UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool – tactical preview
Liverpool are the side every team wants to avoid this season, thanks to their success last year and their current success domestically this season. However, when looking at the teams they could draw in the UEFA Champions League, I’d go as far as saying the team Liverpool most wanted to avoid would have been Atletico Madrid. Atlético’s defensive style of play contrasts Liverpool’s style well, and as I’ll explain within this analysis, for that reason this will prove an interesting tie, despite the recent poor form of Atlético Madrid and the excellent form of Liverpool. In this tactical analysis, we will examine some of the areas of each other’s tactics that both sides will look to exploit including some potential set-piece routines, and give a tactical preview of what the game may look like.
Atlético’s set up
Atletico Madrid, like many excellent defensive sides, struggle when they are allowed to have possession of the ball and are forced to break teams down. As a result, Liverpool face somewhat of a dilemma in terms of how they set up, in that, do they sit and look to hurt Atlético in transition, or do they look to take the game to Atlético and control possession, which would then play more to Atlético’s counter-attacking style of play. Of course how Liverpool decide to play also depends on how Atlético also play, but I’d expect (and probably encourage) them to drop off as they usually do.
We can see below Atlético’s usual 4-4-2 structure, which focuses on staying horizontally and vertically compact and protecting the central areas of the pitch. We see here the wingers are happy to tuck in and protect the half-spaces initially, and will then move out to the wide areas to press.
Once the ball is moved wide they can then pen the opposition into these wide areas and prevent forward passes. Here Juventus have their winger drop to receive, and so the team loses its height with no options down the line. The way in which Liverpool build-up should prevent this from happening, which I’ll cover in the next section.
How do you break them down?
I highlighted in the image above that the problem lies in the winger dropping to receive, and therefore the height being lost. As a result, teams need to find a way to push the full-back on to play higher to trigger the Atlético press and still have a winger higher up. It isn’t as simple as just pushing the full-back high though, as the distance between them and the centre back becomes too large. Here’s the solution below, and is something that Liverpool already use in their build-up and that other teams have used against Atlético also, with varying success.
Dropping a midfielder deeper onto the backline effectively allows them to swap positions with the full-back, and therefore frees them to push higher and wider as we can see below. The higher you can employ this tactic the better, so your wing-backs should be encouraged to stay higher when possible to pin them deeper, which forces Atlético to start their press which makes them easier to play through. In this game below, Real Madrid struggled slightly, partially because of their left full-back not being left footed, which makes those inside passes first time awkward, and generally slows down ball progression.
We can see the advantage of playing like the image above if we compare it to this image below, in Atlético’s game against Barcelona. Here Barcelona stick with a back four, and the full-back has to remain narrow, making them much easier to press and harming their ball progression.
We can see Liverpool building up with a midfielder dropped here in their game against Tottenham, who also defended deep in a 4-4-2 structure mostly. Again this allows Andy Robertson at full-back to move higher and wider, which also opens up more space in the half-space for Liverpool to play in, which is something they are excellent at.
Again in the game against Real Madrid, we saw this half-space open up more and more, but Real were terrible at exploiting it, with no midfielder advancing into it, no striker dropping in, or no winger occupying it, instead choosing to stay wide with the full-back.
Again here we see absolutely no occupation of the half-space when it is desperately needed, and Real therefore can’t porgress. As we’ll discuss in the next section, Liverpool will be much better at exploiting this space if they can create access to it, and they are also capable of exploiting another weakness of the Spaniard’s style of play.
To summarise this section then, this is how Liverpool will be looking to break Atlético during the build-up phase. Liverpool want to get into a position where the Atlético winger has to press the dropped central midfielder, where Liverpool will then look to get the ball out to the full-back. From that they will look to get the ball into the half-space or down the line depending on the movement of the Atlético full-back, or they may look to exploit what is discussed in this next section. It’s important to note that this situation obviously isn’t going to be available, and so they will have to be patient and attempt other methods such as using the inside forwards as focal points and allowing them to receive with their back to goal and playing from there.
Ball far central players can cause problems
Through the use of the half-space again, the players furthest from the ball in the central areas can cause problems, if the correct movements to stretch Atleti are made. If the full-back can receive following an unsuccessful press from the winger, Liverpool can pin Atleti players in order to create space. If the winger stays wide on the full-back this creates a dilemma of whether to press or not, while the nearest central midfielder for Atlético will follow a central midfielder if a run forward is made. As a result, you can pin this central midfielder slightly deeper and create space for a dropping player. From there, the player can get good body orientation and look to play passes through.
We can see a really good example of Liverpool doing exactly this, with a clever run from Roberto Firmino pinning the central midfielder deeper and increasing the size of the passing lane for Mohamed Salah to receive in. Firmino continues his run and Firmino is played in behind.
We can see an example of Juventus trying to exploit this against Atlético here, with the midfielder not really keeping Thomas Partey deep and also just getting in the way of the passing lane. Due to their structure here, Juventus also don’t commit a man into this space to receive. If a central midfielder comes across, this could upset their counter-pressing structure if Atlético were to switch play, and as a result it’s optimal if movements like Liverpool’s can be completed.
We can see the same happening here in the same game in a deeper area, where the winger can’t play direct but has support from behind to play into this ball far central player. The central midfielders of Atleti are too slow to close him down, and as a result a pass can be played in behind the full-back who has pressed.
Even is this kind of pass sometimes isn’t on, performing this movement may be useful if Liverpool then switch the play to the opposite full-back, as the central midfielders will have been dragged slightly towards the ball, giving some more space momentarily on the other side.
Liverpool optimistic from set-pieces?
Atlético use a man-marking approach from set-pieces, which is something I feel Liverpool will look to exploit as other teams have done in recent weeks. Generally, Atlético are pretty good from set-pieces individually, with each player’s desire to win the header excellent, but for me the concept of marking solely man to man is flawed and Liverpool will look to use a few concepts in order to exploit this system.
We can see one recurring set-piece problem for Atleti below here, with them conceding just this weekend from a corner. A player stands behind the goalkeeper while a player at the back post occupies a marker, seemingly cutting of this area for a delivery.
The player at the back post makes an early run which drags the marker away, and the player once stood behind the goalkeeper moves back into this space unmarked. They can then deliver a cross and score.
We can see a similar situation here, with a player furthest back moving towards the underloaded back post, which is underloaded because the front post has been overloaded, therefore players follow.
Again the player is able to peel off at the back post, and the defence does a poor job of winning the first header, and so a free header is given at the back post which the opposition don’t take advantage of.
Liverpool attempted a similar kind of routine this weekend against Norwich which surprised me, as it allows Atleti to prepare for such a routine if it is to be used. The ball is again delivered into a deeper area and Firmino does a double movement towards the front post and block of players and then towards the back post, and has a free run towards it. Van Dijk wins the header but the delivery is slightly behind him and Liverpool can’t create a chance.
There is a huge amount of different routines Liverpool could be planning to catch out the Atleti defence, however one player I think they will be looking to nullify from these kinds of areas is José Giménez, who is excellent in the air and extremely brave. As a result, Liverpool will be looking to block his path towards headers and divert him away from traffic if possible. As a result, on some occasions, it may fall to Virgil Van Dijk to make diversion runs in order to take Giménez with him and give another player a better chance of a header.
We can see this kind of situation happening here, where Van Dijk, Firmino and Mané act as blockers for Matip as the deepest man, who starts his run deeper to create space to run into. Arsenal’s man markers can’t run out to Matip, as they are being blocked by the Liverpool duo just in front of Matip, and so he is allowed a free header to score.
Liverpool also have a habit of using a routine that involves crowding the goalkeeper against teams that have goalkeepers who are reasonably small (under 1.9m). They have used this routine against Tottenham, Everton, Manchester City (with Claudio Bravo) and as we can see below Barcelona, and have found some limited success using the tactic. With Jan Oblak standing at 1.88m tall, I wouldn’t be shocked to see this routine tried.
There is also a small amount of space left on the edge of the box for second balls, and so this is also something Liverpool might like to exploit. For a whole number of routines, Liverpool may like to use, check out my Twitter linked.
Managing Atlético’s attacks
For large parts of the game, I would expect Liverpool to struggle to break the Spaniards down simply in order to maintain their counter-pressing structure. Liverpool will be wary of the threat Atleti pose on the counter-attack, and so, as a result, will look to pressure cook the opposition as they did to Norwich at the weekend. We can see the threat Atleti pose here, with many of their counter-attacks originating from deep areas and involving them hitting the furthest man and playing quickly from there. Fabinho will be instructed to be wary of these passes to the striker, and also to the supporting players.
If Liverpool can replicate and consistently use this kind of counter-pressing structure seen below, they should be in a comfortable position, with the central lanes cut out and immediate pressure on the ball. The centre backs may also follow the opposition strikers out and press them, with them using their physicality to look to halt counter-attacks.
I expect this game to be a cagey, risk managing affair. Liverpool will be happy to control possession if needed and try and break Atlético down, but it may just be a case of how many players can they get away with committing forward while still preventing counter-attacks, and so Liverpool will pick and choose moments to take these risks, and if they choose the wrong moments, Atlético will look to pounce.