Match week 26 saw bottom side Espanyol take on a struggling Atlético Madrid side that sits fifth in the La Liga table.
Espanyol came off the back of another loss in match week 25 against Valladolid, but then were able to produce an exciting and gritty win midweek against Wolves in the Europa League but ultimately being knocked out the competition on aggregate.
They looked to kick on from the shackles of Thursday and Sunday football and focus solely on staying in the League. Atlético Madrid off the back of consecutive wins in domestic and European football envisioned themselves getting another win against a side that has really struggled this season and surprisingly sit at the bottom of the table.
This tactical analysis of the tie between these two teams will breakdown the gameplay of each team, explore the effectiveness and take a look at what could’ve been done better to ensure each side saw out victory.
Espanyol lined up in their trusted 4-1-4-1 formation with the notion to occupy as much space as possible within the central areas to then exploit the width, especially to Wu Lei on the right-hand side. Raúl de Tomás (11) led the line and was often picking up the ball relatively deep in the pitch and attacking the Madrid centre-backs. Sergi Darder (10) would often push further up the pitch to provide support and look to exploit spaces in between the midfield and the defence.
Diego Simeone deployed his disciplined and rigid 4-4-2 formation with a multitude of players who have become a staple in the first 11, like Saúl Ñiguez, Thomas Partey and Kieran Trippier to name a few. Resorting to the image below that looks at the average positions of the players, you can see the system used involves using the full-backs as wingers effectively with each wide player occupying an alternative space.
Koke (6), operates in the central midfield area next to Saúl (8) with Partey (5) in a deeper role to protect and cover the two centre-backs. Then Yannick Carrasco (21) pushes further up the pitch on the left-hand side to create an attacking three with Renan Lodi (12) providing the width to cross. The same construction of play is used for Trippier (23) where his dangerous crossing can be used effectively and consistently. Between the fullbacks, eight crosses were attempted. Five for Trippier and three for Lodi.
Correa’s free role
Within the game, there was a real element of danger from one person in particular in the Atlético side and that was Ángel Correa. The Argentine produced a performance that only needed capping off with a goal. Something that he almost achieved ten minutes into the game. Quick off the mark for the press up the pitch, and often creating attacks after picking up the ball just past the halfway line. The best football played by Atléti was often through Correa.
As seen in the image below, playing just behind Morata. He occasionally received the ball on the half-turn and ran with pace at the defence. With runners outside of him, he was able to create and construct attacks an area where Atlético excelled, however, their end product was near obsolete. 45 attacks were created in total with only three shots being generated out of them: a measly 7%.
His six attempted dribbles were the second-highest of Atléti and third highest of both teams with a 50% completion rate. He also had an 83% pass completion during the game and five ball recoveries. His and Atlético’s xG was below bar but, as mentioned previously, when the tactics are centred around crossing and with as poor as they were in this game the expected goals will suffer as a consequence.
When Atléti deferred from using the long ball or playing into the full-backs to look for crosses into Morata (often the only player on the pitch in position to win the headers in attacking situations). They were capable of dangerous breaks and there was a much higher attacking impetus than hoping the strikers would catch a second ball or out jump the Espanyol defenders and score from the crosses.
Diego Simeone has been in charge at Atlético since 2011. During that time, a large majority, if not all of his tenure, has incorporated the use of 4-4-2 or slight alterations of it (4-4-1-1) for example. That tried and trusted formation has produced a lot of success during his management. However, the loss of Griezmann has certainly highlighted some of the cracks in the team that was still evident whilst he was still at the club.
Their style was always and has always been to defend passionately and intensely, outrun the opposition and utilise a target man and someone to play in and around the no.9 in order to create and/or score goals. When Griezmann was in this team it suited them perfectly and his goals were vital in instances where they’d often win 1-0 or 2-1 in games
This season has seen that plummet tremendously. In fact, since the 2016/2017, season the goals average has declined every year which now sits at 1.4 goals-per games. Which begs the question, are they becoming too predictable to play against? Would it be better for the team to alter the formation slightly to accommodate the players they now have rather than force the issue with the current tactics?
Too often than not Espanyol was able to feed the right channel where there was an abundance of space and attack down that flank, which is the area that produced its goal. Wu Lei, as seen in the image below, was able to attack the space and take on the left-back, Lodi, and drive a low cross centrally. The touch from Raúl de Tomás deflected off Savić into his own net.
Problems at Left Wing
Another concern highlighted in this game was the lack of potency and quality that Atlético have at the left-wing position. In an analysis of how they set up, it’s obvious that Koke doesn’t operate as a winger. Therefore, there is a higher onus on the player on the opposite flank to provide some quality in the final third and more importantly: end product.
Yannick Carrasco carried that burden in this game, with seven attempted dribbles and three successful, a 86% passing completion rate and two recoveries. On paper, it looks as if he produced a good shift but through watching the game, he seemed not to create many chances at all. His crosses both from corners and in-game were often over hit and not accurate. And he lost the ball a total of eight times including twice in his own half.
Although only four games back in at the club he left for China two years ago, it’s clear to see that his level of quality has dropped off in the less intense Chinese Super League. His output has dried up in his transition back to top tier Spanish football. There is a lot of work to be done if he and Atléti are to come to an agreement and sign him back permanently and if he wants to make the Belgian side for the Euros in the summer.
Signs of Life in Espanyol
With 12 games to go and 36 points up for grabs, the race for survival is at a pivotal stage for Espanyol. Their win against Wolves on Thursday was a showcase of how good the team can be and how surprising it is to see them at the position they’re at in the League.
Abelardo Fernández took over in December 2019 and it is going to become increasingly harder for the team to turn things around having only four wins out of 26 so far this season. But this game, in particular, showed a lot of positives to take into their next game.
Specifically, Raùl de Tomás. Since his arrival from Benfica, he has netted four times in five outings in the league and provides a real attacking potency to the struggling side. In this fixture, he finished with one misplaced pass (93%), six successful dribbles, two interceptions and three recoveries. It was also because of his movement and touch that Espanyol’s scored. He made himself a constant threat by changing his movement patterns, sometimes picking the ball from deep and using his great technical ability to skip past players and win fouls or to get in behind and run into the channels.
His offensive talent should help Espanyol shore up defensively should aid their chances of survival, and if it proceeds to be futile and they are relegated, there is a very high chance that other clubs will be sniffing for his signature.
Domestically, Atlético Madrid goes into the next game against Sevilla which, with a win, would take Atléti into third providing Getafe lose their next game. After that, they take on European giants Liverpool again for a place in the last eight of the Champions League.
Simeone has quite the challenge ahead of him in the next two games. A serious influx of creativity is going to be needed to get a result from the Sevilla game and, ultimately, the Liverpool game should they score. Shouts for Joao Felix will definitely be called in one if not both of these fixtures and he provides the edge needed to create and finish attacks.
As for Espanyol, their focus can now be shifted solely on La Liga, which is a blessing of sorts, as it gives them more preparation time each week for the league games and vital rest for the relatively small squad size. They take on mid-table club Osasuna away from home in a fixture they really need to win if they have any chance of staying in the top flight. And through the spirited performances witnessed in Europe and on the weekend, I will be backing them to get a positive result.