More hoping than expecting a result, the Lokomotiv Stadium crowd was electric. Even a point would help them towards progression, be it in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 or the Europa League.
It was not to be as Atlético repeatedly snuffed out their attacks, broke through the Lokomotiv defence, and ran away with a comfortable 2-0 win. Wonderkid João Félix scored the winning goal in the 48th minute and Thomas Partey added an insurance goal on an incisive counterattack in the 58th minute.
This tactical analysis will examine how Atlético’s midfield configuration created an abundance of goal scoring opportunities. We’ll also look at how Diego Simeone’s defensive transition tactics forced Lokomotiv wide and won the ball back quickly.
Yuri Semin lined up Lokomotiv in a 4-1-4-1 with Murilo Cerqueira operating as the pivot and Fyodor Smolov as the lone striker. German defender Benedikt Höwedes anchored the defence while Inter Milan castoff João Mário served as the team’s creative playmaker on the right side of the midfield.
Diego Simeone countered with a 1-4-4-2 with João Félix to tuck in near the forwards. Koke and Saúl Ñíguez rotated in a similar role on the left side with Koke tending to higher more often. Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata started from high, central positions, creating running lanes for their attacking midfielders with intelligent checks towards the ball.
Lokomotiv changed their tactics to a 4-2-3-1 with a couple of late substitutions, bringing on Éder and Aleksandr Kolomeytsev to bolster the attack. Atlético responded with a switch to a 5-4-1, adding fresh legs to the wings with Thomas Lemar and Ángel Correa, as well as locking it up at the back with Mario Hermoso.
Interaction of Atlético’s midfield and forwards
Basically a box with two numbers six’s and number 10’s playing underneath the forwards, just offset to the half-spaces. Costa and Morata’s run opened up lanes for Félix, Koke and Saúl. Felix generally attacked Atlético’s right side while Koke and Saúl rotated forward movements on the left.
The Atlético midfielder played high and narrow, always looking for Costa and Morata to drop into Lokomotiv’s midfield. If the forwards were about to pull an opposing center-back with them, the nearest midfielder would dart into the vacated space. The simple check and set terrorized the Lokomotiv defense.
Santiago Arias and Renan Lodi created space for Felix and Koke/Saúl by playing high and wide, pulling Lokomotiv’s wide midfielders, Zhemaletdinov and João Mario, into the wings. Since Félix, Koke and Saúl cleverly started behind Barinov and Krychowiak, Cerqueira was forced to split his attention between Atlético’s two attacking midfielders.
Too much quality and too many runners to track. The Lokomotiv midfield was frequently behind the play, leaving the charging Atlético runners for the backline.
Vladislav Ignatyev directs João Mário to slide left to block José Giménez’s passing lane to Arias. Seeing Lokomotiv’s intent, Giménez opts to play centrally as Atlético work the ball to the checking Morata.
With the Lokomotiv defence contracting centrally, Morata plays wide to Arias, giving him optimal time and space to make a good decision.
With Arias in possession on the wings, Atlético forced Lokomotiv to commit numbers centrally.
Arias played negative to Thomas, which forced Lokomotiv to step forward and apply pressure. Once Lokomotiv stepped forward and set their line, João Félix saw his cue.
With Lokomotiv’s first and second defenders still running forward to meet Thomas, João Félix correctly identified the run in behind the Lokomotiv defence. Thomas plays him through with a simple through ball, allowing João Félix to play the ball centrally into a 3v3.
Atlético’s defensive transition
In their Round one game against Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv sat in a low block, absorbing Leverkusen’s attacks and counterattacking on nearly a third of their possessions. Though Lokomotiv were more aggressive in this home fixture, Atlético were prepared to aggressively defend against the counter. If they were going to concede, it wouldn’t come from a lack of hustle.
Open attack statistical analysis points to Atlético’s domination in defensive transition.
Stats show 59% of Lokotomiv’s attacks ending in the 0-10 second range and an average possession duration of 12 seconds. While it’s fair to say they entered the game looking to play more directly, their 39 attacks amounted to just seven counterattacks. 33% of their attacks were funnelled through the central channel as they prioritized the wings, especially the right side (44% of their attacks).
Attacking the wings as often as they did increased the distance travelled in attack, giving Atlético defenders the necessary time to recover their defensive shape. With the team-wide commitment to pressing and recovering in those moments of defensive transition, Atlético were able to hold Lokomotiv to a paltry 0.69 xG.
Other than Krychowiak’s double chance in the 73rd minute and Ćorluka’s wide header on the resulting corner kick, Lokomotiv were unable to find attacking joy. Atlético’s commitment to pressing and getting numbers behind the ball disarmed the Lokomotiv attack.
Knowing that Lokomotiv would try to hit them on the break, Atlético highly prioritized recovery runs when transitioning to defence. The final 15 seconds of the first half gives you a glimpse of the defensive commitment that’s become a hallmark of Atlético’s culture.
Atlético got numbers forward to attack a direct kick, but Lokomotiv won the second ball and launched a counterattack. Smolov received the ball and quickly made his way upfield.
Atlético players show their cultural commitment to getting numbers behind the ball, sprinting back to deny a goal-scoring opportunity. As Smolov entered the attacking third, a pack of Atlético players was in the midst of an 80-yard sprint to pursue the Russian danger man.
By the time Smolov released, Atlético had an amazing nine players behind the ball. If you haven’t watched the video, do yourself a favour and find it.
That commitment to the defensive cause and determination to not concede epitomized Atlético’s performance. Any time Atlético lost the ball, they suffocated Lokomotiv with lightning-fast defensive transitions.
Lokomotiv’s attacking width
Looking at the way Lokomotiv structured their attack, it appeared they entered the game with the intention of isolating their playmakers on the wings and playing off their crosses. They set out to attack the wings in hopes of maximizing the width of the pitch to offset Atlético’s compact defensive shape. Time and again, a mismatch of quality or numbers resulted in turnovers.
The play was funnelled in large part to João Mario. With his crossing ability, Lokomotiv hoped to get Smolov or Krychowiak on this end of his services. However, they consistently went back to the same option, making their attack one dimensional in the process.
Since Atlético experienced a great deal of success in the attack (17 shots and 11 crosses), Lokomotiv restarted from the keeper frequently. Even it was the defenders or midfielders who recovered the ball, Lokomotiv gladly attacked the wings and patiently worked for crosses. They simply didn’t have the quality to match up 1v1 on the wings to win their individual battles, resulting in 54 losses of possession high up the pitch.
In this example, Brian Idowu plays the ball into the wing for Smolov.
João Mário and Barinov push forward in support, but not quickly enough.
The isolated Smolov loses the ball to Felipe, who was quickly supported by three Atlético teammates.
Atlético won the ball cleanly and found their outlet in João Félix.
Lokomotiv had a couple of quality opportunities late in the second half, but the crossing emphasis yielded low quantity and even less quality for goal-scoring success.
Mario led Lokomotiv in xA (0.21), crosses attempted and successful (7/3 for 43%) and he was the most influential Lokomotiv player in the attacking duels category. He finished with 17 duels attempted and eight successes, good for a 47% success rate. That number topped Lokomotiv players with more than two attempts. However, forcing play to the isolated winger also led to a team-high 16 turnovers, all in the attacking half.
Thomas Partey’s defensive and attacking performance
With Atlético affording João Félix the freedom to move between the wings and underneath the forwards, Partey was asked to cover the resulting gap in the Atlético midfield.
Partey led Atlético in both successful actions (106/90 for 85%) and duels won (15/10 for 67%). The holding midfielder also chipped in with a 1.05 xG and .64 xA, the former leading the team and the latter placing second to Costa’s 0.76 xA.
Though Félix, Costa and Morata demanded more of Lokomotiv’s attention, it was Partey’s coverage in the midfield that created his teammates’ conditions for success. His stats attest to his brilliant performance, both in the attack and providing defensive coverage on the right.
Atlético deserved the three points, remaining level on points with Juventus. Their next UEFA Champions League match sees them return to the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium to host Leverkusen while Lokomotiv travels to Turin to face Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus.
Though Lokomotiv entered this game hoping to benefit from the crossing ability of João Mario and Smolov’s aerial threat, they consistently left their attackers isolated against the Atlético defence. Repeated turnovers high up the pitch stifled their attack and forced them back to defence.
Atlético’s control of the game started with the defensive transitions and ended in large spells of possession high up the pitch. Their fantastic high press allowed Partey to collect errant passes and restart attacks. Once in the attacking third, João Félix, Koke, and Saul did their damage, running in behind the checking forwards. It was a cohesive, comprehensive display by Los Rojiblancos, one they’ll look to build on Sunday against Real Valladolid.
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