James Sutherland writes a detailed tactical analysis about the La Liga match that ended Real Madrid 0-1 Atletico Madrid.
The Madrid derby is always one of the fiercest in the world, and the past several years have only heightened the rivalry. With Diego Simeone leading Atleti back to success, the past four years have seen the derby pick up in quality as well as intensity. Real hasn’t beaten Atleti in three seasons, an embarrassing stat for Real. Both teams needed three points to keep up with Barcelona in the chase for the league title as well.
The match was a masterpiece in Simeone and Atleti’s defensive ability. Through Simeone’s brilliant tactics and drilling, and the individual defensive skill of each of Atleti’s players, Real was shut out of the game, mustering just 3 shots on target all game.
Atletico (4-4-2): Oblak; Luis, Godin, Gimenez, Juanfran; Koke, Augusto, Gabi, Saul; Torres, Griezmann
Real (4-3-3): Navas; Danilo, Ramos, Varane, Caraval; Isco, Kroos, Modric; Ronaldo, Benzema, James
Real’s 3 Man Midfield
The midfield has been one of Zidane’s primary focus points since taking over for Rafa Benitez in early January. Looking at Real’s 4-0 humiliation in El Clasico earlier this season, it’s easy to see why.
Zidane shifted to a midfield triangle, with Toni Kroos at the base, as the single pivot, and Luka Modric and Isco in half spaces on either side. Isco had been left out by Benitez, with James Rodriguez in his spot.
This is an offensively strong midfield, with all three being able playmakers, but defensively it can be lacking. Kroos lacks defensive positioning and discipline, and Atleti would exploit that fault.
Here we can see Real’s midfield triangle. Kroos is at the base, with Modric in the left half space and Isco, slightly further forward, in the right space. It is a strong and balanced triangle, but can lack width, particularly if both Bale and Ronaldo (normally the two wingers in the front 3) come inside.
Atleti Shut Down the Center
Atleti countered Real’s central play by playing a centrally compact 4-4-2. This forced the ball to the wings, or left the ball with the center backs, while blocking passes into Kroos and Modric.
Here Atleti is in their 4-4-2, in a rough sense. While it was compact, Atleti players would often step out of their positions to press Real or to control the middle.
Here the midfield four is more of a diagonal than a straight line, and the front two are in a diagonal as well. All six of Atleti’s players in the photo have their bodies turned towards the sideline. This is not simply because that is where the ball is going, but also because that is where they want the ball to go. They are seeking to force Real to play the ball onto the wings, where Atleti can then isolate a player and win the ball back with their superior skill.
Notice too how there is a box around Kroos and Modric. Carvajal has no option to pass to either, because Atleti have all the lanes to them cut off. This killed Real’s build up, as Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos, the center backs, ended having to do most of the playmaking.
Carvajal passes to his only forward option, James Rodriguez. Filipe Luis, Atleti’s left back, follows James out of the backline, and pressures him immediately. Koke applies pressure from the front, cutting off James’ options.
James dribbles back into the center, not the ideal option for Atleti, as they would have rather won the ball on the wing. Luis stays with him still, even though he is way out of his position, pressuring the ball. Augusto closes down Luka Modric, meaning James is dribbling into a pack of defenders with no way out.
James fires a wild pass to Modric, who can’t control and loses the ball. Notice how Atleti have a 3 v. 2 defensive overload in the area. This is another key of their strategy: overloads and advantages in defense to win the ball back and counter quickly.
Atleti also put on a successful press. Although it didn’t necessarily win them lots of the ball back, or give them tons of chances, it did succeed in slowing down Real’s attack. Here Navas has played the ball short to Danilo. Immediately you can see Atleti players closing down on the ball, even as they retreat to stay in their formation.
Danilo is able to find a pass to Ronaldo in the center of the pitch, but it fails to gain anything for two reasons. One, Ronaldo foolishly dribbles into Atleti’s trap, by moving with the ball to the sideline. The second is that Atleti have three players all closing down the ball. However, if Ronaldo had turned around, he would have found one of three open players in the middle, and Real would have been off on the break.
Danilo gets the ball back from Ronaldo, and once again you can see Atleti closing down the middle. Kroos is boxed out in the center, while long balls to Modric or Ronaldo are both shut out by tight man marking. His only option is a back pass.
A sloppy back pass allows Atleti to put pressure on Navas while he tries to keep possession. You can see that all of his options are covered, aside from Toni Kroos in the middle, but that pass would be near impossible with the pressure Navas is under.
Varane gets the ball, and once again, his options are limited. Atleti are closing him down well, while Carvajal is closely marked. He can’t pass back to the middle due to his body position.
He manages to work it to Modric in the middle, after a pretty great pass that splits two Atleti defenders. Here Atleti’s press begins to fall apart. Modric plays the ball quickly to Benzema, who then plays it to James up the field.
Even when Real has beaten the press, Atleti doesn’t retreat. They continue to pressure Modric, stopping him from playing a pass that would cut the defense open. Finally Modric plays a poor ball that allows Atleti to regain possession.
Real’s Midfield Defensive Problems
This game sparked a debate over the necessity of defensive midfielders, or simply midfielders who can play defensively.
Real’s middle three were never in this game, allowing Atleti to time and again break. Toni Kroos must shoulder the most blame for this, because, although he isn’t a defensive midfielder by name (a position that is, in and of itself, not really real), part of his job is to play defense. Atleti’s goal demonstrated his remarkable failure at that task.
On the throw in, Real’s defensive positioning isn’t bad. They are, however, very tight, leaving too much room on the left wing, which will hurt them later.
The ball gets into the center, and you can see Real’s midfield triangle. To the causal eye, it might look that Real have things under control, but look closer. Atleti have a 6 v. 4 advantage, making passing out of pressure much easier.
Now it starts to break down. With one touch and a turn, Griezmann is round past Modric and Kroos. He is left running free at Real’s backline. Notice too how Real’s backline is out of shape, since Danilo stepped out to challenge for the ball. The other three have to shift over to cover his space, leaving the left wing open. Filipe Luis is running like a mad man to get into an attacking position there.
Now Atleti have a 3 v. 3, soon to be a 4 v. 3 thanks to Luis’ amazing run. Notice the four Real players sauntering back, like it’s just a nice day in the park. All three of Real’s midfielders and a fullback are left standing behind the ball, doing no defending.
Griezmann plays a ball to Luis, and the Real backline must move deeper into the box to stop a shot. Koke and Torres also make runs to the goal line, providing options for Luis and pushing the defenders back. Griezmann is once again left open with miles of space, and Luis passes right back. Griezmann’s finish was sublime, but it should have never been allowed to happen. Look at Kroos just watching the play unfold, not closing Griezmann down.
Atletico Madrid put in another brilliant performance, dominating play despite having just 31% of the ball. They proved once again that there is no better team in the world at imposing its style of play onto a game. Although Barcelona look to be running away with the title, up 8 points on Atleti, this win keeps Atleti in the race and clearly the second best team in the league.
Real still have a lot of problems to work out, particularly in midfield and in their structure. Zidane has enough job security to experiment, and with the domestic campaign now over (by his own admition), he might start doing that. It will be interesting to see who he adds over the summer to improve the team: Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba have both been rumored, the latter having the biggest effect on the midfield.
Written by James Sutherland
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