Atletico are off to a flying start in La Liga this season with 6 wins & 2 draws from 8 games, scoring 18 goals and conceding just 2 in the process. This was definitely not what a majority of us expected, especially given the departure of Thomas Partey on the final day of the transfer window. But it looks like Diego Simeone has found his mojo and this time, he seems to have found it in a fashion that we don’t really associate him with.
From relying on the opponent’s disorganization which was a reactive approach to the game, Atletico have become far more proactive and have evolved into a team which wants to take the driver seat and dictate the game’s pace. Yes, it is no more about the rigid, risk-averse 4–4–2 that would refuse to break down and wait patiently for the perfect moment to counter-attack. Now El Cholo’s men rather want to be comfortable in possession, more passes, more circulation of the ball to move the opponent, break them down gradually and dominate the game. Even apart from possession, they have managed to change several other dimensions as well. Let us go through them one by one:
More Possession & More Passing to move the opponent
Here is a graph that shows Atletico’s passing & possession trend over the past 4 seasons. Atletico for the first time are averaging 54% possession in the Simeone era. Of course, we have just gotten done with a couple of months of La Liga and we have almost 30 weeks to go but from the way Atletico have approached each of their opponents, it doesn’t look like a temporary workaround but more so like a change of stamp.
As you can see in the graph, Atletico have always averaged below 500 pass attempts per game over the years with the 2019–20 season having 463 pass attempts per game. Taking into the first 8 gameweeks of the 2020–21 season, they average almost 600 passes per game, which is close to a 30% increase from the previous season. Its not only about the number of passes but even in terms of accuracy, there is a significant improvement from around 78% to over 83%
Verticality & Directness
When we say more possession or more passing, this isn’t just about keeping the ball for the heck of it and not attacking when they can. Atletico have been one of the most direct, vertical and attacking sides in La Liga this season. Let us have a look at directness in comparison to other teams in the league:
As you can see, the x-axis shows the number of completed passes per game while the y-axis shows the progressive distance as a percentage from those passes. For example, if your team covered 200 yards from a sequence of passes out of which only 20 yards were directed towards goal, then your progressive distance covered % is 10 (200/20). So, the total progressive distance covered (in yards) by all passes is summed up from game to game and averaged for the season.
The only precautionary measure we need to take before assessing a team’s verticality based on this is to ensure their total passes completed per game isn’t significantly low as there is a negative relationship between progressive distance covered by passes and total number of passes. The progressive distance % will always be higher for those teams with a low number of passes as it is impossible for a team to make 700 passes with 50% of them being directed forward. It may happen as a one-off against an extremely low-block defence but not as an average over the course of a season unless they are machines.
This is the reason why only those teams with a minimum number of completed passes per game of 400 have been taken into consideration for this graph. Here the negative relationship between the total of number of passes and progressive distance % will be visible as more the number of passes, lesser the percentage. However in case of Atletico, you’d notice how they have managed to average almost 500 passes per game but yet maintain a progressive % of 33. This roughly illustrates their verticality and directness while in possession.
Infact, the Rojiblancos boast the most number of goals from open play (16) and only behind Real Madrid & Barcelona in terms of NPxG per 90 as well.
Use of Half-Spaces & Interior Channels
This has probably been the most definitive feature of Atletico’s gameplay this season. Anyone who had followed Atletico closely in the Simeone era would be aware of how majority of their attacking/ chances created from the flanks. Be it counter-attacking or be it gradual build-up, Simeone has always been heavily reliant on the wings for his creativity, which is a formation with two strikers also made sense given how he would have enough bodies in the box to attack the crosses. With the departure of Alvaro Morata, an aging Diego Costa and Joao Felix raring to prove his critics wrong, Simeone was left with no option but to adapt to his personnel. The times of Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata, Antoine Griezmann are all part of the past now and it has been absolutely key that Simeone realized the need for an all-new Altetico 2.0 before another disappointing season could have hit the Wanda Metropolitano.
The protagonists in his team are no more tall, strong, commanding figures that outmuscle the opponent at every phase and dominate aerial-duels and second-balls. Simeone has an entirely different set of beasts at hand with the likes of Joao Felix, Angel Correa & Marcos Llorente. Here, we are talking about exquisite first-touch, intelligent movement, passing and dribbling of superior technique. In short, Atletico’s front-line has become more silk and less steel. So, what Simeone has introduced in his team is occupying the half-spaces, interior channels and playing between the lines than taking the ball wide and bringing it back into the box.
The above graph shows Atletico’s preferred direction of attacks and chance creation since the 2016–17 season and as you can see, this is the first time they have touched 30% through the central channel. We will see this a bit more in detail later in this article but first, it is important to note that it is this tendency to attack more through the middle that has brought out the best out of several players, the most noteworthy being the Portuguese wonderkid Joao Felix. Some examples of central-channeled attacks with one or two-touch passing and quick combinations through the middle:
Unleashing the Beast: Joao Felix
There were a lot of expectations when Atletico Madrid had signed Joao Felix to replace Antoine Griezmann and whether or not it worked out in the first season is something debatable. However, there is nothing debatable about the fact that Felix has been the best attacker in Spain this season. A major reason why the unleashing of Felix’s world-class ability has been possible is Atletico’s focus on attacking the half-spaces, interior-channels and playing between the lines. This style of attacking seems tailor-made to suit Felix’s prowess as an attacker and the Portuguese has looked unstoppable up until now. On the contrary, Felix was deployed in most if not all of the games, as a number 9 last season and it limited the space he could operate in. Now the Portuguese has a lot more freedom operating from the left half-space. Felix’s movement has been key to Atletico’s build-up as he drops deep, moves wide or even gives runs in behind the defence when necessary.
The huge difference in the numbers are self-explanatory, nothing needs to be said here. Here is a comparison of the heatmap from the 2019–20 La Liga as compared to 2020–21 La Liga:
You can see how in the 2019–20 season when he was deployed as a 9, multiple ways to fit him in were attempted but nothing was convincing. However in the 2020–21 season, he has been deployed in that left half-space and it has worked wonders for both Felix as well as Atletico Madrid.
Unleashing the Beast: Mario Hermoso
It is quite possible that Mario Hermoso is the most underrated defender in La Liga and it is indeed surprising for one to think how there wasn’t a bidding war for Atletico to win to close his signing in the 2019–20 season. Similar to Felix, Hermoso too didn’t have the best of first seasons with the Rojiblancos but has made an outstanding start to the 2020–21 season in his new-found role. Having made his breakthrough as a left-back, Hermoso combines the strengths of a full-back as well as that of a centre-back. The former Real Madrid man is a combination of strength, speed and excellent on-the-ball abilities with special mention to his passing range.
In order to make the best of the same, Simeone has deployed Hermoso in an all-new role this year as a left centre-back as part of a back-three. It has given Hermoso both space and time to excel in build-up as with three centre-backs, Atletico are able to create numerical superiority against the opponent’s first line of pressure (especially when the first line is of two attackers, making it 3v2). Hermoso has played in this role for two games now (4–0 vs Cadiz & 1–0 vs Barcelona) and he has hardly put a foot wrong in both of those games.
The biggest value-add that Hermoso has brought to Atletico is when they are in possession. The Spaniard has showcased his effectiveness as a ball-playing centre-back with his passing range being key in Atletico’s progression from one third to another. Being part of a back-three has helped his case as from the left centre-back or the right centre-back position, a player is able to progress the ball easier owing to the passing angles.
This shows Hermoso in possession vs Cadiz’s 4–4–2. As you can see, he has numerous passing options and I have highlighted the ones which I thought were the most ideal. If you ach pass could move the opponent in one way,
Pass 1: Tilts opponent to the flank allowing far-side wingback to push
Pass 2: The most direct and deepest pass to break through all lines
Pass 3: Breaks first line of pressure and allows the receiver to charge forward into space
Pass 4: Switch of flanks to tilt the opponent to the farside
Pass 5: Most defensive option but necessary if opponent is defensively organized
Given that Hermoso’s decision-making can send the opponent literally towards any direction, now it is upto his understanding of the game to pick the right option and other technical factors like timing and weight of the pass that will determine the quality of progression. Lets have a look at a couple of examples as to how he has done it
Hermoso accumulated massive xG Build-up numbers as the third centre-back in the games against Cadiz & Barcelona with 1.62. This is averages to 0.81 per game, which means that the possession spells involving Hermoso in a game, sum up to an 80% probability of the spell ending at goal. In the game against Cadiz, it was more about many number of small xG possession spells increasing the xG build-up figure as Atletico enjoyed almost 70% possession. However, in the game against Barcelona, Atletico had 46% possession and yet Hermoso was the player with the highest xG Chain as well as xG Build-up, including all 22 players on the pitch.
Red: Passes that go towards own goal
Yellow: Passes that go forward but not break any line or progress the team
Green: Passes that go forward, break lines or progress the team into the next phase
As you can see, Hermoso had made 8 line-breaking passes to put Atletico in a more advanced attacking position against Barcelona, accumulating the highest xG build-up in the game.
Viz Credit: Ninad Barbadikar (Twitter: @NinadB_06)
Changing formations as per opponent
It is true that the way a team plays, its philosophy, ideology or approach towards the game cannot be defined by just the formation but it is absolutely essential how your team is staggered across the pitch vertically and horizontally in order to ensure that it facilitates the team to play as per its principles. On that note, Simeone has been loyal towards his flat 4–4–2 formation during the entire course of his managerial career at Atletico.
If we take it into account the last 5 seasons for the sake of relevance, Simeone has on an average fielded the flat 4–4–2 for around 34–35 games out of the 38 games in La Liga. A maximum of 2–3 games per season could we see him use a 4–3–3 or a 4–2–3–1. This is another major change we have seen in the 2020–21 season as Simeone has ditched the standard 4–4–2 in many games. As discussed earlier, it is probably a realisation of the squad’s real strong suit which is completely in contrast to the strong suit of his previous years. It is probably for the first time since taking over at Atletico that Simeone has at his disposal:
a) A front-line which is more technical than physical
b) A set of midfielders who specialize in dominating/ circulating possession and proactively dictating the pace of the game
c) Back-line with centre-backs who are excellent ball-players like Gimenez, Hermoso to support the above two departments
There have been 3 games in which Simeone has gone in an absolutely different direction to what he has done in the past decade at Atletico. Let me highlight just those three games for easier understanding of what we have seen so far:
3–4–2–1 with the ball / 5–3–2 without the ball vs Barcelona
Atletico’s 1–0 victory against Barcelona was undoubtedly a Simeone masterclass that handed them the win. He had never beaten Barcelona in the league in his career with Atletico Madrid but for the kind of form with which he headed into the game, many saw it coming this time. Be it Pep or Enrique or Valverde or Setien, Simeone never fidgeted with his traditional 4–4–2 when he came up against Barcelona and it was almost as if Barcelona already knew what he was going to do and still it would be turn out to be a tough fight. But this game, Simeone may have caught Ronald Koeman off-guard with a twist to his team’s shape. He fielded out three centre-backs in Savic, Gimenez & Hermoso with Tripper as right wing-back, Carrasco as left wing-back to form a 5–3–2 off-the-ball.
Atletico maintained a solid 5–3–2 during Barca’s build-up with Felix & Correa blocking passes into Frenkie De Jong & Miralem Pjanic, in an attempt to force Barca to go wide. One could argue that Atletico were quite successful in doing so as the game ended with Jordi Alba & Sergi Roberto having more touches than any player on the pitch. For most parts of the game, Atletico could keep Barca at bay as their back-five helped them slide across the pitch and manage the flanks. So despite the high number of touches, the impact of Alba & Roberto was limited.
Sometimes when Barca entered the final-third, Atletico even shifted into a back-six with Llorente also joining the five defenders, forming a 6–3–1. It is no secret that the two full-backs at Barca have been responsible for creating chances this season as Alba & Roberto remain the top-two in terms of key passes as well as xA. So, Atletico’s shape which allowed them to cover the width of the pitch without the centre-backs being stretched out, worked out significantly.
While in possession, Atletico shifted to a 3–4–2–1 with Llorente joining Correa & Felix in attack and wing-backs charging forward to provide width. Atletico took advantage of Dembele’s lack of decisiveness in dealing with Hermoso, Carrasco & Felix on the left, making it difficult for Roberto. This made defending the right-flank a nightmare for Barca and it wasn’t surprising how Hermoso dominated the game in possession. We had seen a couple of examples in the previous section as to how Hermoso’s passing was effective in creating chances. He also ended the game with the highest xG build-up on the pitch with 0.81
You can see how Saul stepping forward a bit allows Felix to drift wider towards Roberto. who is stuck between Felix & Carrasco as Dembele’s poor positioning is neither cutting off Hermoso’s space nor helping Roberto with the 2 attackers
Key Point from the game:
Since 2016–17, Atletico have averaged possession of 32% vs Barcelona in all competitions and for the first time in the Simeone era, they have ended a game with 46% possession against Barcelona
4–3–3 vs Lokomotiv Moscow (Away)
Simeone was up against the tactically-drilled Lokomotiv Moscow side that has created waves amongst the fans with their display in the UEFA Champions League this season. Lokomotiv Moscow have preferred to line up in a 4–4–2 for most games in this competition and it looked very much like Simeone opted for a regular holding 4–3–3 to isolate their two central-midfielders and progress the ball via overloads in the middle.
While it was indeed a holding 4–3–3 with Herrera as the lone number ‘6’, Saul & Llorente as the advanced central midfielders and Felix-Suarez-Correa forming the front-three, there was a slight twist to this. Unlike the usual 4–3–3, Simeone used the advanced CMs (Saul & Llorente) as wide midfielders, almost like Mezzalas. Although the game ended in a draw, this worked wonders for Atletico in terms of breaking down Lokomotiv’s rigid structure.
Left Image: The passing structure of Atletico after the game vs Lokomotiv Moscow, creating triangles on both flanks with Felix-Lodi-Saul and Correa-Llorente-Trippier.
Right Image: This was the shape that Simeone wanted to maintain, which in turn maximized passing options for Herrera
To begin with, Atletico already had two players on each flank to stretch Lokomotiv’s compact shape with Felix (LW), Lodi (LB) on the left and Correa (RW), Trippier (RB) on the right. So when Saul & Llorente went wider, it added a third-man in both the flanks, pulling an extra man from Lokomotiv’s midfield to go wide to help out their full-back and winger.
The CBs along with Herrera at ‘6’, create a 3v2 against Lokomotiv’s front-two and when you see further up the field, you can see how Saul & Llorente go as wide as possible to pull out Lokomotiv’s wingers away from their central-midfielders. This leaves Lokomotiv’s central-midfielders 2v2 with Felix & Correa who are operating between the lines in the interior channels (a feature we saw earlier in the article). Now let us have a look at how this helped Atletico progress into the final-third:
While the pass which created this attack is essentially the one by Herrera to Suarez, if you look at the build-up seconds prior to the pass, you would notice how Saul is the widest player out on the left. This creates a triangle out-wide on the left with Lodi as well as Felix, who drifts wide from inside gradually to distract Lokomotiv’s central midfielder and pull him out of position. Felix’s movement pulls the central-midfielder just wide enough to the left that the passing option opens up for Herrera to Suarez who lays it off to Correa. While they didn’t win the game, this was an effective way of progressing into the final-third and creating quick attacks.
Key Points from the game:
i) Atletico’s plan worked out to perfection as Herrera ended the game with the most passes 91, dictating the pace of the game and circulating the ball to all areas of the pitch
ii) Lokomotiv Moscow had a non-penalty xG of less than 0.2 and created absolutely no chances as Simeone had tactically outwitted them but the hand-ball incident leading to a penalty, was enough to draw the game.
3–4–2–1 with the ball / 4–4–2 without the ball vs Cadiz
The game against Cadiz was probably Atletico’s most dominant game this season in all competitions as they were in the driver-seat right from kick-off with the lion’s share of possession, creating chance after chance and allowing no way into the game for Cadiz. Let us not forget that despite being a newly promoted team, Cadiz are no pushovers as they sit fifth in the league with 4 wins and 2 draws out of 10 games. They have also preferred a flat 4–4–2 which sits deep, remains compact to deny space to the opponent and against Atletico it was no different.
In order to break down this deep, compact and narrow 4–4–2, Simeone adapted to the 3–4–2–1 for the first time this season. The idea was to maintain numerical superiority over the opponent at every line as it will help Atletico keep possession. It was abundantly clear that Simeone wanted to keep the ball, dictate the pace of the game and keep creating chances to break them down gradually. His 3–4–2–1 was very similar to that of Julian Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig this year.
As you can see in the snapshot, Savic-Gimenez-Hermoso form the trio of centre-backs, Koke-Herrera form a double pivot, Felix-Llorente are deployed in the half-spaces with Suarez as the ‘9’, Trippier and Saul provide width as
wing-backs. The idea here is to ensure that the opponent has to give up on either covering width or covering the central areas. With Felix & Llorente in the interior channels, it forced Lokomotiv to let Trippier & Saul completely free, which meant Atletico always had 1 option out-wide when they had to escape pressure.
In the picture above, I have highlighted in red, the area that Felix & Llorente constantly occupied to receive the ball from the centre-backs or the central midfielders. Upon receiving the ball, it was upto the situation to decide if Felix/Llorente will take on defenders and carry the ball forward or play quick combinations with Suarez within the tight spaces or play it further wide to the wing-backs. It was virtually impossible for Cadiz to stop Atletico from dominating the game as in every area of the pitch, they were outnumbered by the Rojiblancos.
As we discussed earlier, utilizing Joao Felix in the half-space and between the lines seems to be paying off as he is able to take-on defenders, play killer passes, drop deep and pull out an opponent along with him and also make late runs into the box to score.
Felix vs Cadiz:
2 goals, 1 assist, 3/3 successful dribbles, 4 key passes, 2 big chances created 5/7 ground-duels won
Key Points from the game:
i) Hermoso’s wide positioning towards the left allowed him to be the most dominant player on the pitch as when one of the Cadiz strikers stepped out to press him, Koke became free and it was easy to progress the ball
ii) Hermoso & Koke ended the game with the most touches as well as the most passes completed than any player on the pitch: Hermoso: 109 touches & 94 passes, Koke: 104 touches & 92 passes
iii) Atletico ended the game with 68% possession, completing 717 passes at success rate of 91%, the highest ever by Atletico in the Simeone era
We can summarize within a few points as to what constitutes the Atletico Madrid 2.0, which focuses on a proactive approach in possession just for an easier understanding of the bigger picture:
a) Create numerical superiority vs first-line of pressure
b) Have players in half-spaces and between the lines in advanced positions
c) Have atleast one option hugging the touchline for maximum width
d) Utilize the numerical superiority in the first phase and make the best passer a free man (Hermoso/ Herrera)
e) Use the player’s passing range to pick out passes staggered at different vertical & horizontal levels for maximum passing options in the middle/final-third
f) Varying attacking combinations:
i) Play it to widest passing option to tilt the opponent from one side to another
ii) Surprise opponent every now and then with low, fast pass into attackers between the lines/ in half-spaces
iii) Allow numerical superiority to happen in the flanks also by connecting the wing-back, half-space attacker, respective-sided CM/CB
It has certainly gotten the best out of some of the key players in their team and the results are also gradually proving to be positive. However, is this a temporary workaround to suit the strength of the players or is this going to be a new base foundation of what Atletico stands for in the years to come?