The second derbi madrileño of the season was set to take place at the Bernabeu. Atletico sat four points on top on their rivals and have been the dominant team in league clashes with Real Madrid in recent history. Despite some ruminations proposing that there was a level of incentive for Real Madrid to concede defeat to their foes – as it would reduce Barcelona’s sky-high odds to claim the league trophy – there was no question Zidane’s men only had one thing in mind which was to win. Beyond the fact that this was a battle in a storied contest, the hosts were only one point ahead of Valencia and at risk of being overtaken in the table.
In light of the imminent second leg against Juventus on Wednesday, Real Madrid were setup in a rotated line-up that saw Casemiro, Modric, Isco, and Benzema relegated to the bench as Kovacic, Asensio, Vazquez, and Bale took their place.
Atletico “bend but don’t break” in the first half
Diego Simeone’s men set up in a typical low-to-medium block against Real Madrid forcing the home team to take the initiative. Atletico’s great vertical spacing and compact shape rendered Madrid’s possession mostly flat and comprised of lateral passing. This passing eventually led to the ball being fed through the wing channels and ultimately resulting in a cross. These crosses were diverted by Atletico’s defense leading to an accumulation of set pieces.
This however worked in Real Madrid’s favour due to their effective and varied set piece tactics. From lucky bounces to winning individual matchups to creative deliveries that caught Atletico off-guard.
Real Madrid created several number of high quality chances from corners and freekicks. Varane, Asensio, and Ronaldo came close to scoring the opening goal.
Real Madrid looked to diversify their attacking scheme late in the half as they used combinations and interplay to feed players directly in the box. However, Atletico’s numbers in defense shielded Oblak well and many of the attempted shots were blocked.
Other noticeable aspects of Real Madrid’s possession and offensive scheme was the interchangeability and loose positioning of the forwards. Ronaldo, Bale, Vazquez and Asensio (to an even higher degree) freely moved around in the offensive third constantly switching positions to create passing lanes and options. Ronaldo’s movement (in between the lines) was specifically geared towards supporting central access to facilitate possession control/progression.
The Portuguese was able to instigate incisive offensive actions such as long range shots and attempted through balls.
Atletico’s ultra verticality and use of Zone 14
Atletico had limited time on the ball in the first half but it was clear their offense was comprised of two key tactics. The first was the use of Diego Costa and Griezmann’s pace to move the ball forward extremely quickly and test Real’s defense. The fullbacks and wide midfielders also acted as outlets occasionally.
However, this didn’t work too well because of numerical inferiority and Real Madrid easily closing down the isolated runners. It was most threatening when Zidane’s men were out of position and stretched. Consequently, Kovacic and Kroos were required to step in to provide coverage for Marcelo’s advancements and Asensio’s vacated space (when he roamed).
As the above examples show, Atletico could capitalize on Real Madrid’s disorganized and overcommitted shape.
The second aspect of Atletico’s offense was their extremely efficient use of zone 14. Their swift passing easily found men located in the gaps left between Real Madrid’s midfield and defensive lines.
Casemiro’s absence could be felt here as he usually creates a staggered shape by sitting behind Modric and Kroos (admittedly not often in the 4-4-2 setup). These specific chances didn’t lead to much danger but did showcase well engineered openings.
Real overreliant on crossing while Atletico punishes them in transition
Real Madrid leveraged Bale’s pace to provide him the ball in great positions to cross which led to the first goal. This was a continuation of several scenes in the first half that saw the Welsh man set free in favorable one-on-one situations.
Bale and Ronaldo both slightly adjusted their focus at the start of the second half and many of their attacking actions were on the wings. Ronaldo’s goal was a volley off a deep cross from Bale to the far post (something Atletico seemed vulnerable to).
However, this one-dimensional attacking approach – which Real Madrid almost exclusively relied on – wasn’t overly fruitful and didn’t create many other clear-cut opportunities.
Atletico, for their part, mercilessly counter-attacked Real Madrid creating threatening chance after threatening chance.
They eventually equalized (although not through a counter) which rewarded their momentum and attacking quality. Part of the reason they were able to utilize transition so well was Kroos’ poor work-rate and failure to track back. This in addition to both CMs and fullbacks pushing up simultaneously left huge holes at the back that were not plugged in time.
Modric and Isco’s entrance helped resolve this indirectly. The substitutes added a stabilization factor due to their enormous ball retention and combination play ability.
Having better ball players on the field (and more positionally disciplined for the minutes they played) meant there were much fewer turnovers Atletico could convert into attacks.
Real Madrid patiently overcame a solid Atletico Madrid by making good use of the many set piece opportunities they created in the first half and came close to taking the lead. Casemiro’s absence was felt however as the visitors enjoyed success easily finding empty pockets of space in dangerous central zones. In the second half, Real Madrid took the lead courtesy of a Ronaldo wonder goal following a Bale cross that was typical of the hosts’ attacking for the rest of the game. Atletico vigorously counter-attacked their opponents exploiting their overcommitment and Kroos’ poor workrate.
All told, Real Madrid edged out Atletico in both shots and exG registering more than three times the former. This soemwhat aligned with the eye test and should be an encouraging sign going into the second leg against Juventus. However, the issues were clear to see and it’s hopeful that the return of some of the starters will help remedy them.