From anger to pride: how Alguacil’s changes almost nullified Atletico’s lead – tactical analysis
With Barcelona failed to acquire three points at Levante one day earlier, Atletico Madrid already had an advantage in the league table before facing Real Sociedad. This is an exciting battle by two of the best coaches in La Liga since both sides were fighting for something. Thanks for the two early goals, Atlético are one step closer to the crown now, while the guests are still qualified for a UEFA Europa League spot.
Atlético started the game strongly, and things developed in a “Simeone” way. Sociedad were granted more possession and chances to attack in the last hour of the game but failed to turn things around. This tactical analysis will introduce the tactics and its dynamic changes of this game.
Atlético came with a strong squad despite there were some rotations – Thomas Lemar was replaced Saúl Ñíguez as Simone played with a back four this time. Mario Hermoso shifted to the left-back while Felipe partnered Stefan Savić at the centre of the defence.
Sociedad also had some changes compared to the game before. Modibo Sagnan played with Aritz Elustondo as the centre-backs, Joseba Zaldúa started on the right side. Ander Guevara , Adnan Januzaj, and David Silva dropped as Martín Zubimendi, Portu, and Ander Barrenetxea started the game.
A strong start from Atlético
As suggested in the title, Imanol Alguacil was angry at the start of the game since Sociedad performed poorly. The guests conceded two goals at the 16th and 28th minute and it could have been three or four if Atlético were more clinical.
Atlético were direct in this game, but not attempting to create chaos at the front with long balls. Instead, they have a clear plan on how to attack – mainly on the left side of Sociedad. They identified Nacho Monreal and Sagnan’s side as the weaker one, trying to take them out of positions and exploit spaces behind the high line.
Since Sociedad wingers were defending half-spaces narrowly in the block, the full-backs always came out to press but being late on the ball. While shifting, the horizontal distances of players increased, and these are the moments exploited by Atlético. The hosts had players to run from deep or with the defence, the defenders would only pass behind the defence even teammates were dropping.
In this image, the back four of Sociedad was stretched as Monreal stepped up to press Kieran Trippier, but his late arrival failed to stop the through pass. Atlético cleverly enlarged the gap by a reversed movement between winger and midfielder: Ángel Correa dropped and Marcos Llorente attacked depth simultaneously. Sagnan was pulled away but Zubimendi was slow to track Llorente, so Atlético very easily reached behind of the defence to face the goalkeeper 1v1 by running through the channels.
Another example of Atlético’s through passes and direct attack. This time, Hermoso was on the ball and Sociedad had the winger pressing, but being late again because of the distance travelled.
At the front, Suárez was trying to avoid offside by laterally moving before the acceleration, but still marginally fell into the offside trap. However, you could still see how big the gap between Zaldúa and Elustondo, Atlético were fully aware of exploiting this gap and created several clear-cut opportunities at the first 30 minutes of the game.
After taking a two-goal advantage, Atlético went deeper and more conservative. At the meantime, Alguacil quickly adjusted the defensive system to prevent the same situation from happening again and again.
The change was dropping Zubimendi to the defence, numerically it was a 4-1-4-1 to a 5-4-1. This would give the wing-backs flexibility to press higher, also better at closing the opposition at one side while narrowing the channels.
The image shows how Sociedad dropped to a back five with Monreal pressing Trippier again, this time the gaps between defenders were smaller as Zubimendi’s positioning balanced the defence. Also, Sociedad were better at closing the opposition at one side, especially using the midfielders to cover spaces on the ball-side. The hosts found it more difficult to beat the block in the same way, so the biggest threat was eliminated.
Of course, the change also led to exposed spaces at other area, Sociedad lost some compactness vertically after changing to a 5-4-1. This new system only had two three defensive layers, one less than a 4-1-4-1, so spacing behind the midfield was easier to exploit.
At times Atlético were able to enter spaces between the lines after Sociedad dropped to a 5-4-1. For example, Alguacils’ men conceded the red spaces and were unable to cover against the reversed movements. But Atlético were not the team with good at creating chances between the lines, so the threat diminished as Sociedad looked to level things up.
Flexible defence of Simone’s side
Under Simeone, Atlético have developed several defensive systems to adapt to situations. This section analyses how they used several formations and pressing to make Sociedad’s attack difficult.
At the early stages, the hosts pressed very high to try to attack from the transitions. Sociedad were forced to play long and dominated by the Atlético centre-backs when they were trapped sideways. The strategy of Simeone was to force the ball to one side, then shutting all short options around the ball.
The press was often led by the front three from inside to outside, this means the central passing lane would be covered when the ball reached the wide zone. For example, see how Sociedad’s goalkeeper – Álex Remiro was covered by Suárez in this screenshot and the ball was impossible to go back to the weaker side. Meanwhile, the far-side winger also tucked in narrowly to press the midfielder so Atlético had a 4v4 outfield player numerical equality on the ball-side.
The passing options of Elustondo were limited as the right-back (Zaldúa) and dropping midfielder (Jon Guridi) were marked by Carrasco and a midfielder already. Short passes were extremely risky and would lead to turnover near the goal. Therefore, Elustondo was rather direct to kick the ball long but Alexander Isak struggled to reach those attempts. Atlético easily recovered possession and started another attack quickly after these scenarios.
When Atlético dropped to a deeper block, they tended to defend in a 4-4-2 instead of a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. With two wingers tucking inside narrowly at half-spaces, Simeone wanted to keep both half-spaces closed to force Sociedad’s attack sideways. You could see how Carrasco and Correa covered the half-spaces, especially the Argentine closed the passing lane to Guridi could shut the progressive option of the opponents.
On most occasions, Llorente would step up to form the first line with the striker. However, when defending at the middle third, Atlético were happier to defend in a block instead of coming out to press. Sociedad struggled to find the solution and failed to register any shot until the 18th minute of the game.
Apart from defending in a back four, Atlético also had solutions when the opposition right-back tucked inside. Carrasco or Correa could flexibly form a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 to defend the wide spaces.
For example, the Belgian international was defending like a left wing-back in this scenario. So, even Zaldúa came inside to receive, the wide zones were not exposed and Portu was under the control of an Atlético player, the opposition could not directly spread the ball wide and cross.
Alguacil’s offensive changes
While facing a tough defence set by Atlético, Sociedad struggled to find solutions at the early stages of the game with only 4 of their 12 shots came before half-time. When the hosts were defending in a block, sometimes they were not compact enough vertically and let the opposition to bypass the first line very easily.
Initially, the plan was to put two midfielders (Mikel Oyarzabal & Guridi) at half-spaces and high, trying to occupy the two midfielders of the 4-4-2 defence. Their occupation of half-spaces and spaces between the lines were shown in the above image.
Meanwhile, Sociedad pushed Monreal high and kept Zaldúa deeper to form a 3-1 in the build-up, this shape offered several advantages: stretching the two-man Atlético first line to enlarge the passing channels, creating layers to offer progressive options behind the strikers. If we are only viewing the distribution at the midfield, Erreala enjoyed a 3v2 numerical advantage with Zubimendi as the holding midfielder.
The example shows how the advantage was utilized. The centre-backs of the 3-1 drew strikers out of position, opening spaces for Zubimendi to receive. None of the Atlético midfielders tried to press Zubimendi as they were occupied by the players at half-spaces already. Sociedad easily broke the first line of the block but always struggle to play the right passes into the final third.
In the second half, Alguacil made more changes to the team. Now, Zubimendi’s role was shared by other players. The diversified workload would make Atlético more difficult to defend as more than one player could initiate the attack now.
Specifically, Oyarzabal was instructed to get into spaces behind the midfield to offer a vertical option for the centre-backs. The image shows the movement he came inside and the vertical pass. The Spanish international was free from the half-spaces as Barrenetxea switched the job with him.
Now, occupation of half-spaces was provided by Guridi and Barrenetxea, and Oyarzabal could receive behind the midfield. The 3v2 numerical advantage at the midfield worked a bit differently. However, the attacks were not extremely smooth in these situations as the Atlético centre-backs, especially Savić was aggressive to defend spaces in front.
So, when Sociedad wanted to have more control of the game without playing risky vertical passes into the block, they had Guridi dropping to help the build-up. The shape was more like a 3-2 as Guridi played deeper as the game went on. Initially, he was tasked to occupy spaces and midfielders high to open rooms for Zubimendi, but now tended to drop outside of the block to help the build-up.
The image shows Guridi came out to receive the ball from centre-backs. However, progression was suboptimal if Atlético shut the half-spaces, Sociedad could only go wide and struggle to place the ball into dangerous positions.
But when Sociedad managed to reach the half-spaces, they made runs to attack that gap between Hermoso and Felipe. This was an effective way to search for opportunities as the Brazilian centre-back was not very good at defending spaces, often leaving a Sociedad player receiving freely behind him.
The image shows a favourable situation of the guests, they managed to get away from the wide zones and left two Atlético players outside. Now, a simple through pass can release the runner behind the defence and the effort hit the post at last. This was one of the biggest chance of the night but they failed to convert in open plays.
Despite starting the game strongly, Atlético’s offensive threat dipped as the game went on. They became more passive and let the opposition dominate possession, luckily Jan Oblak maintained a high standard and only conceded one (post-shot xG is 2.11). Clinical finishing and the solid defence were the keys to Atlético’s victory in this game: their xG was 1.15 and xGA was 2.39, on another day the result might have been reversed.
As we have shown in this analysis, Sociedad had positive signs and better control of the game after Alguacil’s tactical changes. Although they were missing the right finishing in front of the goal, this was a performance they could be proud of as the league leaders were “pushed back”. Erreala would continue to fight for another season in Europe.