Counting for the 24th game week of the 2019/20 La Liga, the fourth-ranked Atletico Madrid travelled to Valencia to take on the ‘Los Ches’, who at the time were sitting in 6th place.
This tactical analysis will examine the hard-fought battle, both physically and tactically, between Albert Celades’ Valencia and the visiting Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
Both teams started the game in the same traditional 4-4-2 shape. For the home team, they played a backline of four in front of Doménech that saw Daniel Wass starting as right-back, Gabriel Paulista paired up with Eliaquim Mangala in central defence, while José Gayà covered the left-back position.
Dani Parejo and Kondogbia held down the two central midfield spots. Carlos Soler and the 19-year-old Ferrán Torres were positioned on the wings, while Maxi Gómez and Gonçalo Guedes played up front as the two centre-forwards.
On the other side, Simeone started with Oblak and a backline of four in front of him made of Renan Lodi, Felipe, Savić, and Arias. Thomas Partey was paired up with Koke in midfield, Saúl was displayed on the left wing and Marcos Llorente played on the right side of the formation. Vitolo and Correa were the two forwards chosen by Simeone to start the game.
Asymmetries in the two formations
The picture above displays average field positions for each player. As highlighted, what stands out are the more advanced positions of the left-back versus the right-back, and also for the right-winger versus the left-winger. At the same time, the right-winger Ferrán Torres is displayed wider than his counterpart on the left flank.
All of this is due to the fact that Celades trusts the talent and technical abilities of the 19-year-old Torres to handle the right wing and decided to play him more isolated and wide, to be able to exploit any space on that flank. At the same time, Gayà is a better threat offensively, and to allow him space to operate on the wing Soler would often have to tighten the formation and play inside.
As highlighted in the picture above, on the near side Soler can be seen dropping downfield to allow Gayà to attack down the left flank or behind the defence. At the same time, Torres positions himself as wide as possible on the opposite wing, which would grant him the space he needs to attack the defence if the ball came his way.
At the same time, Celades used his two forwards differently. Gómez moved very little and stood tight to the Atlético centre-backs as the more advanced forward, to occupy at least one of the two central defenders of Simeone. Guedes, however, had the freedom to roam as more of a number 10, and he used it to look for open space between the lines of Atlético.
This tendency can be spotted in their respective average positions on the field, and it can be exemplified with the frame above. Gómez is the one staying advanced up the field and tight to the opponent’s line of defence, occupying two defenders in this instance. Meanwhile, Guedes is dropped down closer to his midfielders and as indicated in the picture, he moves to occupy the open space between the two lines of defence.
What stands out in Atlético’s alignment is, first of all, the use of Marcos Llorente on the right wing. A naturally defensive midfielder, Simeone started the 25-year-old wider and on the right side of the midfield, while a more natural player to cover that spot, Koke, was played centrally.
The graphical representation of the average field positions helps explain some of the reasons for Simeone using this particular formation to start the game. While Llorente was used as a right midfielder, Koke played inside next to Thomas and closer to Saúl’s left wing. This alignment allowed Atlético to press more aggressively and to overcrowd the midfield and force errors out of their opponent.
As evidenced in the graphic, the same alignment forced Atlético to focus their attacks more predominantly towards the left wing. The formation that can be made out of the respective average field positions is almost entirely skewed towards the left side of the field.
The graphic above is a passing map of the long ball attempts of Atlético. It helps display a major trend of favouring the left flank in building up the attacks, with long balls launched towards where Saúl or Vitolo could force aerial duels.
The very rare occasions of launching towards the right wing instead are due to Saúl changing sides and temporarily playing as a right midfielder. The 25-year-old Spanish international finished the game as the player with the most aerial duels. He was targeted a total of 10 times in the air and he won five of those, finishing with a 50% win rate.
To balance the formation, in the moments of focus on the left wing, Arias, the right-back of Atlético, would be forced to move wider and further up the field to maintain the threat otherwise missing due to the lack of a natural right-winger. As shown in the picture above, this left him isolated in a huge surface of green open space.
The presence of Arias down the wing allowed Llorente to operate in the half-spaces between the lines of Valencia, and threaten the defence with runs behind.
The picture above is a good example of that threat put to work. With the two formations tight and focused on Atlético’s left wing, he uses his central position and the attention of the opposing defenders directed towards the opposite side of the field to attack the open space vacated by the backline of Valencia.
While Llorente doesn’t end up being the target of the pass, his run attracts the attention of the defence, and in turn, it frees up Arias running down the right wing. The ball finds the Colombian right-back in a great position outside of the box, with more than enough to prepare his next move due to the formation skewed towards the opposite wing.
Simeone’s high pressure system
Known for their hard and high up the field pressure system, Atlético looked comfortable giving up 64% possession to their opponent and used it to set up their pressure tactics. This was done to force them into making mistakes and create turnovers inside Valencia’s half of the field.
Simeone aligned his players predominantly into a 3-2 pressuring line, as shown in the example above. The two forwards worked to pressure simultaneously the two central defenders and even the goalkeeper, if the ball was moving that way.
Behind them, Saúl, Koke, and Llorente formed the second line of pressure against Valencia’s midfield. Llorente and Saúl were positioned to take away the lateral passing options, while Koke was tasked with keeping the closest defensive midfielder in check, maintaining a very close distance.
Equally important in this pressure system of Atlético was Thomas Partey, the safety element of the system. While he usually wasn’t actively involved in pressuring, his job was to position himself behind the 3-2 lines and roam freely to look for interception opportunities, or clean up in case the opponent was able to advance past the two lines of pressure.
The picture above serves to show just how important Thomas’ role is. The moment Atlético lose the ball in Valencia’s half, they immediately have to counter-pressure, hoping to regain possession. The forwards are out of position to do so, but the midfielders have to quickly form the line of pressure and apply it.
Behind them is Thomas, in the same defensive midfielder position, providing coverage and the safety element. He is highlighted initially in the moment of the pass, breaking out of his stance to close the distance to Parejo, who was looking to sneak in behind Atlético’s midfield and ready to receive the ball.
In the frame highlighted by the red rectangle, we can see the actual duel as Thomas catches up with Parejo and forces the tackle, winning back the ball. He would then progress with it into the final third of the field, where he would shoot, scoring and gaining back the lead for Atlético right before the halftime.
Thomas was great in his role and put on a masterful performance. He finished the game with a 100% win rate of his defensive ground duels (3/3) and added to it 11 interceptions. Even more importantly, he was able to convert his great defensive performance into 1 goal scored, which allowed his team to leave Valencia with a draw that keeps them in 4th place.
Celades’ pressure relief valve
Albert Celades showed a great understanding of his opponent’s strengths and tactics, and he aligned his formation accordingly to counter it.
In order to exploit the 3-2 pressuring lines of Atlético, he used the pair of central midfielders to exploit it, using one of them as a pressure relief valve. As the play and the opportunity would allow it, one of Parejo and Kondogbia would look to occupy space in a more advanced position, providing a good passing option that could neglect Atlético’s pressing.
In the example above, it’s Parejo that goes further up the field in the pressure relief role. While he doesn’t eventually get found with the pass, he attracts the attention of Thomas Partey, who was supposed to provide depth and safety to Atlético’s pressure system.
Taking Thomas out of position allows Torres to fill in that voided space between the lines, on the opposite side of the field. Valencia would use this to progress with the ball and neglect Atlético’s pressure.
When they were inside Atlético’s half of the field, Celades would instruct one of his two central midfielders to drop in line with the centre-backs and form a line of three. The other would look to free himself up as a passing option behind the lines of Atlético.
In the picture displayed above, Parejo drops to form the backline of three, while Gabriel and Mangala move wider to provide passing options. Kondogbia sneaks behind the two forwards of Atlético applying pressure on Valencia’s ball carrier, and Parejo links up with him. Using his position to pivot to the outside, Kondogbia passes the ball laterally to Mangala, who is now in a good position to advance the attack down the wing.
In this instance above, Valencia takes it even wider and further up field. Both full-backs are pushed wide to the outside, the two centre-backs are also wide enough to form the backline. Kondogbia acts as the central midfielder, but he maintains proper distance and is not dropping deep to receive the ball. Parejo is much more advanced than earlier, towards the far side, while Soler drops back and inside, to form the triangle-shaped midfield of three.
With two options occupying the space behind Atlético’s lines, it puts a lot of stress on Thomas to be able to effectively mark both. This alignment would allow Valencia to advance the ball more easily past the lines of pressure deployed by Simeone, ultimately acting as a counter to the Argentine’s tactics.
Subbing to gain advantage
With three goals scored before the half, it was harder for teams to replicate the same success and offer viewers the same number of goals. This put an emphasis on the two managers to substitute accordingly and try to create advantages whilst also looking for weaknesses to exploit.
Valencia was able to tie up the game in the 59th minute, and they were also the first to make an attacking oriented substitution. Following the goal, Celades makes his move by taking Guedes out and sending Gameiro in his place.
By doing so, Celades switched the false nine used as a more deep-lying forward with more of a target-man type of forward in Gameiro. The intentions were to now use both forwards to push the backline of Atlético further and further down the pitch, and provide two good options for his wingers and full-backs to target with crosses inside the box.
In the picture above, Gameiro is able to break free from his central position, and receives the ball inside the box. His teammates react to it and attack the goal, crowding the box with no less than six people, offering options for Gameiro to go to with his next pass.
In this other example, Torres breaks free down the right wing, catching the opposing defence off guard. He uses his speed to get in the box, while three of his teammates coming from the opposite side of the field react and do the same.
One of them attacks the near post, another one does the same towards the far post. This occupies the only two markers of Atlético left inside the box. The third attacker, in this instance Gameiro, is left wide open in the middle of the box, waiting for the cross.
Unfortunately for his team, he misses the wide open chance to score. However, the tactics of Celades were working, the use of crossing and the extra target man inside the box looked to give Valencia a slight advantage.
Having to respond to his opponent’s move, Simeone took an even more aggressive approach when he subbed out Arias in the 66th minute of the game for Morata, an extra forward.
This would cause several other changes to Atlético’s alignment, with Saúl dropping into the backline to cover the left-back role, while Vitolo would move into more of a false-nine role, that could also break wide and cover the left flank.
Simeone opted for Morata and Correa to form the new pair of forwards, no doubt, due to their superior speed. Each of them are bigger threats to run behind the defence than Vitolo who, in turn, could use his new role to link up with the two forwards and target them with passes behind Valencia’s backline.
He would move again, ten minutes later, sending another attacker looking to exploit space behind the defence. In the 76th minute, Yannick Carrasco would go in for Koke, and the Belgium international would pair up in centre-forward with Morata. Vitolo and Correa would move wider on the wings.
This would create a trio of fast attackers who would look for opportunities to use their speed and run behind the defence of Valencia. It also meant that at this point in the game, Simeone was content with defending in a compact low block, winning the ball back in his own half, and launch long balls to target his attackers on the counter.
In the end, both sides acted and reacted to try to counter their opponent and exploit weaknesses in their systems, as this tactical analysis has shown. Neither side did enough to win and the 2-2 draw that resulted allows Atlético to keep their 4th spot in the 2019/20 La Liga table, ahead of their Champions League fixture, while Celades’ Valencia drops one spot, to 7th.