Atletico kicked off their 2015/16 La Liga campaign against newly promoted side, UD Las Palmas. The game had some interesting tactical strategies with the yellow men from Las Palmas quite secure in defence.
ATLETICO MADRID 1-0 LAS PALMAS
Atletico had the majority of the possession as they lined up in a 4-4-2 off the ball, which shifted to a 2-2-4-2 formation in possession. Jan Oblak was the guardian between the post, while Godin partnered with his fellow countryman Gimenez as the centre-backs with Filipe Luis and Juanfran as the fullbacks. Tiago and Gabi were deployed as the central midfielders while Koke and Oliver were more of inverted wingers, with Griezmann and the Colombian beast Jackson Martinez upfront.
Atletico Madrid did create more chances, but were to my surprise inferior to Las Palmas in the set-pieces. Las Palmas won almost every aerial battle, but couldn’t capitalize although Oblak was forced to stretch and make a fantastic bottom-corner save from a corner-kick of Las Palmas. The only goal of the game came not so surprisingly from the young Frenchman Griezmann who converted a free-kick opportunity: a beautifully struck free-kick that the keeper just couldn’t handle.
Las Palmas’ 4-4-2
Las Palmas defended in a 4-4-2 shape against the ball, with two very specific tactical adjustments vs Atletico’s build-up play. It was clear to see that the Las Palmas coach had analyzed Atletico’s pre-season games, as Atletico has a very specific way of building the play. Instead of playing a 3-man back line, Simeone wants both of his central midfielders to participate in the early-build up stages, with the Full-backs penetrating higher up the flanks, keeping the width, this creating the afore-mentioned 2-2-4-2 formation.
So, what Paco Herrera focused on was to play a specific man marking on the 2 central midfielders of Atletico Madrid during build-ups with the 2 strikers of the 3 defending lines of Las Palmas (4-4-2). This often forced Filipe Luis to drop deep instead of keeping the width. Luis dropped deeper to participate in the build-up play more often than Juanfran who kept the width of the right flank. What Las Palmas wanted was to let the ‘’weak’’ players of Atletico Madrid do the build-up job and force them into an area where they could maybe press more actively.
Las Palmas defended really well in their own half-pitch where the centre-backs would follow for example a dropping Martinez, to press him from behind. The zone Martinez had just left would be covered by another teammate. What Las Palmas did not succeed with was the approach to stop the build-up of Atletico Madrid.
When the 2 strikers were marking Gabi and Tiago, the centre-backs of Atletico had plenty of time on the ball and space to penetrate into. The wingers of Las Palmas were not interested in pressing in Atletico’s half and would often drop into their own half-pitch. This left huge space for the likes of Gimenez to advance with the ball as the channel was open to advance through. The 2 strikers totally ignored this potential pitfall as they were so focused on the 2 central midfielders. Now whenever the play got into the Las Palmas own half-pitch, Gabi and Tiago could easily move away from their respective markers, who did not follow the movements of the 2 in these areas. This meant that Atletico could easily outnumber the central area of the pitch with Koke and Oliver Torres who played as the inverted-wingers.
The weakness of this was that the strikers were entirely focused on the movement of Gabi and Tiago. They lacked the intelligence and followed the movement of the duo, sometimes blindly so.
Now when Tiago and Gabi were centrally positioned, the strikers were also close which left time and space for the centre-backs to penetrate, but whenever Gabi and Tiago split horizontally almost creating a new back 4 line, the 2 strikers duly followed them leaving a huge gap in-between instead.
Here we can see how Atletico Madrid could easily manipulate the 2-man-marking strikers, to leave a huge space between the defending-lines and play through as seen here.
The newly promoted La-Liga side displayed confidence and tried to play possession based football, where the keeper would often play a short pass to the 3 man back line of Las Palmas. Las Palmas did not utilize the popular tactic of the 2 centre-backs splitting with one of the central midfielders dropping deep. Instead one of their central midfielders operated in higher areas and provided a link to the more advanced players, while the other acted as the pivot playing in a 3-1-3-3-ish formation. This was also to create a 4 v 4 in midfield and not be inferior in numbers.
One of the full-backs would take up a high position on the flank while the other full-back joined the build-up, forming a 3 man back line.
Now in these areas, the right winger has maintained the width of the pitch as he has penetrated into higher areas pushing Juanfran deeper away from Oliver Torres, the right midfielder. Las Palmas dropped the “false striker”: Viera (#20) behind the Atleti midfield-line as Oliver Torres was now isolated, but also more focused on the Left Center-Back of the 3 man back line in the build-up of Las Palmas. Alcaraz (in possession of the ball) plays the diagonal-pass to Viera.
Here, Las Palmas is set-up in a 3-4-3 formation with the wing-players maintaining the width and Araujo as the Striker creating a 3-man attacking line upfront. They also now have a 4v4 situation in the central area of the pitch. Notice how Viera drops deep to receive the pass in front of the midfield-line of Atletico Madrid. With the help of the deep positioned Viera and left centre-back, Las Palmas were able to create a 3v2 in the flanks.
Araujo cuts inside as the central midfielder moves between the lines, now having 1 player each occupying the back-line of Atletico Madrid, while the remaining player of the 3 man back line of Las Palmas starts to penetrate the now free flank, as the right winger has occupied Luis.
In late 1st half and 2nd half though, Atletico Madrid stepped it and pressed higher to prevent the build-ups of Las Palmas. This made it much harder for Paco Herrera and his men to play through the 1st phase of build-up and saw Las Palmas play many long balls.
Atletico Madrid’s pressing changes
Atletico Madrid started with their regular 4-4-2 against the ball with the 2 strikers upfront, trying to block the center, and forced Las Palmas to the wide areas.
As mentioned above, Las Palmas were seen playing through the wide areas and did create some situations where the Atletico Madrid defense became disorganized. This made Diego Simeone change the structure of the press, meaning that Atletico wouldn’t sit-back deep and let Las Palmas build-up play, but started to press in a zonal-defending, to block every passing opportunity for Las Palmas.
This was to force Las Palmas to play it long and prevent them from advancing into more attractive areas.
The change Simeone made was that instead of defending with Oliver Torres in a right midfielder position as in the early periods of the game where they defended deeper, Oliver was positioned as a left winger while Griezmann acted as the right winger, with Martinez in-front, creating a 3 man line with Koke behind marking the pivot of Las Palmas, creating a 3-1 when pressing Las Palmas in their own-half pitch.
Notice the higher defending positions of Atletico, as they are not marking but instead focusing on their zones, with the exception of Koke, who is focusing on blocking the passing opportunity to the pivot of Las Palmas, basically playing a 3-1 vs a 1-3.
Oliver pressing the right centre-back of Las Palmas = forcing Las Palmas to play the ball out of play.
If say Las Palmas were able to play through this new pressing approach of Atletico Madrid, then Atletico would drop deep with men against the ball in a 4-5-1 formation, this to create an overload in central areas of the pitch, with a flat 5 in midfield. This made it harder for Las Palmas to play through as Atletico now had horizontal compactness to stop Las Palmas from playing through the channels.
A 4-5-1 formation is now seen in this situation. Notice the position of Griezmann who has dropped to the right midfielder position to create better horizontal compactness, than that of a 4-4-2.
In this situation Viera ( #20 of Las Palmas ) has again dropped into this half-space zone, while building play in a 3-4-3.
Viera cuts inside again, as he does this the same pattern follows, the right winger of Las Palmas drags Felipe Luis with him (cutting inside with his run towards the box), the central midfielder tries to drag Tiago with him away from the situation, to penetrate between the defending lines of Atletico.
Now notice the numeral superiority in central area of the pitch but also the position of Oliver Torres, as Las Palmas tries to switch play he is keeping the horizontal line of the midfield compact.
It forces Las Palmas to play it back again, to start over the attack.
The 4-5-1, where Koke and Gabi has occupied 1 player each, leaving Tiago free from marking responsibilities, to instead covering spaces/playing through centrally was effective in stopping Las Palmas’ build up play.
Las Palmas tries to occupy Tiago, by dropping the central midfielder into Tiago’s blind side, and the centre-back plays a vertical ball to this area. Due to the numerical advantage / overload in central area + horizontal compactness, Atletico wins the ball back and re-starts their attack.
Simeone’s new build-up system
Dropping Griezmann to the right flank affected the attacking balance of Atletico as they now only had Martinez upfront in a 4v1 / 3v1 situation (of course there were situations of when Atletico could play their great transitions). Now whenever Atletico won the ball back, they instead focused more on building the play.
Las Palmas did not play a high-pressing game, but instead focused on man-marking the 2 central midfielders of Atletico with Araujo and Viera responsible for this while the other 2 defending lines of 4 men play a more positional zonal defense, in what is a roughly 2-2-4-2 shape.
Due to Las Palmas making it hard for Atletico’s central midfield to dictate the game, the 2 inverted wingers/play-makers were vital. But Oliver and Koke were often pressed hard by the 2 central midfielders of Las Palmas and were also hard to find, so the solution came to try and attack through the half-spaces/channels by overloading the wide areas which was implemented through the flexible positioning of Griezmann. Griezmann was often seen positioning himself on the flanks away from his normal #9 position, to create these overload areas to help Atletico Madrid advance. While he did this, one of Koke or Oliver positioned themselves in the #9 position vacated by Griezmann. This was to 1) still keep balance in the attack by not leaving a zone free 2) drag a marking player with them away from the central areas 3) If not followed by the marking player then they would be left free in the half-space in front of the defending line of Las Palmas.
Now here is a situation of where Tiago and Gabi are man-marked by the 2 strikers. This leaves a big-space for Luis to drop into the half-space and receive the ball (as the wide players of Las Palmas did not press) to advance.
When Luis started to advance with the ball, Tiago dragged Araujo away from the situation, while Gabi started to penetrate around the half-circle space (half-space zone in front of midfield line of Las Palmas). Koke positioned himself in the half-space to create a situational 3v2 in the flank area. The most important detail here is how Griezmann has left his position, penetrating in the wide areas instead to occupy the right-back.
Filipe Luis threatens the right midfielder who starts to put pressure on him, as Koke is positioned diagonally inwards in the central area (as in the picture). While Koke is about to receive the pass, Oliver Torres runs into the zone, which Griezmann has left, to drag one of the central midfielders with him away from the central area.
Gabi receives the ball and plays it out wide to the completely free Juanfran who can play the cross to 4 players inside the box (yes even Griezmann joined the attack into the box).
As Luis passed the ball to Koke, he continued his run to more advanced areas, as Gabi was now free as had moved away from his marker.
Important note: Las Palmas were quite impressive in the defense as Atletico found it difficult to play through. This was one of many ways that Atletico created opportunities, by manipulating the opposition with a free-roaming Griezmann. As soon as the ball was played into more advanced zones such as in this situation above, the 2 strikers lost their marking-responsibilities completely, and Tiago & Gabi (as in the situation above for example) could easily find themselves free to dictate the play in Las Palmas’ own half-pitch.
Atletico’s flexibility came through further in the 2nd half, when Oliver was substituted with Correa. Atletico switched to a 2-3-4-1 with Juanfran and Filipe Luis as the wingers and Correa + Griezmann playing as false-wingers in the #10 role (most often seen penetrating in the half-spaces) especially Correa proving his great skills in these tight areas, between the defending lines. Koke was more often seen dropping deep away from the CM of Las Palmas helping Gabi and Tiago in building up the play.
It will be interesting to follow both teams as the season continues, and I personally was really impressed by Correa and Las Palmas’ Viera, who was very confident in receiving the ball and threatening the Atletico defense with his great dribbling skills. Las Palmas needs to work on the chemistry between the different defending lines as they can’t afford to have 2 strikers man-marking while the others sit deep, creating huge gaps to play through, or to not follow their marker when they penetrate in more advanced areas.
In the 2nd half, the 2 strikers started to press higher, but again left huge spaces behind as the player in possession for Atletico could easily run past the pressing of the striker who had no support at all from behind.
Written by Albin Sheqiri
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