Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea visit the Wanda Metropolitano to face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League tonight. Both clubs are familiar opponents in European competition, having played each other seven times across the Champions League and the European Super Cup.
Their head-to-head record stands at two wins a piece and three draws, with their last duel coming in the 2017 Champions League group stages.
This is the first time that both managers meet each other on the touchline for a competitive fixture.
Season so far – Chelsea
Chelsea currently sit 5th in the Premier League with a 12-7-6 (Win-Draw-Loss) record. After a relatively quiet 2019 transfer window which saw the club’s academy churn out consistent performers who were crucial to Chelsea’s Champions League qualification, Chelsea splashed out over 200 million pounds on attacking talent in Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech. After a poor first half of the season, the London club parted ways with English manager Frank Lampard in the middle of January. They have since appointed former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel, who made the Champions League final last season.
Season so far – Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid this season have been on the rise, and look to end the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly for the first time since they did it back in 2013/14. With a renewed squad, and the addition of ex-Barcelona star Luis Suarez, the Rojiblancos lead the chasing pack in La Liga by 3 points with a game in hand. Diego Simeone is looking to make his third final appearance since 2013.
Tactics this season – Chelsea
Chelsea predominantly played a 4-2-3-1 system under Frank Lampard in 2019/20, however with the new million pound signings worth of attacking talent, he experimented with the 4-3-3 before he left the team. Lampard also used the 3-4-3 system for clashes against better opposition.
With the introduction of Tuchel mid-season, the German manager has not deviated far from a system that had served the team and players well. Tuchel stuck with the 3-4-3, which in itself is a throwback to Chelsea’s reign under Antonio Conte; three defenders, two wingbacks, a double pivot with two advanced forwards flanking a lone striker.
Tuchel’s Chelsea placed more emphasis on structure, patterns and positional play than Frank Lampard’s unpredictable Chelsea.
Tactics this season – Atletico Madrid
Diego Simeone has rarely strayed from his rigid 4-4-2 system since he took over the team, but more recently (this season) he has deployed 5-3-2 since halfway through the season due to injuries to key players. A compact 4-4-2 shape with 4 midfielders (2 central midfielders and two wide midfielders) behind a front two. Simeone’s 3-5-2 involves using a pair of wingbacks, a three-man defence, a midfield three behind two front men.
This season, Atletico Madrid have shifted towards a more possession oriented style of play without abandoning their defensive solidity. They have scored 45 goals conceded 16 goals in the league this season, one of the best records in Europe. Atletico also average 53% possession, one of their highest percentages under Simeone this year.
How they will match up
I think Atletico will approach this tie the same way they have approached knockout round ties since 2013. Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid have only lost six games. Atletico will sit back in their 4-4-2 deep block and stay compact, waiting for Chelsea to attempt to break them down and play on the counter attack.
We’ve already seen how Tuchel wants his Chelsea team to play in almost a month of him taking charge; possession-oriented football with patience and passing to break down the opponent. Chelsea have scored 41 goals and conceded 25 goals in the league this year while having 62% possession on average.
Before we dive deep into the system dynamics and player rotations, let’s focus on how these systems match up on paper: 4-4-2 vs 3-4-3.
Immediately you can see the advantage of deploying a back three against Atletico Madrid, it give numerical superiority at the back (3v2), matches up in midfield (2v2) and allows the attack to go 3v2 against the central defenders. In order for Atletico’s 4-4-2 to contain this system, they would have to be spot on when it comes to shifting over and ball-side rotations in the defensive phase.
Now let’s look at how the two teams match up if Diego Simeone decides to pull out the 5-3-2:
Ideally, Atletico would favour the 5-3-2 to combat the 3-4-3 on a level playing field. It provides security at the back (3v3), 1v1 with the wing backs out wide and ensures numerical superiority in midfield (3v2), two attackers will be enough to trouble any back three.
How the systems will play out in-game
Based on evidence in games these two teams have played this season against the systems above, we can decipher how the teams would match up in attack and defence.
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 against a 4-4-2
Chelsea have faced Burnley and Southampton under Tuchel’s short reign; two teams that primarily use a 4-4-2 system. This is how they approached those games to give us insight on how they will play at the Wanda Metropolitano tonight.
As seen in the two games above, this is most likely how Chelsea’s 3-4-3 will line up against a 4-4-2: the midfield pivot will be positioned behind the opponents first line (usually one striker/two strikers), the advanced midfielders and striker will be in between the lines just in front of the back four with the wing backs stretching the field on either side.
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 against a 5-3-2/back 3 shape
When two teams deploying similar back 3 shapes meet, the key in the game is to create overloads across the pitch, as seen below.
This can be done in a few ways; a center back overlapping to push into midfield and draw an opponent player towards him, one of the advanced forwards dropping deep do receive the ball and overload the midfield, and also the wingbacks pushing high up to join the attack making it a 5v5 scenario.
In the game against Spurs below, we can see Hudson Odoi as one of the advanced midfielders drop into midfield to provide a passing outlet behind the opponent.
Against Sheffield we can also see Ben Chilwell overlapping to join the attack, giving Chelsea a 4v4 in the final third.
Atletico Madrid’s 5-3-2 against a 3-4-3 system
The system dynamics and player rotations of Atletico’s 5-3-2 are not too different from Chelsea’s 3-4-3 or any back 3 formation for that matter. The basics are simple, overload the opponent’s defensive with wing backs, and encourage defenders and midfielders to push up with the ball to exploit the natural gaps between the fullback and ball side midfielder as seen in the Levante game.
Atletico’s 4-4-2 against a 3-4-3/back 3 formation
Atletico against RB Liepzig in the Champions League provides the blueprint of how both sides will match up if Simeone decides to go 4-4-2 against Chelsea.
In the image above, Atletico essentially vacate central areas to focus on overloading wide areas where they can go 2v1 against the wingbacks. This usually goes against the expected Atletico tactic which involves the fullbacks overlapping and providing the width as the two wide midfielders tuck in and provide runs from deep in behind the opposition midfield.
Where the game might be won
Regardless of if Simeone opts for the 4-4-2 or 5-3-2, the game will be won in the midfield. Chelsea since Tuchel took over have had some issues progressing the ball into their forwards as Jorginho and Kovacic are often ‘safety first’ passers who rarely look to break lines with passing.
Because of these issues either one of the advanced forwards flanking the strikers would drop into the midfield line to attempt to progress the ball; Atletico’s midfield shold be alert any time Chelsea attempt to overload the midfield areas.
Out wide, either of Atletico’s systems should be able to deal with Chelsea’s wing backs, the 5-3-2 allows Atletico to go 1v1 out wide, and the wide midfielders in the 4-4-2 can also shift over to mark the ball-side wingback during attacks.
After all the scenarios and systems discussed, going into this game, I expect Tuchel to stick to his 3-4-3 as it’s the only system Chelsea have stuck to since Tuchel arrived, a drastic change of shape before a Champions League knockout tie would not be advisable. Chelsea will probably stick with the same back three and midfield pivot, but the front three will most likely see a change as Tammy Abraham might not be fit enough to start the game. Mason Mount will most likely start due to Chelsea’s issues progressing the ball from midfield.
Atletico however, will more likely adapt the 5-3-2 Simeone has been using recently due to the absence of Keiran Trippier who is serving the last week of his 10-week suspension. Since Trippier is key to Atletico’s width in the 4-4-2, I expect the shift to 5-3-2 with one of Llorente or Carrasco filling in for the English fullback.
Chelsea: Mendy; Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva, Rudiger; Hudson-Odoi, Jorginho, Kovacic, Alonso; Werner, Giroud, Mount
Atletico: Oblak; Gimenez, Savic, Hermoso; Carrasco, Koke, Saul, Llorente, Lodi; Suarez, Joao Felix
Renan Lodi vs Hudson Odoi/ Marcos Alonso vs Carrasco:
Out wide the expected battle of the wing backs would be interesting; Marcos Alonso who is not known for being very good defensively will be up against one of the better dribblers in Europe in Carrasco. On the other flank, the duel between Hudson-Odoi and Renan Lodi will also be interesting to see.
Jorginho and Kovacic vs Saul, Koke and Llorente:
In the middle, Atletico’s trio would be expected to press and harass Kovacic and Jorginho in possession, while Llorente would be tasked with making runs from deep in behind the pair. I fully expect Atletico’s midfield to have the upper hand, numerically and physicality-wise.
It will be a hard fought tactical clash between the two managers, but i expect Diego Simeone’s experience at this level to overcome Tuchel’s young Chelsea side.