Decision Day La Liga 2020/21: Do Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid have the edge? – tactical preview
It’s decision day in La Liga with two clubs vying for the title…Atlético Madrid and their crosstown rivals Real Madrid.
Atlético sit on 83 points while Madrid are two back. A win for Atlético will clinch the title as will a draw or loss for Real Madrid. Should Los Blancos win their match and Atlético draw, Real would win due to the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Diego Simeone’s men will take to the road and in an away match against Real Valladolid, whereas Zinedine Zidane’s men will host Villarreal from the comforts of the Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano.
This tactical analysis will take a glimpse at the underlying statistics these two powerhouses have accumulated on the season. We’ll first pull up some data, then move on to a brief tactical preview of each match.
How they got here
Atlético Madrid have led La Liga since round 14, even reaching a double-digit lead on Real Madrid. However, as the season progressed, that lead slipped away as Los Colchoneros tried to balance multiple competitions and injuries. A furious comeback from Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla saw that lead dissipate. The latter two have fallen out of contention and, despite the chaos, Atlético Madrid still control their destiny.
Comparing expected points with total La Liga points after 37 rounds, Barcelona lead the way in the expected category, but that’s far from the reality of the table. In fact, according to expected points, Atlético Madrid should sit at 59.7, which ranks 5th and La Liga. On Saturday, they’ll play a Real Valladolid side that has had the opposite luck, with total points falling well behind their expected points (44.1 xP to 31 points).
Either way you look at it, Los Blancos sit in second with 65.6 expected points to their 81 total points. Madrid’s opponent, Villarreal, is 6th and the expected category (58.1) and 7th on a tiebreaker against Real Betis on the league table.
When you look at the expected points category, it’s largely predicated on the expected goals for and against in each match. Looking at the overall season xG and xGA stats, Atlético Madrid, in typical fashion, has there a place at the top by virtue of their defensive performances. They rank second in xGA (39.07), which is complemented by their fifth place rating in xG (54.62). Real Valladolid is in the bottom-left quadrant, indicating that they’ve performed below the median in both expected goals for and against.
Real Madrid ranks second to Barcelona in xG (63.96), but it’s the drop off in xGA that’s the cause of their departure from last season’s fantastic performance. You can read a more detailed analysis of their defensive tactics in Revitalizing Real Madrid. You’ll recall they were among the top defensive teams in Europe last season, but this season has their xGA at 41.79, which is 6th in La Liga. They have a tough matchup against a Villarreal side that’s well above the median in xG (58.1), but then falls on the median line in xGA (47.62).
Real Valladolid vs Atletico Madrid – Can Ronaldo Fenômeno’s club upset Simeone’s men?
Rumour has it that Ronaldo Fenômeno has offered his players a substantial cash prize if they can upset Atlético Madrid. For Madridistas, this sounds like a Los Blancos legend trying to help his former club claim the title. To some degree, that is true.
However, the greater concern for Ronaldo, owner of Real Valladolid, is that his club needs a win to simply stay in La Liga next season. Even worse, they need a win and help. Sitting in 19th place with 31 points, they’re two points behind both Huesca and Elche. This promises to be a scrappy game with the home side playing for their La Liga lives.
Meanwhile, Diego Simeone and his side are well aware that dropped points could see them sacrifice the title on the penultimate day of the season. The last time these two teams met, Atlético Madrid ran out 2-0 victory.
A match featuring two teams far more than comfortable initiating play while out of possession, the onus to attack will likely fall to Atlético Madrid. Though Real Valladolid know they need to win to even have a chance at staying in La Liga, they’ll know that they can’t concede the first goal.
With that in mind, look for Atlético Madrid to take the attacking initiative while Valladolid keep numbers behind the ball. Much like the first match, the hosts should set an initial midfield line of confrontation before settling into a low block. Sergio González has set his side out in a few different formations over the past month, so it’s tough to gauge exactly how they’ll line up in this match. Assuming tactical flexibility throughout the course of the game, adapting to needs and match, is the likeliest approach.
For Atlético Madrid, they’ll look to dominate the central regions of the pitch while looking to the outside-backs for width in the formation. One thing Atlético did really well in the first leg was to initiate their attacks on goal from the half spaces, much like we see in the image below.
Initiating the move to goal from the half spaces offers a nice transition from the wing build-up while drawing Valladolid away from the central channel. In this move, there’s a quick transition from the right half space to the central channel with the simple give-and-go.
That combination then allows Atlético Madrid to attack a 2v1 central overload just outside of the box. It’s a quick move that requires pieces to be in place higher up the pitch. But to work around this compact Valladolid side, look for Atlético to direct their build-up in the wings before launching the attack on goal from the half spaces.
Atlético Madrid can also use the width and their attack to quickly switch the point of attack before playing through balls to the wingers. In the image below, Atlético Madrid started on the left-hand side of the pitch, forcing the Pucelanos to slide their defensive block to the right. The dark shadow gives an idea of how compact, both horizontally and vertically, they were. Once Los Rojiblancos played the switch into Héctor Herrera, the winger put a low, driven ball across the goalmouth. Luis Suárez missed the initial attempt, but the ball fell kindly to Thomas Lemar to open up the scoring.
In terms of Real Valladolid’s tactics, for the most part, they will settle into middle and low blocks, but they did have some success using a high press against Atlético. In the instance below, an excellent high press took advantage of Atlético’s expansive attacking shape. The turnover in the central channel allowed the guests to make their move to goal with numbers in support.
The sequences with a pass into the right half space of the box which is then chipped to the back post for Marcos André. His attempt on goal was blocked by Kieran Trippier, foiling a nice move to goal.
As seen in this image, the Real Valladolid players are well-positioned to attack. Atlético Madrid must be wary of the occasional Blanquivioletas high press, ensuring they don’t throw away the match with a careless build-out.
Real Madrid vs Villarreal – Will the Yellow Submarines exploit Los Blanco’s injury situation?
In stark contrast to the first match, Real Madrid versus Villarreal features two teams who go into each match with the expectation of possession dominance. Even during their trips to Madrid, Villarreal takes a positive approach, which is built into the club’s DNA. This will be an entertaining match, especially since Villarreal tends to play exceptionally well against Real Madrid.
The two teams met late last season as well. That match ended 2-1 in Real Madrid’s favour as they sealed the La Liga title. Zinedine Zidane and his men will come into this match with The same hope that they had last season.
Unai Emery and his Villarreal side come into this match in a precarious position. First, coming out of the round with more points than Real Betis, who plays Celta de Vigo, will ensure European play next season. Second, they face Manchester United for the Europa League title on Wednesday. It’s a difficult predicament for the Yellow Submarines at the tail-end of the season. Look for them to come into this match with their standard 4-4-2. They’re led by Gerard Moreno, arguably the most informed Spanish striker at this time.
For Real Madrid to have success in this match, they’ll have to skillfully navigate Villarreal’s high press. If they can play their way into the middle third of the pitch, look for Villarreal to set up in a 4-4-2 middle block with a midfield line of concentration. That will put the onus on Real Madrid to play through or around the press.
Unlike the first matchup, Madrid comes into this one without Toni Kroos. The German used his passing range to switch the point of attack, allowing his team to play around the middle block.
Luka Modrić will likely play that left-centre midfield role operating as the team’s deep playmaker role Fede Valverde plays higher up the pitch in the right central midfield position. We should see a 4-3-3 from Zidane, so expect to see either Marco Asensio or Rodrygo Goes in the right-forward position. Their creativity and ability to hold up play will compliment Valverde’s aggressive runs up the pitch.
If Real Madrid can quickly switch the point of attack, much like they did in the first image, that should set up more direct attacks on goal, just as it did at the end of that sequence. Below, Real Madrid grabbed the opening goal of the game as they drove into the right half space and chipped the ball to the back post.
It’ll be difficult for Real Madrid to receive between the Villarreal lines, so expect them to play around in most cases. If Eden Hazard starts instead of Vinícius Júnior, we would likely see Madrid target the space between the lines, but it’s unlikely the Belgian unseats the young Brazilian.
As mentioned, Real Madrid will have to navigate the Villarreal high press. It’s a very aggressive one. As Villarreal funnels play into the wings, they collapse very quickly and with numbers. In the image below, they have seven players around the ball versus the six of Real Madrid.
Fortunately from Madrid, Kroos is able to pick up Martin Ødegaard, who then plays out of the press to Modrić. That spurs a direct attack against Villarreal’s unbalanced defensive shape.
When Villarreal’s has the ball, look for them to aggressively attack the half spaces as they push into the final third. Like Atlético Madrid, they use the wings very well, often to set up their final pass.
In the image below, Pervis Estupiñán slotted a well-weighted through ball into the path of Samuel Chukwueze. The Nigerian forward beat Thibaut Courtois to the ball, earning a penalty kick which Moreno converted.
This match promises to be a cracker. Much like Atlético Madrid versus Real Valladolid, the stakes are high for both teams. These two will offer an entertaining match with free-flowing attacking football.
Madrid is the epicentre of the action. The white and red sides of the city will nervously await the results from the two matches.
Atlético Madrid control their own destiny, needing a win against Ronaldo Fenômeno’s relegation fighting Real Valladolid. If they manage to take care of business, they need not concern themselves with the events in the capital. Real Valladolid is a desperate team that must claw their way to a win to maintain their La Liga status for the 2021/22 season.
Real Madrid comes into the final round with just an outside chance of defending their La Liga crown, they must beat a Villarreal team that tends to play them very well. Only a win and dropped points by Atlético Madrid can deliver another title to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Meanwhile, Villarreal need a victory and some help elsewhere to secure another Europa League position for next season. The Champions League is still alive for the Yellow Submarines, needing a win in the Europa League final against Manchester United, but they can at the very least secure European play with the results and some help in Round 38.
Ultimately, it’s Atlético Madrid’s title to lose. The pressure is on Diego Simeone and his squad, especially facing a Real Valladolid team with their backs up against the relegation wall. Expect two very different and entertaining games to close out the La Liga 20/20/21 campaign. The crown will spend another year in Madrid, but the final destination remains to be seen.