After Atletico Madrid swatted away Sevilla prior to the international break, there wasn’t much time to actually soak in just how well they’ve been playing of late. Before they hosted a Sevilla side that was still in the dumps over their defeat to Leicester City, Atletico secured a spot in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals after a hard-fought tie against Bayer Leverkusen and was riding two straight LaLiga wins – things were looking bright heading into the final stretch of the campaign.
Their demolition of Jorge Sampaoli’s side illustrated to the rest of LaLiga that Atleti were back to their best and that the Vicente Calderon hosted a top-table clash that likely decided third place despite the fact that Sevilla still held the third spot by two points ahead of Diego Simeone’s men after the loss. In addition, Atleti put Europe back on notice that they’re still a team to be feared in the Big Dance that is the Champions League (look out, Leicester).
As it happened, the international break came and went and Brazilian Filipe Luis and Spaniard Koke were the only Atleti players who could really say their break was a successful one. But that is neither here nor there as Diego Simeone’s men had to return to training and prepare for a Malaga clash that would test their ability to maintain their good form after the break against a tricky side at La Rosaleda.
Fortunately, the Madrid-based club was coming up against a Malaga outfit that was badly out of form. Michel’s side was about to host Atleti and the last time they won a match was on February 20th against Las Palmas. To make matters worse, they were sitting in 15th place and were already on their third manager of the season. But history was on their side as last season Atleti traveled to La Rosaleda and lost 1-0.
Tactically, Atleti has been enjoying their high-pressing and used it to success in a shaky 4-2 win over Malaga this past November and Simeone was likely to use it again. Michel, however, has changed the system since coming into the fold early last month. He uses a 3-5-2 and was going to try and win the match in midfield and try to control through possession.
Read below as Eat Sleep Drink analyzes some key tactical moments, team characteristics, and more.
- Atletico’s high-press is business as usual
Although Malaga was home, Atletico Madrid was not going to try and solely play on the counter, they were going to unleash their high-press and try and make things uncomfortable for Malaga.
Below, we see that Malaga’s Miguel Torres has the ball (blue circle) and Atleti is high-pressing in their 4-4-2 shape. Thomas Partey (red circle) is about to pressure Torres while Antoine Griezmann (yellow) screens the horizontal pass back to Luis Hernandez and will soon devote his attention to Ignacio Camacho (purple circle).
Next, Atleti’s press is squeezing and taking effect. In the screenshot below, we see that the ball (blue circle) has been passed to Juankar (blue) with Juanfran and Gabi (red circles) offering cover shadow (purple grid) and pressure on Pablo Fornals (purple circle).
Above, we see that Griezmann (yellow circle) is about to screen Camacho and the other side of the pitch has Fernando Torres screening Diego Llorente. As a result, Juankar’s first-touch and next decision are vital as he has little options to keep the play alive.
Below, we can see that Atletico’s press has been successful. Juankar attempted to pass to his nearest up-field outlet which was Fornals and instead it was blocked by Juanfran and was brought down by Gabi (red circle).
Atleti’s successful high-press then turns into a scoring opportunity, and although they didn’t score, it reinforces the belief that a good high-press can also be a team’s best playmaker. Below, we see that Partey has decided to cross the ball (blue circle) from the right wing with Torres and Griezmann (red circles) heading into a penalty area that is only protected by two Malaga players – a 2v2 is better than a 2v4 and that is what a successful press can give you.
- How Atletico transition from attack to defense after losing possession in midfield
In the modern game, how teams’ transition from attack to defense can be the difference between a win or a loss and Diego Simeone knows this. Some teams, for example, like Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, enjoyed counter-pressing when they lost the ball and they even did it in midfield when the risk is higher if the press fails.
Simeone, however, is all about minimizing risk. His side doesn’t keep the ball as long or as well as other sides and instead of putting emphasis on winning it back quickly, he opts to put his team in the best positions to protect their penalty area so they can counter-attack.
Below, we see that Atletico has lost the ball in midfield with most of their players in the central axis (orange lines) and further up the field. As a result, Malaga has a good opportunity to transition and hit the half spaces or wings. Malaga’s Roberto Rosales’ (purple circle) movement and anticipation will be the key to really stretch the play.
As it happened, below, we see that Roberto Rosales (purple) has received the ball (blue circle) down the right wing and has two teammates operating the flank with him (other purple circles).
Above, we can see how three Atleti players (red circles) will match Malaga’s three (purple) operating down the left while Partey and Gabi (yellow) will not try and cause an overload down that side. They’ll instead retreat to the penalty area to help their centre-backs deal with any potential crosses and will wait if Malaga decides to cut inside.
Next, we see the purpose of Partey and Gabi’s decision to not overload the flank when they had a chance. They instead opted to help form two banks of three (red lines) after Malaga were forced into a corner.
Above, we also see that because of this, Atleti has now forced the ball backward and is in a good shape to properly read and react to Malaga’s next pass. Below, Atletico’s transition proves successful. Gabi and Koke (yellow circles) will run toward Jose Rodriguez (blue) and will force a switch of play to the left.
3. How Atletico Madrid adapt to one key Malaga pass
In this next screenshot, we see that Malaga has broken up a right-sided Atleti overload with two Malaga players on the left wing and Fornals in the half-space (purple circle).
Above, three Atleti players (red circles) will outnumber the two Malaga players on the left while Saul Niguez (orange circle) will join his two centre-backs (yellow) in causing another 3v2 in the penalty area. He’ll also keep his eye on Fornals and the space in front of him (orange and purple arrows).
Since Atleti’s block was broken, they scramble into outnumbering positions in the areas that matter most in their situation – the penalty area and the wing where a cross or pass can be made to the inside. This illustrates their adaptability in situations where their block is broken and how the players understand their defensive duties in all situations.
This match wasn’t the most entertaining, but Atleti won 2-0 not through compelling passing, but through two ugly goals and by their ability to high-press, adapt when their block was broken, and defend for their lives. Because of it, they’re now in third place.