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Miles Olusina provides a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League quarter-final second leg that finished Leicester 1-1 Atletico.
Craig Shakespeare’s Leicester City hosted Spanish giants Atletico Madrid at the King Power Stadium in the 2nd leg of the Champions League quarter final, with Premier League champions Leicester looking to overturn a 1-0 deficit after losing at the Vicente Calderon thanks to an Antoine Griezmann penalty. Both sides were more or less at full strength and played out an enthralling high tempo encounter as both teams played a very direct style, using predominantly the wide areas as a means of chance creation. A typical sturdy defence displayed by each side meant chances were few and far between, as well as space in central areas.
Atletico took the lead in the 25th minute after a superb cross by Filipe Luis met the head of midfield stalwart Saul Niguez, which then required Leicester to score 3 goals on the night to advance to the next stage of the competition. A Jamie Vardy equalizer on the hour mark sparked hopes of a revival, however the Foxes could not find the 2 more goals they needed, putting an end to their remarkable run to the last eight of the Champions League.
Leicester (4-4-2/4-4-1-1): 1. Schmeichel // 17. Simpson, 5. Morgan, 29. Benalouane, 28. Fuchs // 26. Mahrez, 25. Ndidi, 4. Drinkwater, 11. Albrighton // 20. Okazaki, 9. Vardy
Atletico (4-2-2-2): 13. Oblak // 20. Juanfran, 15. Savic, 2. Godin, 3. Filipe Luis // 8. Koke, 14. Gabi, 24. Gimenez, 6. Saul // 10. Carrasco, 7. Griezmann
Substitutions: 46‘ Chilwell (Benalouane), 46‘ Ulloa (Okazaki), 84’ Amartey (Morgan) // 55’ Hernandez (Juanfran), 69’ Fernando Torres (Carrasco), 74’ Correa (Filipe Luis)
Goals: 25’ Saul // 60’ Vardy
For large periods of the game, both sides found space hard to come by as a result of the compact and well organized structures created by their opposition. Atleti, true to form, were extremely compact with the wide players dropping onto the same line as the two 8s Saul and Gabi to form a flat back 4. Their half space positioning allowed them to remain connected to their midfield counterparts while still having access to the ball carrier out wide. Pressing in the flanks was made so much easier by being in this position as the distance they were required to cover was reduced as a result of having access.
Leicester are in possession with Fuchs receiving the ball out wide. As soon as he receives the ball, Saul on Atletico’s right is already within close proximity of him due to his aforementioned positioning. His body position in this scenario is intelligent here as he blocks the passing lane of Albrighton in the half-space through the use of his cover shadow. This, along with Carrasco having access to Drinkwater leaves Fuchs bereft of options and therefore more susceptible to being dispossessed.
The most instrumental aspect of Atleti’s behavior in the defensive phase to quell the danger posed by Leicester in the wide areas was their highly efficient ball oriented shifts, something they have almost perfected after so many years under Diego Simeone. As the ball reaches the wide area, the entire block shifts which allows them to retain compactness and means that no single player is isolated when moving into the wide area. As a result of this, creating overloads when engaging in a wide press becomes so much more straightforward as individual players are rarely ever disconnected from play.
In addition, they are also much less susceptible to being exposed by ball circulation or a rapid switch of play. On numerous occasions throughout the game, Leicester were unable to fashion any chances through wide combinations with the winger and full back as a result of Atletico’s shifting.
Another intriguing feature of their defence was Filipe Luis and his aggressive man marking of Mahrez on the right. Often times Mahrez drops deeper in Leicester’s 4-4-2 to receive the ball in space away from his full back; thus allowing himself acceleration room and a chance to gain momentum with the ball. In response to this, Filipe was tasked with tracking the deeper movements of Mahrez as he looked to receive the ball. He rarely received the ball with space to turn and was forced to lay it off to a teammate or try and create space with his movement.
He was unable to make movements into the half-space as he so often does due to Atleti having two players occupying that column at all times during the game. With Mahrez severely restricted, Leicester found their attacking options limited forcing Shakespeare to alter his system which saw Mahrez operate in a hybrid role as a 10 and an 8.
Filipe’s aggressive man marking may have seemed quite odd and potentially dangerous initially, however the team shape allowed him to do so without any repercussions. His now advanced positioning as a result of his marking duties allowed the LB-CB channel to be opened which possibly could have allowed Vardy to make a run in this channel or give Okazaki the opportunity to receive the ball between the lines.
However, the positioning of the rest of the back four gave Filipe the ability to push forward and mark Mahrez as they shifted across to fill the space vacated by Filipe when in advanced positions. The midfield are also in ideal position in the image above as they overload the half space which inhibits Okazaki’s ability to drop into this space and receive possession in a passing lane that was created by Mahrez’s wide positioning. Had he been slightly wider however, Okazaki would have had more room in the half space, meaning that he could move out of the cover shadow of the Atleti midfielders.
As has been a feature of Simeone’s side for years now, Atletico tend to create most of their attacking opportunities through the wide areas and crosses for either a target man with great aerial ability a la Diego Costa or a more nimble, mobile forward in Antoine Griezmann. In this game, they attacked predominantly on the left, particularly through Filipe Luis who was without a doubt the most dangerous player on the pitch.
Typically when the ball was in this position as we see above, Atleti had the overload with Koke in the half-space supporting Filipe in possession. Here Koke has the ball and has attracted the attention of Ndidi in the centre who has vacated his original position to put pressure on the ball carrier. This, in turn creates an opportunity for blind side movement from Gabi in the centre who is now free to receive as he is no longer being cover shadowed by Ndidi.
Mahrez has also altered his positioning in reaction to Atletico’s threat down the left, occupying a very deep position which creates a back 5 for Leicester. Had he been further forward, Koke would not have been able to receive the ball with such a large amount of space as Mahrez would most likely have been in the half-space and would have had access to him.
Atleti’s domination of the left finally paid off in the 25th minute when the ball was circulated from the right side of their midfield and the ball eventually found Filipe, who had an abundance of time and space due to poor shifting and over compactness from Leicester. His cross met the head of Saul who grabbed the decisive away goal and gave Atleti the lead on the night.
A job well done for the men from Madrid; who did just enough to reach their 3rd semifinal in the last 4 seasons. A competent defensive showing again made the difference for Atletico as they showed that they are one of Europe’s elite. After losing two finals in three seasons to their city rivals, los Colchoneros will be hoping that this can finally be the year that they are crowned champions of Europe’s premier competition.
For Leicester, the fairytale has sadly come to an end, to the despair of football fans everywhere. From the great escape in the 2014-15 season to their remarkable title win last season and now their unexpected run to the Champions League quarter finals, Leicester have been a joy to watch for fans all over the world and can hold their heads high after a tight affair with Atletico. With their Premier League status all but secured this season, their eye will likely be turned to next season where they will surely be looking to secure a place in Europe again.
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