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Atletico Madrid Tactics: What is their defensive set-up?

This four part series focuses on the Atletico Madrid tactics deployed this season as they’re on course to stopping the duopoly in the Spanish La Liga while also being a fresh new wave in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League.

The first part was a short piece on their basic formation, without going into too much detail. The second piece digs right into the tactics and analysed their build-up play in terms of attacking organisation.The third part, which is a continuation of the attacking analysis, details how Simeone’s men set-up in the attacking third in attacking phases. This final part analyses the factor which Atletico Madrid have received much praise for- their defensive set-up.

Atletico Tactics Part 4

The set-up for the break-down of opposition build-up appears to be a 4-4-2 with pressing extending as far as the opposition half. However, the set-up in midfield deviates from the ‘Traditional’ 4-4-2 set-up which most English teams took up in the last decade, again down to the fact that the team has replaced traditional wingers with wide-playmakers.

Similar to the offensive set up, the initial defensive intent is to push the ball out wide as the opposing team brings the ball into midfield (‘Gutter-ball’ system), and defend more centrally in the later phase of opposition attack. The presence of wide playmakers and two physically competent forwards in the defensive set-up favors the creation of a partial overload out wide, towards which the opposition are directed by the initial pressing.

The defensive set-up will appear a lot clearer if one is to imagine the set-up to be an inside-out version of the offensive set-up.

Apart from being a simple, well-suited, all-round set-up tactically, the break-down tactics employed are rather crude, favoring a physical side like Atletico Madrid. With the best defensive record in the league, the set-up seems to be working rather well. However, like any other defensive set-up, their 3 loses away from home this season press on a need for revision, so it can be expected to evolve over the course of next season to block out the tactical loopholes.


Opposition Half

The two players designated as forwards in the defensive set-up (generally the false Target-Man and the Striker) initiate the breakdown with high intensity pressing of the opposition center-backs and deep-lying midfielders. The wide playmaker may subsequently join this phase of play. Over a course of successful pressing, the ball is either passed back to the keeper who boots it into midfield, where the Atletico Madrid players are more than capable of making successful aerial challenges, or passed out wide to the full-back/winger, which is the intent of the defensive set-up in the attacking third.

Atletico pressing

The Forward exerts immediate pressure on the Center-Back, forcing a pass out wide. The wide-playmaker stays in close proximity of the full-back

Atletico Pressing 2

As the ball moves out wide, the Playmaker now exerts pressure on the fullback while the forward moves wide to narrow his passing angle


  1.  The attacking midfielders have made a decent contribution towards the defensive phase, with Koke making 2.5 tackles per game and Turan averaging 2 tackles per game. Both attacking midfielders also average close to 1 interception per game.
  2. The defensive stats of the wide playmakers are much better than what most modern wingers would average, supporting Simeone’s approach of excluding wingers from the primary line-up and placing playmakers out wide.
  3. As part of the forward two, Raul Garcia and Diego Costa both make an adequate contribution during the defensive phase of play, with both making 0.8 tackles per game. Also, only 20 successful dribbles have been made against them so far in this season.

Loophole: Teams that play a quick, short-passing game and possess a competent midfield and defensive setting can frequently get past the first defensive phase of pressing. Although Barcelona were knocked out by Atletico, they still seem the best fit to beat the systemt, entering through the center and over-runing the team in midfield, especially since two players have already been deployed further up the pitch.

Defensive Half

With a successful pressing play in the opposition half, the midfield expects the ball to arrive from out wide. A partial defensive overhaul of players is created on the side through which the players in the opposing team are moving their play into their attacking half. The forwards and the defensive midfielders create this overload by moving wide.

Atletico Defensive Half

The defensive overload created in the flanks is used to break down opposition play and try and regain possession of the ball

‘Gutter’ Area

This area works like the gutter on the sides of a bowling lane, hence the term “Gutter-Ball System”.  The ball is pushed out wide through pressing and overload, into the gutter area, and recycled again with progressive passes. The ball may now move in two directions, either towards the opposing winger or into midfield.

Winger isolation

Considering the ball moves up to the winger on the flank, the players now pursue to isolate the winger, initially from his midfielders and striker, and later isolate him completely. The overloading of the flanks makes it easier to isolate a player out wide, making it a viable option.

The ball is then either squeezed out or tackled off. Throw-ins and fouls may adversely be given away in the process. If the ball is recycled by the opposition by moving the play backwards, the first defensive phase is repeated.


Atletico wide pressing

The wide playmaker and the full-back, along with assistance from the central midfielders, isolate the winger. However the full-back still poses a credible amount of threat on the wings


  1. Full-backs Juanfran and Felipe Luis have made 148 tackles between them. Luis averages a decent 4.1 tackles per game. However, Juanfran has been better at interceptions, with 2.2 interceptions per game.
  2. Of the 14 goals that Atletico Madrid have conceded from open play, 8 have come from crosses, with the left side of defence proving to be slightly weaker (5). This may pertain to the fact that Koke is more frequently dribbled past, and Juanfran’s better judgment of offensive passes on the right side of defence.

Loophole: Full-back overlaps could prove costly if the ball were to be played through during the course of isolation. Almost half (47%) of the total goals that the team have conceded from open play have come from crosses from out wide.

Closing down in Midfield

It can be clearly stated that the team thrives as long as the ball is kept away from central midfield. The entry of the ball into midfield is greeted with quick closing down by the defensive midfielders and moderate pressure from the wide playmakers. The wide playmakers close down full-backs drifting into midfield. The midfielders make tackles to dispossess the opposition players in central midfield. Wide clearances are made if the ball is knocked onto a centre-back under pressure.

Atletico closing down in midfield

The midfielders, along with an additional player, immediately attempt to close down the opposition when the ball moves into central midfield


  1. In terms of tackles and interception, the central midfielders have played a significant role so far. Midfielders Tiago and Gabi each average close to 2.7 interceptions per game. Gabi has made the most tackles so far (114), averaging 4.2 tackles per game. Tiago has averaged 3.3 tackles per game.
  2. The center backs make quite a few clearances, since the team prefers to quickly relieve pressure rather than play out of defence. Center back Diego Godin has made 187 clearances in his 25 appearances (7.5 clearances per game). Miranda and Alderweireld both average around 6 clearances per game.
  3. The central midfielders tend to be dribbled past rather frequently. Gabi has been dribbled past 49 times (1.8 times per game). This explains the vulnerability to quick midfielders.

Loophole: Deep-lying midfielders that are quick and can play their way out of sticky tight situations will eventually escape from the pressing and closing-down, especially since the Atletico Madrid defensive midfielders are not the quickest of players. This was a clear observation in the Madrid derby, where Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric kept getting the better of this defensive phase and causing the Atletico Madrid players to unintentionally overload the central midfield area.

As Modric moves the ball into central midfield, Atletico players are drawn in to close him down. He avoids being closed down and manages to find a pass out wide to Di Maria

As Modric moves the ball into central midfield, Atletico players are drawn in to close him down. He avoids being closed down and manages to find a pass out wide to Di Maria

This frequently left a large space in the wide areas; hence it is of no coincidence that both the goals Atletico Madrid conceded were from situations created by crosses from the flanks.

Atletico Space

An unintentional overload is created centrally, creating a large space out wide

Defensive Third

Upon progression of the ball up until the defensive third, the structure becomes centrally-oriented. The wide playmakers and full-backs stand-off more and lock the flanks, while the defensive midfielders and center backs pick players to mark. The alignment favors the chances of the ball being played onto the area around the Defensive Midfielders and Center Backs for a clearance or interception to be made rather than that of a wide player beating the defensive line out on the flanks to deliver the ball into the box.

Atletico Defensive Third

The wide players are either locked-out or closely marked. The midfield-line sets itself close to the edge of the box, pulling the opposing playmaker in centrally. The attack is now focused centrally and the wide areas are left untouched


  1. Diego Godin, often credited for his intelligent defensive movement, makes the most interceptions in the defensive third, with 3 interceptions per game. The center backs average a decent number of tackles per game.
  2. The team has conceded 67% of their goals from the 18 yard box. 4 goals (19%) have come from outside the box, and only 3 goals have come from the 6 yard area.

Loophole: Although the central-orientation is brilliant in keeping the ball away from the 6 yard box, the 18 yard area still stays vulnerable to opposition attack, especially to opposition crosses arriving from deep.



(Atletico Madrid are yet to concede from a corner in the league this season.)

One player marks the opposition’s short-pass option. One player stays slightly ahead of the near post, covering for near post deliveries. One player marks the 6 yard box. One player is positioned in line with the near post and marks the 18 yard area. The rest of the outfield-players man-mark the opposition players stationed in the box.

Atletico Corners

Three players mark specifically assigned areas in the box. One player marks the short option. The rest of the players man-mark the opposition players in the box

From Deep Areas

Generally a two-man wall is set-up. The 18 yard box is zonally marked by the center backs, the full-backs and the defensive midfielders. One player (usually a playmaker or a striker) stays at the edge of the box.

The player in the zonal marking set-up who is positioned closest to the wall moves towards the 6 yard area as soon as the kick is taken to cover low-height and near post deliveries.

From Byline Area

Atletico defending free-kick

Zonal marking lay-out at the edge of the 6 yard area. One player marks the 18 yard area

Depending on the angle towards the near post, a one or two man wall is set-up. The edge of the 6 yard area is zonally marked by four to five players. One player marks the 18 yard box. The rest of the players man-mark the players in the opposition that pose an aerial threat (as per the coach’s instructions).

This piece was written by Sauharda Karki. Follow him on twitter @sodaboix

Sauharda Karki

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