Atletico Madrid were a bit lucky last weekend. Diego Simeone’s side were far from their best and La Liga newcomers Girona were more than happy to welcome Atleti to the Estadi Montilivi in a thrilling match that ended in a 2-2 draw.
— LaLiga (@LaLigaEN) August 19, 2017
The Catalan side were clear in their game plan and after Cristhian Stuani’s two headed goals gave Girona a 2-0 lead in the opening 25 minutes, you could tell what that plan was. Pablo Machin’s men were certainly aware of Diego Godin’s absence and opted to use their decent possession-play combined with good direct balls to their full-backs and wingers to then put in crosses into an Atleti backline that was without its best defender.
Atleti's aerial defending looks lost without Godin. Look for Girona to continue to whip in crosses and to threaten on corners.
— Carlo Valladares (@C_V_News) August 19, 2017
It is well known that Godin is a huge part of Atleti’s prowess at set-pieces on both sides of the pitch, but last Saturday it became clear that his aerial game is vital to his side’s defensive efforts as well. Atletico could have used his reading and clearance quality on both of Stuani’s goals.
In addition, the first-half also illustrated a potential shift in style for Atletico. Before we analyze Atleti’s game plan, it should be mentioned that since the summer 0f 2015 Simeone has tried and tested a more possession-based 4-3-3 as opposed to the transitional-based 4-4-2 which is their traditional option.
The results have been mixed, to say the least. The 15/16 season saw Atleti score fewer goals in the possession system while the 16/17 season saw their poor passing execution hurt them due to opposition counter-attacks, and it also didn’t help that their efficiency in front of goal was downright embarrassing in many games last season.
— Carlo Valladares (@C_V_News) February 26, 2017
There have been positives, though. Atleti’s high and counter-press is as good as it’s ever been in the Simeone era, but on Saturday they didn’t use either tactic to its full potential. They opted to play quite defensively in their 4-4-2 mid-block against a newly promoted side, which was surprising because last season they played then–newcomers Deportivo Alaves in a high-pressing style.
Of course, Alaves earned their promotion through pragmatic means while Girona is a team that plays pure ‘Juego de Posicion.’ Now, there are two reasons I believe Simeone decided to play a recently promoted side in a defensive manner despite Atleti having more than enough ability to play more of a pressing game:
1. Simeone respected Girona’s possession play so much that he saw playing attacking football at the Estadi Montilivi as too risky.
2. He feels as though Diego Costa’s arrival is imminent in January and that Atleti should scrape up as many points in a risk-free, defensive style until they can unleash Yannick-Ferreira Carrasco, Antoine Griezmann, and Costa onto their LaLiga rivals.
My tactical theories aside, the second-half saw the Argentine gaffer experiment with another formation, one that is uncommon for him. After 65 minutes of play, Griezmann was taken down by Gorka Iraizoz and was shown a yellow card for diving but a few insults later saw the Frenchman receive the first red of his career. Shortly before this happened, though, Juanfran was subbed off for Angel Correa and Atleti used a 3-4-3 in which the team’s build-up phase was clearly improved.
Loads of positives despite that horrible first-half for #Atleti.
1. Correa needs to start
2. 3-4-3 worked. Godin, Gimenez, Savic should do*
— Carlo Valladares (@C_V_News) August 19, 2017
Jose Gimenez, Stefan Savic, and Lucas Hernandez operated in a wide three-at-the-back build up formation and it allowed for every single centre-back to manipulate the width of the pitch differently. Carrasco, Koke, and Correa linked with Lucas and Gimenez and space was freed in more central areas. Of course, Girona’s forwards were certainly not prepared for an Atleti back three, and Girona’s mid-block press suffered as a result.
Anyway, read on for the tactical breakdown which contains annotated video explaining the tactics of both sides.
How Atletico go from high-press to low-blocking through zonal and man-marking
The first-half featured Atletico struggling to come up with decent attacks while Girona had much of the ball and opted to go for a very direct attack with emphasis on crosses due to Godin’s absence.
However, the video below shows a number of things:
1. Girona’s crossing once near Atleti’s penalty area
2. How Atleti start in a high-press then transition to a midfield press and how the team protects their penalty area through zonal reading.
Pay attention to how Atleti’s players react to any switch or long ball by establishing a zonal cover, analyzing Girona’s positioning, and then man-marking when they feel it is safe and logical.
How Girona high-pressed and why Atleti went long
It is no secret that Atleti aren’t the best team at passing through pressure. They prefer to build up safely, go long, and play off the second-ball.
Girona knew this. So they played a clever high-press in a 3-4-3/4-3-3. In the video below, we see that three Girona forwards start the press in a central block with one always man-marking Atleti’s defensive midfielder.
The objective is to force Atleti wide, take away their central passing options and do so in a manner that forces them to pass to their full-backs so they can trigger their man-mark press and win the ball high up.
Simeone’s side, on the other hand, didn’t fall for Girona’s clever pressing and stuck to their transition game strengths. The video below also shows Atleti recognizing where the threats were in Girona’s press and avoiding them.
Side note: Saul and Griezmann link for the best build-up play of the first-half. Is Simeone right to play a long-ball game after seeing a play like this?
To put it simply, the play below shows exactly why Saul is rated so highly in Spain’s possession system and how Griezmann is becoming more of a No. 10.
The play reminds me of the linkups that Lionel Messi and Dani Alves used to do.
It makes you wonder why Simeone isn’t continuing the expansive-play experiment a bit more. Perhaps it’ll be something reserved for playing at home. Just something for Atletico fans to think about and watch out for.
Girona build out the back to beat Atleti’s high-press
After Stuani made it 2-0, Atleti were forced to counter-press aggressively when they lost the ball. However, in the phase below, we see that Girona were not afraid to pass their way through the intense pressure.
They even managed to use two successful chips to overcome certain passing lane screens. Chipping the ball is considered high-risk when trying to play the ball out from your penalty area, but Girona were more than capable.
How Atleti’s 3-4-3 manipulated the spaces differently and improved their attack.
The first half was all about Girona’s excellent possession-direct style and their spot on crossing tactics while Atleti struggled to control the game via counters.
Simeone, however, in the second stretch wasn’t afraid to mix things up. At the 58th minute, Correa was subbed in for Juanfran and Atleti switched to a 3-4-3. The video below shows how it improved their build up.
Although the 3-4-3 switch didn’t directly contribute to Correa and Gimenez’s equalizing efforts later on in the half, it did allow Atleti the opportunity to improve their long-ball game and counter-press. It certainly turned up the pressure on Girona.
It offered a fresh way to manipulate the spaces in ways that Girona were not prepared for and for that I applaud Simeone for being daring in his in-game decisions. Had he stuck to the 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid, perhaps Correa doesn’t start the comeback.
It’s hard to predict whether or not the 3-4-3 is the way forward for Los Rojiblancos, but I assume we’ll see it again this season. Girona, of course, will continue their 5-4-1 system in what seems to be a very exciting team to look out for in the Primera Division.