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La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

Real changes: How Zidane’s crucial switches salvaged a point against Atletico

El Derbi Madrileño is always a big thing in La Liga. Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid facing off for supremacy in the capital means guaranteed excitement and an excellent battle of tactics. This time around, nothing could separate Diego Simeone and Zinedine Zidane and with a 1-1 draw unfolding, it feels Barcelona were the ones to profit.

This tactical analysis will tell you how the proceedings unfolded last Sunday and how two titans of Spanish football finished their clash in a stalemate.


After a long time, Atletico Madrid could finally deploy their strongest 11 onto the pitch. With the return of Kieran Trippier and the other key pieces fit and ready, Simeone had to make a statement. Even though on paper the Rojiblancos were in a variation of a 4-1-4-1, this was more of a 3-5-2 in possession and a 4-5-1 out of it.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

Real Madrid, on the other hand, opted for a somewhat rotated squad with some surprises by Zidane. The inclusions of Rodrygo and Marco Asensio, in particular, were not expected and ended up almost costing them the game. The backline was also heavily depleted with Sergio Ramos still out and Nacho Fernández covering next to Raphaël Varane. Los Blancos started the game in a 4-3-3 formation, which felt too rigid, often even constricting their movement. For that reason, as we’ll see further down the line of this tactical analysis, Zidane had to change things up.

Real Madrid’s ineffective press

One of Real Madrid’s constant features over the years have been their pressing tactics. Los Blancos love to push high up the pitch and contest possession as close to the opposition goal as possible. However, in recent times, their press has been rather ineffective and against Atlético Madrid, it caused them to lose control over the game.

This tactical analysis will now dissect examples of their bad press from Sunday’s clash. Real Madrid would start their defensive structure in a 4-1-4-1 with Karim Benzema pushing up as the lone striker. Since Atlético Madrid always deploy a three-in-the-back formation, the Frenchman was then usually joined by Rodrygo on the right and one additional midfielder from the deep to his left.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

But as you can see in the image above, this system rarely worked for them. The main issue was failing to completely shut down Atlético’s channels as their press often left gaps behind their backs that could be easily exploited. In that first image, Toni Kroos pushes up but Real Madrid are outnumbered 6v7 and their rival can easily play through the structure.

It has to be noted here, however, that Atlético Madrid were excellent in possession, recycling the ball mostly through Koke to find and exploit these advantages. In this situation, either Luka Modrić or Rodrygo will be overloaded and the hosts can easily play out by making use of that fact.

Unfortunately for Real Madrid, this kept occurring. Here’s another example, barely a minute after the first one. Again, Kroos and Rodrygo push up alongside Benzema but Modrić and Rodrygo are overloaded and no one can mark the player behind Kroos’ back.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

A simple flick over the German finds the free man despite Real deploying more bodies towards Atlético Madrid’s box. From there, Simeone’s troops can orchestrate another attack as six players are effectively out of the picture.

Let’s look at one more example of how this kept happening, this time much earlier in the game and with Jan Oblak on the ball. We see a very familiar pressing sequence as Atlético Madrid recycle possession towards their goalie.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

This time, the player on the left gets overloaded and had Oblak been calmer on the ball, he could’ve progressed the play easily against Real Madrid’s press due to the numerical advantage they held in their first third. However, the Slovenian opts to go long instead but this is still a clear representation of lacking pressing tactics.

One other element Atlético Madrid used to their advantage was Ferland Mendy’s tendency to jump out to pressurise his man. Whenever the hosts advanced through the right flank, the Frenchman’s aggressiveness could be manipulated to eject Marcos Llorente into open space.

Here’s a perfect example of that sequence unfolding towards the end of the game. Tripper receives the ball from the backline and immediately, we can see Mendy getting ready to press and leaving his position.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

But at the same time, Llorente is already making a run into the space behind his back. He is followed by Kroos but the German cannot keep up with him due to the dynamic superiority his rival holds over him and sheer lack of pace. Intriguingly, this is something Atlético Madrid have done throughout the game.

Not only that but the goal they scored arrived precisely through those tactics. You can see Real Madrid’s attempt at pressing below with Mendy pushing forward once again. However, Zidane’s men are trying to recover possession in a 5v7 situation and Atlético Madrid make use of it yet again.

Mendy pushes out, Llorente moves in behind his back and receives a threaded ball from the backline.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

Of course, it’s his wonderful touch that enables him to continue the run but the whole sequence was created out of a familiar pattern Real Madrid simply failed to stop.

Unfortunately for them, their attacking tactics weren’t that better either, which gave the hosts complete control of the first half.

Atlético Madrid’s defensive rotations

In this section of our tactical analysis, we’ll take a closer look at Atlético Madrid’s defensive tactics. Simeone’s men were deployed in a 4-5-1 out of possession and that would then transform into a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 once they decided to press higher up the pitch. The reason why this was so successful at snuffing out all of Real Madrid’s attacks were their rotations.

Rojiblancos were not that rigid in defence as their players would move out of the structure to cover for their teammates and prevent movement manipulation by Real Madrid. Let’s take a look at one such example in the image below.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

We can see the initial 4-5-1 that is about to turn into a 4-4-2 as Thomas Lemar pushes up to the frontline. At the same time, Real Madrid are trying to manipulate their movement by dropping Rodrygo deeper and sending Lucas Vázquez higher up. With Trippier heavily man-marking the former player, this could’ve pulled him out of position, creating space behind their backline.

However, Yannick Carrasco drops deeper as well and he would sometimes even form a back five if needed to prevent the overload and ensure solidity in their defensive line. At the same time as Lemar pushes up, one of the midfielders shifts over to cover Rodrygo’s movement towards the middle so that Trippier doesn’t have to leave his position.

Another very important aspect to note here is the positioning of Real Madrid’s midfielders, which is highlighted in blue. All three are very deep on the pitch, offering minimal presence between the lines and overall poor connectivity with the forward line. This was a major problem in their tactics throughout the game.

But even without that factored in, Atlético Madrid’s dosed aggression worked well against their counterparts. Below you can see an example of their 4-4-2 turning into a 4-3-3 in a high press situation.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

Carrasco pushes up to apply pressure on the ball-carrier while Lemar drops deeper to put Casemiro in his cover-shadow. Immediately after blocking that channel, Real Madrid send the ball backwards, activating Lemar once again who pushes up to force a long switch to the left side. And since it was a ball travelling in the air, Atlético Madrid have the time to shift their block and intercept the pass and break off the attack.

But it was the ineffectiveness of both Asensio and Rodrygo that cost Real Madrid dearly in attack. Neither could offer much in terms of creativity, completing zero and one dribble respectively. The former did deploy two good crosses throughout the game but as a whole, Atlético Madrid did an excellent job of marking them out of the game.

One reason was the fact that they couldn’t attack the space behind the Rojiblancos’ backs so would usually drop deeper to receive with back to goal or were just unable to receive at all. Rodrygo was heavily man-marked by Trippier while Asensio was usually picked up by midfielders between the lines.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

Notice above how Real Madrid are trying to achieve an overload by moving both Benzema and Modrić towards the right side. However, Rodrygo is inaccessible in this position while Asensio cannot offer them a good enough outlet should they aim for a quick switch.

This forces both Benzema and Rodrygo deep, as can be seen in the following image, and Real Madrid are soon recycling possession backwards. With so many Atlético Madrid players collapsing, this would be a good opportunity to swap possession to the underloaded side where they could look to isolate Mendy.

However, Luis Suárez successfully marks Casemiro and threatens to cut the channel towards the far-sided centre-back, which would force Real Madrid towards a single long pass instead of multiple shorter ones.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

Such an approach would be much slower and with Atlético Madrid already covering the underloaded side as well, the attack would likely break down. For that reason, Modrić tries to go through the middle but his pass is quickly intercepted by Suárez.

Zidane knew that he had to change something and do it quickly so in the 60th minute, out came both Rodrygo and Asensio so that Vinícius Júnior and Federico Valverde could be introduced.

Zidane’s crucial changes

The introduction of Vinícius and Valverde gave Real Madrid more firepower, speed and work rate. As opposed to Asensio and Rodrygo, the newly-introduced duo would not need the ball to be played into their feet but they would keep the width and threaten to exploit the space behind the opposition’s backs.

You can see a more general approach with the duo highlighted on their respective flanks below. Vinícius, in particular, would bring chaos and disorganise Atlético Madrid’s defensive structure, staying on the shoulder of the defenders and combining with both Benzema and Mendy on that side.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

He was also much more difficult to mark and his movement had to be limited greatly. Towards those latter stages of the game, Atlético Madrid found it harder and harder to stop these advances and were more and more susceptible to manipulation.

Vinícius would often occupy the left half-space only to drift wide with pace, taking a marker away and letting Mendy underlap if possible. However, such movement also created space for Benzema to exploit and the Frenchman would gladly first drop deeper and then make a run in-behind shortly after.

You can see a very similar pattern below where Vinícius drags the marker from inside-out and Mendy sends the ball through the newfound channel to reach Benzema who’s already making the run.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

We should point out that in this instance, Benzema couldn’t control the pass so the attack broke down. However, it was still a very promising situation created by clever movement. But there was one more thing Zidane changed in the second half – he activated his secret weapon, Casemiro.

The Brazilian has a very peculiar role in this squad, often being the deepest player on the pitch and then, moments later, becoming the most advanced one. This was particularly true against Atlético Madrid but only in the second half.

As previously mentioned, Real Madrid struggled to create a presence between the lines and higher up because their midfielders were all too deep and disjointed. We can see Casemiro’s change in roles down below.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

In the first 45 minutes, he made 49 actions in total, 17 of which were in the opposition’s half (10 successful). In the second, however, that figure rose to 60 in total and 23 in the opposition’s half (17 successful). His advanced positioning was mostly noted whenever Benzema decided to drop deep and the two would often combine as well.

Here’s one example showing that type of movement with Benzema dropping to support Kroos and Casemiro instantly taking his place in the forward line.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

Probably the best example of this was Real Madrid’s equalising goal towards the end of the game. Once again we saw Benzema drop deeper, only to make a run straight back but it was also Casemiro doing the very same thing as well.

The Frenchman’s gravity attracts multiple opposition players so Casemiro can burst through mostly unmarked. Shortly after, a quick one-two puts Benzema in a great position to score, which he does to salvage a point for his team.

La Liga 2020/21: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis - tactics

Final remarks

Even though Atlético Madrid were in firm control in the first half, they couldn’t finish their chances, leaving the door open for Real Madrid to make a comeback. Zidane made the necessary adjustments in his attacking tactics, unlocking Casemiro and giving his troops more firepower on the flanks, which ultimately saved the game.

Simeone, on the other hand, simply had to win this game and everything was primed for him to do so. At the end of the day, however, a one-all result seems fair to both parties involved.