With the La Liga title all but wrapped up, every match in La Liga feels less about the big teams and more about the smaller teams. Survivals, relegation, and upsets become the norm for the matches. Thus when fifth-placed Alaves went against second-placed Atletico Madrid not much was thought.
Atletico went into the match expecting nothing less than a win. With the 3-0 thrashing by Juventus and defeat at the hands of Athletic Bilbao still fresh in the minds of the Colchoneros, it was critical for Diego Simeone’s team to continue winning games. For Alaves, this match had the potential to catapult them to fourth place. With Valencia and Sevilla round the corner, a win put them with a seven points gap between their rivals.
For Abelardo Fernández, a win would place them near the Three Big Ones, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid, but also put morale into the supporters who have languished in the lower standings of the league.
Both teams lined up with a 4-4-2. For Fernandez’s men, three changes were made. Martín Aguirregabiria was dropped for Ruben Duarte. Additionally, Guillermo Maripán was rested for Rodrigo Ely while Takashi Inui was rested for Manu Garcia.
The only change for Simeone’s men, after that 2-0 defeat to Athletic Bilbao, was replacing Rodrigo Hernández Cascante with Filipe Luis. With this in mind, we aim to show you, through tactical analysis, why Atletico Madrid reigned supreme on Alaves, despite both having the same formations.
On the pitch, the 4-4-2 transformed into a 4-1-3-2 with Thomas Partey at the base. Acting as a central defensive midfielder, Partey patrolled in front of Atletico’s defence. This was because, in recent times, Atletico have become weak against swift counterattacks.
The ageing defence of Atletico can be exploited through runners in the central channel. Partey provided Atletico with an additional presence in their own third. Moreover, Partey took some burden off Griezmann as he now conducted the linking of the defence and attack. His main role, however, was getting Atletico past the press and starting the attacks.
Alaves started their game with a high press and Atletico needed someone that would relieve them from the first wave of pressure. When building from the back, Atletico had the right fullback stay higher than the left fullback. Thus, Atletico Madrid’s system would change to a 3-5-2 in the build up.
As such, Alaves pressed Atletico in a 3-4-3 meaning that there was numerical superiority in the middle as it was 4v5 in favour of Atletico. The downside to the numerical superiority in the central space was that it made the buildup dangerous. As such, Partey would drop in deep and position himself to be the outlet for the buildup. Moreover, Partey’s positioning was used time and time again with Alaves’ press.
In addition to providing numerical and qualitative superiority, Partey also acted as a buttress to the Atletico attack. Parading the width of the pitch, Partey was everpresent in engaging attacks. This can be seen in the fact that Partey made 74 passes, the second highest number of passes in the whole game. He provided the Atletico attacking group with numerous options.
More often than not, Partey stayed just behind to offer potential pass backs which could translate into through-balls or chipped balls for diagonal runners. This positioning also acted as a failsafe for any failed Rojo attacks. His defensive skills can be seen in the fact that he recorded three interceptions, the most in the game. He also attempted five tackles, which was the second highest number of tackles in the game.
He also helped stop any aerial attacks from Alaves as he recorded five aerial duels, the second highest aerial duels in the game. These interceptions and defensive actions happened in the middle of the pitch, allowing Atletico to spring attacks as fast as possible. Moreover, Partey also provided Atletico with late runs and diagonal runs in Alaves’ final third. This added one more player in attack which made it that much tougher for Alaves.
His dribbles from the goal to the middle of the pitch helped Los Colchoneros in the attack as it helped draw midfielders from where Partey could find his teammates. This involvement can be seen with his goal. Arriving late, Partey took one touch and with superb technique brought the ball into the back of Alaves’ net.
Simeone’s new tactics for Griezmann
Over the years, Antoine Griezmann has become the focal point for Simeone’s team and the general play of the team. With such a heavy emphasis on defending, Griezmann has been the man that has linked the defence and attack of Atletico Madrid. With his vision, superb technique, and commitment, Griezmann has sprung Atletico’s attack into a force to be reckoned with.
In this game, Griezmann showed once again why he is important for Atletico Madrid. While on paper, Atletico seemed to be playing a 4-4-2, in reality, they switched to a 4-1-3-2 on the pitch. For the first time, we saw Griezmann take up a different role, more specifically the right central attacking midfielder role. While normally, he would pair up with a striker in the front two and play second fiddle, Simeone adjusted his tactics to allow some variability in the game.
Despite the changes in position, Griezmann’s influence on Atletico’s game plan could still be seen. Atletico repeatedly attacking down the right-hand side, the side where Griezmann was. Their tactic, on the right-hand side of the pitch, was to either pass it directly to Griezmann or using Juanfran’s runs as a decoy, find Griezmann indirectly.
With Alaves defending in a 4-4-2, the middle of the pitch was often congested. Often times, one of the strikers would form a 4-5-1, making it increasingly difficult for Atletico to progress anything down the central corridor. This is where Griezmann worked his magic. As soon as the ball was laid at his feet, two to three Alaves players tried to corner him down.
This 3v1 situation in the central corridor would force Griezmann to release the ball to one of Koke, Saúl Ñíguez, or Partey. They would directly switch the ball to the other side which vacated space for the respective striker or fullback to exploit. Moreover, the aim for Griezmann’s changed position was to make use of the halfspaces. This exploitation allowed many possibilities for Atletico in the attack.
It was this utiliation of halfspace which led the first goal. Partey lobbed the ball to Juanfran, who made it his mission to stay as close to Griezmann, who found Griezmann in the halfspace. With four players surrounding him, Costa found himself in a 1v1 situation with an Alaves defender.
After a precise passback to Griezmann, Griezmann, with five players surrounding him, sent a first-time pass to Saul who was open on the left halfspace. Saul found himself in a 1v1 with the goalkeeper and slotted it between the legs. What is important to take note here is that due to Griezmann’s presence, Alaves found 60% of their team on the right-hand side, where the French talisman lay.
There was much more creativity from Griezmann in this game due to the fact that the role of dropping deep and progressing the team upwards was taken off from him and laid on Partey. Without defensive responsibility, Griezmann started producing various attacking combinations.
One of his favourite combinations included shielding from Costa to make inwards runs or utilising a 3v1, in favour of Atletico, on the wings to produce crosses into the central corridor which would be exploited by the central runs of Morata and Costa.
Conversely, some attributes that are characteristic to Griezmann were lost. For example, the Frenchman only had one shot completed in this game. This statistic pales in comparison to the 2.9 shots per game that is expected. However, the Frenchman maintained his involvement in the game.
In the absence of the French forward in the attack, it became clear why Atletico needed him so desperately. A perfect example of Atletico’s tactics without Griezmann would be demonstrated in their second goal. Playing on the left-hand side of the pitch, Luis received the ball in Alaves’ final third. Luis played it back to Koke who found Costa in an ounce of halfspace.
With the Alaves midfielder coming in late, Costa had all the time in the world to turn and curl it in. While it was a magnificent goal, it highlights Atletico’s simple yet stoppable attacking tactics in the absence of Griezmann. With simple crosses and deep passes, Atletico attack directly with their strikers. This is simple yet it is also easily stopped. Had the Alaves midfielder not lot concentration then Costa’s possession would be squandered.
Moreover, Atletico lacks the unpredictability and variance in attacking that Griezmann brings.
In the second half, Simeone took off Costa for Lemar and reinstated Griezmann as the second striker. Playing in his normal position, Griezmann played as a second fiddle to Morata. Griezmann would often play in behind Morata, creating through balls. Griezmann worked to attract the defenders and midfielders, leaving Morata in 1v1 through which he could score.
More importantly, Griezmann’s role was not to score. It was to create goals, through indirect and direct methods. This role can be seen in the third goal where Lemar picks up on a stray pass and passes it to the running Morata. At this point, Morata is running on the left while Griezmannn stays on the rights. At the moment, there was a 2v2 created inside the Alaves box.
Griezmann stays wide, but not too wide, to draw the second Alaves defender towards him. His presence is also important as Morata, with wit, starts driving towards Griezmann, as if he is going to pass to him. Recognising the potential of an easy chance to score, all the defenders start to shift their positions towards the right. It is at that moment where Morata kicks the ball to the left, leaving no chance for the defender or the goalkeeper to defend the goal.
For Atletico, this was a huge win. Not only was it a huge morale booster, but it also somewhat patched up the hurt which followed the defeat against Juve; not only that, it kept Real Madrid at arm’s length.
Simeone will be pleased with his team considering how they responded to his changes. He will be pleased that both Costa and Morata got on the scoresheet as it ensures that his strikers are firing on all cylinders as we approach the business end of the season.
For Fernandez, he will be very disappointed with his team. Leaving huge spaces and general sloppiness in and out possession, he will have some thinking to do. Some of the actions taken in the final third were not as good as the level warrants.
As another week of La Liga came to a close, we got to see another great game of football. One where stakes were on the line and ultimately where the tactics prevailed.
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