UEFA Champions League 2021/22: Why Manchester United struggled to create against Atlético Madrid – tactical analysis
In Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League Last-16 first-leg, Atlético Madrid hosted Manchester United at the Wanda Metropolitano. For the first time, Ralf Rangnick and Diego Simeone faced each other in their managerial career. The game ended up in a 1-1 draw with Anthony Elanga coming on as a substitute and scoring past Jan Oblak. However, Atlético looked better than their opponents in terms of limiting Manchester United’s chance creation and final third entries.
Atlético started in a 5-3-2 with some intriguing choice of players. Simeone wanted to prioritize the work rate and defensive commitment of his side, so Ángel Correa started alongside João Félix at the expense of Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann. Geoffrey Kondogbia, Marcos Llorente, and Héctor Herrera formed the midfield trio while Rodrigo de Paul and Thomas Lemar started on the bench. They also had the winter signing from Lille, Reinildo Mandava playing as the left centre-back of the system.
United played with a 4-2-3-1 instead of Rangnick’s trademark 4-2-2-2. Without Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba started with Fred in the midfield. Another intriguing piece of the tactical move was playing Victor Lindelöf as the right-back, even both Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Diogo Dalot were fit to play. Meanwhile, their best and most valuable attackers, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, led the attack of the Red Devils.
Fundamentals of Simeone pressing
Thanks to Félix’s early goal, Atlético had a comfortable start and were happier to let United have the ball. However, that was not a passive tactic because they pressed very hard. The first aim was to block the central zones to force the opponents to play outside, and use the touchlines to limit the options. When the passing routes became visible, the Atlético players could go very tight, pressing and recovering possession by man-marking.
The 5-3-2 of Simeone functioned in an asymmetrical way. Since United were having two midfielders, if they were in the midfield, the Atlético first line should cover them so the passes would go outside as we had shown above.
If the pass went to the right side, the 8 (Llorente) would jump out to press, with the others moving to cover (we will show how they moved in later). This diagonal pressing would often prohibit the left-back from playing back to the centre.
Atlético wanted to maintain the intensity and there were situations in which the strikers were pressing the centre-backs. Seconds after the first example, the ball went back to Harry Maguire’s feet and Correa chased the return pass already. To bait the lateral pass, Félix was ready to press Raphaël Varane by stepping forward early, but this also left Pogba in spaces behind. In those situations, the nearest Atlético midfielder in the same vertical zone must jump out to catch the receiver in the centre as Kondogbia did above. This must be a vertical and aggressive press that aimed to make contacts and recover possession. Even if the initial ball-winning attempt was not successful, they could still force the opponent to play to the outside because the receiver could not turn in the centre.
Here, after United were forced to the wide spaces again, Luke Shaw did not have many options to pass because Atlético closed down one flank very well. With the two strikers showing good disciplines by going back to cover the United midfielders, the Atlético midfield line could press with cover, and notice the angle of the press in higher areas, it was mostly vertical as Herrera would step up with Kondogbia dropping, even though the Frenchman midfielder was closer to Fernandes.
United’s biggest star, Ronaldo, always dropped from the striker position but moving into deeper positions might not be conducive to the team’s attack. We would explain more regarding his participation in the following section.
In the above example which Fred received between the lines as a free player initially, Herrera, who was in the same vertical zone did not hesitate to press from the blindside and recover possession high up on the pitch. This could be viewed as an Atlético trap because they did not want the opposition midfield getting on the ball. The trap could be set up by the striker closing the lateral passing lane to Varane as Félix did here.
On the left side, the press of Atlético was a bit different. Simeone’s side was brave on that night and wanted to defend in the central third, not letting the opponents enter the last third easily. The weakness of a 5-3-2 was the limited horizontal coverage in the first two lines. So, the wing-back (Renan Lodi) from the opposite side would come very early to press the receiver. Compared to the right side, this press was rather vertical.
They have to make sure when the receiver had the ball at his feet after a switch, there was no time and space for further actions and Lodi did an excellent job at closing down the Lindelöf (or Fernandes here). While Lodi jumped out to press, the last line with Mandava must shift horizontally cover, maintaining a compact shape without possession.
Or this can also be viewed as a 4-4-2 defensive structure. Since Lindelöf played deeper or even dropped into the horizontal chain with Varane and Maguire, Lodi must be high enough to make sure he would access the target when Lindelöf received. After the first period of the first half, Atlético were in form and the wing-backs swung very well. Sometimes Lodi was higher and Llorente dropped deeper to defend the wide spaces for Šime Vrsaljko, sometimes vice versa.
Another part of Atlético’s good defence was their strong recovery structure in the wide spaces. When they pressed, the foundation was a three-man group with an additional one or two more players to support the press. The three players oriented themselves towards a target and marked them tightly, trying to win the ball back. And, the marking in the centre must be presented. If an 8 was not in his position, a striker or Herrera would arrive to close that space so they made sure United could not play inside them.
Here, the foundation was Mandava, Lodi, and Kondogbia, who were closing the winger, right-back, and defensive midfielder together. Also, out of that structure, Correa and Herrera were ready to cover in the midfield. When United played those balls into the midfielders, this was a signal to press aggressively to recover possession.
We can see the same in this image, even that was not man-oriented, the structure still existed to make sure Atlético players were defending in close proximity. Here, Kondogbia and Lodi were engaging the two United players outside, with Mandava stepping a bit forward to get closer, so they closed spaces in front of the defence, not sitting deep and letting them come.
Meanwhile, Herrera came from the centre to cover as the fourth man, so even the pass go inside, Mandava and Herrera could instantly double-press the receiver. Atlético locked the spaces really well and United could not organize an attack properly within the block.
These pressing and cover works, conducted by a group of Atlético players and guided by the principles of plays, were the basics of Simeone’s football philosophy. In this game, it worked well to limit the offensive threat of United.
Why United looked so bad?
As explained how Atlético defended in the above analysis, we can further investigate the offensive issues of United and why they could not have better final third entries or chance creations. Rangnick had a squad with so much potential but the players starting were not demonstrating their talents.
Although Atlético were very clear with the principle of blocking the centre, they did not give the United centre-backs much pressure because that would stretch their defence horizontally. In other words, the United centre-backs had more time and space to play, and they should make good use of it. At times, Maguire was given the license to carry the ball forward without an opposition jumping out to confront him. Simeone did not want his team to concede spaces behind with this action, so they rather dropped and retreated to contain the centre-back, until he found himself too high and without many options.
Here, Maguire drove forward and past the first line, with Shaw also high to pin Llorente down, Maguire could continue to access the yellow zone until Herrera jumped out to press. However, he was a left-footed centre-back and had a narrower angle to pass in such a case. Instead, he entered an Atlético area with so many opponents surrounding him. Without runners presenting options behind the line, it was difficult to pass because the opponents were so close to the receivers.
While Lindelöf might create some spaces for himself with his deep positioning, the Swedish defender was not posing threat with his passes either, and Lodi was always quick to close him down if he did not play it quickly.
Obviously, United were lacking the runs in behind in possession, this was quite violating Rangnick’s principles of plays as he wanted his team to be vertical. In fact, too many square passes into the midfield have caused unnecessary turnovers and slowed down the attack.
Also, positionally, the players were not helping each other. Fernandes and Ronaldo always wanted the ball at his feet and moved towards the ball, but without a structure to echo with teammates, they could not pass the ball forward even good conditions were created in the process.
Here, Fernandes dropped and invited Herrera to press, the Portuguese international could not turn and only could play a return pass. However, the RED ZONE was completely exposed! This was a situation the United front players or Pogba must exploit by moving in, but they never did it when it happened. (FYI: the RED ZONE is a term of Rangnick that indicated spaces between the opposition midfielders and defenders. His team should exploit those spaces in the attack if possible)
Another problem was missing the runs in behind. Atlético looked good with players leaving their defensive positions to close the opponents, but this also means the spaces were exposed somewhere else – United never make good use of this. Sancho and Rashford were not presenting the runs in behind despite both possessing the pace to beat the high line, and what Elanga provided was this service.
Ronaldo and Fernandes dropped to receive very often, which was not a problem itself. The problem was “what to do” when this happened. For example, Stefan Savić stuck with Fernandes in this situation above and there was a bug yellow space, but Rashford never had the idea of using this 1v1 opportunity and the big spaces behind by runs.
While Ronaldo was looking to receive the ball deep at his feet, that also means he would be out of position when the team arrived at the final third. At the end of the day, it was not necessary for Rangnick’s striker to play that deep because clearly there was no structure supporting that.
Even the likes of Sancho and Rashford could move inside to play as the temporary striker, these players never showed the desire to score or attack the penalty box. Let’s look at this example.
Nemanja Matić found Fernandes with a through pass. Ronaldo, this time, showed a good movement by attacking the box from deep and the far side. But Sancho, who was now the striker, stayed in front of the box initially.
It was a very poor move because when Fernandes was about to receive, Sancho was almost at his initial position, while Ronald might get there with a sprint. But, the point is, United was missing player(s) in the yellow zone throughout the game, so even they had the ball in the final third, hardly could they create chances to score.
As we have shown in this analysis, the good defending must be the key to Atlético’s success to limit the opposition goal threat, but Simeone’s side was not converting enough chances to take this game either, they must be more clinical at the Old Trafford in order to get into the quarter-finals.
United were a bit sloppy in this game, even they have more possessions than the opponents, the threat was minimal. Nevertheless, Elanga, the young boy from Sweden, scored a valuable goal that gave the Red Devils some confidence when they entered the second leg. This is still an open tie and we were yet to see which side is progressing.