UEFA Champions League 2021/22: How Simeone improved Atlético Madrid to make Man City suffer – tactical analysis
On Wednesday night, there were two UEFA Champions League matches in the same time slot. While Liverpool were mostly settled in the tie against Benfica – in Spain, despite enjoying a one-nil advantage, things never looked easy for Man City.
At the Metropolitano Stadium, it was a tough 90-minute battle for Pep Guardiola’s men as they faced strong resistance from the host. Although Diego Simone was criticized for his conservative approach in England, he took very important information away from home to adjust his tactics in this leg – his side gave the opposition a very hard time.
In this game, Atlético Madrid abandoned the 5-3-2 of the last game when the team was without the ball. There was only one change, which was Marcos Llorente playing as the right wing-back ahead of Šime Vrsaljko, and Thomas Lemar, who didn’t start at the Etihad Stadium came into the midfield.
As for Man City, the good news was Kyle Walker returned to the starting lineup after suspension, so João Cancelo could fit at the left-back position. Another change from Pep was resting Raheem Sterling on the bench as he made way for Phil Foden, he played as the striker initially. Then, Bernardo Silva played on the left flank as a winger.
Legacy from the last game
At the beginning of the article, we might want to defend Simeone a bit because some criticisms he received in the first leg was unfair. For example, he did not lie when saying that he wanted the team to win in the post-match conference after the first leg, the 5-5-0 was not really something he wanted initially but City were too good in that game to push Atlético down.
In the previous tie, City surprised Simeone as Foden started on the bench. Instead, they put Silva as the striker and Sterling on the flank. In the midfield, they had Kevin De Bruyne, Rodrigo Hernández, and İlkay Gündoğan plus one or two additional players to create a numerical overload. Also, with Nathan Aké as the third centre-back in deep, the “+1” advantage in the first line always allowed the defenders to carry the ball forward, which became a problem for Atlético as we have shown in the above image.
As we have indicated, in the midfield, the Atlético 8 (Geoffrey Kondogbia) was forced to cover De Bruyne, while the other two must more or less covering the City midfielders on the other side. As a result, Cancelo enjoyed a lot of free spaces outside of the Atlético second line, also given that Renan Lodi could not jump easily because Riyad Mahrez was high and wide. In the early minutes, City kept putting the ball into the penalty box with this setup.
Therefore, Simeone made the in-game tactical switch to add one more player in the second line, which was João Félix moving into the right-winger position as we have shown above, forming a 5-4-1 and they abandoned the 5-3-2, so they could shut Cancelo in that space.
Not long after, Antonine Griezmann also dropped deeper and that became a 5-5-0. That seemingly passive defensive shape was a result of City’s excellence to push the defence deep, but not really the original plan of the Argentine coach because he would have wanted a two-man rest offence structure to counter, but as the game developed, things got out of hands and they struggled to create transitions threats because of being too low and Félix was too far away from the opposition goal.
The above screenshot shows how Atlético changed accordingly. This time, Simeone still wanted more men in the second line, but the player who dropped in was Griezmann instead of Félix, which was more ideal given the Portuguese international should be closer to the opposition goal. Meanwhile, the four-man second line tried hard to push City to Atlético’s right side with the body orientations of the striker, or the angle of the press.
Here, you could see when Lemar was pressing, he went a bit from the outside to press John Stones, so that the City defender was forced to go inside. By doing so and increasing the intensity of the press, Atlético players got much closer to the opponents when they were defending, so that the angle was narrowed down and De Bruyne was not easily found between the lines. If City wanted to move the ball, Atlético were also brave enough to come out and press, re-press, and apply collective defensive techniques such as double-pressing to try to win the ball back. As Félix would go for Walker if Stones made that pass in the above scenario.
Aggressive Atlético to constrain City
In this section, after explaining how the mindset of Atlético changed, we investigate further how they stressed City out and why Pep’s men were unable to dominate as they did in the first leg.
Without the ball, Atlético’s pressing changed a bit as they went high, but Félix was not always closing the opposition down laterally, his main job was to close the exchange passing lane between centre-backs so they forced City to play on one side. For example, in the image above, Rodri made a wrong decision as he sent the ball to Aymeric Laporte, where Atlético had many players waiting in that zone to press. However, we should bear in mind that little “error” of Rodri was also a result of Lemar’s pressing, who forced the City holding midfielder to play quicker without much time of getting the ball under control.
Then, we could see how the Atlético midfielders were pressing aggressively as Koke was also up to close Gündoğan, while Griezmann dropped as a winger to shut down Cancelo. In the high pressing, Atlético very often committed Lodi high and they were flexible at that, as usual.
In this case, because City moved the ball to the wrong vertical half, they could not find a free player and things did not go well after that.
From City’s perspective, the major issue of this game was lacking the penetration threat behind the last line. They simply used high and wide wingers, but it was ineffective with Silva on the left flank, who had less space to make runs in behind. That’s why Foden and Silva switched positions later on.
From Pep’s perspective, playing long balls behind was a higher risk approach because he did not want to give the ball to the opponents too often. With a one-goal advantage, he rather prefers his side to have more control in the game by moving the ball away from the opponents.
However, City could not fix the last line, they could not prevent the Atlético defenders from jumping out to press, so the likes of Stefan Savić, Felipe, and Reinildo Mandava always came out to close spaces in midfield, making the ball movement in the midfield very difficult. For example, in the above image, we could see even though Foden dropped deep to add an additional player in the midfield, it was easily nullified as Atlético committed Savić and Felipe close to the midfielders as well. In this situation, obviously, there were spaces behind both centre-backs but City was missing the runs in behind and the release pass to hit those areas.
Atlético were super impressive because they were clearly the better side in the second half, suffocating most City attacks, and dominating them with good pressing which even Liverpool could not do in the previous Premier League clash. Now, we are showing some good examples of how Atlético were able to press in the midfield.
When Laporte had the ball, Atlético were disciplined as Félix did not jump recklessly. Instead, he was playing his part well by moving higher to cut the passing lane to Stones. Meanwhile, it was also clear that Koke was the man to press vertically if Laporte had the ball, with the other midfielders shifting to support and close spaces. The. Initial pressing forced Laporte to play, he found Rodri, but City could not get away with it because Kondogbia was close enough to press the City holding midfielder. Rodri was forced to play again and he sent the ball to Walker, who looked like being the free player on the far side, and it was also a result of Stones being under Félix’s shadow.
But when Walker was going to receive, it turned out to be a trap because he was then isolated in that scenario. In the above image, Lodi was already close to accessing Walker because Simeone gave him the freedom to press as we mentioned above. Even though Félix was slightly deeper, he could still press Stones if the backward pass was made; Rodri was closed in the centre; Silva, as the false-9, could be the free player but Savić stepped up to close space very well because City had no threat behind, the Atlético centre-backs were always happy to come out to press; De Bruyne was marked by Lemar tightly as well.
So, this was a good example of how Atlético applied continuous pressure on the ball with a good system, good structure, clear pressing tactics, allocation of duties, and other elements that were attributed to Simeone’s playing philosophy. City could not get away with it and kicked the ball away so many times in this game, you don’t see that often in other City games.
Can they create the chances?
But Atlético were one-nil down, keeping a clean sheet was not enough for them, they also need to put the ball past Ederson. In the first leg, they looked small and barely played, some platforms such as Wyscout even recorded 0 shots from Simeone’s side. In this game, Simeone did his best to put the players in their best positions.
With the ball, Atlético did not speculate, they rather use it and put the players in their best positions. For example, the high wing-backs, Lodi and Llorente would inject the pace to attack spaces behind, because these were what they were good at doing. They could also add combination tactics such as reversed movement to create a decisional dilemma on the back four.
For example, when Griezmann dropped to offer Kondogbia a short option, that pulled Cancelo out. In the meantime, Llorente would be using spaces behind the left-back with a run in behind. If Laporte tracked him, Félix would then have a 1v1 against the remaining centre-back.
Atlético were crucial to have Lemar in the starting lineup because compared to Rodrigo de Paul, he had more quality and spaces and better passing to break the liens. That allowed Atlético having more options to help Félix in the early stage. Without the ball, Lemar was also committed to defending in his position or pressing the opponent, that’s why he was valued by Simeone despite not having a very high offensive output in terms of goals and assists.
The above image shows the Atlético structure of Lemar playing in spaces behind the pressing line of City, he had good techniques to control the lofted balls and help his side to further advance the attack. The rest of the attackers, such as Lodi, would be attacking high as usual to offer a depth option. Meanwhile, Félix would drop to dislocate the centre-back from Walker to give Lemar a short option. This was also a reversed movement from Atlético which helped them to create more options in the attack.
In the closing stage of the game, Atlético even grew further, and their centre-backs were good at breaking the City lines. When the guests wanted to press with a 4-2-3-1, the “2” in the midfield was easily stretched by the opposition. Atlético would like to have their front players, such as Ángel Correa or Félix receiving behind Gündoğan and Rodri. As we have shown de Paul dragged Gündoğan away and Lemar brought away Rodri, so Savić could connect Félix in the centre.
In the last part of the game, Atlético were able to finally create some chances, and we could see that they were attributed to the reverse movements we have explained. For example, in this case, Correa hunted the ball in spaces behind, and it was hard to neglect Luis Suárez’s contribution by occupying the other centre-back, so Stones was unable to angle himself to cover spaces behind or block the pass. It was Simeone’s trademark to use different forms of attack to occupy both centre-backs, reverse movements were finally seen after the quiet first leg. However, it was too late and given the City players also fought hard, Atlético could not turn the chances into goals.
As we have explained in this analysis, it was not an easy game for the guests, Atlético almost dragged City into the extra time, but the likes of Stones and Nathan Aké defended really hard to keep secure a clean sheet for Guardiola’s side. But this was not the best performance from City in general, part of the reason was they opted in for more control in this game, while another reason was the pressure from Atlético was good enough to make City suffer in the construction phases. But everything was settled now as City would need to face Liverpool in the FA Cup, then, after Brighton and Watford, they are going to face Real Madrid in the semi-final.