Atletico Madrid beat Barcelona at home by 1 goal to nil (2-1 on aggregate) to confirm a semi-final match-up against Chelsea in the Champions League. Everyone knows what Atletico are all about. They work very hard and incredibly well organized. Moreover their team is very well balanced, from the man between the sticks to the prolific scorer up front. Let’s try dissecting how Diego Simeone master-minded an important European victory using the effective method of aggressive pressing.
Like previously, the points I mention here are open for discussion. They can be quite wrong as well.
Atletico since the start of this season, have used a number of tactical variations. This has aided them in different phases of this rather successful year for a club that hails from Madrid and doesn’t have it’s name starting with Real. However now they seem to have stuck up with one rather successful on paper formation. The classic 4-2-3-1.
Atletico are a perfect blend of reactive and stabilized tactical evolution through 90 minutes. They have a set of core principles to which they add finer points depending upon their opponents. This makes them harder to read before a game.
A stable back 4 with full-backs that are disciplined but very attack minded. Most crosses come from them or Villa on the other side ( Atletico’s first goal an example) . In the middle we have BTB kind off player and a defensive connector who can get forward. He’s the marker for others to look at and organize themselves.
In the middle three, we have two play-makers on the side. The left one mostly acting like a pure winger while the other prefers to cut inside and dictate play with the deep midfielders. In the #10 area we have a player who links up well with the poacher up front. His aim is to be physical and let his presence be known to help the other players rather than create chances.
While transitioning into defense, Atletico move into a 4-4-2 overdrive. This helps them set up springboards for counter-attack while making sure that possession based teams will struggle to open them up. Their pressing depends on various factors.
WAIT FOR GIF’S TO LOAD. IF THEY DON’T, OPEN IN A NEW TAB AND WAIT FOR A WHILE. DEPENDING ON YOUR INTERNET CONNECTION, IT WILL LOAD.
1. The closer you get, the more aggressive the pressing gets. Not-so-welcome pressing.
2. If Atletico have just lost the ball, there’s a period of time in which they press high to recover quickly before their opponent organizes themselves. Once they’re organized, they fall back deep. We-want-our-ball-back pressing.
3. If the opponent is not well organized they’ll suddenly press aggressively after being quiet for a long period time. Intelligent pressing.
They also press players onto the wings and then have multiple players jump on them to scavenge the ball out. Very effective when the remaining midfield players block out passing options.
Here we can have a look at how Atletico react to a situation. Their midfield adjusts itself while their pressing system is spearheaded by two players . The encircled player is the one about to be picked out. The Atleti players have to be careful in ensuring that they don’t open up gaps as you can see a player moving behind the two strikers dropping deep. If that pass is made, Atletico will instantly press high.
Here we can clearly see the midfield adjusting itself and also how intelligent their organization is. This is the perfect example of a gutter system. The two players who previously spearheaded the pressing , separate from each other. One of them follows the ball and a midfielder joins them. To compensate the midfielder’s absence , the second member of the spear head drops deep, as the remaining three members of the packed midfield adjust themselves again to accommodate him more centrally. That way they can also quickly counter-attack from their natural positions.
Now we have a different kind of instance that glorifies the previous principle. From a very structured and deep defensive organization, Atletico suddenly push towards the side that the ball is played, once again just to isolate the ball-playing full-back. This closes down clear cut opportunities for the opposition player to combine. Even while pushing, notice how only one midfielder is running right at the ball along with the Atleti full-back dropping a bit deep. This would help Atletico make sure that no clear cut gaps are open to be exploited.
Here we have an example of Atletico just loosing the ball. The first player who is pressing on the ball when the gif starts is the proverbial first phase. The next player who presses is called the third phase. Notice how the player , who is a few yards behind the second presser , instinctively runs towards the ball and then hesitates. He is the proverbial third phase. The midfield’s aim is to shut down and block lanes while one of their members press aggressively.
If the ball isn’t won, it’s forced sideways and the strategy changes.
This will help us find out how quick Atletico are to react when a mistake is made. After a phase of pressing, Atletico are highly unorganized. This is Barcelona’s best chance to hit them hard, but they make a stupid mistake of lobbing it up. Atletico know that with their structure, they can’t always win back and combine with short passes. But when the ball is up, there is always a 50% chance of winning it back. The chances increase if they press higher.
In the gif, they are in a structure reminiscent to a 4-2-4. More open than Liverpool’s defense on a rainy Friday evening at Stoke. To make sure it doesn’t become a huge problem, the full-back presses. A midfielder also helps out at the same time. With this they win the ball back and have an opportunity at creating a counter-attack with 4 upfront
Another fine example of Atletico in the not-so-welcome pressing phase. Notice how it’s man-to-man. At the start of the gif we see an Atletico player pressing a Barcelona player. Right after the ball is passed away, he follows and sticks on to the player.The two other press high on their own men, forcing Barcelona to play back or place a risky pass through the middle. In the orange section, we can see how Xavi tries to create a passing option and in turn an Atletico player moves closer to him.
In short, Atletico are very organized. What separates them from the rest is that they know what they’re doing in highly pressurized situations. They do make errors, but make sure they don’t turn into a complete mistakes. Though what they haven’t faced yet is a team that plays in a quite similar fashion to them. Expect fire-works, and hope they are blue.
I’ll leave you with this fantastic gif of a slide-tackle on the backdrop of a brilliant structure being held.