Zachary Wu writes a detailed tactical analysis of the Champions League semi-final first leg that finished Real Madrid 3-0 Atletico Madrid.
The aristocracy vs the working class. The royal whites vs the red whites. Los Blancos vs Los Rojiblancos. It was tipped to be a feisty, tight derby that was to played out in a European competition. Both teams were closely matched. Madrid had the better players while Atletico had better organization and perhaps the better manager. The result was therefore surprising. No one could have predicted the ease which Madrid steamrolled Atletico.
Both sides had to contend with some injuries. Madrid’s injuries were less substantial, with Bale and Pepe out and Coentrao a doubt. Atletico’s injuries on the other hand were more severe, losing both their right backs, Juanfran and Vrsaljko and others like Gimenez, Moya, Augusto Fernandez. Carrasco was a late doubt but was later passed fit to start.
Interestingly, Madrid started with a 4-4-2 diamond shape rather than their usual 4-3-3 with Isco in the hole. This could have been enforced by Bale’s absence but Zidane could have played Vazquez or Asensio in Bale’s position instead. This was deliberate from Zidane and it actually turned out to be a masterstroke, allowing Madrid to hold onto possession easily and break Atletico down.
Atletico sprung no surprises with their customary 4-4-2. In this game of huge magnitude, Koke played a narrow conservative wing role to perhaps shore up Atletico’s defense and protect his fullback better. Somewhat surprisingly, Simeone used left footed Lucas Hernandez at right back. He was probably influenced by the fact that Ronaldo as a left winger liked to cut onto his right foot- with a left footed defender the defender could use his strong foot to face Ronaldo. However, his plans were foiled when Ronaldo started as a striker.
Madrid in a diamond
Rarely, has Madrid played a diamond in a big game in recent years. Often, Madrid had a surplus of star wide players and hence avoided playing a narrow formation to be able to play all their Galacticos. With Bale out, Zidane would not have risked upsetting a Galactico by leaving him out, giving him the perfect opportunity to play a diamond. With Ronaldo’s increasing lack of mobility to track fullbacks and his great poacher instincts Zidane started him up top. This is not a role alien to him, having played the striker role in a diamond when Portugal won the Euros. Zidane’s change in formation was an astute choice.
Due to the staggering of the midfield in the diamond (yellow), it allowed Madrid to be more comfortable in possession as Atletico could not possibly close down all the passing options of the man in possession (blue). If Atletico were to pull a midfielder out (red) and close down the ball carrier (blue), a passing lane would open up to another Madrid player (purple). After realizing the futility of this approach, Atletico abandoned it and dropped back into a deep block.
Madrid’s diamond gave them more solidity in the centre in exchange for being more vulnerable down the flanks. This meant that Atletico could not penetrate Madrid’s centre due to the increased presence of now 4 centre midfielders compared to Madrid’s usual 3. Atletico had to then penetrate down the flanks. However, Atletico’s choice of personnel made it difficult to penetrate down the flanks. Carrasco was a natural winger and took on Marcelo and swung in some hopeful crosses. Meanwhile on the other flank, Koke, not a natural winger, could not possibly successfully take on his direct opponent Carvajal in a dribble and would then pass the ball into the increasingly congested centre. Madrid, with their superior numbers in the centre would then be able to win the ball easily when the ball returned to the centre. Madrid had effectively snuffed out Atletico’s dangerous transitions.
In their numerous encounters with Atletico, Madrid also were denied space in the centre due to a compact Atletico, with their 4-4-2 formation often becoming a 4-4-2-0, with both their strikers deep in their own half.
The ball-near centre midfielder (red) will step out aggressively to close down the man in possession while the respective fullback (orange) will step out to close down the space vacated by the centre midfielder who just stepped out.
Hence to avoid being pressed aggressively, Madrid decided to use a wing-focused approach and try and use their qualitative superiority to progress down the flanks and create chances. This is not usually the most effective way to progress up the pitch and create chances as the touchline is considered the best defender by many. However, given Atletico’s strong occupation of the centre and Real’s superiority in 1 vs 1 duels it seemed a feasible approach.
Zidane instructed his players to move into wide positions near the touchline (blue), where they could form micro-structures with their respective teammates (purple). In this case, however, Kroos (yellow) is making a mistake by blocking a passing option into Marcelo behind him. This allowed Madrid to quickly bypass the press and create a quantitative or qualitative superiority out wide.
This allowed Madrid to attack the Atletico fullbacks directly. They targeted Lucas Hernandez especially, a left footed center back playing out of positon at right back. As seen in the diagram, there is a large number of arrows down the Madrid left flank, correlating to a large number of passes and attacks down that flank.
With Marcelo, Kroos and Ronaldo all drifting wide on the left, it was certainly not easy to deal with, especially considering the inexperienced centre-back playing out of position at right-back.
Real’s lack of (proper) positional play
While Zidane has made changes to Madrid and improved them tremendously since the days of Rafa Benitez, it is still not ideal, hampering Madrid at times.
Here, there is an overload in the first progression of play, causing it to be counterproductive in the next phase of play due to the lack of numbers within the Atletico block. This made several players redundant in the buildup play.
Even with a flank-focused approach, there is a need to have some central occupation to allow for balls to be easily switched from side to side. Here, there is no one in the centre (red), making it difficult for Madrid to switch the ball to the ball-far side. This becomes a predictable, one dimensional attack. As a result, this becomes an isolated, uncoordinated attack and is easily snuffed out by Atletico.
This is a quote by spielverlagerung.com which is highly applicable to Madrid.
“A good positional structure is vital in achieving the balance between allowing for penetrative possession whilst constantly being prepared for the eventuality of a transition. The spacing of players should be sufficient enough that as much of the key areas of the pitch is efficiently occupied – thus forcing the opponent to shift as much as possible when circulating, testing them in their ability to keep compact whilst also dealing with the threat of players inside the block. Meanwhile, it must also not be so large as to result in passes which have to span great lengths. These passes, and their longer travel time, are more susceptible to being intercepted, which in turn deals considerable problems in terms of defending the transition”.
Here, no one from Madrid is standing in the left half space (red). This space is crucial in drawing opponents out of positons. By standing in the left half space, Benzema (purple) can create problems for Atletico. If a centre back closes him down, it creates space behind. If a midfielder marks him, there is space between the strikers and midfielders. If no one marks him, he can receive in free space. This small area of the pitch is crucial in unlocking opponent defenses, no matter what formation/system you use. Hence, it should be exploited to its fullest.
Atletico’s (lack of) intensity
With a strategy highly based on the defensive nous of the team, the intensity had to be high, especially in closing opponents down and denying them time and space in the important areas. Atletico spectacularly failed in this aspect. They were very lacklustre in defending, failing to win tackles and duels. In attack, it was not much better, being slow and ponderous on the ball.
It was a terrible defensive performance. Atletico completed just 29/49 of their tackles, a mere 59% while their opponents completed 18/23 at 78%. Atletico won 9/23 of their aerial duels, a mere 39% for a team considered strong in the air while Madrid won 14/23 of theirs at 61%.
In attack, it was not any better. They tried to play through with combination play through the centre but Madrid’s congestion of the centre certainly made it an uphill struggle with 4 centre midfielders denying space in front of the back 4. They rarely created a chance from open play, barring the chance which Gameiro tried to round the keeper.
The attacking output was bleak. Atletico had 4 attempts on goal with just a measly 1 on target. They completed 0/15 (0%) open play crosses, and just had a 5/11 (45%) success rate in their take ons. This is in stark comparison to Madrid’s attack with 4/20 (25%) completed open play crosses and 20/33 (61%) of their take ons being successful.
Madrid definitely surprised them with their shape, having not played a diamond against Atletico in years.
Atletico tried to execute a movement which they previous used against Barca, who played their last match against Atletico with a diamond midfield. A centre midfielder would push up and the ball-far winger would tuck in. This worked in the Barca game as the passing distances between the wide centre backs and wingers/wingbacks were too great, making a pass to exploit the unoccupied wings difficult and risky.
Madrid’s formation made the aforementioned movement redundant. Madrid instead played a diamond midfield with fullbacks (orange and purple). In the initial phase of progression, the fullbacks stayed deep. When an Atletico centre midfielder tried to push up (red) and close the player with the ball down while the ball-far winger tucked in (blue), Madrid were able to recycle the ball quickly and due to the short distances between players, play the ball to the (previously) ball-far fullback (purple) and then play the ball down that wing. With Madrid midfielders and forwards drifting wide, it became easy for Madrid to escape the aggressive press by baiting Atletico into a press down one flank, and then shifting the ball quickly to the other and progress quickly down the vacated far side flank, not giving Atletico any respite to orientate themselves to the new attack.
Also, possibly due to a lack of ability on the ball by Lucas Hernandez at right-back, Atletico developed a heavy left sided focus to try and break down the stubborn Madrid defense.
Simeone’s (lack of) response
Atletico did start to press higher up the pitch with greater intensity. However, it left them even more vulnerable when Madrid bypassed their press.
Often, with the press bypassed, Atletico’s 2 man centre midfield would be easily bypassed by runners behind the midfield line and attacking the half spaces (red). Against one of the best counter-attacking sides in the world, it was suicidal to be that uncompact, which was very uncharacteristic of Atletico.
Surprisingly, Simeone did not change the way that Atletico attacked. He did bring on fresh legs and moved Koke into the centre with Gaitan wide but his approach did not change his attacking strategy. The wingers and strikers would continue to play narrow (red) while the fullbacks kept wide positions (blue). This was extremely puzzling as a 4-4-2 diamond’s weakness is when the fullbacks are exposed constantly to 1 vs 1 situations out wide. With the Atletico attack narrow and Madrid sealing off the centre, getting passes to the offense was almost an impossible task.
Zidane changed little in terms of approach, given that his tactics were highly successful in the first half. He made a like for like change with Nacho on for Carvajal due to the latter’s injury. Isco’s withdrawal was slightly puzzling. Perhaps Isco (who isn’t a great tackler) was already on a yellow and Zidane wanted to avoid a key player in his new system from being dismissed. Interestingly, he brought on Asensio but made him play as a left forward with Ronaldo on the right. This is unconventional to see Ronaldo, a prolific right footed finisher on the right. However, Asensio likes to dribble down the line and cross the ball which explains the decision. This would force Lucas Hernandez onto his weaker (right) foot, making it more uncomfortable for the inexperienced centreback. This worked well, with Asensio time and again breaking past Hernandez, even fooling him with a cheeky Cryuff turn. With the game more or less sealed after the second goal, to better protect his fullbacks, he brought on Vazquez who could protect his fullback much better than Ronaldo who then moved up top. Subsequently, Ronaldo completed his hattrick and the game, and possibly the tie could be over.
Madrid created well and finished well. They restricted Atletico to a very low value of Expected Goals of 0.26 (xG), one of their lowest of this season while creating a fair bit of chances for themselves, amounting to 2.4 xG. Zidane’s tactics were a masterstroke, simple yet effective, making it almost impossible for Atletico to attain a foothold in the game. The tie is surely over by now. Madrid can afford to sit back and defend their 3-goal cushion. They have almost certainly sealed their place in Cardiff with this professional performance.
Simeone was outmatched tactically for the first time in a long while. His tactics failed to protect Atletico’s backline and allowed Madrid to carve the Atletico team apart. The narrow attack did not have the space to shine either. With Atletico not scoring a single away goal, they would have to score at least 3 goals to bring the game to extra time. If they were to concede another in the second leg, they would need 5. With Atletico’s heavy reliance on counter attacks and transitions to score and with positional issues, they are unlikely to pull this tie back with Madrid sitting deep and denying them space in the second leg. Due to a weak emphasis on buildup play by Atletico, it would be hard to see them creating enough quality chances and scoring sufficient goals to progress. They would need a miracle to progress.
Credits to Statszone and @11tegen11 for the diagrams
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Zachary Wu is a fervent Manchester City fan. Ligue 1 and Serie A enthusiast and an advocate for attacking football.
Am aspiring manager, yearning to work at the highest level, Zachary is fascinated with tactics and systems of Bielsa, Sampaoli and Pochettino.
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