After the winter break in Spain, Atlético Madrid took on Levante at the Wanda Metropolitano in La Liga. Diego Simeone’s men came away with a 2-1 victory over the visiting team from Valencia. The win keeps Atlético Madrid in third place in La Liga, five points off of Barcelona and Real Madrid, who are tied on points as the leaders.
While Paco López’s men saw 57% of the possession, Atleti used their patented defensive tactics to shut Levante down. This tactical analysis looks to understand the successes that Atlético Madrid had on the evening while also providing some analysis as to where Levante fell short.
Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid started in a 4-4-2, although they switched formation fairly consistently, depending on what their opponent did. Jan Oblak started in goal, with Renan Lodi, José Giménez, Felipe, and Kieran Trippier as his defence. The midfield consisted of Saúl Ñíguez, Thomas Partey, Héctor Herrera, and Ángel Correa. Finally, the two forwards were Álvaro Morata and João Félix.
Levante lined up in in a 4-4-2 as well, with Aitor Fernández in goal and Toño, Sergio Postigo, Erick Cabaco and Coke as their defenders. Their midfield was made up of Enis Bardhi, Nemanja Radoja, José Campaña, and Rubén Rochina, with Bardhi and Rochina as the wingers. Finally, Paco López fielded Roger Martí and Borja Mayoral as his two strikers.
When in possession, Atlético Madrid consistently narrowed their field of play. This narrowing of the field serves two purposes: it allows for the creation of numerical superiority, and it allows for Atleti to release attackers into a lot of space, which often ends up being a 1v1 scenario. This 1v1 scenario is an attempt at them trying to create a qualitative superiority — essentially saying our teammate is a better, more-skilled player who will win the 1v1 battle.
One of the benefits of playing so narrow is that it forces your opponents to become more compact, which creates more space for attackers to run into. Above, we see all 10 Atleti players essentially on one half of the pitch after having recently won possession. As João Félix receives the ball at his feet, Ángel Correa begins his run from deep within his own half.
Correa has close to five meters between himself and his closest defender, with loads of space in front of him. While the ball from Félix was ultimately poor and didn’t reach his intended target, Correa was in on goal with no one to beat except for the goalkeeper.
Another benefit of playing so narrow is that as the game progresses, the defense tends to lose focus and make mistakes. Here, we see Atlético Madrid playing narrow down the left hand side again, this time with the exception of Kieran Trippier, who is at the bottom of the photo. Both Héctor Herrera and Ángel Correa drift towards the ball, with Correa dragging a defender with him. As the defender follows Correa, Trippier pushes forward into tons of space.
Trippier has so much space to run into, causing Levante to panic. As they charge across to defend Trippier, communication becomes the second priority. They’ve committed too many men, which leaves a problem on the back post.
As shown above, Atleti actually had three attackers with only one defender to mark them as the ball came into the back post. Unfortunately for them, it was played too close to Aitor Fernández, who collected the ball in his hands. Atleti’s first goal came off of a similar play, where the ball was switched from the left side of the pitch to the right side. Trippier hit a first-time cross to an awaiting Correa, who finished off the move for the first goal of the match.
Atleti’s other means of attacking came from quick long balls from their outside backs, Trippier and Lodi. Primarily from goal kicks, when either of the outside backs received the ball and were being closed down by Levante, they were instructed to send the ball long over the top of the defence. Lodi failed to do it once — in the 41st minute — and quickly drew the ire of Diego Simeone.
Here, Trippier receives the ball from a goal kick. Levante have six men committed forward for their press, so Atleti look to take advantage of the space behind their defensive line. Trippier takes a touch to settle the ball down and then quickly sends it downfield into space. As the ball travels, it becomes clear what Atleti are trying to do.
The two Atlético Madrid attackers target the same centre back, in this case Sergio Postigo. As Correa looks to draw his attention by running in his field of vision, Morata tries to sneak in behind him after already beating the other centre back, Erick Cabaco. If Correa can get to the ball first, he can take one touch and put it into the path of Morata, who would only have the goalkeeper to beat. In this instance, Correa wasn’t successful, but Atleti attempted to beat Levante’s press with these quick long balls for a lot of the evening.
Atleti defending — pressing traps
Defensively, Atlético Madrid had two main focuses: the press and their mid-block. When pressing, Atleti set up to control the middle of the field and force the ball to Levante’s full-backs.
Here, Atleti sets up their pressing trap by committing five players forward. They’ve made it clear with their positioning that Levante cannot go through the middle, and so they must play it out wide. Levante’s full-backs are wide open, and so they are the obvious target for their goalkeeper to play. However, this is exactly what Atleti want.
As soon as the ball travels to Toño, Correa releases from his spot to provide immediate pressure. Correa uses his body shape to force the ball towards the centre of the field. As he approaches Toño, Correa curves his run and begins to open his hips to face the centre of the field, indicating which way he wants the attacker to go — towards the centre of the pitch.
Correa forces the ball to the centre because that’s where his teammates are located. Not only are they able to press Levante’s holding midfielder, but they are also able to prevent passes behind them with their positioning and their cover shadows.
Unsurprisingly, Atlético Madrid employed a variety of defensive schemes when Levante had the ball. If Atleti needed to provide pressure up the field, they defended in a compact 4-3-3, with their forwards making sure to not flatten out, so as to avoid getting beaten with a through ball. In the first half, Atleti defended deeper in their own defensive part of the field with a 4-4-2, again with a compact structure, forcing Levante out wide. Finally, towards the end of the second half, as they looked to protect their lead, Atlético Madrid defended in a 5-4-1 with Saúl dropping into the defensive line and João Félix dropping into the midfield line.
Levante attacking structure
Levante almost certainly came into the game knowing that they would control the majority of the possession, as Atleti often cede the ball to their opponent. Knowing Aleti often compacts the team when defending, Levante tried to spread them out.
Levante have all ten of their outfield players spread out amongst the five different lanes that are generally agreed upon when looking at the pitch. The problem for them was that Atleti is too disciplined to make mistakes on their own — they needed to be beat. In the first half, Levante primarily tried to attack down their left-hand side.
Roger Martí receives the ball at his feet and is surrounded by five Atlético Madrid players. He turns to play his teammate into the corner, who is able to cross the ball. However, as seen in the same photo, Atleti also have a numerical advantage in the box (4v2). Levante continued to test that left-hand side for the first half, and then the right-hand side for the second half, but it was mostly a fruitless effort that left them frustrated in the end.
Later in the half, Bardhi checks to the ball from in between two Atleti defenders and receives it at his feet. He quickly turns and plays it to Mayoral on the outside, who is unable to make much of his opportunity. In fact, the only reason he was so open was that Correa was knocked over and it wasn’t deemed to be a foul. In the second half, Levante tried to attack Renan Lodi on the left-hand side (and continued to attack the left even when he was subbed off), but they found it to be just as unsuccessful.
Knowing they would face a well-drilled Atleti, Levante clearly prepared their set pieces to try and score. The primary goal was to essentially set a screen, like one often seen in basketball, in order to free a player up to try and finish. While not technically legal, these happen all the time in order for an attacker to be separated from his defender.
Above, Roger Martí, the eventual goal scorer, is marked tightly by an Atleti defender. Also marked is the run that Martí makes that would eventually lead to Levante’s one goal of the evening.
Martí takes a quick step to separate from his defender, and in that moment, a Levante player steps into the space.
While it only takes a quick second, Martí earns enough space from his marked man that he is essentially free. While Atleti do switch over fairly quickly, it’s too late. Martí gets his shot off, which deflects off of a defender and hits the back of the net.
These screens were essentially Levante’s best chance at scoring. Earlier in the match, they almost went up a goal off of a corner kick.
The four Levante attackers crowd the top of the box, making sure that their Atlético Madrid counterparts are forced to defend and move quickly in a very small space, making an error much more likely.
As the ball is about to be played, Sergio Postigo grabs two of the Atleti defenders in order to slow them down. At the same time, Cabaco and Coke sprint behind Postigo, opening up space for them to compete for a header.In this instance, enough space was created for Cabaco to get his head on the ball, and he just put it over the bar. While these small movements and screens don’t seem like much, they create enough separation from the defender, which allows for attackers to get an open look at goal.
Ultimately, Atlético Madrid was disciplined enough defensively to earn the victory — especially with a 93rd minute save from Jan Oblak from point-blank range. While Atleti fans will be quite encouraged by two first-half goals, which will feel like a rarity, the win felt more like an escape than a well-deserved victory. However, if Atlético Madrid maintain their tactics and make the most of their chances that they are creating, they’ll start to see more goals in the second half of the season.
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