For anyone who has watched Atletico Madrid play during Diego Simeone’s reign as manager, starting back in 2011, it will come as no surprise to say that Atletico are a strong defensive side. In fact, “El Cholo” has built his Atletico team, and had remarkable success given the expected domestic dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona, around having an organized, robust defensive system, where teamwork and discipline are vital.
This tactical analysis will give an overview of Atletico’s basic defensive philosophy, and provide an analysis of the minutiae and nuances of their tactics within it which make it so effective.
Statistics and principles
If we were to briefly sum up Atletico’s style we would say they sit back, in a mid or low block, keep vertically and horizontally compact, and then counter quickly, allowing their quick, skilful attacking players to damage teams on the transition. And in short, this is true. But there is more nuance to it than this.
When we think of teams that sit in a mid or low block, or even when you think of Atletico, pressing isn’t something that immediately comes to mind. They’re generally associated with sitting off, and conceding possession (which admittedly is true with just 46.5% of possession on average per La Liga game last season). Atletico ranked in the bottom half of La Liga for PPDA. However, interestingly, their 10.35 PPDA wasn’t that of a team that consistently sits off, and if they were to play in the Premier League, it would have statistically been the fifth most intense press.
An argument for La Liga’s more intense PPDA numbers might be that the league has a slower passing rate to the Premier League and lower ball progression numbers. And that is true, but the differences in the averages between both leagues are so small that that’s not really a valid argument.
Admittedly, they registered a low 5.6 duels, tackles or interceptions per minute of opposition possession, but to say they’re a side that are going to immediately sit back and just counter would be a misrepresentation.
They also aren’t a side that repeatedly fouls to break down the opposition’s attacks, making just 12.61 fouls per 90, which was below La Liga’s league average.
Nevertheless, they are an incredibly effective defensive unit. If we look at a few of the most commonly referenced defensive metrics, they rank well. Last season they won 59.8% of their defensive duels, with only Real Sociedad ranking higher. On top of this they made the fourth highest amount of interceptions per 90, blocked just shy of a quarter of shots against them, and won over 50% of their aerial duels as a team. These statistics when looked at individually are impressive, but even more so when looked at together. We can ascertain that they clearly defend well as a group by looking at their defensive duel win percentage, but we can also state, just by looking at their statistics that they are narrow and compact, hence their high shot block percentage, high interception rate, and finally, we can see it if we look at the average xG per shot against. Atletico don’t allow the least amount of shots against them in La Liga, but they do have the least dangerous shots against them in the league, according to xG. In fact, along with Lyon, they have the joint lowest xG per shot against in Europe’s top five leagues, with just a 0.092xG per shot.
Again from this we can ascertain they are so difficult to break down that teams are forced to take shots in less than ideal areas.
Setting up in the “press”
Simeone has consistently used a 4-4-2 at Atletico and this has continued in this past season. If we start by looking at how they press we can see there are some key principles he looks to achieve whilst maintaining this 4-4-2 structure.
Firstly, when we look at the image below, we can see that the two centre-forwards aren’t pressing the ball-carrier but are instead sat in front of the opposition pivot. With the ball currently in the possession of the opposition left-centre-back, the rest of the midfield have shifted to this side, leaving more space on the opposite flank. In doing so, there is little to no space for the opponent to play centrally, and even playing to the closest flank is risky. This encourages the opposition to work the ball laterally.
Atletico will consistently work to frustrate the opposition and this basic set-up protects the central areas whilst still not giving easy access down the closest flank. Teams will need to be patient to break them down, and Simeone is happy to win the ball back either with the opposition hitting it long, over their defence, or by winning the ball back in these immediate areas should the opponent take risks playing out, particularly into a central area.
With both centre-forwards sat central, they are in the position to immediately counter through central areas, whilst the opposition back four is spread entirely across the width of the pitch. Their midfield are sat closely behind them in a compact flat four, shutting off any access to the pivot, whilst blocking any forward passes in the half-spaces as well.
Atletico are disciplined in this approach, and it is very basic, but very effective. We can see in the image below that the opposition left-back has possession. The closest centre-forward to the ball, in this case Marcos Llorente, closes off the lateral pass to the pivot, whilst the second forward, Diego Costa, is parallel with him and is ready to press the opposition centre-backs should the ball be played backwards to them. Atletico are anything but aggressive in their press other than when there is a backwards pass, which is a basic trigger, but nevertheless, the entire team reacts to such a pass by instantly stealing ground together and pushing forward.
At the same time, the right-winger, Angel Correa, pushes up to press the left-back, whilst Kieran Trippier pushes forward as well, preventing the easy pass to the Betis winger on the same flank. We can see how the rest of the back four are in a flat three, balancing Trippiers movement, whilst the midfield mirror the same pattern, providing depth and cover by doing so.
In this instance, the ball is worked laterally by Betis, as we so often see happen against Atletico’s defensive structure. There are two things to note with this. The first is that we can see the same pattern but now on the left side, as Koke and Renan Lodi push forward to press, whilst the midfield and defence balance their movements once more. The second thing to note is how, as Betis have circled the ball, Atletico haven’t remained on the same lateral plain. They are able to steal ground by pushing ever so slightly forward as a unit without leaving any more gaps between the lines. It’s a subtle movement but certainly a purposeful one and as the opposition circle the ball, they have less time and space to play, with Atletico suffocating them at the source.
There are some variations with the centre-forwards movements, albeit the principles remain the same, and these variations will become apparent in the next section and throughout the article.
Covering the pivot, preventing central play, and using pressing traps
Atletico won’t remain in this 4-4-2 block for the entirety of their time out of possession, and they are flexible. Particularly in the case of when a backwards pass triggers a press forward, there can be the chance for the opposition to stretch the two centre-forwards and seek to play centrally. The opposition pivot can now find space in between the two centre-forwards, as we can see in the image below, and it is up to one of the two central-midfielders to push up to cover this. One of the themes that you’ll see throughout this piece is how Simeone’s central-midfielders have an excellent understanding of space in front of and behind them, whilst despite being in a midfield four, their midfield does a terrific job of remaining compact, even in situations such as the one below.
The pressure of the central-midfielder, Saul Niguez, forces the pivot to have to play quickly, and he plays to his left-sided centre-back. Saul will continue his pressing motion in this instance, closing off the pivot and any forward passes with his cover shadow, allowing his two centre-forwards to remain in place, and ensuring his right-winger doesn’t push forward either and can stay marking the opposition left-back.
Thomas Partey is stopping any forward passes as well, albeit with man-marking, whilst Koke drops inside, knowing that with Saul’s cover shadow and the positioning of his two centre-forwards, there is no threat of the opposition switching to his flank, and he drops in next to Partey and balances the midfield.
We will see Atletico’s players angling their runs, using their cover shadow to protect the inside of the pitch and show the opposition away from the centre and towards the flanks where there is less space for them to play, and Atletico can trap them, and regain possession.
The vertical compactness of the side provides flexibility to the midfield and allows them to adapt to the opposition looking to break the first and second lines of their press. In the example below the ball is worked laterally by the opposition. In this example, Alvaro Morata is partnering Diego Costa and he presses the ball-carrier, leaving the pivot in his cover shadow and cutting off the lateral pass back to the left-sided centre-back, whilst Diego Costa drops in to pick up the pivot anyway. In doing so the midfield four can remain compact.
If we now look at the midfield four, we can firstly see how all of them react to the ball being played laterally by moving across the pitch themselves. Partey, as well as Diego Costa, is ready to press the opposition pivot, whilst Koke is moving across to pressure the Sociedad right-back.
If we look at Martin Odegaard, who has been highlighted operating between Atletico’s midfield and defensive lines, he is in a position where he can potentially receive in the space behind Partey.
Left-back Renan Lodi is close enough where he can push forward and pick Odegaard up. This frees Partey up to be more aggressive with his decisions, and due to the absence of a right-winger for Sociedad there is no risk to this. Renan Lodi pushing up into this space means that both of his centre-backs can remain in position and continue protecting the centre of the pitch.
We can see another example of this below, this time with Renan Lodi covering his left-winger Vitolo, who pushes out to press the full-back as he did in the image above. With Odegaard making a run to fill the space left by Vitolo, Renan Lodi pushes forward and takes his position. In doing so we see Atletico in the same asymmetric 4-4-2 shape we saw them in at the beginning of this analysis.
The central midfielders work in tandem to close space in front of them, whilst covering the space behind them, where in essence, one goes forward, and one drops. They can do this because they are supported by the wingers either side of them tucking in to keep their shape horizontally compact.
Below we can see how Partey presses the ball-carrier, keeping two of Sociedad’s attacking players in his cover shadow, whilst his midfield partner, Hector Herrera in this example, drops in and can cut out the through pass in the central lane. Whereas in the forward line Atletico look to block any pass into the pivot, they know that with the protection from their central-midfielders and the close proximity of the defenders, they have a good chance of winning back possession in the central channel. Atletico often leave this open just enough to encourage a risky through pass. In the example below, Herrera and centre-back Felipe are able to press Alexander Isak quickly and effectively in this space and win back the ball. It should be noted they don’t leave wide central spaces open. These are small gaps, but are judged well enough to encourage the risk and win the ball back.
When they respond to the trigger to press (the backwards pass), it may be the only time during the game where Atletico are stretched vertically. We can see this below. The two centre-forwards are leaving space between them, meaning one of Atletico’s central-midfielders has to push forward. With Vitolo shifting imminently to the left-flank to pick up Sociedad’s right-back, we can see that they can potentially be played through in a central area here.
However, Atletico are firmly in control of their shape here. Partey, who has pushed up to pick up the pivot only does so to prevent the keeper playing directly into him. As the keeper plays laterally to his right-sided centre-back, Morata, who is the deepest forward, can put the pivot in his cover shadow, and Partey can immediately go to press the Sociedad midfielder who finds themselves in acres of space. At the same time, Renan Lodi once again pushes forward so the Sociedad player is pressured from in front and behind and has no easy passing option with Partey ensuring the pivot is in his cover shadow as well. We can see that both Atletico forwards are once again in central positions whilst the opposition defence is stretched, so once again, they are ready to counter quickly thanks to this pressing trap.
The advanced defensive phase
Now if we look at Atletico in deeper areas, we see how they look to always ensure there is a clear numerical superiority in the back line. Generally they want to keep a minimum of three players in defence. So as a full-back pushes up to engage the winger, they will keep their back three, as we saw earlier on in this analysis. However, ff the right-back pushes up for example, and the right-sided centre-back feels they need to shift over themselves more so than the left-sided centre-back and left-back feel comfortable doing so, both of Atletico’s central-midfielders operate close enough thanks to the team’s vertical compactness whereby they can drop into the back line and prevent Atletico’s defence from shifting too far across as a unit.
On quick breaks it is common to see both of the central-midfielders drop back easily into the defensive line, and it means it’s very difficult for the opponent to stretch Atletico’s defence.
We can also see how Atletico fill the box in an advanced attack, and this leads to the high block percentage mentioned earlier and the low xG per shot that teams register against them. In the image below, three Atletico players surround the ball-carrier showing him away from goal, whilst there are another five Atletico players not including the goalkeeper filling the box.
Of course, along with this excellent defence it should be noted that even if you can play through them, you then have to face one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Jan Oblak.
From wide areas we can see how difficult it is for teams to create good crossing opportunities. Their wingers drop very deep in an advanced defensive phase and protect their full-backs, but also allow the central-midfielders to be more flexible. In the image below Vitolo has dropped back to support Renan Lodi, whilst Koke drops in from the right-wing and shield the defence. In doing so this allows Herrera to sit in the space between Renan lodi and his left-sided centre-back and ensure the Atletico defenders who are strongest in the air, their centre-backs, can remain central.
This analysis gives a brief insight into how Atletico’s defensive system works. Throughout this piece you will have seen how they focus on forcing the opponent into wider areas, but still allowing traps to catch them in central areas where they can break more effectively from. They stay compact both horizontally and vertically and both of these things allow their players, specifically their midfielders to be a little more cavalier at times in aggressively pressing from midfield, whilst either the midfield or defenders will fill the space left by this player. In the more advanced phase, they obviously pack players behind the ball, but are intelligent in keeping their strongest defensive players in areas where crosses may come into, whilst the central-midfielders are able to support the defence and again, allow them to be slightly more aggressive in their movements as well (just like the central-midfielders).