“Manchester City play Atletico today,” one of my staff said to me yesterday morning. You might be surprised to hear that I don’t tend to know who’s set to play who on a week by week basis, despite the myriad of football-related articles you can find on my website. “That’ll be attack versus defense. Bet it’ll be 70% possession,” I rebutted. “Do you think they’ll play 5-5-0?” I asked tongue in cheek, knowing my staff’s hatred of the Atletico coach based on some kind of Ronaldo-based Real Madrid feud. But as it turns out, Atletico did indeed play a 5-5-0 on the day. Just ask Pep Guardiola…
“For 25-30 minutes they played 5-5. We were patient enough except in the first 5-10 mins of the second half, we didn’t attack with the right rhythm, but it was a good result” (The Athletic).
Knowing Pep Guardiola’s level of footballing intelligence, we thoroughly trust his judgement. However, within the commentary surrounding what Atletico did on the day to achieve a result, as an undoubtedly all-out defensive approach, the 5-5-0 has become overstated – almost as a metric for evaluating Atletico’s solidity. In actuality, the 5-5-0 rarely ever took centre stage. The fictitious formation only occurred for brief moments and glimpses, where Atleti strikers would join the outside of the midfield line temporarily, tracking City’s rotations out wide.Embed from Getty Images
For football media personnel wanting to push this agenda and make something out of nothing for the clicks, it becomes very easy to clip images where Atletico hold this 5-5-0 shape. But if you roll the clip on even a second or two after or before that shape can be seen, what you’ll see is not a 5-5-0, but two clearly distinct first and second lines of defense in a 5-3-2. That is, for the vast majority of the opening 60 minutes, Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix screened penetrative passes together as a distinct unit in central areas, rather than out wide. In the final thirty minutes, Matheus Cunha played as a lone centre-forward, as the shape shifted to a 5-4-1. I’ve notoriously never been good at math, but I’m fairly confident that neither 1 or 2 equal 0. So instead of unicorns and magic, let’s discuss what Atletico Madrid actually did to hold City to a narrow 1-0 scoreline.
THE REAL KEYS TO SUCCESSEmbed from Getty Images
The key to Atletico’s defensive solidity came in two regards – organization in shape and structure between the lines, and their pressurized urgency during dangerous spells. First, the midfield trio in behind that distinct front two limited the ability of City’s front-line to pick up the ball in central areas ahead of Atletico’s back-five, forcing switches of play into the wide areas instead. Meanwhile, the back-five held a resolute line together – dominating direct play with their physicality and presence. Any time a player like Ilkay Gundogan or Bernardo Silva tried to float in behind the defensive line to prepare for a long loop from a player like Rodri, both outside centre-back and wing-back would follow, rather than keeping that player off-side. This counter-intuitive approach worked like a charm in limiting City to just 46 long passes in the match, despite holding 70% of the possession (just as I predicted, haha!). This is the kind of tactical genius that we should be discussing post-match, rather than an imaginary 5-5-0 that rarely took form.
Beyond the imaginary 5-5-0 that evidently played such a MASSIVE ROLE, Atletico’s defensive solidity was also sparked by their ability to swarm. In little bits and moments where City were able to advance toward the edge of the penalty area, a combination of wing-back, outside centre-back and central midfielder would immediately buzz like a pack of bees around the man, until they were forced into diving down in hopes of winning a foul. Atletico love moments like these, as they’ll take any opportunity to get in the face of the opposition. Their ability to swarm central areas was particularly impressive, with the likes of Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan struggling to get into the match as they shifted in and out of the false nine role. In City’s best moments, they were able to quickly switch play and create overloads or crosses from wide. But perhaps more commonly, Atletico used their physical presence and capable catching of Jan Oblak in behind to thwart these thrusts.
Overall, Atletico’s organization on the day between three distinct lines, followed up by their urgency when it mattered most, allowed them to put on a defensive masterclass. It had nothing to do with a 5-5-0, even if the strikers sat deeper than expected.
ATLETICO’S UNDISCUSSED LACK OF A COUNTER ATTACKEmbed from Getty Images
The preeminent problem with assessing Atletico’s brilliance based on a fictitious formation is that it doesn’t take into account just how poor Atletico were by most metrics of what it actually takes to win a football match. They failed to keep hold of the ball for any prolonged period of time, limiting their ability to create chances. As a direct result, they floundered from an attacking sense, finding their way to ninety minutes without a single shot on or off target.Embed from Getty Images
Even if you know very little about football, you can probably say something about how Atletico play, to the extent of – they sit back and play on the break. What has gone severely underreported this season is the uneventful nature of 90-99% of their attacking transitions, in spite of supremely forceful outliers – such as their six “counter attacking” goals in La Liga this season. With virtually no players in advantageous attacking positions upon turnovers, Atletico’s first pass is almost always backwards. They pass backwards once, usually again, and then continue with a mix of one-touch sideways and progressive passes until they lose possession. This holds true particularly in their own third, where they spend much of their matches defending in a low-block. The first pass consistently goes backward, with players orienting their body shape to even match this ideology. Even if space is available to advance up the field, the player may dribble forward until they are closed down, and then turn and go backwards.Embed from Getty Images
This is to say, Simeone’s side generally don’t counter attack in the ways that we all love to think. The difference is that when they do counter attack with gusto and force, they are extremely deadly. That is precisely why rest-defense is so imperative against Atleti. Manchester City excellently balanced that line expertly well, rarely pushing their fullbacks or Rodri high up the pitch. This in turn forced Atletico into no choice but to stay true to their preference for anti-progressiveness. It was then Guardiola’s men who won the day when it came to transitional moments, constantly winning the ball back within a few seconds. In truth, Atletico were poor on the day, at the very least from an attacking sense, and desperately need to improve if they are to win the second leg.
conclusionEmbed from Getty Images
In all the post-match discussion about Atletico’s stern defensive solidity, we cannot get lost in the imaginary. While Diego Simeone’s team evidently held a 5-5-0 shape for brief moments and glimpses, the over-arching defensive structures were 5-3-2 and 5-4-1, with their forwards clearly separated from the midfield line. Instead of focusing on fiction, I provide a different outlook on the match, commenting on Atletico’s defensive solidity in other regards, followed by their general lack of counter attacking thrust. It’s still all to play for in the second leg, but Atletico will undoubtedly need to provide greater attacking intent in the next match if they are to achieve victory. Otherwise, Manchester City could be headed towards a second straight Champions League final run.
So there it is! Debunking the 5-5-0 in Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid. Be sure to check out more of our Match Analyses, Formation Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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