Atletico Madrid celebrated late into the night after their surging victory over cross-town rivals for the 2018 European Super Cup. For a club that only has about two handful of trophies in their entire history, every single one counts. From the raw emotion exhibited by both fans and players, it looked as if they had won the Champions League. The hunger, the desire, and the feeling that this is indeed a big occasion was evident from Simeone’s men. The game ebbed and flowed with different storylines throughout. Atletico came out of the blocks fastest: pressing high and pinning Madrid in their half, spraying long balls into the channels, and retaining possession after winning the ball. It was all there for Atletico in the first fifteen minutes, who brought an energy and desire that rattled Madrid. Lopetegui’s preseason press failed to make a grand entrance in this match, with a 4-4-2 defensive set up being utilized and a line of confrontation being drawn at the tip of the center circle. Then there was Casemiro. There are those who love him and the many that try to detract him; to say the least, he is a controversial figure for the Madrid fan base. It seems clear for Lopetegui, he needs to be in the eleven, but just how does he fit? Casemiro is vital and will continue to be vital to this team, his role is being developed. In this match, there was a clear narrative for Madrid pre and post the Brazilian’s injury. Despite the souring loss, there were positives to take from Lopetegui’s Madrid, the press resistant x-factors like Isco and Marcelo are still among the best in the world and they will be crucial in breaking the lines of tough defensive schemes like Simeone’s in the long season ahead.
Atleti Start on a High—The Press Pins Madrid Back
The moment the whistle blew, Atleti made their intentions known, one pass back to Godin and then a long ball straight into the heart of Madrid’s defense. Diego Costa was the first line of defense, and in typical Costa fashion, was a physical menace and nuisance to handle for both Sergio Ramos and Varane.
Diego Costa at the ANGLE pic.twitter.com/jTZulrttNv— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) August 15, 2018
The goal epitomizes this Atletico side, the ball is launched into Costa who wins the first header, battles his way onto the second ball, and rams past both Ramos and Varane before slapping the ball into the back of the net thanks to a poorly positioned Keylor Navas. Atletico’s press was relentless in the first fifteen minutes. Madrid were pinned back in their own half. Simeone’s men have evolved to take the press, win possession, and then retain possession—fidning the likes of Saul and Rodri to connect through vertical channels to Lemar, Greizmann, and Costa. Each player in Simeone’s system knows their role and recognizes where they need to be and when they need to be there:
Look at Savic. Isco thinks he has found the perfect outlet to break past Atletico’s high press and Marcelo, in typical Marcelo fashion, finds enough space to get the ball out to Isco. Savic is ideally placed to quickly step out, as if he were the full back—completely leaving the center of the pitch vacant, to complete the press and force Isco and Madrid back into their own half. Savic knew his role, knew what Simeone expected, and executed. Even after forcing Madrid back, the boys in white managed to retain possession thus Atletico had to reorganize. Rather than dropping off and finding their deeper shape, they continued to press; being relentless in their pursuit of winning the ball. Ultimately they force Madrid into a mistake and win possession. There is no doubt Simeone was jumping like a madman and filled with joy seeing his team push his philosophy to the limit. A press of that magnitude is not sustainable for the whole game. After the first fifteen minutes, Madrid collected themselves and Atletico started to sit deeper.
Madrid Defend in a 4-4-2
As Atleti morphed their tactics to the flow of the game, pressing early and sitting back in the latter stages of each half, Lopetegui implemented a different defensive tactic then what had been used all preseason. Against Roma and Juventus, we saw the team immediately press the opposition after losing possession. A number of players have spoken about this change under Lopetegui. But in the Super Cup, Lopetegui opted not to press—there were a few sporadic moments, like the image below:
Notice how high up the field Varane is to win the ball back and keep Atletico in their own half. Similar to Savic earlier, Varane recognized the moment to press. But it was too fleeting and the team failed to execute consistently throughout the match. The press was not the “go-to” defensive set-up. Instead, Lopetegui pulled a tactic often used under Zidane: defending in a 4-4-2 with two banks of four. Benzema and Isco were utilized as forward two, who drew their line of confrontation at the tip of the center circle:
Maybe Lopetegui felt it would be suicide to commit to an inconsistent press this early in his reign. Regardless of the defensive tactic chosen—to be press or to sit, there is one player who stands out amongst the rest to be able to track deep midfield runs from the likes of Koke and Saul, while always being aware of Greizmann. That player is Casemiro.
Lopetegui’s System Demands a Casemiro-Type Player
Contrary to popular belief, Lopetegui’s current system, or at least the one used against Atletico Madrid, demands a defensive midfielder in the mold of Casemiro. Some sectors of the Madrid fan base are fed up with Casemiro, and it is understandable. The Brazilian simply gets in the way of Madrid’s offensive build-up play. He may not be necessary in games against La Liga’s “minnows”, but he is crucial to Madrid. There is a reason he was the fulcrum to Zidane’s Madrid. Atletico Madrid equalized less than four minutes after Casemiro stepped off the pitch. When in possession or even in transition, Madrid push a total of seven men up the field, leaving Varane, Ramos, and Casemiro to deal with any counter-attacks. If Lopetegui is to play Kroos as the deepest midfielder or any other deep-lying playmaker, then Madrid need to keep one fullback at home (preferably the weak sided fullback). With Kroos as the deepest midfielder and both full backs still charging up the pitch, you lack the athleticism and defensive nous required to thwart quick transitions and dangerous counters. That is not a role for Kroos nor would he thrive at the role. That same system with Kroos deep, does not cater to the characteristics of two of the best attacking fullbacks in world football. You either have to restrict the attacking freedom given to the two fullbacks or play with a more conservative fullback like Nacho. Casemiro’s flaws in possession do not outweigh his contribution on the defensive end:
No sabes lo increíblemente bueno e importante que es @Casemiro hasta que no lo tienes.— Álvaro Arbeloa (@aarbeloa17) July 6, 2018
If you were to strictly watch Casemiro during the game, he is constantly evaluating the play and anticipating the opposition’s next move. Tactically speaking, from a defensive point of view, Casemiro is a coach’s dream. Like Cristiano’s knack for finding space in the box, Casemiro has the ability to see danger before it happens and position himself to impede said danger. Given the number Madrid commit forward, replacing Casemiro with Dani Ceballos and dropping Kroos was Lopetegui’s fatal flaw in this match. Why even place Marcos Llorente on the roster if he is never going to be given the chance? The game screamed for a “like for like” change, especially with Madrid in the lead.
Madrid’s pass map is evidence alone. Carvajal and Marcelo are expected to attack, to add width, and provide their dynamism. There needs to be balance, with Kroos as defensive midfielder their roles should have changed. Ultimately Madrid tired and Atleti ran rampant without a true defensive presence in the midfield.
Looking Forward Madrid’s X-Factors
There are reasons to be optimistic even after the loss and the concession of four goals. Last season, Madrid struggled to break down teams who sat deep and countered. The strategy of cross after cross could be nauseating, especially when Madrid contains most of the world’s most press resistant players. Those “x-factors”, like Isco and Marcelo to name a few, are going to be vital to Lopetegui and Madrid’s success. With one touch, Isco has the ability to break through a press and play between the lines to slot through an on-running Gareth Bale or Asensio. Case in point:
Marcelo, Isco, Modric, Kroos, Bale, and Benzema—these are all players who have the ability to resist a press and break through lines be it with a simple touch, taking players on by the dribble, or slotting a pass between the smallest of gaps. Madrid controlled the match vs Atletico for most of the proceedings in large part due to these players. The system needs balance and if Lopetegui can learn from the changes that need to be made when Casemiro is on the pitch and when he is off, then Madrid will have success this year.
Real Madrid controlled large portions of this match simply due to the quality of player they possess and their ability to navigate through a match. Atletico’s early press pinned Madrid back and forced them into errors. Diego Costa combative nature coupled with the relentless engine of guys like Lemar, Saul, and Koke meant Madrid struggled to settle in the match and found themselves a goal behind before they realized the ref had blown his whistle. Unlike preseason, Lopetegui opted to press very sporadically and instead chose to sit deeper in a 4-4-2 with the line of confrontation being held at the tip of the center circle. This set-up worked well for most of the match until the loss of Casemiro. Given that Madrid often commit seven players to the attack, including both fullbacks, an athletic and defensive presence—AKA a Casemiro-type player is required. If that player is not to be included, then the system needs to adjust—restricting the freedom of the weak-side fullback. Ultimately, post-Casemiro’s injury, Madrid tired and without a defensive presence, Atletico ran rampant and exploited the space.