UEFA Champions League 2021/22: How Diego Simeone’s side can beat the Liverpool juggernaut – tactical preview
The 4th week 2021-22 UEFA Champions League group stage features the return leg of the previous week’s clashes and the most enticing one among them is Liverpool hosting Atletico Madrid once again. It all goes back to the 2020 round of 16 clash between the two when Atletico were the first team to win at Anfield after Liverpool went unbeaten there in the Champions League for two seasons in a row. Liverpool got their own back when they won the game against Atletico two weeks back, defeating them on their home soil.
Liverpool have started the season strong and are on the back of a thumping win against their historic rivals Manchester United, beating them 5-0 at Old Trafford, while Atletico Madrid have had a mixed start to their title defence as they were recently held to a draw against Real Sociedad.
Diego Simeone will be looking to get one back against Jurgen Klopp’s men that could also boost their chances of qualifying to the knockouts. This tactical preview features the tactics that were used by the teams this season and what changes could be expected going into this game. Let’s begin the analysis.
Liverpool’s positional flexibility
Liverpool are a force to reckon this season having scored 27 goals and conceded just 6 from 9 games in return in the Premier League this season. The numbers are even more astonishing in the UCL with 11 goals scored and 3 conceded in 3 games and also competing in the group of death against the likes of Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and Porto.
One of the key reasons for their dominance is their improved positional superiority compared to last season along with the presence of all the key players. With Firmino back in the fold with his return to form in recent weeks. Klopp has again gone back with the 4-3-3 with Firmino as the False-9 in the system. This was seen exclusively last week against Atletico Madrid in their 3-2 win.
The likes of Salah and Mane are very high and wide while Firmino drops deep to create 4v3 against the Atletico midfield. The use of Firmino doesn’t stop there as he also is used to creating wide overloads and also as a roaming player in the midfield whereas Mane or Salah would be high and take his position as the striker. These positional rotations can be disruptive for any defence.
Liverpool last week exploited Atletico in multiple ways and found solutions to all the different types of defensive setup that Simeone had planned. The 3-5-2 that Simeone went played to the strengths of their attacking duo but left them exposed badly in defensive phases.
Against the front-two, Liverpool went with a 3v2 superiority when one of the players would drop deep. This would mostly be Milner or Robertson and would be on the left side. With Milner having the experience of playing an LCM and an LB, both of them were comfortable dropping deep and also maintaining the width. We can see Milner dropping deep to make it 3v2 while Robertson hugs the touchline as a wing-back.
Firmino can also be seen in the above image dropping deep and helping his team in such areas where they can create superiorities and move the ball up the pitch. This way Atletico found it hard to press Liverpool and their passive approach mean that Liverpool had to directly start their progression from the second-third.
This was also extended during the build-up phase when Firmino can be seen pinning an Atletico defender deep that forces, TAA without a marker and is easily available for a passing option. This forced Lemar into a conundrum as to press Henderson up or stop his run so that he can focus on TAA who will then be there to receive a pass and make it 2v1 along with Firminon if he can carry it forward.
Another key thing that Klopp has incorporated into the Liverpool setting is the use of Trent Alexander-Arnold. The right-back no longer provides only width like he used to a couple of seasons back and deliver crosses from wide regions. He is being given a more versatile positional sense and now plays a more similar role to what KDB has been doing for Pep. The right half-space which is considered to be one of the highest value zones in modern football is where Klopp uses him these days. We can see him in the right half-space mostly inverted inside and looking to play crosses from these positions.
Will Diego Simeone change his formation?
Diego Simeone has become overtly flexible over the years especially when he found out during the 2017-2019 period where the players he brought never truly fit the 4-4-2 system he wanted to implement and also with the loss of his star players like Costa, Griezemann, etc. The Argentine went with a 3-4-1-2 system in possession last season that won him his 2nd league title during his tenure as an Atletico manager. The majority of last season saw Suarez being partnered with Correa or Joao Felix. With the arrival of Grizemann, Simeone has an additional top-quality option to use.
The issue for him though is to find the right balance and team system that can comprise of the 3 of them or at least two of them. The main issue Atletico had in their last game was how Liverpool toyed with their 3-5-2 system. Also, Atletico didn’t play Suarez from the start with Grizemann and Felix given the chance.
With the 3-5-2, there are no wingers to press the full-backs and the work for that has to be taken care of wing-backs and if the Liverpool FBs are very deep then the distance is very high for them to cover that so this was taken care of by the midfielders.
But this gave them another issue when the midfielder stepped out to press, the likes of Mane would drop into the space vacated by the midfielder and he would be followed by the WB too. A neat one-two between the FB and forward would easily progress the Liverpool attack in that instance.
The lateral coverage needs to be taken care of by the midfielders is another problem with Atletico finding it very hard to do with their formation. We can see 3 midfielders of Atletico being dragged to the ball side of the pitch while TAA on this side is very much free and along with Keita and Salah they would even have a 3v1 against Lodi on the far side. On top of that, the Liverpool players were very strong with their spatial awareness and would make runs in behind and attack the space like how Milner does in the above example.
The dynamic movements by the midfield of Liverpool were very difficult to handle as that kept opening spaces in the midfield when the Atletico players especially their CDM Koke was kept dragging out of position multiple times. We can see TAA getting an opportunity to make a run into the space while Milner drags Koke away from his position.
Simeone’s insistence on using Koke as a CDM have not been yielding the results he expects where the issue was seen even when he switched to a 4-3-3 against Real Sociedad last week. Koke was repeatedly seen out of position and pressing too much unnecessarily in that game. In the above image, we can see David Silva in acres of space due to this and a simple pass from his GK can see him receive in huge space in front of the Atletico defence.
Players also often find it easy to make dynamic movements into the space vacated by Koke as all they have to do is to escape his cover-shadow and show themselves for a pass in these situations like in the image below.
The 4-3-3 was also not used well in possession by Atletico in their previous game. The actual point of the system which is to provide good use of positional flexibility and play wasn’t there to be seen when they played against Sociedad. We can see how poorly they are staggered into two clusters on either side with no anchors in between which makes life easy for the Sociedad players to press and win the ball back. This also means that their counter-pressing would be affected even more given the orientation of their players.
As mentioned before the two-men forward system did a lot of favour to their front players as the likes of Griezemann and Felix prefer to occupy the half-spaces while expecting the other to keep the depth and pin the backline.
This worked well for multiple reasons like in the image below where Felix receives and turns to carry the ball forward and slides an assist to Griezemann and Simeone would be aware that a 2-man forward is the best deal because of this but also he will be missing the services of the Frenchmen due to his suspension. Adding Suarez to that would slightly change the dynamics but the core part would still be retained.
Atletico also did press well for a couple of instances in their game against Liverpool when they shifted to a 4-4-2. The coverage was there and also now the wide-midfielders can press the Liverpool FBs. Though it can be at fault when Liverpool enter central regions and Firmino starts dropping deep, but this could be stopped earlier by forcing turnovers in flanks itself.
So this could be enticing for Simeone where he can retain the 2-men forward line while also giving him the opportunity to play his go-to formation that made him and his team very successful in the last decade.
It would be a very difficult affair for Diego Simeone’s team to get past this Liverpool side especially at Anfield. Luis Suarez would be making another return to his previous club and like his previous visit with Barcelona, he would be expecting another cold shoulder from the Liverpool fans.