Atletico Madrid 0-0 Chelsea: Atletico unable to successfully adapt against defensive opposition

April 23, 2014

The starting line-ups

Atletico Madrid and Chelsea played out a very cautious first leg.

Arda Turan was only fit enough for the bench, while Diego Simeone chose Diego rather than David Villa as Diego Costa’s partner.

Jose Mourinho selected a defensive-minded 4-1-4-1 system. Branislav Ivanovic was suspended, so Cesar Azpilicueta switched flanks and Ashley Cole made a rare start at left-back.

Chelsea’s defensive approach was obvious from the outset, and Atletico dominated possession. There were few genuinely interesting features of the game and no real progression to the tactical battle.

Counter-attack v counter-attack

A meeting between two counter-attacking sides is rarely pretty, especially when neither side considers themselves genuine favourites, and in a two-legged contest with a great deal riding on the game. Mourinho decided, naturally, that the optimum approach against an Atletico side that loves sitting back, winning the ball in midfield and counter-attacking rapidly was to defend extremely deep, preventing the home side from attacking in their preferred manner.

That was fair enough, but the disappointment was that Chelsea couldn’t have been slightly more proactive with their method of winning possession. Chelsea have shown in the past, for example in the thrashing of Arsenal, that they can play the Atletico way, and press quickly in midfield to expose the opposition backline quickly. A clash between the two sides playing that way would have been fantastic for the neutral – fast-paced and action-packed. There’s quite a difference between that form of counter-attacking, and this form of counter-attacking, which is really just defending, and the majority of the game was simply Atletico playing in front of Chelsea.

Perhaps it was best summed up by the fact there were no bookings until the 64th minute, despite these being two physical, feisty teams – there were never any situations where Chelsea were brought up the pitch and tempted into tackles.

Chelsea deep stifles Costa

Anyway, Chelsea played deep – partly because (unlike in that game against Arsenal, for example) the opposition striker has great pace, and thrives on bursting into the channels. With Chelsea sitting deep and the full-backs tucking in, Diego Costa didn’t influence this game much, and while clearly a big physical presence, he wasn’t able to get the better of Chelsea’s centre-backs when battling in the air.

This is quite interesting in the contest of Costa’s international career – since he switched to Spain, he’s been widely regarded as the obvious solution to their problems upfront. But Spain regularly face parked buses, something Costa struggled against on his international debut, as well as this evening. Costa is a brilliant counter-attacking striker, but “only” a very good penalty box striker. He’s probably still Vicente del Bosque’s best bet, but the stylistic issue shouldn’t be ignored.

Atletico approach

Atletico seemed unable to create anything through the centre, with Diego dropping deep in advance of John Obi Mikel to collect the ball, but often finding himself in a congested zone featuring three Chelsea central midfielders. Instead, Atletico had to go wide. Filipe Luis was practically man-marked by Ramires, while Willian did something similar on Juanfran, but Atletico sometimes created 3 v 2 situations with Gabi moving to the right, and sent in a stream of crosses throughout the game.

Inevitably a key aerial target was Raul Garcia, who proved crucial in the air during Atletico’s previous round, the victory over Barcelona. He towered over Cole but rarely provided decisive moments in the air – although he had at least four headed efforts over the course of the game, often when arriving at the back post, with Azpilicueta also not the tallest on the opposite flank.

There was a lack of variety to Atletico’s play, though. They didn’t switch play quickly, so Chelsea always seemed very sure of themselves positionally, and they didn’t attempt to penetrate through the centre to bring John Terry and Gary Cahill up the pitch – it was just a training session of crossing for long periods.

Chelsea approach

Chelsea relied on set-pieces for their attacking moments. It’s difficult to understand why David Luiz is repeatedly allowed to take free-kicks in good positions – a couple of excellent free-kicks shouldn’t hide the fact he constantly wastes good situations.

Willian and Ramires combined nicely on the break in the first half – they were the only two players breaking forward from deep positions – but the latter produced a strange cross-shot that drifted harmlessly past the far post.

Fernando Torres was amazingly isolated throughout. Some of his movement wasn’t very good, often drifting towards the ball and into crowded situations rather than making forward runs into the channels – maybe an acknowledgement that he lacks pace these days. He played better in the second half, however, battling against centre-backs manfully on his old stomping ground, but never truly offering a goal threat.


In truth, this wasn’t a particularly interesting game. Defensive, cautious matches can be interesting in a tactical sense – in fact, they can be amongst the most tactical games you see – but they generally need either side to do something particularly interesting, or for there to be one obvious key zone, or for the sides to be completely contrasting in one respect. This was just a defensive game throughout, with no progression.

Still, look back at the majority of European Cup semi-final first legs this century, and they’re often pretty much like this. The exceptions would be the games that have involved Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan, or Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona – luckily, those two coaches face one another in the other semi…

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