Few clubs over the past decade have developed as succinct of a style of play as Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. The 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 formations have practically become synonymous with Simeone’s side, as he’s taken Atletico to two Champions League finals and one La Liga title. Although 2019-20 hasn’t been the best of seasons for Los Rojiblancos, they’ve continued their usual defensive prowess, conceding the second least amount of goals this season in La Liga and beating Liverpool in both Champions League Group Stage encounters. Here is a Tactical Analysis of Diego Simeone’s 4-4-2 system and hard-working Atletico Madrid team.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2
Atletico Madrid play a rigid and robust 4-4-2 system. Although they’ve experimented with a 3-1-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 over the years, Simeone has largely stayed true to his tried and tested 4-4-2. Such is the narrowness of the formation, players that would normally be deployed as central midfielders have enjoyed much of their time on the wings over the years, such as Saul Niguez, Koke and Thomas Partey. In fact, it seems to be a precursor to playing for Simeone that a player can play in multiple different positions. Saul Niguez is the greatest example of such a player, as the Spaniard has been deployed as a fullback, wing-back, winger, centre-back, defensive midfielder and of course as a central midfielder. Koke has also fulfilled a similar role in the side and has played across all four midfield positions this season.
With so many stellar players at his disposal, Simeone’s personnel in his 4-4-2 is likely to change on a match by match basis. However, a few players have remained relatively consistent. Jan Oblak, who many regard to be the best goalkeeper in the world, is deservedly the only player to feature in every single league match this season. Saul Niguez has featured in all but one La Liga game, while Thomas Partey, Alvaro Morata, Koke and Renan Lodi have also been consistent starters and performers.Embed from Getty Images
In front of Oblak in goal, Kieran Trippier has frequently occupied the right-back slot, with Lodi on the left. It is the first season at the club for both players, and they have done excellently well to fill the void left by club legends Filipe Luis and Juanfran. Jose Gimenez would undoubtedly be Simeone’s first choice centre-back alongside former FC Porto man Felipe, however the Uruguayan has suffered through injuries in much of 2019-20. Montenegrin international Stefan Savic has been filling the slot alongside Felipe instead. Angel Correa has been Simeone’s preferred choice on the right wing, while Thomas Partey’s dominance alongside Saul Niguez’s exuberance, has pushed Koke out to the left wing on a frequent basis. However, given Saul’s versatility, Koke will often find himself alongside Partey as well. Up top, the man brought in to replace Antoine Griezmann – Portuguese attacker Joao Felix, has partnered alongside Alvaro Morata for the majority of matches. Atletico have too many other important figureheads to name, but certainly worth noting are Diego Costa and Vitolo, who are the most notable impact players for Simeone’s side when needed.
DEFENSIVE RESILIENCEEmbed from Getty Images
Diego Simeone’s side are famous for being defensively resilient, hard working and difficult to break down. They play very narrow, compact and incorporate a mid-to-low-block as part of their defensive structure. This means that they are perfectly fine letting their opposition have the ball lower down on the field, as they shift and slide with the positioning of the ball, the space and the players around them, to remain defensively compact. When opposition players play out from the back, Atletico’s forwards tend to drop in rather than press, as the wingers also tuck in alongside the central midfielders. The forwards may both drop back to join the four-man midfield, or only one of them, as the other lurks in behind and offers an outlet should they win the ball back. In previous seasons, the role of the player to join the midfield more frequently went to Antoine Griezmann, so it is natural that Joao Felix has taken on that position this season instead. However, the role of which forward drops in to cover the opposition’s defensive midfielder remains very fluid depending on the positioning of the ball. When Atletico do decide to press, it is usually more so from an individual to cause the opposing player less time on the ball and to force them into making a mistake, rather than a team attempt to win the ball back.Embed from Getty Images
Should the opposition have the ball on the right side, Atletico’s left-back will get close to being touch-tight to their opposition right winger, as the other members of the back three shift in and remain compact. This is the same for when the opposition attack down the left. With this constant shifting and sliding of their defensive structure, the Red and Whites are not the type to dive into tackles or swarm their opposition in numbers. However, when the ball moves into dangerous areas, such as in and around the eighteen yard box, they may break their patience and sound the alarm bells. Closer to goal in wide areas for example, a left-back and left-winger may join together to press an opposition player as the rest of the team shifts in and remains compact. With the opposing player unlikely to be able to switch play from one side to the other and also more likely to make a mistake with two players pressuring them, Atletico are fantastic at forcing errors when their opposition get into dangerous positions. However, their defensive structure, which remains rigid and rarely disrupted as a result of their lack of a high press, also means that Atletico are rarely forced into situations where they have to sound the alarm bells. This has all contributed to Simeone’s side conceding the second lowest amount of goals in La Liga 2019-20, behind only Real Madrid. Their 21 goals conceded in 27 matches is 10 less than Barcelona. Unfortunately, the problem for Simeone’s side has been at the other end of the pitch, scoring goals.
AERIAL PROWESS AND LACK OF POSSESSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Atletico are perfectly fine not having much of the ball. They’ve kept 48% of possession this season, only the 11th most in the league. Unsurprisingly given their block, they force their opposition into shots from outside the eighteen yard box more than any other team in La Liga. 50% of their shots against come outside of the 18-yard box, compared to 43% inside the 18 (the lowest in the league) and 7% in the 6-yard box. Atletico rarely let their opposition get into their box and when they do, they set themselves up far too well for the opposition to have a solid shooting position.
Atletico are also impressive in the air. This can be used to their advantage in counter attacking moments, such as releasing Alvaro Morata, scoring goals from corner kicks, or in defensive moments where players like Felipe and Saul Niguez will often get in the way. All three players win significantly more duels in the air than they lose. The team as a whole has also won more than they’ve lost in the air, and has won the 5th most amount of duels in the air per game in the league. So if the opposition are able to exploit Atletico’s lack of width and deliver crosses, Simeone’s team remain well set-up to defend them.
COUNTER ATTACKINGEmbed from Getty Images
Atletico Madrid have also built quite the reputation off of their counter attacking style of play. After winning possession, they don’t typically look to go long, such as Burnley’s 4-4-2 set-up discussed last week. Instead, they quickly go on the hunt for a goal through quick counter attacking play. Without Antoine Griezmann, this method of scoring goals has been slightly minimized this season. Although Joao Felix was brought in to fulfill a similar role, the Portuguese attacker has struggled to make much of an impact so far and has only netted 4 goals with 1 assist in his 20 La Liga matches.
That said, even without Griezmann, Simeone’s side have maintained much of their same counter attacking principles. They have a very vertical approach to their play, looking to spring their attacks quickly. Notably, they’ve also been caught offside more than any other team in the league. This is a statistic that they’ve often been at the top of the charts for over the years, but not one that they’ve ever attempted to change. In their quick counter attacking style, offsides are simply bound to happen more often. They’ve also continued to rely on the individual ability of players like Correa and Koke to create chances through skill rather than elaborate combinations and team possession turning into brilliance.
But without Antoine Griezmann, Atletico lack a natural counter attacking attacker. Although mobile and hard-working, Alvaro Morata is more of a target man, while Felix has proven to be a relatively ineffective replacement at the start of his Atletico career. In order to truly take advantage of their counter attacking style of play again, Atletico Madrid will need to invest again in a speedy attacker who reads the space well. A player like Marcus Thuram or Lucas Ocampos may be an adequate replacement in that regard that they could get without spending heaps and bounds of money.
STRUGGLES IN FRONT OF GOAL
In front of goal this season, Atletico Madrid have not achieved their usual heights. Los Rojiblancos averaged a mediocre 1.4 goals per game last season and a high of 2.0 when they won the league, compared to just 1.1 this time around. This is partly due to the departure of French forward Antoine Griezmann, now with Barcelona. In all competitions, Griezmann scored 133 goals in 267 matches for Simeone’s side over his five-season spell at the club. By comparison, Spanish forward Alvaro Morata has been the club’s top scorer this season, with just 8 goals in his 23 La Liga matches. Compared to the high standards that Griezmann set during his time at the club, Morata’s numbers pale in comparison. Unfortunately for Simeone’s side, Morata’s goals have contributed to 25% of their total. The next top scorer on the team is Angel Correa, who’s only managed 5 league goals. No other team in the top eight in La Liga have scored fewer goals from their top two scorers.
Moreover, Los Rojiblancos‘ 31 goals in La Liga this season has them all the way down in 12th in that category, despite having the 7th most amount of shots per game. Of top six sides, only Getafe have a worse record than Atletico when it comes to shots on target per game. This is despite the fact that Atletico don’t have any bit of difficulty finding their way into the penalty area or the middle of their opposition’s attacking third, both of which are positive scoring areas. They simply have not been clinical enough this season, highlighted by the fact that their top scorer currently sits on 8 goals in the league, while a player like Thomas Partey has found the back of the net as many times this season as Diego Costa. So for all their defensive stability and heroics, they have been struggling in front of goal this season and it has certainly played a part in their current position in the league table (6th).
There may be a combination of factors to their low goal tally that go far beyond just Griezmann’s departure. For one, they are caught offside more than any other team, often stunting their attacks before they even get started. Morata, the player most likely to stay high in defensive moments, has been found offside more than any other player in the league. Secondly, the midfielders often get detached from the front two in attack, limiting Atletico’s ability to pass the ball around and shift play. Instead of team possession and combination play, they rely on attacks on the break perhaps too much and the shots that they are taking are not resulting in enough goals. Joao Felix for example has attempted the joint seventh most shots per game in the league this season (2.5), but has only scored 4 goals. So although Griezmann’s departure has been detrimental for Simeone’s side, their struggles in front of goal this season go far beyond that.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Overall, Diego Simeone has built a fantastic reputation for himself as an incredible manager, capable of turning a team of hard-working players into worldwide superstars. During his decade long spell at the club, they’ve won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Europa League twice and UEFA Super Cup twice. Although the Champions League eluded him twice in the span of three years, Simeone’s side have been incredibly interesting to watch over the years and that has carried on into this season, where they are the only team to beat Liverpool twice in 2019-20. Although Atletico Madrid have struggled to hit the high notes in front of goal this season, their defensive resilience has continued to make the Red & Whites a formidable outfit and nearly impossible to break down. Simeone’s 4-4-2 system with Atletico Madrid will certainly go down in La Liga and formation folklore, as the Argentinean manager only further enhances his illustrious reputation year after year.
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So there it is! A tactical analysis of Diego Simeone’s rigid and resilient 4-4-2 system. Be sure to check out our other Tactical Analyses, including last week’s article on Sean Dyche’s Burnley, who deploy a 4-4-2 in some very similar and very different ways. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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