Atletico Madrid's Defensive Perfection Under Diego Simeone
Atletico Madrid have become known as one of the sides around Europe most capable of challenging for major honours each season and for having extremely capable players, with a style of play immediately identifiable.
Their tactical structure is often considered to be defensive and destructive but, in truth, there are many positive aspects that we can take from examining the concepts used by Simeone in the various phases of play.
They are difficult for opposing attacks to break down and like to play on the counter. They are also equally able to play in possession and create chances when dominating games against inferior opposition due to their impressive attackers.
For the last four seasons, Atletico was the team to concede the least goals in the league, and In 2015–16, they had the best defensive record in Europe's big five leagues, only allowing 18 goals scored against them in 38 La Liga games. Atletico was also the team with the most clean sheets in their games. The team was contending the league title until the last fixture against Barcelona and Real Madrid, settling for third with 88 points. They also reached their second Champions League final after 2013–14 season.
Filling the gaps
The 4-4-2 is familiar from a Simeone team with the likes of Saul, on the right, and Thomas Lemar, on the left, being comfortable playing wide or taking up more central positions. They alter it in-game on occasion to suit the opposition, they have also used both 4-3-3 and a flatter 4-5-1 to stop attack-minded sides playing through the middle but for the most part, a narrow midfield quartet sits in place, and the front two very much play as a pair.
Out of possession, it's easy to identify the roles and zones of the pitch each player and each line occupies, since Simeone's entire squad is worked ceaselessly on their responsibilities in each position they may occupy. The players know exactly where they need to fill gaps, how deep to drop and when to rotate into a new position for a team-mate.
With the hard work, constant movement and game intelligence that Simeone demands of and instils in his players, the two banks of four often with one of the two strikers dropping deeper to support and pick up cleared balls, too become extremely tough to break down.
As the opposing team looks to build their attacking move, the central midfielders in front of the defence will close down, challenge and force backwards., as they drop to provide protection to the centre of the defence.
Atletico are confident in their own ability to defend constantly when required, so dropping deep to the edge of their own box for long spells isn't a problem, as long as they have pace somewhere in the four most attack-minded positions to break out quickly.
The defensive line drops back much deeper and remain compact. The team sits very narrow too, with the wide midfielders tucking in to pack the midfield. This compresses the space in the centre of the pitch and forces the opposition out wide where their wingers are pressed aggressively, and a counter attack is quickly launched.
The most important attribute in Atletico’s gameplay is discipline. The players must remain disciplined, both in attack and defence, with discipline, Atletico remain hard to break down and frustrate opponents. More often than not, they rely on teamwork, work rate and aggression rather than the technical ability of individuals.
Simeone’s side is known to aggressively defend high upfield as often as possible with series of high presses in groups, tough tackles and then using players with the ability to switch play or accelerate into space to take advantage before the away team could regroup.
Atletico’s centre- backs in the last few years are all phenomenally strong in the air, loves to tackle and challenge forwards directly and has the ability to burst forward on the rampage from time to time. Felipe, Gimenez, Hermoso and previously Godin and Miranda, all effectively got bravery and diligence in their defensive work. With full-backs alongside them such as Lodi, Trippier, Arias and Vrsaljko who first and foremost defend well, stop crosses coming in and are aerially proficient, there is very little weakness in the actual defensive line of Atletico.
It would be remiss to ignore the last line of defence: Jan Oblak. The Slovenian international is 26 years of age and would have comfortably matched his years in national team caps by now if not for Inter Milan's excellent Samir Handanovic. As it is, Oblak remains his country's second-choice.
On 6 December 2019, Oblak's broke the club record of Abel Resino for most clean sheets with his 96th clean sheet against Villarreal in his 169th league game, those clean sheets are, of course, in large part down to the overall structure, ability and mentality of Atletico's team, but Oblak is a fantastic player to call upon at the last. His large frame gives him dominance inside the penalty area on high balls and a great reach for shots high or into the corners; add to that his fine reflexes and ability to spread himself and it's clear why he's such a tough goalkeeper to beat. Oblak is still improving with experience, and he can easily go on to be one of the best all-round stoppers in Europe, but even now he should be considered among the top group. A spine of the team always showcases how good the overall defence is, and with Atleti's starting with Oblak and going on through the Felipe-Gimenez partnership, it's no surprise whatsoever to see them defend so resolutely and reliably.
Least 3 teams to concede goals after 38 La Liga games for the last 5 seasons:
1) Barca – 21 goals 2) Atletico – 29 goals 3) Valencia – 32 goals
1) Atletico – 18 goals 2) Barca – 29 goals 3) R.Madrid – 34 goals
1) Atletico – 27 goals 2) Villarreal – 33 goals 3) Barca – 37 goals
1) Atletico – 22 goals 2) Barca – 29 goals 3) Getafe – 33 goals
1) Atletico – 29 goals 2) Valencia/Getafe – 35 goals 3) Barca – 36 goals
19/20 Currently after 18 games:
1) Atletico – 11 goals 2) R.Madrid/ Bilbao – 12 goals 3) Sevilla/Getafe – 17 goals