Atletico Madrid sealed their place in the Champions League 2014 final vs Real Madrid with a 3-1 away victory at Stamford Bridge. Until Chelsea’s first goal, Atletico were having problems with their ball circulation & with their positioning, which automatically translates into all other phases of the game. Then after Chelsea scored, Simeone and Atletico became much more aggressive with their positioning, which caused them to be much more fluid and dominant. Small positional details can completely stop or start great ball circulation, translating through to all phases of the match, and this Atletico victory was a perfect example of having to go a goal down to really begin asserting dominance.
Atletico’s Static Possession
For the time before Chelsea’s goal, most of Atletico’s possession game resulted in super tight combinations down the flanks, ultimately being controlled by Chelsea by being forced wide and contained. Just as Atletico like to be extremely narrow in defense, they were very narrow vs Chelsea in offense with their “front 4” shifting across the field together, relying mostly on high speed combinations and movements – though the structure of the team wasn’t adequate at these early moments to take advantage of these aspects in Atletico’s offense.
A main aspect of Atletico is that they do not occupy the 10 space (space where the classic #10 plays). Even so, they still control this area without anyone actually having to be positioned there. The space is controlled by the fact that there are so many players nearby that can enter it at any given time, & usually Atletico fluidly enter the space when needed. A main problem vs Chelsea was the passiveness in offense of either of the 6s to enter this space.
The passiveness of both 6s while in possession actually allowed Chelsea’s Willian to do a great job of occupying them both & causing Atletico’s possession to come under much more pressure than it should have due to the fact they were becoming disconnected from the other half of the pitch. As you can see Chelsea played very narrow, & condensed the spaces around the ball while leaving the far side of the pitch opened. In this particular scene Atletico ended up playing the ball out of bounds under pressure during their combinational movements.
I also highlighted what would’ve been a possibility if Mario, the far 6 in this situation, had moved higher and occupied a higher space. Depending on the movement of the Chelsea players in this hypothetical situation, options would’ve opened up. In my situation Mario receives the ball in a higher space from an inside pass by Filipe Luis, providing a connection to the far side of the pitch, where Hazard would have great difficulty marking so much space (as we will see in the future), or where Mario could also play a vertical pass to Turan and combine when an initial pass angle to Turan was much too tight.
Note: If you want to read further about Atletico’s ENTIRE system under Simeone (as my analysis is more about the importance of ball circulation & positioning in possession), with talk about aspects such as the control of the 10 space without occupying it – then check out this great analysis by my good friend, Rene Maric – (http://spielverlagerung.com/2014/05/16/atletico-madrid-under-diego-simeone-2014/)
Buildup Problems Early
During buildup moments early in the game Atletico’s 6s again lacked the initiative to get involved. In this particular scene they stayed in their position, being easily covered by Torres and Willian, to the point where Chelsea’s 6s (David Luiz and Ramires) didn’t even bother applying pressure to them from behind to not allow turns, as they were confident that Atletico’s 6s wouldn’t receive the ball.
Torres applied passive pressure to whichever defender had the ball while staying close to the Atletico 6, Tiago. Willian focused more on Mario, at first Ramires began running forwards towards Tiago to provide extra security & not allow easy entry into the Chelsea shape. Azpilicueta blocked any possible pass to Koke, so Filipe played it back to Godin who then played a hard, fast paced ball leading Miranda towards the right.
At this moment Ramires left the higher spaces and began dropping into the near side 6 space next to Luiz, leaving Tiago and Mario completely unmarked, but unable to receive the ball due to their lack of fluid movement. Torres and Willian shifted across with the ball, staying more oriented towards the Atletico 6s, Willian was close to the ball so he applied passive pressure to Miranda to hurry his pass a bit more. Miranda then lobbed the ball high and long towards Turan in the right halfspace, heavily dominated by Chelsea players, who easily conquered the ball duel.
In this scene we find Atletico attempting their usual flashy and incredibly effective combinations again. Though it again ends in a failure in possession. Koke attempted a risky horizontal pass inside the deep Chelsea shape into Diego Costa, & it was intercepted by Ivanovic. These types of ball losses allow Chelsea to easily progress high up the pitch & if their transitional offense fails to yield a goal scoring opportunity – begin their offensive organization. When the ball is intercepted the Chelsea player already has a forward field of vision & therefore can see the entire field which allows him to perform dribbles easier and make less mistakes in transition. Because the far 6 is so deep, Atletico do have a more secure structure in defense in terms of numbers retreating backwards. The key word here is retreating, they do not want to be moving back into their own half.
Again I demonstrated a possible situation if the far 6 had moved into the higher space, Koke could’ve circulated the ball through Tiago into Mario who would then have many options to play. Due to Mario’s positioning being farther away from the play, Atletico’s counterpress immediately when the ball is lost lacks numbers and depth. An important aspect of pressing is the idea of “through pressing” – meaning that even the opponents farther from the immediate pass options of the ball player must be covered for the most efficient pressure & highest chance of ball winning. If in this situation Mario was higher up the pitch & the ball was still lost, the counterpress would’ve been much quicker and more structured, instead of slow and lacking depth – which allowed Chelsea to easily progress up the pitch. Torres would still have been marked by 2 central defenders, one of which could have stepped up for an interception while the other covered in the event of a long ball (if too long its an easy sweep up job for Courtois). Though this more passive mindset is understandable seeing as it was the CL semifinals and Atletico were the away team, this is a great example of a time when an opponent might’ve been shown a bit too much respect in terms of Chelsea’s transition offense, making Atletico have a bit less swagger and aggression that they usually show.
After Chelsea’s Goal
Immediately after Chelsea’s goal Atletico’s attitude changed, in need of at least 1 goal. The very quick response time of Atletico to changes in the game is impressive and something we will see again. Immediately they became more fluid and controlling, with Koke and Turan roaming inside and Mario Suarez pushing up, leaving Torres 2v1 vs Atletico players instead of the previous 3v1. With these more aggressive positional movements, the midfield & forward lines became more populated & the positioning structure throughout the team was much more connected and stable during possession – which immediately translated to Atletico’s pressure when the ball was lost, having quickness to the ball, more aggressiveness, & a higher number of players within their press.
In this situation Koke received the ball from Turan who then moved forward after passing. Torres was more oriented towards Atletico’s left so Tiago & Godin were more dangerous options. Here is where Miranda stepped up into midfield and received the ball from Koke, who also then proceeded to join the attack, Miranda then played a direct pass into the highly populated and pressurized area by Atletico players, immediately showing signs of a more dominant Atletico team showing up to play.
Previously Atletico had problems in the buildup phase of the game, but after the goal the Atletico 6s took much more initiative in possession. Mario dropped between the 2 central defenders creating a 3v2 now vs Torres and Willian, allowing more creative freedom from the defense. Tiago moved wide into the space between Godin and Filipe, while Turan and Koke dropped deeper into the halfspaces. Now Atletico during buildup had 8 players in an area where Chelsea were pressing with 6, not to mention the Atletico goalkeeper adding an extra option to the buildup.
Here a direct pass from Mario to Tiago in space was in danger of being intercepted by Torres, but due to the Atletico overload in buildup, Mario was able to play the ball forward to progress the team up the pitch into Turan, & Turan was immediately connected to the forward-facing Tiago, who received a lay-off pass & moved up the pitch with game control. This is in complete contrast of the earlier buildup example where Atletico were forced into a more risky long ball & lost possession, here they had Tiago with full field vision & time on the ball forcing the opponent to retreat. This buildup was much more controlled & allowed Atletico to have a higher chance of doing something productive with their possession vs Chelsea, who defended the long balls very well.
Atletico’s Goal before Halftime
This goal was an excellent display of the improved Atletico circulation. The team connectivity in important zones was apparent as the ball switched play many times, opening spaces and confusing Chelsea defenders. Koke again dropped to help the midfield remain adequately connected & circulated the ball against Chelsea’s 4-5-1/6-3-1 defensive shape to finish out the half – Chelsea had used this same formation vs Atletico in the first semi final leg & against Liverpool when they won 2-0 due to the infamous Gerrrard slip.
Here Tiago excellently positions himself in anticipation of a pass coming from Koke in the center. Tiago is positioned so that when he receives it he can immediately play a vertical penetrating pass towards Turan, and that’s just what he did. When Tiago played this pass Filipe Luis began an inside diagonal run, as usual with his False-Fullback movements similar to famous positioning of the Bayern fullbacks, though Filipe’s movement is more due to combination momentum rather than being a central midfield building option. Willian sticks closer to Tiago at this point in order to prevent a return pass, & Koke excellently positions himself to connect the team to the far side attackers. Koke receives the ball & then plays it into Costa. When Costa received the ball Chelsea’s narrow defense shifted across very aggressively in order to prevent any danger, though they over-committed to protecting the central zone & were uncoordinated in their movement – leaving Arda Turan open for a switch by Diego Costa.
When Arda Turan received the pass, Willian and Ivanovic committed to him, while Filipe made a diagonal run into halfspace, which i suspect was more to drag Azpilicueta with him rather than to actually receive it. At this moment Koke also joined the attackers already in the box, & Willian’s commitment to Turan had left Tiago completely free. Tiago received a return pass inside & played an excellent early diagonal ball into halfspace to the onrushing Juanfran who made a great diagonal run in behind Hazard. Once Chelsea’s defenders realized that Juanfran had escaped Eden Hazard, all 3 of Terry, Cole, & Cahill shifted across very quickly and aggressively towards him – & this ironically, is an aspect that helped Juanfran’s cutback cross reach the desired target. Adrian had positioned himself at the back post after the long diagonal & Juanfran’s cutback cross took advantage of the rushing Chelsea defenders’ momentum to play a cross against their direction of momentum making it incredibly difficult to stop the cross.
This is a main aspect of cutback crosses that is so interesting. The cutback cross cannot be offside & attacks the goal & defense by actually playing a pass AWAY from the goal! This is a very unique technique that results in many goals, as I’ve detailed in my earlier pieces. The fact that Atletico remained connected & the ball movement was quick through all those switches of play & to finish it off with an excellent cutback cross shows just how much their play improved after conceding.
Mourinho Changes Chelsea’s Shape – Simeone Reacts
In the press conference after the match, a journalist asked Diego Simeone:
“The fact that Chelsea introduced two strikers, did that help you?”
Diego Simeone smiled, and replied with:
“Great question. I think at the determinant moment Chelsea had the necessity to score, and they were probably going to bring on another striker, and that made it possible for us to bring on 5 midfielders. I think we benefited greatly from that and the fact that they had Eto’o, Torres, & Hazard up in the high line – that left a lot more spaces for us to control the game.”
Diego Simeone’s answer is great, and its precisely what occurred when Chelsea brought on another striker. The same moment that Chelsea were bringing on another striker, Simeone switched his Atletico side to a 4-1-4-1 formation, showing their impressive reaction time to changes within the game.
This goal occurred immediately after Atletico had been performing quick and intense combinations down the left flank, with many players. They were again very narrow which caused a massive overload, Atletico is perhaps the most extreme team in terms of compactness in all phases. The main difference now is that they remained connected to the spaces that they opened with their play. Atletico defend extremely narrow to one side of the field because they know they can commit so many numbers & leave the far side open due to their ability to not allow the opponent to switch across the pitch. In that same way, Atletico played very compact and quick on one side vs Chelsea, while maintaining their connection to spaces that they opened, be it in the center or on the other side of the pitch.
Tiago received the ball while free in the center again because Atletico shifted Chelsea’s defense to the left side. Tiago again saw that Juanfran was exploiting the space in behind Hazard with an excellent diagonal run, then Tiago played a long early diagonal pass. To which Chelsea players again rushed towards him, while the far side Atletico players rushed the far post and received a cutback cross. Turan and Costa were both goalside of Ramires and Ivanovic respectively. Turan then headed the ball against the crossbar & it came back to him, then he proceeded to easily slot it in the bottom corner for the 3rd goal.
My final graphic is an example of how Atletico exploited spaces they opened with their ball circulation & positioning in a different and effective way to the previous cutback cross goal assists by Juanfran. This time Ba was on Tiago, which left Mario Suarez free. After Atletico had dragged Chelsea’s defense towards the near side, Filipe Luis then played the ball back towards Mario. Chelsea’s midfield 4 had lacked compactness so Koke found himself in a pocket of opened space right between the two 6s. Koke received the ball excellently on the turn and was able to dribble past both Luiz and Ramires to enter the space between the opponent midfield and defensive lines. Here Atletico had a 4v4 situation & Koke played an excellent ball through to Sosa’s diagonal run behind the back of Cahill. Filipe Luis also made a diagonal late run into the box and received the ball from Sosa, chipped a cross across the face of goal, but nobody was there to finish.
This was a well deserved victory in the end. Maybe Atletico gave too much respect to Chelsea in the beginning which threw them off their usual game. After Atletico conceded a goal the whole game changed and Atletico put on a great display. The rest of the game was a great display of aggressive positioning and intelligent circulation coupled with dominant control of the football match. Well deserved Champions League finalists, & possible winners.