Fulham v Atletico Madrid: tactical preview

May 12, 2010

Predicted line-ups

The tactical craze of the 2009/10 season has been deploying inverted wingers (that is, the opposite side to which their strongest foot would generally dictate), so it’s fitting that we have a European final that showcases two sides who take this approach to wing play.

Atletico, remarkably, have reached this final despite an abysmal European record this season, that stands at 2 wins from 14 matches. DLLDDL in the Champions League, DWDDDDWL in the Europa League. Moreover, this record is not even a surprising, harsh verdict upon their season – throughout much of the season, they have been awful.

They sit in 9th place in La Liga – disappointing enough as it is, but this is actually the first time in the entire season that they have found themselves in the top half of the table; for a month they found themselves stranded in 17th place in a genuine relegation fight. Replacing Abel Resino with Qique Sanchez Flores has seen them rise up the table and reach this final, but they are still far from a cohesive side.

The opposite could be said of Fulham. Frankly unable to match the raw talent Atletico boast, Fulham’s progress to Hamburg tonight has been based around a well-organised, disciplined defensive base, combined with intelligent, creative play in the final third. Roy Hodgson’s achievement has been to cram three clever, thoughtful attacking players into the same team. Many managers would find room for only two or three of Danny Murphy, Damien Duff, Zoltan Gera and Simon Davies, but Hodgson has found a system where he can utilize all four at once, with the focal point of Bobby Zamora playing as a fairly traditional targetman as a more direct threat.

As the underdog, one would expect that the onus is on Hodgson to adapt his side to Atletico’s, rather than vice-versa, but then Fulham have started each of their knockout ties as the underdog – and in each tie they have played the same formation, which has the ability to play primarily on the counter-attack, or to play a more outright offensive game and dominate the game in the opposition’s half.

Tonight, you would expect them to start with a counter-attacking style. Atletico’s system has pace on the wings and upfront, and leaving gaps at the back for them to exploit could see Atletico take a commanding advantage early on. Fulham’s start to the game will probably be similar to the gameplan away in Hamburg – which produced what was frankly a very dull game, but a good ‘half-time’ scoreline of 0-0.

That game was good preparation for tonight, not merely because the game is being played in the same stadium, but because Hamburg, too, play a system of inverted wingers, meaning John Pantsil and Paul Knochesky are at least used to the threat they will face tonight, and Fulham’s defence in Hamburg was notable for how narrow it played. Expect the same thing tonight, to force Simao Sabrosa and Jose Antonio Reyes down the line, rather than in onto their stronger foot.

In basic terms, Atletico’s system is very similar to Fulham’s. The main difference is arguably in the roles of the two central midfield players – whereas Dickson Etuhu is clearly the ‘tackler’ and Danny Murphy the ‘passer’, Paulo Assuncao and Raul Garcia are more well-rounded midfielders, although Garcia (whose position has come under threat from the cup-tied Tiago in the league) has more license to go forward. Their wingers are slightly more direct but certainly less disciplined, Forlan is less of a targetman and more of a poacher who likes through balls, and Aguero has more of a free role than Gera.

That said, this is basically the same formation playing each other. The problem was this match-up in the Hamburg v Fulham tie was that the pitch became incredibly narrow – with four wingers looking to cut inside and none of the full-backs providing a sufficient attacking threat. That could be the key tonight – which side manages to get its full-backs forward to better effect, or, to take it further, which set of wide players do a better defensive job against the opposition full-backs.

A tight, tense game will favour Fulham, with Atletico preferring a more open contest where their flair players have room to work in. Atletico will need one of them to have a star performance to win the game, otherwise Fulham’s resilience and cohesion could come out on top.

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