Another La Liga match at the amazing Wanda Metropolitano occurred on Saturday afternoon with Atlético Madrid vs Leganés. Atlético’s minds may have already been on Tuesday’s Champions League game against Juventus and The Colchonneros know that their chances of winning La Liga are quite low given Barcelona’s consistency. The big focus will be on the world’s most competitive club’s competition The Champions League. Though, the locals needed the three points to keep up the pressure on the leaders who played later. On the other side, Leganés who were in 12th position had a bit less pressure than the hosts. But even if they were eight points above the relegation zone, they planned to get at least one point from their short trip to the Wanda.
Diego Simeone maintained his typical 4-4-2 structure at the start of the match. The match saw the first start for Kalinić since the 26th of January against Getafe. Simeone had also made the choice to rest Morata and Saul before Tuesday’s night.
Pellegrini had also maintained his habitual 5-3-2. Although having four players out for suspension, the Spanish manager aligned a competitive team with their attacking duo who have scored 15 of the team’s La Liga goals.
Atletico’s usual structure and difficulties
Diego Simeone had chosen, one more time, to be loyal to his classic approach. This was just the starting point of Simeone’s habitual philosophy. The Colchonneors did not manage to conserve the ball and did not have long ball circulation sequences. They gave the ball to their opponents too easily, who had attempted 50 more passes than them (240 to 195). They also had a higher pass accuracy rate during the same period (83% to 77%). Instead, Atlético tried to press their opponents quite high so as to oblige them to either play long balls or go towards one side of the pitch.
To do that, they have chosen a 4-3-3 structure during their pressing. As Leganes had three centre-backs to initiate the attack Vitolo went often to press Diego Reyes alongside Griezmann and Kalinić. Atlético’s midfield players tried to stick to Leganés’ midfield trio:
In the picture above, all pass lines to the midfield are blocked by Atlético ’s players.
Here Leganés’ defensive trio was under huge pressure from the opponent’s striker and they did not have enough time and space to find teammates. At the same time, pass lines to the midfield were blocked by Atlético ’s players as target receivers were either too close to an opponent or in a cover-shadow. This is a typical situation of Leganés’ build-up during the first period. It resulted in numerous long balls (42 in total in the second half).
On the offensive side, Simeone’s team had been in trouble. They had no big chances and had no shots on target from inside the box during the first 45 minutes. They managed to create only one dangerous situation after recovering the ball.
This is essentially due to the lack of presence and offensive movement from Atlético’s midfielders. Logically, when you play against a team which defends with eight players (sometimes nine) you cannot create overloads with just three or four players. You have to be more precise while attacking from the flanks, for example, there was only the full-back and the wide midfielder who tried to combine in order to advance. Often, no pass option to the centre was available for them. Partey and Rodrigo were positioned behind them and did not make any move to occupy the half spaces to create triangles or to pull opponents out of position. Passes to Griezmann or Kalinić were also difficult to find as they were cover shadowed.
Here, Atlético had two horizontal lines of two players. Even if we drop all Leganés’ players from the picture this cannot be an advantageous offensive structure.
Ball carriers can either play an uncertain forward pass or start a risky solo run. In both cases, they could not advance through the centre.
Of course, a back pass option is important to have. One of Partey or Rodri needed to stay behind the ball holder to ensure this. Having both of them at the same line all the time prevents your team from creating numerical superiority.
This is as an essential point in Simeone’s philosophy. This means that he wanted central midfielders to stay behind the ball carrier and close to him in order to jump on lost balls and prevent the opponent from starting a counter-attack. I have to admit that this is quite reasonable in general. However, when you are second in La Liga playing a mid-table team, with such a huge talent in your squad I think that you can afford to attack with six or seven players.
Leganés’ central ideas and difficulties to apply them
Leganés’ manager Mauricio Pellegrino knew that his team will have to take the lead in terms of ball possession. He knew that Leganes will probably spend more time with the ball than without. Pellegrino had two central ideas based on numerical superiorities. The visitors had three central defenders that faced, on paper, of course, only two main strikers which can logically lead to an easy ball exit from their own half. The left and right centre-backs could, for example, occupy Griezmann and Kalinic to open the way for their third team-mate, they could also form triangles with full-backs and midfielders to get over the opponents first pressing line. However, Atlético had 3 players pressing the visitors’ defence.
The pressure was huge so they often finished their attacks with long balls and diagonal passes which were ineffective in general. To emphasise this, Leganés had attempted 42 long balls and 12 crosses in the first half. They had no successful crosses.
The second main idea for Pellegrino came up in relation to the second build-up stage. Once again, this was something planned on paper that rarely happened on the pitch. The Spanish manager wanted to stretch Atléti’s midfield line. He had five players in midfield, two of them (the full-backs) were occupying the two flanks and attracting Vitolo and Correa leaving three vs two situations in the centre of the pitch against Partey and Rodri.
Here is one of the rare examples of this situation that happened during the match. There is a huge space separating Rodri and Vitolo on the left and Partey and Correa on the right. This situation did not happen a lot for the visitors. First, they rarely had the opportunity to pass the halfway line and control the ball close to Atlético’s goal. Secondly, when they did, they had often the ball on one flank and were in an overcrowded zone where they had little time and space alongside with terrible vision of the field and of their team-mate’s availability.
Leganés had in fact only 15% of their attacks in the middle of the pitch.
Finally, the most alarming thing about Leganés’ offensive performance was their inability to have shots. They had according to whoscored only one shot which was on target during the first half.
What did the second half changes’add to both teams?
El Cholo made two substitutions just after the break. The Argentinean manager wanted, at the same time, to score and rest his key players for Tuesday’s fixture against Juventus. He brought in Thomas Lemar and Saúl Ñiguez in the place of Griezmann and Solano. Atlético went into something like a 4-4-1-1 where the key was the occupation of the half space and offering pass solutions to ball holders on one side.
Lemar occupied the right flank whilst Correa moved forward just behind Kalinić. Both of them were often positioned between Leganés’ two defensive lines and were easily found by either Partey or Arias.
This key change was at the origin of the penalty got by Correa at the 50th minute of the game.
In the picture, and despite the fact that Leganes were defending with eight players, Arias was able to find pass channels to two of his teammates. This is due to the fact that Lemar was a bit behind Correa forming a sort of inverted triangle. The distance separating Kalinić and Correa was optimal in terms of closeness in order to be able to receive the ball properly and be able to combine. The back pass from Kalinić added perfection to the first and unique remarkable collective sequence of the game.
Rapidly after scoring the goal Atlético stepped back on the pitch. They made fewer passes and had less control over the ball. In order to respond to their opponent’s lead Pellegrino made also two substitutions and switched to a 4-3-3 formation. The big change was that his defenders were finally able to find team-mates and Leganés could get past the first pressing line like in the pictures below. This did happen essentially due to the movement of Martin Braithwaite and Nabil El-Zhar between the opponent’s lines.
Here is his heatmap of the match of the Danish striker.
Leganés did certainly improve in this area and they always found a free player. Unfortunately, they never initiated a collective move with coordinated ball calls.
As they did three weeks ago against Vallecano, the Colchonneros did secure an important win with the minimum of effort. Saturday’s match was another proof of Simeone’s efficiency. Atletico did win another match without neither dominating ball possession nor creating numerous big chances. I think the key point for this match is the fact that Atlético did not encounter real danger. Simeone’s team managed to prevent Leganés from attempting any shots from either inside or outside the box. Finally, Atlético Madrid are still in the race for the title even with little hope. Leganés did not lose out that much as all of their direct opponents did drop points.