Some things never change, and one of those things is Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone. The Argentine’s team have been one of the most consistent sides over the past decade, not only on form, but on system and style of play. This season, Atletico have been playing some fantastic football, with all of their top stars in full flow. Los Rojiblancos currently sit top of the table, albeit on goal differential, with 8 wins from 11 matches so far. Here is a Tactical Analysis of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in 2020-21.
system of play: 4-4-2
Even though we say that Atletico under Simeone will never change, the Argentine manager has shown a high degree of fluidity with his formations in 2020-21. Atletico have operated primarily in a 4-4-2 formation, but that has changed to a 3-1-4-2, 3-4-1-2, 3-4-2-1 and a hybrid flat 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation. With the capability of players like Trippier, Lodi and Carrasco to operate as wing-backs, Simeone might see the 3-5-2 as a long-term plan for his side. Before naming all of their key men, it is important to note that Atletico’s players have remained extraordinarily versatile as always, contributing to Simeone’s flexibility with his formations.
In goal, Jan Oblak has played every single minute of La Liga and UEFA Champions League action. The Slovenian has kept 10 clean sheets in his 17 matches between the two competitions so far this season, backed up by an excellent defense in front of him. Kieran Trippier is the other man in the side to play every single minute of La Liga and UEFA Champions League action, operating either as a right-back or right-wing-back depending on formation. Stefan Savic has grown into the Atleti team since Diego Godin’s departure for Inter Milan, starting every single match so far in La Liga and Champions League action. He’s been partnered most often by 31-year old Brazilian Felipe, as Jose Gimenez recovers from coronavirus. At left-back, Renan Lodi’s continued to start the bulk of matches, but Yannick Carrasco’s given him a run for his money when the side change to a 3-5-2. Spanish centre-back Mario Hermoso has also had an important role to play when the side change to three at the back.Embed from Getty Images
Koke and Saul Niguez remain together in central midfield and look to be two of the side’s best players and first names on the team sheet, now that Thomas Partey is out of the picture again. Statistically, Saul is usually better when deployed out wide because his superb defensive skillset compliments Atletico’s funnelling of their opposition into wide areas. But the midfielder’s role in the centre park and understanding with his teammate Koke cannot be understated. The left wing is perhaps the only spot that Simeone has struggled to nail down a starter, with Vitolo, Lemar and Carrasco battling for a place on that side.Embed from Getty Images
Angel Correa meanwhile has operated prominently as a right winger in Atletico’s 4-4-2 structure, but more often as a forward when the team change to a 3-5-2. Importantly, he leads the league in assists this season with 5, creating less chances per game than Carrasco, who is yet to have an assist in the league. His high number of assists in comparison to relatively low number of chances created illustrates just how clinical Suarez and Felix have been. Both forwards have 5 goals this season in 7 starts each, while Marcos Llorente has also chipped in with 4 goals in 7 starts. Those three players have contributed to 14 of Atletico’s 21 goals this season, the highest number of goals per game in the league.
improvements in attackEmbed from Getty Images
Last season, we spoke at length about Atletico’s struggles in front of goal and just how much they missed Antoine Griezmann. Joao Felix was unable to fill the void, while Morata was a master of being caught offside more than he was at scoring goals. This season, Luis Suarez has been the perfect front-man for Atletico, while Joao Felix has improved massively for his side. Suarez has only been caught offside 0.4 times per game, compared to Morata’s 1.1 in 2019-20. Further, last season Felix struggled to be the link between Atletico’s low-block in midfield and the centre-forward he played alongside, such as Diego Costa or Alvaro Morata. This season, Felix has done a much better job at filling those gaps and operating in central areas. But Suarez’s role also cannot be understated. The former Barcelona and Liverpool man is similarly adept at coming in deep and linking up with others. His excellent first touch and solid play with his back to goal has allowed a player like Angel Correa to get forward more often on the overlap, and contribute more goals and assists than he did at this stage in 2019-20. With a player like Yannick Carrasco also back at the club, Atletico suddenly look a more complete side again, particularly with Joao Felix finally filling the void left when Antoine Griezmann left the club. Their goal ratio is up to 1.9 goals per game, their highest since winning the league on 2 goals per game in 2013-14. No team has scored more goals per game at this stage in the 2020-21 La Liga season. Further, they’ve been caught offside only 2.2 times per game this season, the 9th worst in the league, compared to topping the charts with 3.1 last season.
joao felix’s improved role + 4-1-4-1 attacking shapeEmbed from Getty Images
Felix’s role in the team could be seen as a number 10, drifting in between the lines to pick up possession. But he is also very capable and willing to hold a higher position up the field when Luis Suarez comes in deep to get on the ball himself. With this approach and balance, Atletico most often have a shape that resembles a 4-4-1-1 in possession, and sometimes even out of possession. The team generally sit back in a 4-4-2 mid to low block, but the 4-4-1-1 is a further method of forcing their opposition to have to go around Atletico rather than through.
Strikingly, with Koke back in a midfield role as opposed to one on the wing, which he operated in often during Thomas Partey’s rise in the side, this 4-4-1-1 shape can sometimes change. This season, we’ve seen Atletico utilize an extra central midfielder in their attacking shape, in what could be described as a 4-1-4-1. When Suarez comes in deep, Saul is likely to join the attack as part of the quartet. When it’s Felix, Koke is the man to join the attack, as Saul covers in behind. This offers Atletico both structure and balance in their attacking moves. When the team play a 3-5-2 or 3-1-4-2, this attacking shape could also take the form of a 3-4-2-1, with one central midfielder joining the two strikers in a triangular front three. This all may sound complex, but it’s important to note that these positional movements are done at speed. Atletico don’t favour a slow build-up, and most of their goals are scored with only a few touches or passes on the ball, despite their improvements in possession from last season.
wing play from fullbacksEmbed from Getty Images
Atletico attack down the middle of the pitch with a higher frequency than most teams in La Liga. In fact, only Barcelona have utilized a more vertical approach in attack this season. Their verticality is partially down to their quick attacking transitions and the necessity of verticality on counter attacks. But Simeone’s side still utilize the wings in attack like all top teams, and the role of their fullbacks is particularly key in these moments. As noted, Atletico have operated more and more in a 3-5-2 formation this season, making the role of the fullbacks/wing-backs even more imperative. In a 3-5-2, the wing-backs are virtually the only source of natural width. This offers Atletico a myriad of benefits in defense, such as having an extra midfielder in their low-block and the potential for a five-man defensive structure. But in attack, it means players like Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi have a massive weight on their shoulders to contribute to the attack. Trippier’s assisted 3 goals this season and is the team’s top crosser of the ball. Renan Lodi ranks second in that category, although has only assisted 1 goal in his 6 matches. Yannick Carrasco has also operated in the left-wing-back role, and has done so to great effect. The Belgian’s scored 3 goals with 1 assist in his 12 matches between La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, playing fewer minutes than Trippier. But we can’t use Trippier’s amount of minutes as some sort of knock against him. The British defender is one of only two Atletico players to play every minute (Jan Oblak being the other one) in La Liga this season, highlighting just how important he is to Diego Simeone’s plans.Embed from Getty Images
With their reliance on fullbacks and wing-backs, Atletico’s shape in attack may sometimes resemble something similar to a 2-4-4 when going all out on the attack; almost inverting the 4-4-2 formation. The fullbacks join higher up the field, often both at a time, and the inverted wingers drift inside to increase numbers in central areas. In a 3-5-2, this shape may resemble more of a 3-4-2-1, with one of the central midfielders joining the front two and the wing-backs holding a relatively steady position as they get up and down the wings. Although Trippier has been such an important player for the team, Atletico actually favour attacks down the left to a greater frequency. This is because all of the team’s top dribblers operate on the left, and are usually essential to the team’s quick attacking transitions. Thomas Lemar’s completed 4 successful dribbles per 90 minutes, while Yannick Carrasco’s completed 3.9. Renan Lodi and Joao Felix also rank in the top five among Atletico players to make 5+ appearances. Trippier by comparison is way down at 0.5 successful take-on’s per game, with only 0.9 attempted. This illustrates that Trippier’s role in attack comprises more of an emphasis on crossing, switching play and keeping possession in attack, compared to Carrasco, Lemar and Lodi, who are tasked with running with the ball and breaking at speed.
compactness in defenseEmbed from Getty Images
The low block is practically synonymous with Atletico Madrid at this point, and it is still very much a feature of their play in 2020-21. They’ve improved in possession and goal-scoring, but the defensive structure hasn’t really changed. It’s either 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, sitting deep, narrow and compact; or 3-5-2/5-3-2, with an extra midfielder and extra centre-back compacting central areas. This narrow approach to their defensive structure forces their opposition to the outside, limiting the opposition’s ability to attack through central areas and get dangerous players like a ‘number 6’ or ‘number 10’ on the ball. This method of funneling their opposition out wide results in the fullbacks making a high number of tackles and interceptions per game. In the past, Juanfran and Filipe Luis were frequently at the top of Atletico’s charts in those categories. This season, as expected, it’s Lodi and Trippier at the top in terms of tackles per game, with only Koke attempting and completing higher numbers than Trippier per 90 minutes.Embed from Getty Images
Further, since their opposition are often forced into wide areas, Atletico’s centre-backs are required to be strong in the air and carry an excellent presence. With their possession and passing numbers up from previous years, the number of duels in the air they’ve been forced into has been reduced. But Savic has won 61% of his aerial duels (2.3 won per 90), to Felipe’s 67% (2.8 per 90). It’s also worth mentioning that Geoffrey Kondogbia, often thrown on when Atletico want to see out a victory or result, is also quite extraordinary statistically in all areas of defense, including his aerial ability.
The team’s low-block is a hallmark of their play and has contributed massively to their 10 clean sheets in 17 matches, an absolutely remarkable defensive record.
To see more about Atletico’s defensive structure and hard to break down low-block, see our 2019-20 Tactical Analysis of Simeone’s side.
Atletico Madrid have started the season in fantastic fashion, and could very well be on their way to another 1st or 2nd place finish. The team’s improved attacking fluidity and goal-scoring has been matched by their ever-present defensive shape and aptitude, allowing Los Rojiblancos to achieve success at both ends of the pitch.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in 2020-21. Be sure to check out more on Atletico Madrid, more Tactical Analyses, and see our 2019-20 article on the incredible Spanish side.
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