Despite the fact that September has not even come to an end yet, there is a growing sensation that this Madrid derby in La Liga could be a decisive one in the title race. Real Madrid went top as sole leaders for the first time in midweek whilst Atlético Madrid have stuttered, dropping points in two of their past three games, all while Barcelona have had their worst start in 25 years.

This tactical preview will provide analysis of the tactics which Diego Simeone and Zinedine Zidane will consider when looking to exploit the weaknesses of each other’s teams, with the three points providing a fine incentive for both managers, who both opted to rest key figures in their midweek matches.

Predicted Line-Ups

Atlético Madrid: Jan Oblak; Kieran Trippier, Stefan Savić, José María Giménez, Renan Lodi; João Félix, Koke, Thomas Partey, Saúl Ñíguez; Vitolo Machín, Diego Costa.

The biggest doubt for Simeone will be whether to gamble on Thomas Lemar’s fitness after missing the past three games through injury. If selected, Félix can line up centrally alongside Costa in attack, a role where he has been more comfortable. Other than that, it looks likely that he will stick to the players that he knows and trusts most, selecting the so-called gala XI which started the campaign with Vitolo’s impressive form from the bench earning him a call up.

Real Madrid: Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Nacho; Toni Kroos, Casemiro, James Rodríguez; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard.

Zidane will likely select his strongest possible XI and despite the disappointment of Paris, that could mean a return of “BBH” in attack. All three were rested in midweek, hinting that they could return this weekend, alongside James. Should Ferland Mendy and Marcelo fail to recover, Nacho will be the more conservative and reliable option at left-back in their absence.

Atlético’s defensive mismatch

Simeone’s major challenge this season has been to decide on his new-look defence. Whilst he appears to have made his selection at full-back, with Trippier and Lodi almost guaranteed to start as first choice, there is more debate in the middle where Mario Hermoso, Felipe and Savić have all started alongside Giménez in recent weeks. Whilst the Atleti coach has been experimenting, it has meant that his team have been left vulnerable by disorganisation in defence, the likes of which was almost never seen with Diego Godín in the side.

The greatest concern that Simeone will have, whoever he looks to select, is the link-up between the two. Juventus looked to exploit this in their recent Champions League visit, sending midfield runners from deep to get in between the pairing, splitting them at the last second with diagonal runs and finding space in the middle for crosses into the box. Real Madrid will likely rely on Benzema to do that, just as Blaise Matuidi did in this example, but it is a situation which is almost second nature to the Frenchman.

La Liga 2019/20: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical preview tactics
Blaise Matuidi had no problem finding space between Giménez and Savić, much like Benzema likes to do.

Both defenders will have to pay attention to the movement of the Real Madrid number nine closely in order to avoid him pulling off late on. Simeone may look to add Thomas in an even more defensive role than usual in an attempt to counteract this, effectively dropping deep as a third central defender when in the defensive phase to reduce the spaces available, but should Atlético go a goal down, the holding midfielder has been known to wander and leave gaps in behind, just as was the case against the Italian side only a few weeks ago.

Real Madrid’s focus on the right flank

When facing Atlético Madrid this season, several teams have also looked to exploit the Atleti left flank. With Lodi often being caught out of position, having got carried away with his forward run, there is a gap in the Atlético defence which often leaves them vulnerable. For a Real Madrid squad without either of their two first choice left-backs, that will be music to the ears of Zidane, who will be relishing the opportunity to use Carvajal against Atlético just as he did against Sevilla and loanee Sergio Reguilón.

As can be seen below, the winger, likely to be Bale, would often cut inside, looking to pick up the ball or carrying it inside in order to create space on the outside, particularly when on the counter and the full-back had been caught out further upfield. Carvajal repeatedly put on the afterburners and dashed past the winger, providing a simple yet effective overlap which opened up acres of space for him in the final third. With Lodi having many of the same positional struggles as Reguilón, there is plenty of reason to believe that Real Madrid will again look to take advantage of this weakness.

La Liga 2019/20: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical preview tactics
The winger, in this case, Hazard, cuts inside and invites the overlap.
La Liga 2019/20: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical preview tactics
With the full-back tracking back and following the winger, it opens space up for Carvajal.

The essential next step for Zidane will be about how this can be turned into meaningful chances. Whilst this set-up created six positional attacks down the right against Sevilla, none of them created serious goalscoring chances and Carvajal frequently panicked. With James in the side, it could be that rather than a traditional full-back overlap, Zidane looks to alternate more freely and provide two very different kind of threats to exploit the space left behind by Lodi.

Nullifying Félix

Another key, particularly if Real Madrid are to keep Atlético silent, is to remove Félix from the occasion. There can be little doubting that Ramos and Varane know how to handle Costa, who scored his first goal since March in midweek, by engaging in a physical battle which the Spain international increasingly struggles to cope with, but Félix ran riot when the two teams met in pre-season.

Since the start of the competitive season though, several La Liga teams have found ways to keep the Portuguese star quiet. The most effective way has been to instantly and intensely press him when under possession. He is yet to register a possession loss figure under double figures and that is partly down to the way in which rival players have looked to press him from all angles, such as Real Mallorca in midweek, where a triangular press such as the below example would frequently force him into basic errors and possession mistakes which helped to turn the ball over, often even deep in his own half.

La Liga 2019/20: Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid - tactical preview tactics
As soon as Félix got on the ball,. two defenders and one midfielder would immediately press.

Rather than acting as the transition point between defence and attack, Félix would rapidly become a weakness and a point to start a counter-attack by turning over possession. As can be seen above, against Mallorca who lack technical quality, this press forces him into a needless possession loss with a panicked flick which allowed the opponents to regain control of the ball in the Atlético half.

With threats down the flank and attacking pace, Zidane knows that any turnovers in that area of the field could be decisive and Félix’s role will be essential. If deployed wide, Simeone may have more protection, but his free role likely means that the press will have to be an easily adaptable one.

Conclusion

The difference between this derby and previous encounters lies in that it will be decided by how the offence exploit defensive weaknesses in their rivals, rather than building upon a base of defensive strength. The midfield battle will be crucial, but it is Real Madrid who have the edge in almost every department. Atlético will miss Morata crucially, with his suspension proving to be a major blow. Real Madrid may have the edge, but anything but their A game could easily be punished by Simeone’s men who will look to strike on the counter.



Artwork by @chapulana

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