Real Madrid 0-1 Atletico Madrid: Diego Costa leads the line superbly in excellent Atleti display

September 30, 2013

The starting line-ups

Atletico Madrid went ahead early at the Bernabeu, and then created much better chances.

Carlo Ancelotti felt Gareth Bale wasn’t ready to make his first home start, instead using Angel Di Maria on the right. Asier Illaramendi partnered Sami Khedira in the centre.

Diego Simeone has rotated his midfield well this season – here Raul Garcia and Mario Suarez missed out.

Real dominated possession but Atletico always seemed comfortable, protecting their back four excellently and creating a succession of fine chances at the other end.

4-4-2 v 4-4-2

A couple of years ago, it was extremely rare to see a 4-4-2 against 4-4-2 in one of Europe’s biggest games, but the formation seems to have enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2013/14. Last week’s Manchester derby was essentially that formation battle, for example, and if anything this was a clash of even more ‘blunt’ 4-4-2s – with Cristiano Ronaldo deployed high up the pitch alongside Karim Benzema, rather than in a wide role.

That made the tactical battle extremely simple – every player had a clear responsibility in terms of who to track. It was rare to see anyone enjoying a particular amount of space between the lines, and neither side had a particular zone where they were enjoying a clear numerical advantage. It was one of the most basic tactical battles you’ll ever see at this level.

Atletico narrow and compact

Nevertheless, there was a clear difference between the sides in terms of organisation and structure. As we’ve come to expect from Simeone’s side, Atletico were extremely disciplined with their positioning throughout the game.

The away side were amazingly compact and narrow here, essentially boxing themselves into a small area in the centre of the pitch. The wide players tucked in, much closer to the centre of the pitch than to the touchlines, and crowded out Real’s central midfielders, denying them the opportunity to play any forward passes. Diego Costa and David Villa were a strike partnership on paper, but on the pitch they were almost auxiliary central midfielders, denying the Real defenders the option of easy passes into the central midfield zone.

The game’s freest players were probably the Real full-backs, while Di Maria caused problems when he moved into wider positions, before checking inside and crossing with his left foot – two early balls both troubled the Atletico defence.

In central positions, however, Atletico were superb at closing down – forcing Real’s players into simple sideways passes and denying them the opportunity to look up and play a more ambitious ball. Real’s possession led to nothing.

Real out of sorts

That was partly the fault of the home side, however, who didn’t appear to have anything in the way of a proper gameplan. The central midfield zone was probably the weakest area of the side in the first half  - Illaramendi won the ball frequently but seemed troubled by the heavy pressure and did little to prompt attacks, while Sami Khedira was unable to help Real win the physical battle, and didn’t contribute much in the final third.

Isco started on the left, and although he drifted inside, he found Atletico extremely tight between the lines. Di Maria’s crossing was a greater threat. Upfront, Ronaldo drifted across the pitch looking for space but his runs were disappointing and there was no noticeable relationship with Isco in terms of switching position or creating space for each other. Karim Benzema can complain about his lack of service, but looked sluggish when he did receive the ball.

Diego Costa

The absolute star of this contest was Diego Costa, who not only got through a tremendous amount of work without the ball, but also managed to do the job of two strikers simultaneously, running the channels and giving Sergio Ramos and Pepe an extremely difficult evening. Villa should be commended for his defensive work (he made more ball recoveries than passes in the final third) but offensively he contributed little – this was all about Costa.

And it was classic Costa – ugly, scrappy, hard-working but extremely effective. Perhaps no-one else in world football could have played this role so brilliantly: he ran the channels tirelessly, sprinting onto balls played behind the defence, particularly in wide zones when Real’s full-backs had advanced, but also competing excellently in the air.

His hold-up play was also good, and he has a handy knack of drawing fouls from opponents, allowing Atletico up the pitch to relieve the pressure and cool the tempo. All four of Real’s back four ended up in the book – not all for fouls on Costa, but it summed up what a difficult evening they had, which is amazing considering Costa was the only away player carrying a consistent attacking threat.

Costa had two great one-on-one chances – the first after 11 minutes from the inside-left channel, following a ball from Koke (who has assisted 11 of Costa’s last 17 goals, and jointly leads La Liga’s assist table with Cesc Fabregas). Costa’s finish was very composed, and Atletico were ahead.

The second came midway through the second half, and was wasted because Costa took a poor touch, getting the ball stuck under his feet, before producing a weak shot. That was from the inside-right channel, underlining how he was working the whole width of the pitch.

Atletico chances

Another Real problem was their poor defending of set-pieces, which was also a problem under Jose Mourinho last year.

Tiago wasted an excellent early chance when he ghosted in unmarked at the near post from a corner, Gabi had another header from a set-piece well saved by Diego Lopez.

Real changes

Real's second half line-up, with Bale and Modric on

Ancelotti summoned Luka Modric and Bale at half-time, taking off Illaramendi and Di Maria. Real changed to a 4-2-3-1, more in keeping with the way they played last year – Isco was central in the role previously played by Mesut Ozil, Bale started on the right.

This prompted a slight improvement from the home side. Bale didn’t help Real a great deal, but the quick feet of Luka Modric meant Real got the ball into the final third quicker, and Isco’s presence in a central position caused more problems in front of the defence. The passing was quicker, and as Atletico tired they dropped a little too deep.

But neither Ronaldo nor Bale were a threat in the wide positions, their intention to come inside and shoot too obvious. Di Maria, like Bale, is also left-footed but at least he was using space more inventively, and forcing Atletico to vary their position by shifting towards the flanks. Ronaldo and Bale were essentially offering the same threat – a threat that played into the hands of a side that continued to defend amazingly narrow.

Atletico chances

But it was Atletico who looked more likely to score, particularly on the break. Tiago curled a shot onto the post from an inside-left position, Koke later hit the bar.

The only criticism of Atletico was that they weren’t clinical enough in front of goal – when you consider Costa’s missed one-on-one, the two occasions they hit the woodwork and the two occasions they wasted good headed chances from set-pieces, they might have had the game’s five best attempts at goal – in addition to the opener.

Real looked better when youngster Alvaro Morata replaced Isco and played as a second striker – he was full of energy, running back to make a good tackle in midfield, which seemed to lift the crowd. Still, Atletico’s centre-backs were relatively untroubled, and it was the midfield who deserves more of the credit for their strict positioning throughout.

Simeone didn’t make any changes until the 86th minute, when he promptly made three in three minutes. At this point he wasn’t really even attempting to introduce fresh legs, merely seeking to disrupt the flow of the game.


A 1-0 away win fits with the image of Atletico – scrappy, hard-working and professional.

But this could quite easily have been three or four. Atletico’s approach was simple – they remained compact and narrow to disrupt Real’s passing, and then they broke extremely quickly by getting Costa running into the channels. If he couldn’t go towards goal himself, midfield runners would support him – but Atletico always got back into shape quickly, and Real didn’t seem to have the counter-attacking potential they boasted under Mourinho.

“Atletico are a very solid team, with lots of quality. They play very compact, they have a very good chance to play for La Liga,” said Ancelotti. He was completely outwitted here – possessing superior players but an inferior unit.

This was all about organisation and hard work rather than an innovate idea – Atletico’s players performed standard roles magnificently.

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