La Liga 2019/20: Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid – tactical analysis
Real Madrid looked to build on taking top spot in La Liga from Barcelona as they welcomed an out of form Atlético Madrid side who were desperate for a morale boost after struggles both on and off the field as they continue to pick up disappointing results whilst missing out on their top transfer targets.
After starting brightly in the first half, that faded in the second half as Zinedine Zidane made a double change at the half-time break which left Diego Simeone beaten tactically. Karim Benzema would be the man to score the winner, his first goal against Atlético at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
This tactical analysis will provide analysis of the tactics of both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in this La Liga battle. Real Madrid were the undoubted winners, particularly after their second-half domination of Atlético Madrid, but here we will analyse just how they achieved that victory.
Zidane surprised many by sticking with the five man midfield which had worked well against Valencia, but less so against Atleti in their Spanish Super Cup final meeting. That meant that Isco was the main surprise in the starting line-up whilst the other notable decision was the one to start with Ferland Mendy over Marcelo at left-back.
Simeone’s options were more limited given that Kieran Trippier, José María Giménez, Koke, Hector Herrera, João Félix and Diego Costa are all sidelined by injury. That meant that Vitolo got the nod in attack, with Marcos Llorente starting against his former club as he came into the side in place of Herrera in midfield.
Zidane’s first half mistake
In the first 45 minutes, no-one can deny that the game belonged to Atlético Madrid. A penalty shout for Casemiro’s pulling down of Álvaro Morata and an effort off the post reflected the fact that the Colchoneros were taking advantage of their possession, despite having less than half of the possession that Real Madrid had in the opening 45 minutes. That came down to the fact that the five man midfield produced a narrow approach which was easy for Atleti to control, becoming rapidly overcrowded and preventing the movement and pacey runs which help to set Real Madrid apart from their rivals.
Whilst the plan may have been for the full-backs to exploit the flanks and get forward, there was very little space for them to do so as Mendy was blocked by Isco with Dani Carvajal in the same scenario with Fede Valverde on the other side. Equally, Vitolo would pin them back by looking to exploit the wide areas, with Atleético turning into a three man attack with Ángel Correa on the opposite flank looking to present plenty of width as Atleti broke forward.
The overcrowded midfield and lack of options led to play continually breaking down in the middle. Defenders would step up to bring the ball out, as can be seen by Raphaël Vraane in the example above, but not find many options. That can be reflected in the fact that Varane has only made more long passes in the first half of a game five times this season, showing his desperation to move the ball on without many viable passing options. That left Benzema isolated and Real Madrid struggled to create any chances for the Frenchman. Whilst they did create 0.37 xG, none of that came from an attacking player, with two thirds of the xG created coming from Sergio Ramos at two set pieces.
And how he changed things
It was evident that Real Madrid needed to make changes and Zidane reacted as soon as he could by making a double substitution at half-time. It was the first time he made any changes at the break since April 2018 and never has there been such an obvious need for it. Vinícius Junior and Lucas Vázquez came on to replace Isco and Toni Kroos and immediately offered more width. Their pace and desire to attack down the flanks stretched play immediately. Suddenly, as the defenders stepped up with the ball from deep, there were wingers stretching the Atlético defence and there was space for full-backs to move into.
That was instrumental in allowing Real Madrid to get forward more clinically and was the case as Mendy burst forward and then linked up with Vinícius in the build-up to their goal. Whilst central areas accounted for 78% of xG in the first half, that dropped to just 20% in the second half. The left flank in particular turned out to be a decisive area in determining the result. The number of overall attacks and xG decreased, influenced by the less attacking nature taken after the goal only 11 minutes into the second half, but 71% of them came from wide areas, as opposed to 56% in the first period.
Atlético, a side who focus on jamming the middle with midfielders who can block play, struggled to adapt. Suddenly their vulnerable full-backs were under threat and being exploited without sufficient cover from the middle of the park. Even mentally, Atleti’s play became more disjointed with their progressive pass completion rate dropping from 70% in the first half to 58% in the second, with a real low at just 41% in the first 15 minutes of the second period. What is particularly concerning for Atlético will be that they will soon face a tough Champions League duel with Liverpool, a side who use their width on the counter significantly.
Atletico’s loss of a talisman
Whilst Atlético dominated the first half, an injury to Morata forced him off early in the second and that was the hammer blow that would really give the hosts the advantage. Without him, Félix or Costa, Atlético were left without a centre-forward and rather than turning to Ivan Šaponjić, Simeone inexplicably brought on Thomas Lemar. The result was a team without a reference point in attack, without anyone to challenge the Real Madrid back line and without any kind of threat. It comes as no surprise that the team created only 0.06 xG in the 40 minutes after Morata was withdrawn, even that chance being a hopeful shot from distance from Thomas Partey.
With Correa, Lemar, Vitolo and Yannick Carrasco all brought on or used as makeshift strikers, none of them are natural poachers or target men. As Atleti got the ball forward and looked to play it into the box, they would often find that the only men available were wingers out in wide areas rather than attackers looking to get into the danger area. The number of crosses made decreased by 34% in the second half, primarily down to the fact that there was nobody in the box to receive them.
Notably, this approach also allowed Real Madrid to play the ball out from the back with greater ease. It is not because there was no press from Atlético, rather that there was little to no central presence, often being too deep if it did exist, who would be there to challenge the likes of Ramos or Varane. Both men could take the ball out and encourage full-backs to move forwards without too much of a threat. Whilst Atlético’s overwhelming number of widemen did pin back the Real Madrid wide defenders later on, they were not necessary given the Real Madrid wingers available in the second half and with clear passing channels allowed to the central defenders.
This was very much a game that summarised the seasons of both teams. Real Madrid did not deserve the three points quite as thoroughly, but they reacted to the situation within the game with some good tactical adjustments and were clinical in front of goal. On the other hand, Atlético reacted poorly to their enforced changes and the actions of Zidane, whilst wasting several first half chances. The end result turned out to be the expected home win, but this was a golden opportunity for Atlético to provide an upset given the way that they started, capitalising on the selection mistake made by Zidane. Simeone will feel frustrated by that, but equally, it is important to note that injuries left him hamstrung and unable to secure the much needed points even if he perhaps could have done more to help his team to leave the Bernabéu with something.