Déjà Vu for Real Madrid
An all too familiar feeling settled around the Santiago Bernabéu as the final whistle shrieked after 93 minutes of fruitless football. As Ronaldo and co. shook their heads forlornly, Atlético Madrid’s players, dugout, and fans rejoiced. Los Merengues had more possession, had more shots, and had the better players. So how did they lose?
That must be exactly what Zidane is thinking right now, after watching his team fall to a 1-0 defeat helplessly from the sidelines. He tried everything, throwing on Vazquez for James, Jese for Isco, and even 18 year old Borja Mayoral for an injured Benzema at half time. Yet what Zidane didn’t know was that none of his changes mattered in the slightest, because this match was already lost before it even started.
This observation is not a negative attitude. Rather, it is an opinion formed after watching every Madrid derby since the Simeone era. From the second this game began, no one would’ve called you genius for guessing how this game was going to pan out.
Atletico Madrid Executed a Tried and Trusted Game Plan
Atlético Madrid began the game pressing Real Madrid’s players intensely, hunting in packs in an attempt to stifle the flow of the game and rattle Los Blancos. Any plan that revolved around trying to hit Los Colchoneros hard and fast before the game got too tactical went out the window with this opening chess move by Simeone. Then, as the intensity of Atleti’s players faded around the 10 minute mark, and the slightest of gaps began to appear, Atlético shrank backwards like a receding tide and Reals’s chances of winning the game dried up.
That doesn’t mean Real didn’t try to win the game. Oh, they tried. Modric and Kroos whipped passes from side to side, constantly trying to change the point of the attack. Danilo and Carvajal pushed up vigorously trying to create overloads, provide width, and act as crossing machines. Ronaldo had one of his more active games of the season, making 66 touches on the ball (well above his average), dropping deep, switching flanks, and creating the only dangers on goal Real could muster.
He probably should’ve scored, but Ronaldo finding the back of the net would’ve only papered over the real problems that exist when trying to break down a team like Atlético Madrid. Sure, maybe some of the problems are mental, but the real fault lies in the approach. Like it or not, Real have to create a separate plan and dedicate weeks just in order to beat their city rivals. In many ways, the method in which Mourinho trained his side to beat Barcelona, is something Zidane needs to do now with his players. Atlético always come into these derbies with the same plan, and they nearly always win because of it. In the period since 2013-2016, Real have not found one viable way to counter their rival’s strategy.
How Real Madrid Play vs Atlético Madrid
As the derbies have progressed, play has gotten slower and slower, with Simeone finding that the more he falls into a defensive shell, the more Real Madrid struggle. This is mainly because of how slowly Real Madrid seem to move up the pitch in counter-attacking opportunities and general transition play. There were several instances in this match when Real won the ball off Atlético and only Ronaldo and one other player were positioned for a counter 3-4 seconds later. By the time support arrived, Atlético had formed their two banks of four and had clogged out any space that could’ve been exploited. There were also instances where Modric and Kroos were caught dawdling on the ball, taking ages to find a pass. The statistics tells us this happened 5 times between the two, but the eye-test tells us it could’ve been more had Modric and Kroos not been able to wriggle themselves out of trouble. But it isn’t entirely their fault. There is a distinct lack off of off-the-ball movement that is conducive for breaking Atlético down. To be clear, Real’s movement was fine in a generic possession based scheme. You generally want your players to stay a little more rigid in shape and stay in orthodox positions to facilitate ball retention. But in this sort of game, that strategy plays right into Atleti’s hands.
Take a look at the heatmaps of Real’s 3 widemen on the night (I didn’t include Isco because he had a quasi-deep role for Real). Jese and Vazquez stayed wide and made Atlético’s marking job ten times easier than it could have been. James was the only one of the three who offered some diversified movement, but he was so bad anyway, that whatever good things he did were smothered by his inability to hold onto the ball. So what should have Zidane and the players done?
How Real Madrid Should Play vs Atlético Madrid
Movement into Channels
The first key is movement into channels. Barcelona also holds the majority of possession when playing Atletico Madrid, but the movement of Neymar, Messi, and Suarez into pockets of space between the fullback and center-back on either side of the pitch, destabilizes Atlético’s structure. All of a sudden the fullback has to turn because his back is towards the ball, and the center-back has to rush out to shut down the danger. This creates space in the center of the pitch that can be exploited by the right pass.
This is obviously very difficult to do, and takes a level of team chemistry, precision in movement, and passing that would take several intense sessions to master. Zidane hasn’t been in the hot seat for long, so it would’ve been impractical for him to have implemented this scheme today. But with his first derby loss in the bag, he would do well to learn quickly from Real’s mistakes and implement this system of movement. If he does, he could see results in the way Ancelotti saw them when James fed Ronaldo into a channel that allowed Chicharito to fire in from point-blank range.
The second thing needed is faster transition play. No matter how many times Real's attackers dance in and out of channels, it will always be extremely tough to beat Atleti at the end of the day if you can’t find easier routes to goal some of the time. Atlético have to attack at some point, and when they, do like any team, spaces are left at the back. For a side that likes to be so defensively sound, Simeone relies an awful lot on his fullbacks to provide creativity and punch for Atlético when coming forward. While Simeone will feel safe, as there are nearly always three defenders at the back when this happens, Los Blancos needs to take advantage of any weakness they can. In situations like this, it would be good to always have an intermediary/attacking midfielder in the center of the park who can receive the ball and then play a pass up to two advanced players. When the ball is played to one of the two advanced players, at least two more players in addition to the intermediary should hustle up the field to create overloads. When Real Madrid won the ball today, Modric and Kroos (who are not attacking midfielders in Real’s formation) were the ones picking up the ball from deep-ish, instead of advanced positions. Thus, they either dribbled forward with the ball to shorten the length of their pass, or they launched long balls towards Cristiano. From that point on, Ronaldo held the ball up for eons until his teammates arrived and Atlético had recovered. Again, this isn’t really a criticism of Zidane as creating an efficient system like this is difficult to do in such a short period of time. But it is clear that something needs to be done to maximize Real’s potential on the counter versus Atlético.
Higher Tempo in Possession
The third key, is to up the tempo in general possession play. Like I mentioned before, Modric and Kroos were often caught on the ball trying to look for a pass instead of simply whipping the ball into a pre-determined destination. This is more down to the fact that Real’s players lack the sufficient understanding in each other’s movement rather than Modric’s and Kroos’s own lack of capacity to play decisively. Right now, our players are simply unsure of where everyone is supposed to be. Some of that is down to the lack of first team regulars, and people like Danilo playing in different positions, but this is something Zidane has to work on. Each player has got to have designated zones to be in, in order to quicken the release of the pass, maximize penetration, and create off-the-ball movement into channels. That will then allow Real to zip passes through and/or around Atleti’s defensive block and find routes onto goal. Again it sounds real simple, but I can assure you that the level of mental understanding and physical qualities this takes is extremely high. Time will only tell if Zidane has the chops to raise his team to that sort of level in order to beat Atlético Madrid on a consistent basis.