Champions League 2019/20: Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool – tactical analysis
Atletico Madrid faced a difficult task as they welcomed the reigning champions of the Champions League and the unbeaten Premier League leaders to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. Liverpool arrived and were ready to put up a fight on the same pitch where they won the trophy only eight months ago.
It took only four minutes for Saúl Ñíguez to open the scoring with a strike which would go on to decide the game. This tactical analysis will consider just how Atlético defended from that point on, protecting their lead to secure a crucial Champions League last 16 first leg victory to take to Anfield for the second leg in March.
This tactical analysis will consider the tactics of both Diego Simeone and Jürgen Klopp in order to further detail the analysis of where Liverpool went wrong and how Simeone’s masterclass found a way to beat the Reds.
Simeone sprung a surprise on Klopp by lining up with Renan Lodi and Thomas Lemar on the left flank, having been expected to field Saúl in defence and Vitolo Machín on the left of midfield. Other than that, Álvaro Morata returned to line up with the strongest possible team.
Liverpool also selected their strongest 11, fielding the midfield of Fabinho, Georgino Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson with Naby Keita, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain restricted to the bench.
Atlético protecting themselves from the counter
It was clear that Atlético had identified Liverpool’s threat on the counter and were desperate to cut it off at the source. Whilst they did not hold back until after the goal, they were always cautious in how they committed men forwards. As can be seen in this example, the corner which led to the goal, the team had four men across the edge of the box who effectively operated as a blanket which would prevent any players from breaking forwards at pace into the space in behind them.
Another essential element of this approach was how Atlético immediately looked to shut off any passing route for Alisson. His distribution and ability to turn defence into attack this season has been well documented, but Atlético were effective in how they blocked this. Each set piece would see one player immediately move towards the goalkeeper but more with the intention of preventing a quick release, rather than solely preventing him from getting to a cross or shot.
This is reflected in that the goalkeeper has only had fewer distributions once so far in 2020, with Morata, in particular, taking up that role whilst the midfield and defence would track back quickly in order to block off the options available to him. This was crucial as it slowed down the pace of Liverpool’s passing and effectively forced them into less progress passes.
And sitting deep whenever possible
Immediately after the fourth minute goal from Saúl, Atlético retreated into a 4-4-2 shape with a highly rigid structure and with very little movement. This narrowed the spaces available which prevented the likes of Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah from being able to run at the Atlético full-backs. This also prevented Roberto Firmino from having space to operate in between the lines and effectively left Liverpool with 71.85% possession but with no real threat, as shown by the fact it was only the second time that Liverpool have not registered a shot on target under Klopp.
What was also intriguing was their press, led by the front two. The press of the Liverpool defence was rarely deployed, usually being led by one of the two strikers, often Ángel Correa, and then occasionally supported by one man from midfield, typically Saúl or Koke. This allowed Liverpool to continue to pass the ball around the back, with Atlético not desperate to force them to gamble on long balls over the top or out wide. Instead, they were patient and allowed Liverpool to grow increasingly frustrated and took the wrong passing decisions. Their total of just one smart pass, a figure only worsened in two fixtures this season, reflects their poor passing choices.
This forced Liverpool to continually swapping flanks and playing lateral passes. In fact, the total of 281 lateral passes is one which has only been surpassed in the Champions League by Klopp’s men four times in the last three seasons, with this being the first defeat. Whilst in other cases it was typical of a side dominating possession and having no need to break through lines, such as in thrashings of Maribor, this was very different as it showed the fact that Liverpool simply could not break Atlético down.
The team selection surprise which decided the game
In his team selection, as previously explained, Simeone sprang a surprise by selecting Lodi and Lemar on the left-hand side. This was clearly done with the intent of preventing Salah from playing, up against a more mobile left-back who played a more defensive role than he has typically taken up this season. Usually given more freedom to roam forwards, on this occasion he had more defensive duties and one of them was to take the Egyptian out of the game, which he did perfectly.
After a nervous start, it was clear that he was to mark Salah tight at all times. Given his pace, he could afford to do so without being turned inside out, and it allowed him the chance to prevent Liverpool from counter-attacking. Particularly as Alisson looked to play the ball from his own half or Virgil Van Dijk looked for a long ball, Lodi would bring himself tight to Salah and block off his run, then shielding the ball and regaining possession. Whilst he would not always be successful, he managed an incredible 15 interceptions, a career high for the Brazilian.
This method of breaking up the Liverpool attack was clear and forced Salah to drift more centrally as he grew frustrated that his approach was not bringing success. That led to an over congestion within the central third of the field fuelled by the fact that Mané was making the same decision on the left. In the end, it simply played into Atlético’s narrow structure and allowed them to control and contain the Liverpool attack in a highly effective way.
Klopp’s failed change
Aided by Mané’s ill discipline which was fortunate not to see him needlessly dismissed for swinging arms in the first half, Klopp identified where his team were going wrong and looked to make a change. With Henderson the only man bringing about an attacking threat through the middle, he brought on Divock Origi to replace Mané at half-time and would then later replace Salah with the more centrally focused Oxlade-Chamberlain.
However, it did not have the desired effect. Atlético’s rigid structure meant that there was not great space to manoeuvre in central areas, forcing Firmino to drop almost into a number six role and times and clog the midfield. Origi’s reaction was to drift wide, only to encounter the same challenges that Salah and Mané had found previously.
Whilst Oxlade-Chamberlain was more effective, he would begin in a deeper-lying role and look to burst forward on the ball. However, with no central options to pass to and encountering a brick wall of the rigid four-man Atlético defence, he was given few choices but to look to take shots from distance. The result of this was that Liverpool were forced into shooting from long range, with an average shot distance of 20.54 metres being their furthest out this season, other than the FA Cup tie with Liverpool were almost all first team regulars were rested.
This was undoubtedly a tactical masterclass from Simeone. Whilst some may suggest that he was fortunate to grab such an early goal, and in such circumstances as the ball pinged around the box, it was a superb exercise in defensive discipline for the remaining 86 minutes. Liverpool could not find a way to break down the Atlético defence and struggled without their two favourite approaches of counter-attacking and spreading the ball wide. Without dominating possession, or even coming close to doing so, Atlético dictated the terms of the game and defined where and how Liverpool could play the ball. By doing so, they secured a crucial first leg victory which puts them in a strong position heading into the second leg at Anfield.