Real Madrid 2-0 Atletico Madrid: Simeone goes 4-4-2, Real score through a set-piece and a break

December 2, 2012

The starting line-ups

Real Madrid triumphed in a hugely disappointing match.

Jose Mourinho named a familiar side, basically the 2011/12 Real Madrid team. Fabio Coentrao was at left-back, while Luka Modric was only on the bench with Mesut Ozil starting in the hole.

Diego Simeone named a 4-4-2 side, which meant Diego Costa playing upfront with Falcao, and Koke on the right side of midfield. Cata Diaz came into the side very late, at left-back.

There was little to recommend this game, which lacked rhythm, tempo, shape and genuine attacking quality.

Lack of shape

The biggest question, then, was why the game was so bad. This is a local derby, of course, and fixtures between these two tend to be about passion and fighting spirit rather than technical quality, but it was nevertheless strange so see so little football played from either side. Most frustratingly, both sides seemed content to make it scrappy, bitty and petulant – which probably sums up the lack of confidence from either side. Does a team ever want a scrappy game when they believe they can outplay the opposition?

Real were under pressure after last week’s defeat to Betis, with pre-match speculation concentrating on whether Jose Mourinho would be booed by the home fans, and even suggesting there was a possibility his time at the Bernabeu is coming to an end. Atletico, meanwhile, have a dreadful record against Real, failing to win since 1999/2000, and as a result, both were happy with a scrap rather than an open game.


Anyway, Simeone’s decision to go with a 4-4-2 was (at least in theory) very interesting. He’s played a variety of systems this season – a 3-4-2-1, a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2, and while there’s often overlap between those formations in general, there’s been a clear difference between them with Atletico. The 4-4-2 features two out-and-out strikers rather than one dropping off, the 4-3-3 is with three deep midfielders – with the playmaker pushed wide, rather than brought deep.

In this match, Falcao and Costa stayed high up the pitch and tried to work as a duo, bringing the Real centre-backs up the pitch. To help, Xabi Alonso played an extremely deep holding role, almost as a forward-playing centre-back – and when either forward dropped deeper than him, Alonso often followed (and, in keeping with the game as a whole, fouled).

Atletico system

In fairness, Atletico did try to keep possession, and had a couple of good spells high up the pitch at 0-0. Their 4-4-2 often looked like a 4-2-2-2, because the two holding players stayed in space, and the wide players were narrower than you’d expect – Arda Turan ducked inside into playmaking roles, while Koke was a little deeper but was hardly hugging the touchline.

This meant Atletico could get the ball forward quickly, but they struggled to create angles for clever passes, and it was frustrating that Falcao wasn’t given more service from wide – Atletico’s only half-chance of the first half came from a pull-back from the right, but they didn’t get down the outside often enough.

It’s also worth considering whether Falcao is happy playing in a duo – for Porto and Atletico he’s thrived as a lone striker, and considering his game is all about movement, he seems constrained when he has a strike partner restricting his space. For his part, Costa contributed little other than being the game’s chief wind-up merchant, and Atletico would have been better with another creative midfielder to keep possession and manufacture chances.

Real breaks?

If there was one thing Atletico did well in the first half, it was stopping Real’s counter-attacks – which was impressive considering they were pushing men forward. The two Atletico central midfielders stayed in position ahead of the back four, and simply got in the way of Real’s breaks, which generally come through the centre through Ozil, or with Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria coming inside onto their stronger foot.

However, a needless free-kick concession gave Ronaldo the chance to send in a classic free-kick, and although this was hardly evidence of a tactical triumph, a game based around fouls and free-kicks is dangerous if you’re facing Ronaldo.

Second half

There was little progression to the game after half-time, although there was an outbreak of football as Atletico pushed higher up the pitch. Simeone, slightly surprisingly, stuck to his guns by continuing with the 4-4-2 system (although Costa seemed to move a bit deeper) and there were no substitutions before the second goal, scored by Ozil after a counter-attack (although even that was scrappy, with Miranda’s poor defensive header to blame, and even Ozil’s first touch was rather poor.)

From then, to give Real credit, they countered excellently. Ozil found spaces on the break and Ronaldo hit the woodwork twice – in fact, he had nine shots in total. The rest of the Real players only managed four, the same total managed by Atletico.


This was hugely disappointing. Simeone’s 4-4-2 seemed like a statement of intent, and Atletico should be commended for trying to hold the ball high up the pitch – but they simply didn’t create enough goalscoring chances, and Falcao was particularly quiet. Neither the formation (two upfront) or the strategy (playing narrow) worked well.

Alonso’s deep positioning was very useful for Real, but they created little in open play. They counter-attacked well when Atletico threw more men forward in the second half, but this will simply encourage opponents to deny them space to break into.

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