Team Analysis | Atlético Madrid – Part 1: Defensive Organisation

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In an era where the 4-4-2 has lost its prevalence, Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid see themselves performing fantastically in a formation touted ‘prehistoric’ by some. It is rare to see teams in the elite leagues employ a 4-4-2, but Atlético Madrid, along with Manchester City, are giving the classic formation a new lease of life. The 4-4-2 seems like something of the past due to its perceived inability to cope with the rise in controlling 3-man midfields and space between the lines.

However, Simeone’s Atléti have shown that it can work very well indeed. Atléti’s structure, discipline, sheer hard work and transitional efficiency has helped them rise to joint 1st place in La Liga, only toppled by Barcelona who sit above them on goal difference. Simeone’s men have amassed 14 league wins, 1 draw and, astonishingly, just 1 loss. With just 9 goals conceded and 43 goals scored, Atléti’s title credentials are starting to look serious.

Atleti league table (16th Dec 2013)

The ethos of Argentinian manager Diego Simeone, a great defensive-minded midfielder in his time, is reflected in his team – solid defensive abilities and attitudes with a devastating efficiency in transition. Atlético are a team that look to control space rather than possession.

I have analysed Atlético only when they play a 4-4-2 – it must be noted that Atléti do play with a 4-2-3-1 from time to time. In the first part of the series, I have analysed Atléti’s defensive organisation.

This analysis uses most aspects of this criteria, which was developed by @MartinLewis94. Note that the phases of play generally apply, but are not restricted, to these zones:

Courtesy of @MartinLewis94.

Courtesy of @MartinLewis94.

Defensive organisation

The fact that 54% of shots  Atleti concede are from outside the box highlights their defensive effectiveness. It is the highest rate in La Liga.

The fact that 54% of shots Atleti concede are from outside the box highlights their defensive effectiveness. It is the highest rate in La Liga.

The key objectives of the team are to mark zonally with an aggressive pressing mentality when an opposition player is about to receive the ball in their zone and to control the central vertical zone, doing so with great effect. Their controlling of space is central to their success and defensive stability.

Phase 1 [mid block 4-4-2]:  Atléti employ a mid block 4-4-2 when the opposition are constructing from defence and do not press unless triggers arise. By not pressing, it allows the opposition to enter phase 2, or even 3, fairly quickly but ensures that the team does not become disjointed. A noticeable feature is that Atléti stay narrow, which allows space down flanks, which in turn means they control the central vertical zone. This makes it hard for the opposition to play through the middle. The strikers, in this instance Costa and Villa, act almost like midfielders, looking to block easy passes into the centre of midfield. Here is an example of a pressing trigger:

David Villa presses Illarramendi from behind.

David Villa presses Illarramendi from behind.

Here is another example, this time showing how triggers can initiate a high press on the goalkeeper and his surrounding passing options:

Atleti force the goalkeeper to panic and go long.

Atleti force the goalkeeper to panic and go long.

However, there is space between the lines for a deep playmaker or an advanced midfielder to receive the ball in, but this could create a pressing trap. For instance, if the opposition played a pass in between the midfield line and attacking line, the midfielders would press the ball carrier as would a striker from behind. The fear of this occurring often results in the opposition making ‘easier’ passes into wide areas.

Atleti look to control the central vertical zone to try and force pressing traps on the flanks.

Atleti look to control the central vertical zone to try and force pressing traps on the flanks.

Phase 2 [mid-low block 4-4-2]:

Atléti’s objective is to force the opponents to play into wide areas and, due to their controlling of the central zone, this is where most of the opposition’s passes end up. This creates a pressing trap because Atléti’s full back and wide midfielder double up on the player who received the ball out wide, and one central midfielder, if required, presses the nearest passing option from behind. This then forces the opposition to either play a direct ball forward [vertical], a pass back infield [lateral] or pass back to defence [usually diagonally]. The amount of 3v3 and 2v2 situations created by this means that Atléti require players with a strong 1v1 defensive capacity.

Di Maria was forced to pass back to the centre back on this occasion.

Di Maria was forced to pass back to the centre back on this occasion.

The full back on the near side of the field comes close to the opposition’s wide midfielder, ready to initiate the pressing trap if the ball is played to them. The striker on the near side of the field comes a little deeper than his partner, looking to cut off any central passing options. The central midfielder on the near side of the field looks to cover the half space created by the full back coming close to the opposition’s wide midfielder.

The centre mid applies good cover here.

The centre mid applies good cover here.

Should the cover of the near-side centre mid and the balance of the defence be applied too slowly, the half space is open to be penetrated. Also, the centre mid’s priority is to aggressively press within his zone, so he will look to press rather than cover should the ball enter his zone, again opening up the half space. This is a potential weakness that teams could look to exploit by playing with fast tempo in wide areas along with penetrating runs in Phase 2. Here is an example:

A half space, which could be exploited, opens up when the full back presses. Real did not take advantage of this, on this occasion.

The half space, which could be exploited, opens up when the full back presses. Real did not take advantage of this, on this occasion.

This type of pressing trap explains why many ball recoveries are made in wide areas by Atléti. Three points may explain why this pressing trap is applied:
1) When a player has the ball on the flank, there is only a 180° angle they can pass into, compared to a 360° passing range in the centre of the pitch. This limits passing options and can force throw ins in favour of Atléti.
2) Staying narrow and then pressing wide will encourage the opposition to pass inside from wide areas, which can benefit Atléti as it coincides with their aggressive zonal pressing from the centre mids. A square pass back infield can be easy to intercept when aggressively pressing in zones, resembling pistons. This could show why some ball recoveries are made between wide and central areas.
3) Atléti are not afraid to press in wide areas and concede throw ins themselves. I will signify in the set pieces section how Atléti employ another pressing trap on opposition throw ins.

Atleti had 16/22 successful tackles vs Real Madrid. 10 were in wide areas.

Atleti had 16/22 successful tackles vs Real Madrid. 10 were in wide areas. Stats and picture courtesy of Squawka.

Atleti made 22/26 successful tackles against Porto. 12 were in wide areas and 4 were close to wide areas.

Atleti made 22/26 successful tackles against Porto. 12 were in wide areas and 4 were close to wide areas. Stats and picture courtesy of Squawka.

Another pressing trigger of Atléti’s is if the ball receiver is going to have difficulty controlling the ball, and if a pass is fairly slow as it gives Atléti time to restrict space for the ball receiver to control the ball in. Here (below), against Porto, Atléti press the ball receiver and his passing options, whilst also restricting space to play into. If unsuccessful at recovering the ball, it would force a pass backwards, a long ball forward or a switch back across the field. In this case, Atléti recovered the ball.

The long switch across field triggers Atletico to press, this time resulting in a successful ball recovery.

The long switch across field triggers Atletico to press, this time resulting in a successful ball recovery.

A further pressing trigger is if the opposition have managed to play out of defence, past Atléti’s striker, into the central midfielders’ zones. Below, Gabi aggressively presses the opposition midfielder due to the ball being played through Costa and Villa. It is imperative that the central midfielder who is not pressing drops back and provides a covering angle, or too much space will be conceded between the lines for the opposition to exploit.

Atleti's central midfielders' aggressive zonal pressing is key to stopping the opponent playing through them.

Atleti’s central midfielders’ aggressive zonal pressing is key to stopping opponents playing through them.

Phase 3 [low block 4-4-2]:

Atléti still look to control the central zone, but press more aggressively in each player’s zone in Phase 3. The lines become more tight and the shape is still narrow, making Atléti extremely compact and hard to play through.

Atleti's compact shape along with aggressive zonal pressing restricts the opposition attacking through the centre.

Atleti’s compact shape along with aggressive zonal pressing restricts the opposition attacking through the centre.

The aggressive zonal pressing applies to the centre backs too. Although Atlético don’t use an apparent stopper-cover centre back partnership, their centre backs are aggressive in challenging for the first ball, often getting in front of the opponent to win the ball. This approach is clearly successful when you consider the sheer amount, and success, of clearances made in the central zone in and around the area.

A strength of Atleti's defensive organisation is how well they defend the central zone, especially in and around the box.

A strength of Atleti’s defensive organisation is how well they defend the central zone, especially in and around the box. Stats and picture courtesy of Squawka.

Phase 4 [very low block 4-4-2]:

Atléti’s full back closes down the player who is about to cross, whilst the rest of the defenders use tight zonal marking. Atléti’s main objective is that the danger zones are covered in that the front post, penalty spot and back post are guarded by the defenders. A perhaps more striking feature is that Atléti’s centre mid and opposite wide midfielder secure the top of the box, preventing cutback crosses being made. This is a vital feature as many teams score from cutback crosses and most sides, even with a double pivot, usually neglect this area.

Atleti have all important zones covered on crosses.

Atleti have all important zones covered on crosses.

As Atléti spend a lot of time in defensive organisation Phases 2 & 3, it is clear to see why most people say Atléti use a low block 4-4-2. Their defensive solidity in the centre results in a lot of defensive actions, and what is noticeable is Atléti’s counter-attacking style from this chart.

The high amount of clearances highlights Atleti's counter-attacking approach. Clearing the ball long for Diego Costa is a key feature.

The high amount of clearances highlights Atleti’s strong defensive stability and counter-attacking approach.

I will be looking at Atlético Madrid’s offensive organisation in the next part of this analysis.

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18 thoughts on “Team Analysis | Atlético Madrid – Part 1: Defensive Organisation

  1. Great piece by the way.

    Few things i would like to know

    1. The mindset build around this approach is “defensive”, right? Cmiiw.

    2. How is the setup when they face a more Direct (long balls, crosses, etc) opponent?

    • Thanks a lot!

      1. In what way do you mean? It is a defensive approach to the game in the way that they look to control space. Pep Guardiola says that the real aim of possession is to move the opponents, not the ball, but this could be applied to Atleti’s controlling of space. In a way, they force the opposition into spaces they can make ball recoveries in. They can show wide and win the ball there, or show central and collapse the shape onto the ball to win it back. I don’t think they take an approach of “shutting up shop” as such because they still get many shots on target, so perhaps it’s just their way of controlling matches. Without such design or organisation, their approach wouldn’t be as effective as it is.

      2. I’m going to be covering this when I do my piece on the transition from defence to attack, which may be a while yet but I will definitely cover it.

      I am probably going to do an analysis on the 2013 FA Cup Final in between, so it may take a while.

  2. Brilliant stuff!

    Being that I’m American (Bloody Yank, I know) getting this type of detailed yet completely understandable analysis is outright fantastic, and something I obviously can’t find on ESPN, etc.

    This is my first visit to the site, but I’ll certainly be returning.

    • Thank you!

      There’s some great analysis on the internet nowadays. Some Twitter users who you could follow are @AdinOsmanbasic, @SeBlueLion @MartinLewis94, @ReneMaric and plenty of others!

      • No worries, it was purely out of interest as I enjoyed your break down of the defensive aspects of their game. I will keep my eye out.

  3. Pingback: Team Analysis | Atlético Madrid – Part 2: Offensive Organisation | jamieadams3

  4. Pingback: Atleti’s Organization & Balance key to their success | Defending With The Ball

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  6. Outstanding stuff! Deffo bookmarking your site and look forward to reading more.

    How does this differ from Southampton’s style? I know the Saints generally line up 4-2-3-1 but seems as if their pressing game has a lot of similarities to this.

    Or am I just completely off base here? (And if so it would be far from the first time.)

      • Great link there! Hadn’t been aware of that site either. Amazing how many excellent little corners of the interwebs there are to be discovered.

        Best of luck to your boys the rest of the way this year. I would love to see you come back up. Even though you’ve broken our hearts in the last two FA Cups, any club currently managed by my very first favourite footballer will always be one that I want to see do well.

      • It’s a great site but the adverts make it almost unbearable. It loads so slow on my laptop, too.

        Thanks a lot. It boiled down to luck in the end despite us being outstanding. We did so well to take them all the way to penalties and, more importantly, put up a very respectable defence of the FA Cup.

        Rosler is the man. We’ll do very well under his tutelage I think.

  7. Pingback: In Defence of Literal Translation – Counterpressing and Half Spaces | JA3 Football

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