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Behind Enemy Lines: Atlético de Madrid

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Atlético are La Liga leaders thanks to João Félix’s magic and one of the most offensive game plans of the Simeone era. How did this happen and how do they match up against Real Madrid?

Osasuna v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Background, Transfers, and Expectations

During the summer of 2019, Atlético experienced a change of cycle. After many successful years at the club, veterans Filipe Luis, Juanfran, and captain Diego Godín finally moved on. World-class prospects Lucas Hernández and Rodri Hernández left the club in big-money moves to Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Offensive star Antoine Griezmann left for Barcelona.

It seemed like a tough situation for Simeone and Atlético to handle, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Atlético’s aging squad had declined compared to their peak 2014-2017 period. Players were physically and mentally burned out from executing Simeone’s demanding game plans.

The departures gave Atleti the chance to get some fresh legs and minds: Kieran Trippier, Felipe Monteiro, Mario Hermoso, Renán Lodí, Marcos Llorente, Hector Herrera, and to crown this rebuild, 126-million-euro wunderkind João Félix. The renewed Atlético 2019-20 had stronger defensive and offensive mechanisms than in the previous two seasons. The results, however, did not reflect that at first. Fortunately for Alético, their shooting efficiency and results improved significantly after the corona break, which allowed them to finish in a familiar third place in the league.

After the big spending spree of 2019, the summer of 2020 turned out to be far quieter for Atlético. Geoffrey Kondogbia was signed at the last minute for a modest fee, while Lucas Torreira and even Luis Suárez arrived on free transfers. And to be honest, if Simeone wanted to improve the team further and challenge for titles, he did not need more signings anyway. What he really needed to do was to optimize better for the tremendous talent he already had in the squad.

And that’s exactly what Simeone did.

It’s João’s World Now

An inflated transfer fee leads to inflated expectations, and João Félix could not meet those expectations during the 2019-20 season. He was less clinical than expected in front of goal, which led to a disappointing tally of just 6 goals and 1 assist during the league season. Most importantly, Félix was not having a consistent impact on how Atlético attacked. Isolated up front, he looked disconnected and struggled to participate in his team’s play.

Faced with an issue like this, a lesser manager would have just thought that Félix was not ready yet to lead the team. Performance before trust. If a player wants more responsibilities and trust, he must first show on the pitch he deserves them, right?

However, we are not machines who coldly perform tasks, we are humans. To perform at our best, we also need to feel trust and understanding from those who work with us. That’s why when managing teams—in football and all other areas of life—there will be moments in which you must put trust before performance. Take a leap of faith, trust your colleague, and hope that good performance and results will follow.

Simeone took the leap of faith with Félix and the results...are breathtaking.

It’s João’s Atlético now. He doesn’t run, he glides. Floats around defenders with the grace of a ballet dancer, shoots down the keeper with the efficiency of a Terminator.

Simeone adjusted the team to maximize Félix’s impact, which has resulted in the most possession-oriented Atlético of the Simeone era. Average ball possession has jumped from 49% in previous seasons to 54% this season. No more abusing long balls, Atletico are actually playing out of the back now.

Félix is receiving the ball in deeper positions than before, almost as a midfielder. He has almost doubled the frequency of his passing compared to last season (37 passes p90 vs 21), more than doubled the frequency of his dribbling (2.5 dribbles completed p90 vs 1), and doubled his progressive passes (5 passes p90 vs 2.6). Because he’s now more involved in Atlético’s ball progression, he shoots less often (2.65 shots p90 vs 3.30 last season). However, this season he has been significantly more efficient in front of goal compared to the previous one. With 5 goals and 2 assists in 646 minutes, he has already scored and assisted the same amount of goals as the least league season but in just one-third of the time.

But enough about Félix, he’s not the only one playing well in Atlético right now.

Hermoso and Koke: Closing Atlético’s Possession Circuit

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Betis Balompie - La Liga Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

For Félix to have an impact on the game, Atlético must get the ball to him in that inside left pocket he loves to operate in. This season, Koke and center back Mario Hermoso are key players in charge of achieving this.

Hermoso might just be the most creative ball-playing center back Simeone has ever had in his time at Atlético, and he is becoming a key playmaker from deep zones. Out of Atletico’s regular starters this season, Hermoso averages the most passes completed per game (66) and most passes per game into the final third (8).

Independently of whether he plays in a back four or a back three, Hermoso will position himself in the left halfspace to maximize his vision of the entire pitch and make the right pass. Sometimes it can be a long diagonal switch to the right, it could be a simple pass to his left fullback, or it could be a tense, line-breaking pass to Felix. The diagram below by Varun Madhav (check out his excellent analysis piece on Atlético) illustrates his passing options.

Varun Madhav (Twitter @theonenil)

With Hermoso taking care of that first pass, Koke takes care of the next phase in the buildup. His position can vary a lot depending on what the offensive play needs at the moment. When Atlético are being pressed, he might stay deep and help Hermoso play out of the back. When Atlético want to cut deeper into the opposition half, he will stay in between the lines to act as a passing option and start passing combination with Félix. This can be seen in this GIF, once again courtesy of Varun Madhav. Koke now averages 65 passes per game, leading the way in Atletico’s possession game alongside Hermoso.

How to Get Into the Box: Trippier, Carrasco, and Llorente

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Valladolid CF - La Liga Photo by Alejandro Rios/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

When we look at who in Atletico passes more frequently into the penalty area, we get a bit of a surprise. It’s not Koke or Félix who top that list, but Yannick Carrasco, Marcos Llorente, and Kieran Trippier. Atlético’s possession circuit and also their counterattack mechanisms will often try to get the ball to Llorente and the fullbacks/wingbacks to create chances. And each one of these players creates chances in different ways.

Trippier, a playmaker right back, is the most important player on the right side of Atlético’s buildup phase. His passes help Atlético progress through midfield areas and create counterattack opportunities for Llorente. Once Atlético reaches the final third, however, he can produce pinpoint crosses into the box.

Carrasco is in great form at the moment and has become the starting left wingback in Simeone’s new 5-3-2 game plan (more on that later). His ball-carrying ability has become vital to Atlético’s counterattacking game, and when he reaches the final third, he will try to dribble past opponents or combine with Félix and Koke to create chances. Although his final third decision making is still inconsistent.

Llorente, in contrast to Trippier and Carrasco, tends to disorder opposition defenses and create chances by what he does without the ball. Simeone’s biggest discovery of 2020 was figuring out that the tactical intelligence and explosive speed that made Llorente into a great defensive midfielder could also make him great at attacking spaces. Starting from a right midfield position, Llorente makes constant, well-timed, and very fast runs off the shoulder of the opposition left-back or left center-back. And these runs have become the nightmare of defensive lines in La Liga.

Llorente’s synergy with Trippier comes naturally: Trippier provides the pinpoint passes, Llorente provides the runs. A very common buildup and chance creation mechanism in Atlético’s right side happens when Llorente receives the ball with this back to goal (while marked by an opponent). Llorente passes back to Trippier, turns around, shakes his marker off, and darts forward, all while Trippier is lobbing a pass into space just for him.

Current Form and The New 5-3-2 System

Chart by Transfermarkt https://www.transfermarkt.com/atletico-madrid/spielplan/verein/13

Atlético have won seven league games in a row, including their first victory against Barcelona in ten years. In these last few games, the most important tactical development has been Atlético’s shift to a 5-3-2 system and lineup.

Simeone has generally been a 4-4-2 purist, but over the last year, he has shown greater willingness to try out different formations. And right now, it seems like the 5-3-2 is what best fits his most in-form players. As the left center back, Hermoso can easily dictate play from his preferred deep left pocket. The three-center-back setup also allows wingbacks Carrasco and Trippier greater freedom to go forward. The midfield trio gives Llorente more freedom to go forward since he knows that Koke and Saúl will be behind him. On the forward line, Félix is given free rein to move across the entire attacking front and link up all the pieces in Atlético’s attack. Meanwhile, Luis Suárez has a more static role pinning down the opposition center backs and creating more space for Félix in between the lines.

However, the 5-3-2 plan is not just for possession. The game against Barcelona showed that Atlético can still have a mean counterattacking game with this shape. Against the Blaugrana, Atlético decided to be more passive. They didn’t press much, remaining in a deep 5-3-2 block that allowed Barcelona to have the ball most of the time.

However, Barcelona struggled greatly to break down the tight Colchonero defensive block. And whenever Atlético recovered the ball, they could easily create counterattacking opportunities against Barcelona’s painfully slow defense. The combination play of Félix and Koke, Carrasco’s ball carries, and Llorente’s runs into space all helped Atlético create good chances. One of these counters led to a series of big mistakes from Ter Stegen and Piqué and turned into Atlético’s lone goal of the game. In the second half, Barcelona barely threatened Oblak’s goal, which confirmed the Colchonero victory.

Matchup against Real Madrid

Atlético are such a complete and multi-faceted team right now that describing their matchup against Real Madrid would take me another 1500 words. So I’ll stick to the basics.

Simeone has been using the 5-3-2 against big opponents in La Liga as well as Champions League, so I expect them to go into the Madrid Derby with a similar setup. Their only absences due to injury are Jose María Giménez, Diego Costa, and Manu Sánchez. We would expect once again that Lodí will be dropped from the left-back / wingback position, with Carrasco starting as LWB instead, and Hermoso as the left center back.

Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 lineup attacking Atlético’s 5-3-2 defensive block.
Diagram made with Share my Tactics: http://sharemytactics.com/155581/

The big tactical question for Simeone is whether to press Real Madrid aggressively or defend deep + counter as they did against Barcelona. Real has a much stronger transition defense with Mendy, Casemiro, and Varane, so it will be more difficult to land successful counters against Los Blancos.

Meanwhile, Zidane now has Carvajal and Valverde back in the squad after their injuries. However, after a strong performance against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Zidane has strong incentives to repeat that same lineup against Atlético. Therefore, I think Vázquez will start at right-back while the front three will still be Vinicius - Benzema - Rodrygo.

Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Keep an eye on the titanic duel between Mendy and Llorente. Both players have speed, tactical intelligence, and are dominant on individual duels. If Llorente cannot outsmart the Frenchman and run behind his back, Atlético loses a big source of shots and assists. If Llorente wins these battles, Ramos will be in trouble, because he will have to decide whether to go move forward and help Mendy or remain in his position to keep track of Suárez.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images

On the other side of the pitch, Modrić will be vital in all aspects of the game. If Real Madrid presses, he will likely be in charge of pressing either Koke or Hermoso, the key players in Atlético’s buildup phase. When Real stays back, he will likely help Casemiro and Varane take the ball away from Félix. And if Real wants to successfully disorder Atlético’s defense, they will need from Modrić something similar to what he did midweek against Borussia Mönchengladbach. If the right side passing circuit of Lucas, Modrić, and Rodrygo can deliver another good performance, they might be able to create some good chances against the tough Atlético defense.