielder must handle free player if he receives the ball. Moreover the team remains horizontally compact despite the 5-chain in the middle. Then when CM runs towards the centre-back, the ball-near winger covers centre whereas he could anticipate a pass to the wing. Actually he begins his run to the wing as soon as the centre-back passes the ball, not before that.
As the winger can’t be covered by the ball-near central midfielder (he just pushed up), he can’t let the fullback plays forward. His body shape must be different from the one in 4-4-2 pressing trap because the aim is now to force a backward pass. In the same time the central midfielder comes back to prevent the pass towards the centre then he again pushes up to maintain pressure. Hopefully this work must lead to an inaccurate long ball.

 

Thus this alternative shape enhances the width coverage, so it’s harder for the opponents to progress with the ball. However Simeone couldn’t copy/paste the 4-4-2-touchline trap, that’s why he introduces a variation in which central midfielders are ones who pressure opponents’ centre-backs. This trap doesn’t generate as much interception as the 4-4-2 one but is still quite efficient to force the opponents to get rid of the ball.
However even with an improved coverage Atlético can’t always prevent the opposition to progress with the ball. In such cases mid-block isn’t suitable anymore, so Atlético Madrid have to defend in a low-block!

Park the bus

I have to confess that this is not a phase I like to analyse since there are less spaces’ problems to solve for the defensive block.
Let’s exaggerate a bit: a low block is generally quite passive, players don’t look to get the ball back but to clear it thanks to a huge compactness in and around the box. Super nice isn’t it?
However even in these basic conditions, Atlético Madrid have proven that they are far above average. Obviously they deserve praise about their ability in the coach-beloved mental stuff: commitment, aggressiveness, etc. But it would be far too simplistic to limit their work to that.
Foremost their 4-4-2-0 is almost unique in the world. Few teams are as compact as Atlético when they are defending deep. With such compactness it’s almost impossible for their opponents to make passes through the lines (excepted if it’s a small blaugrana), but they can quite easily pass around and find free men on the wings. Moreover Simeone’s wingers are focus on the half-space then it’s even easier for opponents to play on the wings.

Atlético-BB
This is definitely a block with high compactness

There’s nothing remarkable until there because lots of teams have such a centre orientation. The main issue with this choice is that the opponent‘s winger has plenty of time to control the ball, turn and set up the attack (with overlaps or underlaps for example). Once again individuals enhance the team because they are able to deal with such movements: this is the third individual technique. The two ball-near players (fullback and winger) must work together to prevent opposition to run down the flank. It surely sounds simplistic but it requires lots of communication and coordination, many teams aren’t able to do it efficiently.

In brief Atlético Madrid’s low block is very centre-oriented with zonal marking which allows them to have great compactness (horizontally and vertically). This compactness prevent their opponents to play into the block. Then they are pushed to the wings and Atlético’s ball-near players must defend together to not being overwhelmed.
But sometimes the ball carrier can cross the ball into the box, whether after dribbling past the fullback or by making an early cross.
I will not make a long speech about Simeone’s influence in such situations, because it is actually quite low. As Guardiola said few months ago, he can’t teach his player how to win 1v1.

I am not the one to show my players how to dribble an opponent. They all have that ability already. But I can try to get them the ball in situations where they can take on players one-on-one, I can arrange that – Pep Guardiola

Guardiola said that about dribbling cases but we can use it here too. Coaches can’t win the header. However they can make it easier for their team to deal with such chaotic situations. The easiest way to do so is to have many players in the box.
I’m aware that putting many players in the box sounds ridiculously simple when the block is so deep. Actually the rule is that ball-far players (except forwards) have to come in the box to ensure that at least 5 players can deal with the cross: centre-backs and ball-far fullback, winger and central midfielder.

This rule is quite clear when the opposition is able to cross whereas Atlético’s block isn’t settled. Indeed in such cases ball-far players rush into the box to position as they would in a low block crossing situation.
With such a rule Simeone is actually doing the same as Guardiola. He can’t win headers but he can arrange the situation (defending a cross) to help his players, whether to deal with the cross or to win second balls.

 

This is the end of the analysis of Atlético Madrid defensive strategies without the ball. Simeone’s team is amazing to defend as soon as the block is structured, but are Atlético as good on the defensive transition? It would be a shame to be so efficient while structured and terrible to deal with defensive transition doesn’t it?

Prepare your defence while attacking

I couldn’t write 4000 words about different blocks without speaking about what’s going on before the team is structured defensively.

Phases
Can we really describe football games with 4 phases?

I’m not fully convinced by this way to describe football game because I consider that phases are influencing each other. For example you will attack differently if you park the bus or if you press high.
In our case Simeone has built a world-class team without the ball, so their structure with the ball must be balanced enough to deal with defensive transition.

During the prices of attacking, I am generating the futures conditions defensively or vise versa – Oscar Moreno

How are they attacking to remain balanced in defensive transition? They do it almost as Guardiola’s teams do.

Do you know how Barcelona get the ball back so quickly? Because they never need to run more than 10 meters – to press – because they never do passes longer than 10 meters – Johan Cruyff

Obviously the team’s philosophies are totally different, but this quote could also be used to describe the defensive transition of Atlético Madrid. Indeed they are very ball-oriented while attacking, especially wingers who actually play as ball-oriented central playmakers.
Their positional play enhances their ability to quickly close down the player who intercepts a pass and makes them more likely to win second balls. This counterpressing is key to provide defensive stability to the team, which is necessary as their combinational play generates many turnovers.
Moreover most of their attacks are developing on the wings and are combination-oriented because of the high compactness. The wing orientation is another way to improve defensive transition since it’s far easier to counterpress in such areas.

 

Obviously Simeone needs players who are able to play in tight spaces to develop such attacks. That’s why their recent signing were oriented on these kind of players (Griezmann, Oliver Torres, Correa, Carrasco, Vietto,…). Their combinational play can be really pleasant to watch, far from the harsh team so often described.

Let’s conclude with Atlético Madrid

We saw that Atlético Madrid have many solutions to adapt their behaviour to the context. According to the opponent or to the score, they can adapt the team to use the best solution. Having such a range of solutions is a key when you are not FC Barcelona or Bayern Munchen because you can’t expect to dominate all your opponents.
Until now I showed that the Colchoneros are well structured without the ball, but these GIFs and movies can’t prove the reality and the regularity of these performances. Indeed you surely can find good defensive sequences for almost every team in the world. That’s why I like to add some statistics to pictures.
Let’s take a look on the average of shots conceded per 100 opponent’s passes. It represents the difficulty for their opponents to find a shooting position when they have the ball.

Atlético Madrid-def

Unsurprisingly Simeone’s men are leading by far in this chart. We can also take a look on Expected Goal conceded during the Champions League Group Stage:

No more than 3,2 ExpG conceded, no team conceded least expected goals through the Group Stage. We can compare it with the same stuff for others Champions League’s contenders: Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munchen, Juventus Turin and last but not least FC Barcelona.

This comparison shows that Atlético Madrid aren’t just impressive without the ball, they are also with the ball.
My aim isn’t to bother you with many charts and statistics, but they are essential to prove what became obvious through the read of this article: Simeone has set up an amazing team.

Will it be enough to bring them back to the European’s top? We surely can’t say so. But for sure this team is among the greatest teams in Europe and they will be a big deal for all their opponents. There is no team who can confidently prepare two games against Atlético.

Laisser un commentaire