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Behind Enemy Lines: Atlético de Madrid

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The return of Trippier and Carrasco could revitalize Atletico’s attack. How do they match up against Real Madrid?

Espanyol V Atletico Madrid Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Reduced Performance, Same Results

Even though Atlético still find themselves at the top of the Liga table, the team has not played as well in the last two months as they did earlier in the season. As the chart below shows, Atlético are getting into the box and shooting less frequently, as well as conceding higher quality shots and more goals.

Kieran Trippier, Yannick Carrasco, and João Félix have been among Atlético’s most prolific chance creators this season, with FBREF data flagging them as three of Atleti’s top 4 players in shot-creating actions (the other one is Correa). However, the trio has been absent in the last two months for a number of reasons: Trippier was banned for 10 games due to involvement in betting activity, Carrasco had to deal with a COVID infection and an injury, while Felix had struggles with COVID and with convincing Simeone to start him every game.

These absences have affected Atleti’s offensive mechanisms and shot creation, which is reflected as a decrease in Atleti’s expected goals (xG) created in the plot below. Meanwhile, the defense has also looked a bit more vulnerable than before. This partly due to individual defenders looking a bit shakier and partly due to Atletico not attacking as much as before and having to defend deeper for longer periods of time. This is reflected in Atleti’s xG conceded.

However, Llorente and Suárez couldn’t care less about us nerds and our expected goal models, and they continue to rack up goals at stunning rates. Suárez has outperformed xG by 60% this season (16 goals out of 10.2 xG), Llorente has almost quadrupled his xG (8 goals out of 2.3 xG). Suárez is scoring 22% of all his shots while Llorente is scoring 31% of his shots.

To give you an idea of how high this scoring rate is: Messi, perhaps the most consistent finisher of the last decade, has scored 18% of shots in the last five years. In other words, Suárez and Llorente are scoring at a rate that is unsustainable over the long run, and it’s almost guaranteed that next season they won’t be this efficient. Right now, however, they keep scoring and are the key reason why Atlético has managed to score goals and pick up points in the last two months despite not playing as well as before.

Their efficiency is reflected in the plot below. Atlético’s xG difference (the straight orange line) has gone down a bit in the last two months, but Atlético’s goal difference (the straight green line) hasn’t decreased so abruptly.

Trippier, the “Llorente Launcher“

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

Out of the three big absences we mentioned before (Trippier, Carrasco, Félix), Trippier likely had the most impact at a tactical level. The combination of Trippier’s pinpoint passes into space with Llorente’s fast and intelligent runs had become a chance creation cheat code for Atlético, an easy way to break opposition defenses. The Englishman is also Atleti’s most prolific passer into the box.

Simeone tried a number of different things over the last two months to compensate Trippier’s absence, from using Carrasco on his weaker right side to using Llorente as a wingback. The latter move negatively affected Atletico’s offense because Llorente had to stay back more frequently and could not make his trademark aggressive runs as often as before. In the absence of Trippier, Llorente is shooting and scoring goals half as frequently as before. On the flip side, that has allowed Llorente to have a more creative role in the team, and he has doubled his assist rate in the last two months.

For these reasons, Trippier’s return to the Atlético starting XI against Real Madrid will provide them a huge boost. Llorente can now go back to playing his usual midfield role, where he has the greatest scoring impact.

How to Attack the Atlético Defense

Given the offensive issues we discussed earlier, Simeone’s team has regressed a bit and gone back to their more defensive version. The most notable example of this behavior was the now-infamous 6-3-1 low block used in the recent Champions League game against Chelsea. Simeone had Correa defend deeper and form a backline of six in order to counter Chelsea’s use of three attackers (Mount - Giroud - Werner) and two wingbacks (Hudson-Odoi and Alonso).

With the return of Trippier and Carrasco to the lineup as well as Real Madrid committing fewer men forward than Tuchel’s Chelsea, we probably won’t see something as extreme as the 6-3-1 deployed, but expect a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 deep block.

Both the 6-3-1 and the 5-3-2 pack a lot of men in the center and it becomes almost impossible to break Atleti down the center of their defense. However, these shapes have another deficit that can be exploited: three midfielders are not enough to cover the entire width of the pitch. Opponents who can move the ball quickly from one side of the pitch to the other can exploit this. In the specific case of Real Madrid, the left side of the attack can try to attract Atlético defenders to them, and then have Kroos deliver a tense diagonal ball to the right side, where right-back Lucas Vázquez will have a lot of space to operate in.

Simeone knows about this weakness, and he will make specific adjustments to prevent Real from exploiting it. One way to deal with this would be to play a 5-4-1 with Correa and Lemar/Saúl as wingers instead of a 5-3-2 with João Félix as the second striker. In this case, Atlético’s left winger would track Vázquez closely to prevent the diagonal switch from Kroos to Lucas.

If Simeone uses the 5-3-2 and sees that Real and Kroos are exploiting it, he could also switch to a 4-4-2 shape to defend the wide areas better. This is what he did in a February game against Celta de Vigo.

Atleti’s 5-3-2 and 6-3-1 blocks have another defensive defect: they commit so many men to the last line that there are not enough men in the midfield line defending the penalty spot and zone 14 (the area in front of the penalty box). If you can get an attacker behind their defense and have him deliver a cutback to the penalty spot, Atlético can suffer. In Real, players like Rodrygo, Valverde, and Modrić can deliver these kinds of cutbacks really well, but the tough part will be running behind that Atlético defensive line to get them into positions where they can make those cutback passes.

Simeone Lineup Choices: Will Félix and Lemar Start?

For this game, José María Giménez is still injured, but Simeone recovers Trippier after his 10-game ban and Carrasco from injury. Simeone getting his starting wingbacks back is a huge boost to their attack, as it means Llorente and Lemar can go back to their more impactful midfield positions.

We know for sure who will be the starting center backs (Savić, Felipe, Hermoso), the wingbacks (Carrasco and Trippier), and two of the midfield roles (Koke and Llorente), but we still don’t know who Simeone will start as a left midfielder and as the second striker alongside Suárez.

For midfield, Simeone could choose Saúl to prioritize defense or Lemar to improve the attack and Atlético’s ability to play out from the back. While he’s not as good as Saúl at defending, Lemar has shown some very disciplined defending and tracking back this season. For the striker role, he can choose between Félix, more creative and less defensive, or Correa, more aggressive without the ball both in defense and attack.

If Simeone chooses Correa, it’s very likely that Atlético will attempt to attack in a 5-3-2 and defend in a 5-4-1 with Lemar / Saúl as the left winger and Correa as the right winger. This allows Atlético’s midfield line to cover the full width of the pitch compared to their 5-3-2 or 6-3-1 defensive shapes.

Despite Félix’s talent, he has been tricky to fit into Simeone’s schemes and he has underperformed during the last two months. This is why he’s not an automatic starter anymore for Simeone, and it’s very likely that Simeone will choose Correa ahead of him for this Derby. This might seem like a bad idea at first, but Atletico can benefit a lot from using an angry Félix trying to prove himself as an impact substitute in the second half.

Zidane’s Multiple Winger Choices

Odriozola, Marcelo, Valverde, and Rodrygo came back to the matchday squad last week, and Benzema started training with the team once again on Friday. That’s huge, as Benzema’s ability in tight spaces is vital to articulate a good attack against Atletico’s deep block. Ramos, Militão, Carvajal, Hazard, and now Mariano, are still recovering from injuries.

The defense and midfield trio pick themselves, and we expect Nacho and Lucas to continue their roles in defense. So the key lineup choice for Zidane lies in which attackers to start alongside Benzema.

In the last game against Real Sociedad Rodrygo and Valverde had a game-changing impact, with great combination play with Lucas on the right side of the attack. There are good arguments to start them ahead of Isco or Asensio.

While Isco has performed well in the last big games against high-pressing sides like Atalanta and Real Sociedad, Atlético is a very different opponent. Their deep block means that Isco’s key strength—his ability to play under pressure—will not be as valuable this time around. Isco could handle himself well in the tight spaces of Atlético’s deep block, but the key to unlocking Atlético’s defense is to have players who can run behind their defense and deliver that cutback pass we talked about before. Isco doesn’t make those kinds of runs.

We can summarize Zidane’s winger options like this:

  • Valverde can play a similar right-winger role to the 2020 Supercopa against Atlético. He offers great space interpretation, aggressive runs behind defenses and into the box, as well as quick combination play.
  • Isco can offer dribbling and top ball control in tight spaces but lacks in aggressive movement behind defenses and into the box.
  • Vinicius lacks technical precision and his dribbling is not as successful as in previous years, but he has the aggressive movement.
  • Rodrygo lies a bit in between both the Isco and Vinicius options: not a top dribbler, but offers technical precision in pass and control as well as aggressive movement.
  • Asensio offers the least out of the five winger options. At the moment, he’s simply a more limited version of Isco, faster but with less dribbling.

Personally, I would be really excited to see a lineup with Rodrygo in his preferred left-winger role and Valverde in a right winger role. It would foster good passing combinations with two intelligent and technically-precise players on the wings who can make good runs in behind.

Knowing Zidane, I will bet on him starting Isco on the left side after his recent good performances and on the right side giving a well-deserved nod to Rodrygo over Asensio. After Asensio’s lackluster performances in the last months and Rodrygo’s impact in the previous, it would be a bit surprising to see Zidane continue to start Asensio.

Key Matchups

Keep an eye once again on the titanic duel between Mendy and Llorente. Llorente has the most impact on how Atlético attacks, and if Mendy can win this duel as he did back in December, Atlético’s offense will be mostly shut down.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Perez Meca/MB Media/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Real’s left winger should track Trippier constantly and prevent him from passing as much as possible. Trippier’s passes into space lead to Llorente’s runs, and you don’t want that. This is another argument for using Rodrygo or Vinicius on the left instead of Isco: the quicker Brazilians are more likely to stay on the wing and track Trippier. Isco, on the other hand, is slower and likes to drift to the center, which means he is less likely to offer defensive support on the wing.

The other important matchup will be Carrasco against Lucas. While Lucas has been productive on the offense as a right-back, his defense is more questionable, and tricky dribblers like Carrasco expose him the most. Carrasco will likely be Atlético’s most dangerous player on the counter and Lucas will have to shut him down to prevent these counters.

Real Madrid v RC Celta - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

In offense, it’s hard to highlight a specific individual matchup, since breaking down Atleti is a collective job more than an individual one. Hope that Kroos has a good day delivering diagonal balls and that Lucas on the other side can evade Carrasco and Atlético’s left midfielder (Saúl or Lemar) for long enough to receive the ball with a bit of time and space. Having players who can combine with Lucas on the right side (Modrić, Valverde, Rodrygo) will be very important if Real wants to create good chances and those sweet, sweet cutbacks into the penalty box.