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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid | Both Sides Settle for a Draw in a Tight & Tactically Intriguing Affair

Om Arvind provides a detailed analysis on the La Liga game that finished Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid.

The Madrileño Derbi proved to be an even game, with both teams gaining footholds at different points in the match without managing to truly capitalize. Play was somewhat dull in the first half, as the city rivals felt each other out and settled into their rhythms. Atlético Madrid was content to sit back and challenge Real Madrid to break them down, something that the home side initially failed to do.

In the second half, Los Blancos started off as the better side. Zidane instructed his men to counterpress fiercely, something that destabilized Atlético and allowed Real to pepper the final third with attacks. The reigning European champions made good use of their dominance with a set-piece goal from Pepe, but Atléti soon pushed back. Simeone abandoned his low block and asked his side to press, forcing Madrid onto the back foot and allowing Atléti to take the game to their opponents. As the match wore on, Real slowly shrank back into a shell, allowing their rivals more of the ball. If the objective was to cautiously see out the game, it didn’t work, as Griezmann equalized after a wonderful team move in the 85th minute.

Thus, the game ended 1-1 – a result that probably disappointed Zidane more than Simeone, based on the latter’s delirious celebrations after the final whistle.


Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas // Carvajal – Pepe (Nacho, 67’) – Ramos – Marcelo // Modric – Casemiro – Kroos (Isco, 76’) // Bale (Vázquez, 81’) – Benzema – Ronaldo

Atlético Madrid (4-4-2): Oblak // Juanfran – Savic – Godín – F. Luis // Carrasco (Giménez, 88’) – Gabi – Saúl (Correa, 67’) – Koke // Torres (Partey, 78’) – Griezmann

Atlético’s Conservative Ploy and Real Madrid’s Possession Play in the 1st Half

A key feature of the last two derbies has been Zidane’s decision to play counter-attacking football. This has forced Simeone’s side into dominating possession, something that Atlético are not used to doing against Europe’s elite. Perhaps thrown off by the Frenchman’s approach, Simeone has watched his side lose a Champions League final on penalties and a league encounter by an embarrassing three goals to nil. In an effort to reverse this trend and put the ball back in his own court, Simeone adjusted his tactics to allow Atlético to do the counter-attacking once again.

Instead of asking Los Colchoneros to press and counterpress high up the pitch like they often do, El Cholo instructed his side to allow Real Madrid free entry into Atlético’s half of the pitch. The most resistance that was offered was a brief press by Torres and Griezmann when the ball was in the penalty box. This soon dissipated once the ball was successfully passed to the center backs or one of Real’s three central midfielders.

This forced Real into committing their players high up the pitch, as they first encountered proper resistance on the farther edges of the middle third. This meant that the hosts needed to hold their defensive line at the halfway point of the field, while committing several men forward to break down Atlético’s two banks of four. From Simeone’s point of view, this was exactly where he wanted Real, as it left plenty of space to counter in with few men to guard that space.

In some ways, one can argue that Simeone out-thought Zidane and won the tactical battle in this phase of the game. Atlético Madrid’s characteristic defensive organization stifled their opponent’s possession play and denied Real the ability to create chances of true quality.

Los Colchoneros sat in a narrow 4-4-2, with their wingers tucked inside to block off central passing options and force play wide. Once Real sent the ball to the flanks, one of Atléti’s strikers would drop deep to cut off a square passing option. With the fullback pushing up to mark Ronaldo and Bale and the winger marking Marcelo or Carvajal, the only option for Real was to try risky combinations or to circulate the ball backwards.

With the away side’s near impeccable structure showing few gaps, Real often switched the ball from flank to flank in an effort to find space. But thanks to the far-side winger’s wide positioning, the player receiving the switch had little time on the ball. Thus, Los Merengues were often forced into deep crosses that were easily dealt with.

Real Madrid’s crosses in the 1st half

When Real did decide to advance down the wing through combination plays, the requisite structure wasn’t there to make it viable on a consistent basis. There were only ever two players combining down the wing, meaning that they were always outnumbered by Atléti’s fullback, winger, and central midfielder. When Benzema shifted over (mainly to the left flank) as an advanced passing option, the fullback would stop his forward movement, allowing the Frenchman and Ronaldo/Bale to combine on their own. But the bigger issue was how Modric and Kroos failed to support these attacks on the flank. If they had provided support, then Benzema wouldn’t have had to make all those movements and could’ve instead occupied Atlético’s central defenders. Instead, Modric and Kroos were focused on dictating play from deep, with Casemiro more of a passenger in possession. The resulting lack of passing triangles completely stunted Real’s possession play, meaning they created nothing from out wide.

This, funnily enough, Real experienced more joy through the center, as a Pepe long ball in the 28th minute sparked a neat one-two between Ronaldo and Benzema, creating a glorious chance.

But aside from that one bright play, Real only saw true chances come from Modric’s tenacity coupled with Atléti’s own mistakes.

So in this respect, it does seem like Simeone outsmarted Zidane, but that would mean ignoring a key tactic that sabotaged El Cholo’s plan.

Real Madrid’s Counterpressing in the 1st Half

Despite Atlético’s superiority in their half of the pitch, they struggled to make an impact in Real’s. One would think this shouldn’t have been the case, since the space to counter into was immense and Atlético was routinely stopping Real’s attacks.

Enter Zidane.

Whether he anticipated the game playing out this way or not, his implementation of a counterpress nearly completely nullified Los Colchoneros’ ability to transition effectively.

While patterns are hard to identify due to the organic nature of the press, it can be said with reasonable confidence that the immediate pressure was generally applied by one of these two combos: Ronaldo-Marcelo-Kroos or Bale-Carvajal-Modric, since Real’s attacking play was focused on the wings. However, it was not uncommon to see Benzema vigorously aiding these players or one of the central midfielders shifting over to provide numerical superiority in a concentrated area. The one constant was Casemiro, who looked to provide vertical compactness to ensure the sanctity of the press. If the ball wasn’t won back immediately, the frantic nature of the actions subsumed into a more organized pressing structure involving the players closest to the play.

Thus, Atléti were limited to creating chances off of a few rare counters, set-pieces, and one brainless mistake from Sergio Ramos.

Probably feeling that his side would be limited to only a few good shots regardless of whether Zidane pressed or not, Simeone asked his men to engage in a curious tactic to maximize their chances off of free kicks. The player standing over the set-piece would stutter before kicking the ball, tricking Real’s defense into moving and destabilizing themselves. Unfortunately for Simeone and his side, nothing came of it.

Real Madrid’s Pressing in the 1st Half

Zidane wasn’t content to just press in the form of a reactive measure however, as he asked his team to regularly press Atlético when Simeone’s side tried to build out from the back.

Real pressed in a 4-1-4-1 structure, with Modric and Kroos often triggering the press with aggressive sprints towards a central midfielder. As the ball circulated backwards, Benzema would charge the center back on the ball with a curved run to prevent a sideways pass to the other central defender. To support this move, Bale and Ronaldo would mark Atlético’s fullbacks, blocking out wide passing options.

While Real carried this out with respectable organization, it didn’t create the transitional attacks Zidane craved. This was because Atlético mostly elected to hit the ball long, instead of playing through the press, as Simeone was content with ceding possession and attacking via counters instead.

If Atlético did manage to hold onto the long pass, Real would quickly drop deep and assemble into a 4-4-2 shape (Bale dropped into midfield). This sometimes morphed into an asymmetric 4-1-3-2, with Casemiro dropping deeper to ensure vertical compactness and to mark attackers in-between the lines.

Real Madrid’s Fierce Counterpressing in the 2nd Half

When Los Blancos came out of the tunnel and swarmed over Atlético Madrid for seven glorious minutes, it seemed like Zidane’s dabbling with pressing would decide the game. Clearly having given his team the “intensity” talk, Real hounded Atlético Madrid’s players with peerless ferocity only milliseconds after losing the ball, completely rattling Diego Godín and co.

Structurally, there was little different from the counterpressing in the first half. The main dissimilarity was in the intensity of application and the marked improvement in commitment by the supposedly lazy BBC.

With Diego Simeone’s side shaken, they began to make serious errors in defense, something that allowed Real to create an incredible chance for Karim Benzema.

All of this pressure culminated into a pivotal moment, when Saúl committed a foolish handball and gave away a free kick in the 52nd minute. With Real feeling the wind behind their sails, Toni Kroos released a devastating missile that was dispatched with immense skill from Pepe.

Atlético Madrid Fight Fire with Fire

Not content to let the game slip away from him, Simeone quickly set about making changes. Aside from removing the man who committed the fatal handball (Saúl) with Correa (Koke moved to the center of the pitch), Diego immediately commanded his men to abandon their conservative low block in favor of vigorous pressing.

While their style of counterpressing was extremely similar to what Los Blancos employed, their string of regular pressing was distinct.

Unlike Real, Atlético pressed high up the pitch starting with their two forwards. Both players looked to mark Ramos and Pepe/Nacho, while cover shadowing passing options to the center of the pitch. If the strikers chose not to cover shadow a particular central passing option, then it meant that Atlético were setting a pressing trap. As Real’s center backs played the ball into this open player, an Atléti central midfielder would break ranks and sprint up the pitch on the blind-side of the man receiving the ball. If the receiver managed to evade his presser, one striker would join the press to help his teammate out and force the ball wide.

Instead of rejoining his midfield line, the central midfielder would stay in his advanced position and look to execute blind-side pressing actions on any CM receiving the ball from the wing. If the presser was again evaded, the rogue central midfielder would follow the path of the ball while cover shadowing the man he left behind him.

This one-man ball-oriented press enabled Atlético to achieve pressing overloads as the ball moved wide, since one striker would drop to aid his fellow winger and fullback against one winger, a fullback, and a CM. As a result, Atlético began to dispossess Madrid before they entered the final third, enabling Atlético to finally see more of the ball.

Atlético Madrid’s Possession Play vs. Real Madrid

Due to Los Colchoneros’ new press and a counter-attack that tore Real’s press apart, Los Blancos gradually began to withdraw into a defensive shell. This put the onus on Atlético Madrid to break their opponents down in slow build-up.

Atléti approached this challenge by maintaining a slow tempo, where their central midfielders and their center backs shifted the ball to each other in order to wait for the opportune moment to strike. Then, when an attacker made a run in-between the lines, the tempo would be raised with a sharp vertical pass towards the aforementioned attacker.

Despite Real’s reputation as a poor defensive team, they remained organized enough to mostly prevent these passes from doing any real harm. Often, when either Griezmann, Carrasco, or Correa received the ball in such positions, they were given little time to turn or look for a smart pass, as Casemiro snapped at their heels and forced them to punt the ball wide.

Once this happened, Atléti formed passing triangles between the relevant central midfielder, fullback, and winger, to create combination plays that would get a man free for a cross.

As the game wore on, Real looked like they would get away with their decision to sit back and give up control of the game. But just as things seemed comfortable, Los Colchoneros struck. Displaying more patience than before, Atléti probed on the right-wing in a slow move that looked to coax Casemiro out of his central position. As the Brazilian gravitated towards the ball like a moth drawn to a flame, Atléti circulated the ball backwards, urging Madrid’s defensive shape to push forward. This left Yannick Carrasco free in the right halfspace, allowing Savic to ping a beautiful vertical pass in his direction. As Modric moved towards Carrasco in a desperate attempt to solve the vertical compactness issue, he left Correa free. After a quick back-pass by Carrasco, the ball found the Argentinian in a sizable amount of space in the center of the pitch. With time to turn and assess his options, he played a through ball into Griezmann, who ghosted past the poorly positioned Nacho and scored the crucial equalizer past Keylor Navas.


Thus, the game ended as a 1-1 draw – a fair result based on the balance of play.


Fans will probably rue Zidane’s decision to go conservative, but it wasn’t wrong of him to think pragmatically under the face of Atléti’s renewed pressure in the second half. Where he did make a mistake was going ultra-defensive in the last ten minutes of the match, something that put immense pressure on his side to do something they are weakest at – maintaining defensive focus for extended periods of time.

It is also a concern that he didn’t seem to recognize that Isco or James was necessary in this match in place of Casemiro, as they would’ve provided some sort of central occupation and creativity.

As can be seen above, Real had nothing going for them through the center, which was partially influenced by Casemiro’s near total lack of involvement in possession. As we have seen in previous matches, the two attacking midfielders tend to solve this issue when played as a CAM, as they feel comfortable hovering in and around zone 14.

However, it was encouraging to see Zizou play Casemiro deep, while discouraging him from roaming forward into advanced positions. To a certain extent, this lessened Kroos and Modric’s need to dictate the tempo behind Casemiro, giving them the freedom to influence the final third.

For Simeone’s part, he did well to make key tactical changes that pushed Atléti towards a draw, but he must be concerned that his initial game plan was once again countered effectively by Zinedine Zidane. It seems that the Frenchman might be the Argentinian’s kryptonite, something that does not bode well for future matches from the perspective of Los Colchoneros.

Read all our tactical analyses here

Om Arvind

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