In a much anticipated battle of two giants of La Liga football, Atlético Madrid welcomed Real Madrid to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday night with plenty to play for as the visitors looked to extend their lead at the top of the La Liga table. The hosts, on the other hand, were fighting to keep their title hopes alive.
It was a game of few chances, as will be explained in this analysis, with Karim Benzema going closest as he forced Jan Oblak into a magnificent save in the second half.
This tactical analysis will consider what Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone can take from the tie after an intense tactical battle in which neither of the two world class coaches came out on top.
Simeone stuck with his tactics, though he switched João Félix with Vitolo in order to give the Portugal international more freedom to roam, often interswitching with Vitolo. In defence, Stefan Savić got the nod alongside José María Giménez.
Zidane returned to the strongest possible side, with Nacho remaining at left-back to fill in for the injured Ferland Meny and Marcelo. The key selection decision was to opt for Fede Valverde over James Rodríguez in midfield, whilst he also returned to the front line of Benzema, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard despite their disappointing first outing against Paris Saint-Germain.
Thomas Partey’s time to shine
Not since January has Thomas Partey been more involved in a game and it showed, with the Ghana international being a key piece of Simeone’s set-up. With Atlético lining up with a midfield four, it was more of a diamond than a flat four. Vitolo would position himself high, often centrally, with Koke and Saúl sitting either side of Thomas in the deeper role as the pivot. This allowed him to dictate the tempo and movement of the ball, playing 86 passes, his highest figure this season and only beaten twice last season. With an accuracy of 89%, he was crucial in transitioning the ball.
One area in which he was particularly essential was in distributing the ball to the full-backs. Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi took advantage of the narrow midfield set-up to break forwards whenever possible and exploit the spaces that were left behind as the Real Madrid full-backs were drawn in narrow to support the central overload. Partey’s vision and passing was key to getting the ball out into the wide positions quickly, something which was key in order to be able to spread the play quickly while there was still space for the full-back to roam into.
Never before has Partey played so many forward passes in an Atlético shirt, yet it took place in a game in which Simeone’s team produced very little attacking threat. The change came as Koke and Saúl faded whilst Partey stepped up as the leader in the middle of the park, living up to the occasion in a unique way. When Marcos Llorente arrived this summer, many expected him to compete with Partey, but instead it has only served to push the Ghanian to the next level and establish himself as one of the first names on the team-sheet.
Hazard has made just four appearances for Real Madrid, following his outing on Saturday, yet the one against Atlético was perhaps the most disappointing to date. Playing on his preferred left flank, at the expense of both Bale and Benzema who did not have the same freedom to drift towards the left, he was seen as a key outlet. Particularly early on in the game, as soon as the ball came loose, Real Madrid would look to play the ball to the left to transition the ball forwards but Hazard continually failed to live up to expectations.
With just one successful dribble throughout the whole game, he looked to be physically not up to scratch. Every time that he received the ball, he would slow the pace down and effectively kill off the counter. Coming up against Trippier, he frequently slowed down, allowing time for Atlético to get players back, and forcing himself to turn backwards to play the ball back. There is no better example than the one shown below. That was the key to why he failed to complete a single cross, but registered 18 backward passes, his highest return at club level since August 2016.
This was a major factor in why Real Madrid failed to capitalise on potential counter-attacking moves and saw their transition break down on various occasions. Hazard offered little to Zidane which is why he turned to James to replace him and offer a more direct attacking style, the kind of which the coach would have hoped for from Hazard but that he failed to produce as he continually slowed, turned back and passed.
A return to 4-3-3 for Zidane
For much of this season, and last season, Real Madrid have struggled to use the 4-3-3 formation in the same way that they did when Cristiano Ronaldo was at the club. The front three trident shape that was deployed then involved two wide wingers whose primary task was to counter, attack and deliver crosses or cut inside and shoot. Since his departure though, there has rarely been a time when two such wingers have been selected, with the likes of Lucas Vázquez preferred, offering a more conservative, central and deeper-lying winger.
Against Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla, the front three often looked disconnected and failed to link up. Against Atlético, there were more signs of this. The front three interchanged movement more freely, with Hazard at times swapping with Bale and even Benzema, providing the free-flowing shape that Zidane is known to prefer. Primarily, this allowed Benzema to drift towards the left, looking to create a conflict for Trippier to open up more space for Hazard to run into, though he never took advantage.
It was also useful for the midfield. As against Osasuna, Valverde would lead the press in midfield in the most advanced position of the midfield three, with Kroos offering some support behind and whilst Casemiro retained his deep positioning. The set-up was reminiscent of two years ago for Zidane, but it remained clear that further work is required to continue this integration and get the best out of Hazard in particular.
A refusal to gamble
What decided this fixture was the decision from both teams to be so reluctant to take any kind of risks. This was evident from the starting line-ups, with Zidane offering a more conservative and reserved approach for the visitors whilst Vitolo’s deployment in midfield for Atlético provided a more reliable defensive option when defending with a flat midfield line. It was a theme which continued throughout as both sides proved to be reluctant to commit players forward, with Real Madrid’s full-backs rarely getting forwards whilst Atlético’s would only get forward one at a time.
When James was introduced in the closing stages, for Hazard rather than one of the midfield three, it was again a conservative call. Atlético had already begun to revert to a five at the back system with Thomas dropping in to provide further cover. With the midfield four applying a press across the pitch, it left a rigid defensive structure which was hard to break down but also isolated Diego Costa in attack. Far from blessed with pace at his age, it effectively served to kill off any hopes of a late counter-attack before they had even begun.
The introduction of Luka Jović in the 88th minute was Zidane’s first indication of real attacking intent but it was more symbolic than anything. Atlético’s rigid structure was one that would not be compromised and had long since settled with Thomas dropping and a strong link across the backline. Jović’s introduction added an extra body, but only truly served so as to congest the area further, with so many men in the box that it became almost impossible to find a way through.
Inevitably in such a decisive fixture so early in the season, neither side was willing to give anything away. It meant that Thomas Partey could excel as the star man, bossing the midfield in a game of few flashes of individual talent or ability, but it also indicated disappointment from others. This was the chance for the pace and skill of Hazard or Bale to make the difference, particularly in the transition, but they failed to do so. In part, this was down to the reserved tactics of Zidane, much like his counterpart Simeone, but also down to disappointing performance from all of the key men who possess the talent to change a game in a moment.
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