Atletico Madrid 2-2 Real Madrid: Atleti’s energy dominates midfield, but proves unsustainable

March 6, 2014

The starting line-ups

Despite Real’s early lead, Atletico dominated the first half – but tiredness caught up with them.

Diego Simeone decided to leave David Villa on the bench, using Raul Garcia as a number ten.

Carlo Ancelotti continued with the midfield and defence that had thrashed Schalke, but went for cautious options at full-back.

This was a standard Madrid derby: high-tempo and scrappy. Karim Benzema put Real into an early lead following a set-piece, but from then Atletico dominated. Real remain the title favourites – see online betting.

Raul Garcia

Simeone’s key decision was the use of Garcia in the role behind Diego Costa – rather than using Villa as a second striker – and he had a significant impact on the game.

First, he did a good marking job on Xabi Alonso, Real’s deep-lying playmaker, and prevented the league leaders from working the ball through midfield easily. Although Villa’s work rate has been impressive this season, such a strict and important defensive job required a proper midfielder.

But Garcia has also developed into a useful auxiliary forward, too, popping up inside the penalty box regularly this season to provide an additional goal threat, particularly in the air. Here, he was less of a goalscoring option himself but linked nicely with Costa, creating the game’s clearest chance for the striker just after half-time. Because of his all-round game, his inclusion was definitely justified.

Atletico physicality

This was an incredibly stop-start, physical midfield scrap – exactly the way Atletico like it – and part of Real’s problem was their lack of ability to cope physically. Ancelotti has stumbled upon this 4-3-3 system which gets the best out of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, and boasts amazing technical quality in the centre of the pitch, but the one obvious question was whether a midfield of Alonso, Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric could cope physically against a genuinely strong, powerful midfield unit.

Real weren’t losing a particularly high number of tackles, but they were overrun collectively by the force of Atletico’s midfielders, particularly with the wide players drifting inside to further Atletico’s advantage in that zone. Atletico are superb at inviting risky passes into the midfield before suddenly pouncing collectively and turning defence into attack quickly, and that’s what they did throughout the first half, applying great pressure in the middle third and preventing Real working the ball forward.

Koke and Turan

Arguably Atletico’s best players were the two wide midfielders, for their contributions with and without possession. With the ball, they drifted into positions either side of Alonso – the 4-3-3’s weakness, particularly when the holding midfielder is forced to cope with a number ten – and caused Real serious problems. They combined nicely for the equaliser.

They were extremely disciplined without the ball, too. They pressed the Real full-backs, then dropped back into position, protected their own full-backs and prevented easy balls to Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, before applying pressure in the midfield zone and breaking quickly when possession was won. Koke, in particular, helped defend against Ronaldo very well.

Atletico’s second goal was a 35-yard thunderbolt from Gabi following a set-piece.

Bale and Ronaldo quiet

Real found it impossible to work the ball forward into their front three, primarily because Atletico were so good at dominating the midfield zone. There were a couple of good diagonal balls from Di Maria, and Modric typically skipped past a couple of challenges, but there wasn’t any great link between midfield and attack, and neither Bale not Ronaldo naturally move into deeper positions to collect the ball – they want to receive forward passes, on the run.

It’s difficult to remember Ronaldo having such a quiet half in a big game, and Bale was also surprisingly subdued. Atletico’s full-backs generally stayed in deep positions, wary of being caught out on the counter.

Costa role

As always, this game was dominated by Costa – his movement, his run-ins with the Real centre-backs, and his finishing.

Costa is brilliant at drifting to the flanks before taking on the centre-backs in wide positions, and he had a couple of penalty shouts in these zones when Atletico were playing on the break.

However, in the first half when the home side were dominating possession, Costa was excellent at dropping away from the centre-backs, bringing them up the pitch and further helping to overload Alonso, before laying off the ball and darting forward into space. When on this form, he’s almost unplayable.

But he kept missing chances. He missed a simple one-on-one at the start of the second half – put through by Garcia – by a surprising distance, nodded wide from a corner under little pressure, and produced a complete air-kick when meeting a pull-back midway through the second half. These misses were all at 2-1, and could have put the game beyond Real.

Real storm back

The game followed a simple pattern – Atletico dominated the first third, the middle third was more even, before Real took charge in the final half hour.

There were two major factors for Real becoming dominant. First, Atletico looked absolutely exhausted after an hour – something which is inevitable given their energetic style of play, which will increasingly catch up with them in the next few weeks.

The midfielders, particularly those in wide positions, could no longer press so intensely and it was hugely surprising Simeone made only one switch, in the 83rd minute, bringing on Cristian Rodriguez for Turan. His bench wasn’t as strong as usual, but Atletico desperately needed an injection of pace – instead they conceded more and more pressure, and therefore too many chances.

Second, Ancelotti used his bench very intelligently. Having been cautious with his starting selection of full-backs, he first replaced Coentrao with Marcelo, then Arbeloa with Daniel Carvajal, once Real had taken charge of the midfield and Real were camped inside the Atletico half. These players immediately had an impact in the final third, getting to the byline and providing overlaps. It also helped the Bale and Ronaldo come inside, and Carvajal played a part in the equaliser, with his cut-back finding Bale, who miscontrolled before Ronaldo fired in.

Also crucial was the introduction of Isco, something of the forgotten man thanks to Ancelotti’s switch to a 4-3-3. He played a more advanced role than Di Maria and provided fresh legs, a turn of pace and an ability to find space between the lines, adding another dimension to Real’s play.

Real had introduced more pace and energy down the flanks, and more creativity between the lines, and in the final stages Atletico were hanging on.


A topsy-turvy game where Simeone’s starting approach worked better, but Ancelotti used his bench more intelligently.

The decision to use Garcia behind Costa worked nicely, and Atletico’s wide players performed their jobs extremely impressively throughout the game. However, Costa’s misses and Atletico’s tiredness let them down and allowed Real back into the game. Still, after Atletico won the first meeting, this draw means Simeone’s side have the superior head-to-head record, which will be crucial should these two sides finish level on points.

This is probably as poor as Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 has looked, and there’s still question about whether Real have enough midfield physicality. That said, barring a meeting in the Champions League with Atletico, it probably won’t be exposed so much again this season.

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