Atletico Madrid 2019/20: Their inefficiency in the final third – scout report
There was an unusual amount of hype surrounding Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid prior to the start of the ongoing 2019/20 La Liga season. The Rojiblancos have seemingly completely revamped their squad – shipping off many big names and in turn, signing some much-needed fresh blood – and their quest to take the Spanish crown from the obviously weakened Barcelona and Real Madrid was in full effect.
Fast forward an initial couple of months in the domestic competition, and Atlético Madrid are lagging behind both of their main rivals, seemingly severely underperforming in the final third, struggling to successfully convert their efforts into palpable results.
This tactical analysis scout report will look into Simeone’s squad and his tactics to try and find the root of their inefficiency in the final third and find suitable potential solutions through an in-depth statistical analysis.
A lacking forward line?
At first glance, it would be easy to conclude Atlético Madrid are simply far worse this season than they were in the previous one but upon further inspection, they are actually on course to becoming even better than they were.
However, with only 22 goals scored in just 19 games played in La Liga, their problem is clear as day – they’re struggling in front of goal and are lacking the lethality to convert their chances. This is even more emphasised when we crunch the numbers and find out that it’s not really chance creation but pure finishing touches that are missing.
At the moment of writing, the Rojiblancos have tallied a value of 32.79 xG, meaning that they are underperforming their expected goals by a total of 10.79. This alone means that they should’ve had at least ten more goals this season already.
Just to compare them with the rest of the crew, that figure would make them fourth-highest goal-scoring team currently in Spain. In reality, they are a middle-table team sitting in 12th. Needless to say, this is the very core of the issues and a lot of that falls on the shoulders of their forward line: Álvaro Morata, Diego Costa, and João Félix.
Combined, they have a total of ten goals between them and all of them – from left to right – are underperforming their current xG values with seven goals with 8.4 xG, two goals with 3.0 xG and two goals with 4.8 xG respectively.
Another factor that plays a huge part in this is the loss of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona during the summer. The Frenchman was consistently outperforming his xG figures during his stay at the club, topping their goal-scoring charts every single year in La Liga. From the 2014/15 season up until 2018/19, he scored 94 goals for the club while tallying 71.47 xG, meaning he had a solid 22 goals more than he should’ve had.
Losing him was bound to be a huge hit for Simeone and it’s definitely showing. But a common misconception is that they are actually underperforming collectively in the attacking sense while in reality, it’s just the finishing that is missing.
But if we take a look at their rolling xG values and their xG against values starting from 2018/19 and going until December in 2019/20, we can see a steady improvement in their chance creation.
Equally, their defence is also improving with their opposition generating less threat to their goal now than last season.
Interestingly enough, it seems that the quality of their shots has actually increased from last season. In 2018/19, 36.4% of their shots were on target with 11.55 shots per 90 minutes. This is seemingly better than their 12.37 shots per 90 minutes with 30.2% being on target in 2019/20.
But the same amount of shots resulting in a slight increase in non-penalty expected goals per shot (from 0.10 to 0.11) could prove the initial hypothesis of their woeful finishing being their core issue. This is even further emphasised by the fact they are currently averaging 2.53 expected goals and assists as opposed to 1.96 from last season.
Clearly, Atlético Madrid are actually heading in the right direction and are creating more and should be scoring more goals in the ongoing campaign. So with that in mind, and since we are talking about improvement, let’s see what could Simeone alter in his tactics that could complete and enhance this transformation.
Areas of concern and chance of improvement
So we concluded that chance creation is not really a problem for Simeone at this very moment but how do you compensate for your forward line’s lack of lethality? Of course, suggesting that Atlético Madrid should just look for better striker options is as viable as it is shallow, but another way of potentially boosting their inefficient goal-scorers is to increase your xG + xA output even more.
In other words, Atlético Madrid will have to maximise their chance creation to somehow mitigate the damage their underperformance in the final third is making. But how exactly do they do that?
One thing that good attacking-minded and aggressive teams do well that puts them in advantageous positions is the high press. Atlético Madrid are known for being a rock in the back and this season, they have seemingly improved in that regard even further.
They are currently the team with the lowest xG against figures in La Liga with just 14.72 and 12 goals conceded, meaning that they have outperformed those values by 2.72. Last season, in January, those figures stood at 19.44 xG against and 13 goals conceded.
Even though they outperformed those values even more than they’re currently doing, they have now conceded one goal fewer and were even expected to concede fewer in the first place.
But if we take a look at the graph below, we can see that Atlético Madrid don’t really press high in an attempt to snatch the ball away in favourable positions. They mostly recover it in their own third and around the middle of the park while doing so in the opposition’s half is rarely done.
This is echoed by their mid-table PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) numbers which stand at 9.94 with the league average being 10.04. On a similar note, even though they seem to be more attacking-oriented than before, their chance creation could be equally boosted with a more expanding setup from Simeone.
This is best seen when analysing his middle of the park where Koke and Saúl Ñíguez specifically have been held on a leash rather than let loose to wreak havoc in the final third. Just by looking at the sheer numbers, we can see that Atlético Madrid have been plagued by their demons of the past that would rather see them scrap for a 1-0 victory than to maximise their attacking potential.
Saúl, for instance, has been largely played in a double-pivot next to Thomas Partey in a 4-4-2 formation that Atlético Madrid have used in 74% of the games played in 2019/20. While this does give them more defensive cover, stats do indicate that their xG rises significantly with both Saúl and Koke on the field and their influence is only behind Jan Oblak’s, which is also telling enough.
When we compare, say, Saúl’s player profile now to his player profile from 2016/17, we can see that he is far less of a complete midfielder and used more in a defensive setup. Quite clearly, this has been hurting Atlético in their offensive ventures.
Interestingly enough, it seems that Simeone has noticed this trend of his midfielders not giving enough in the attacking sense. In recent weeks, Saúl, in particular, has been shifted to a wider position and has been getting into more attacking situations on the pitch.
When we compare his season graph with the one of the last five games, we can see a stark contrast and a huge increase in his actions moving forward, namely the spike in key passes sent per 90 minutes.
But while he was always a big piece of Atlético Madrid’s tactics, Saúl is not really the only issue here – it’s the midfield as a whole that is not really proactive enough. Just the fact that the Spaniard, who sits on only two La Liga goals in the current campaign, is their highest-scoring midfielder tells enough of a story here.
But Simeone has been optimising his offensive output by playing him further up the pitch and closer to the goal, enabling him to make runs in and around the zone 14, all the while having enough of defensive cover with two pivots behind him.
A similar thing has to be done with Koke who, just like Saúl, has plenty of goals in him, as evidenced by his 41 career strikes for the Rojiblancos so far and at the moment of writing this tactical analysis.
Another aspect that simply has to improve if Atlético Madrid are to increase their chance creation is their dribble success across the pitch. As it stands, they are currently 14th in La Liga in that department, averaging 20.76 per 90 minutes while the league average stands at 24.24.
When we take a look at the areas in which they actually attempt those dribbles, we can see the focus is very much on the wide areas, namely the entire left side as well as some action in the box and on the right.
Once again, the contribution from the middle of the pitch and the sheer ability to progress the ball from deeper areas is lacking and could be something that takes their chance creation to a higher level.
Of course, it can also help boost their press-resistance and allow them to be more aggressive in their approach so, in theory, it works well on both ends.
Maximising the full-backs’ efficiency
The final thing that has to be mentioned and could play a crucial role in Atlético Madrid’s rise to the top is the efficiency of their respective full-backs – Renan Lodi and especially Kieran Trippier.
As it stands, this is the position in their squad that could potentially bring them the most improvement in their overall attacking aspirations. Currently, Lodi has one goal and one assist in the ongoing campaign with 0.6 and 1.3 xG and xA respectively, meaning that he’s overperforming his values.
A similar thing is true for Trippier who, with three assists, is still somewhat better than his 2.8 xA suggests. But maximising their potential could be vital for Atlético Madrid, especially when taking into consideration that both of their full-backs are an offensive improvement on their predecessors and the likes of Filipe Luís, Juanfran, or Santiago Arias whose goal contributions they should easily surpass or have done so already with some of them.
Looking at their respective heatmaps below, we can see that Simeone is trying to utilise them in a fairly attacking manner already and has them spending an almost equal amount of time in the opposition’s half as in their own.
The problem, however, is that despite being Atlético Madrid’s most frequent crossers of the ball – Trippier with 6.1 per game in the last five games and Lodi with 4.6 – they still don’t feature among the team’s best dribblers nor do they engage in nearly enough attacking duels.
Lodi is sixth in dribbling and his left flank is responsible for the team’s 46.3% of all successful dribbles in the last five games, while Trippier is not even in the top 10 in this department.
However, the Englishman is topping the charts with 1.9 through passes in the last five games and the right flank, consequently, is responsible for 53.3% of all through passes being made, which is a rather impressive figure.
When it comes to attacking duels, neither of them are nearly influential enough with Lodi sixth with 6.2 and Trippier 10th with 1.9 per game.
Quite clearly, there are certain aspects that can be improved and Simeone will have to figure out how to properly execute this without compensating his defensive solidity. Of course, that is exactly the problem.
There are ways of boosting his full-backs’ attacking potential by altering his system to allow for such actions – such as some of the options we’ve already mentioned like moving Saúl and Koke closer to goal or implementing more aggressive pressing tactics – but they come at a certain cost.
These changes are more likely to affect their xG against and general defensive compactness in a negative way and knowing Simeone, he could be reluctant to go down that path. But, with this new Atlético Madrid surging onto the scene and the revamped system actually working – so far mostly on paper but still working – there’s a chance the Rojiblancos actually go through with it and don’t revert back to their usual tactics.
Even though they are still far from perfect, Atlético Madrid are seemingly on the right path and if he manages to get a couple of teething problems fixed, Simeone just might create a dangerous beast that could easily take over La Liga and possibly even Europe.
Their numbers are already on the rise and suggest they are great both offensively and defensively, just lacking the lethality to convert their chances. If their forward line manages to get their act together and starts rattling the net with those high xG valued opportunities and Simeone finds a way to include his midfield into his xG + xA optimisation, Atlético Madrid just might live up to the hype.
Still, only time can tell how successful they will actually be at that but the foundation has already been laid and all that remains is to build on it.
Let’s see if Simeone truly is the Michelangelo to paint that chapel.