Atletico Madrid 4-0 Real Madrid: Atletico solid in central areas when defending and fluid to cause overloads out wide when attacking

February 10, 2015

The starting line-ups. Saul replaced Koke after 10mins.

This was the sixth Madrid derby of the season, and Atletico remain unbeaten in those matches. This was their most convincing performance to date.

Atletico selection

Diego Simeone made various changes having rotated for the win over Eibar the previous weekend, with the likes of Juanfran, Miranda, Arda Turan and Gabi all returning, but this was essentially returning to Atletico’s standard first XI. There was an early blow, when Koke limped off, with Saul introduced in his place.

Real Madrid selection

Carlo Ancelotti was without both Pepe and Sergio Ramos, which meant Nacho played alongside Raphael Varane at the heart of the defence. Marcelo was also out, so Fabio Coentrao played left-back, while James Rodriguez has joined Luka Modric on the sidelines. Cristiano Ronaldo returned after suspension.

Match summary

Atletico started at a ferocious pace, and took the lead early. From then, their counter-attacking game worked brilliantly with Real pushing players forward, and the result was never in doubt – the 4-0 scoreline is an entirely accurate reflection of the home side’s dominance.

Atletico usual defensive shape

Without the ball, Atletico did everything we’ve come to expect- they are incredibly compact, both from back-to-front, and from side-to-side.

The forwards dropped goalside of Toni Kroos and meant all Atletico players were sometimes in their own third of the pitch, while the defenders started with a relatively high defensive line, which allowed the midfielders and attackers to press when necessary.

The wide midfielders also tucked in very tight, allowing Real’s full-backs freedom when the ball was elsewhere – although Coentrao and Dani Carvajal were shut down quickly when the ball was played into them.

This was nothing new, but the discipline of the attacking players and the work rate of the entire side remains absolutely outstanding. Without the ball, Atletico are Europe’s most impressive side by a considerable distance, and their overall shape remains the template others should look to follow.

Real struggle to work the ball forward

Real were in their usual 4-3-3 system, although there were interesting differences from their standard approach. The three forwards took up deep positions away from the Atletico centre-backs, as if attempting to make up the numbers in midfield and respond to Atletico’s compactness. Real weren’t overly compact themselves without the ball, but perhaps Ancelotti understood the dangers of them being, at times, 3 v 6 in midfield against Atletico’s tight, narrow shape.

Ronaldo started narrow and then drifted wide to the flank when he couldn’t find service, with Juanfran tracking him tightly. It meant Ronaldo was only ever likely to be receiving passes moving away from goal, rather than going towards it. Karim Benzema was equally quiet, while Gareth Bale moved to the touchline more readily and received passes from Carvajal, but could rarely beat Guilherme Siqueira.

Atletico press

In the opening stages, it was notable that Atletico pressed high up the pitch, with young centre-back Nacho under heavy pressure whenever Real attempted to pass out from the back. Atletico can vary their pressing approach, capable of playing either in a deep defensive block or pressing heavily from the front, and here the latter tactic meant Atletico forced turnovers easily.

Nacho was panicked in possession and kept knocking hopeful long balls downfield – after around half an hour, the tempo dropped and Nacho was fine on the ball, but until then, his nervousness when under pressure caused cheap losses of possession.

Atletico attacking movement

The really impressive thing about Atletico, however, was the movement of their players when they won the ball. Although this is naturally a very structured team without possession, they were brilliantly cohesive and fluid at attacking transitions, to the point players were popping up inside the box and you weren’t entirely sure who they were, or where they’d come from.

The second goal, with left-back Siqueira crossing for left-sided midfielder Saul, was a particularly good example – it seemed unthinkable that a full-back would be so far forward so soon after possession had been won, but that determination to get into goalscoring positions was well rewarded.

Forwards move out wide

The positioning and movement of the two Atletico centre-forwards here was interesting. They started in incredibly deep positions, and then their first movement was generally to the outside, to attack in behind the advancing Real full-backs, dragging Varane and Nacho out of position.

This was highly effective, and while the above diagram shows Mandzukic and Griezmann attacking on different sides, in reality both loved working the channel where Nacho was stationed – he had an extremely difficult game.

Wide midfielders drift in

To compensate for the movement of the forwards, Saul and Turan usually ended up in more central positions, running through the centre and finding space between the lines.

Here, Real were often exposed in front of the back four – Tiago was a in a huge amount of space to blast home the opener (albeit from a throw-in situation, and with Iker Casillas making a terrible error). Kroos’ early booking, and the half-time removal of Sami Khedira, didn’t help either.

Full-backs bomb on

Both Siqueira and Juanfran were extremely brave in a positional sense, pushing past Bale and Ronaldo who showed little interest in tracking back and defending. This was absolutely vital, as it formed a key part of Atletico’s game: creating 2 v 1 and 3 v 2 (and sometimes even 3 v 1) situations in wide areas, and then getting the ball into the box.

All four of Atletico’s goals came from either crosses or cut-backs.

Real defensive problems

This is an inexperienced back four by Real’s standards, and at times it was painfully obvious. They lost too many aerial challenges, particularly in key zones, and their offside trap looked very dodgy a couple of times – particularly one moment midway through the first half, when Griezmann was wrongly flagged offside when through on goal against Casillas.

The back four can’t be blamed entirely, though, and in comparison to Atletico – where all ten outfielders defend strictly – the lack of protection for the defenders was incredible. The three forwards contributed nothing, Isco often drifted out to a wide position and was slow to get back and support Kroos, while Khedira is still off the pace.

Considering how well Real defended in a 4-4-2ish system last year (particularly the thrashing of Bayern) it’s strange to see them so open, and so passive without the ball.

Second half

Ancelotti brought on Jese for Khedira, moving Isco deeper and essentially switching to a 4-2-4 formation, but this changed little. Atletico continued to play in exactly the same way, with Griezmann and Mandzukic (in particular) excelling, and both grabbing goals after half-time. The openness of the Real midfield meant Atletico had plenty of space to play keep-ball, and it was interesting and unusual to see them killing the game through possession, rather than with deep defending.

Mandzukic’s second half effort was particularly commendable – as well as scoring, he got back and battled hard. He kept winning both tackles and fouls, and this underlines why Simeone knew he could fit into this system (having played similarly at Bayern under Jupp Heynckes) – he doesn’t have the dynamism of his predecessor Diego Costa, but with Griezmann providing the pace, Mandzukic’s work rate works excellently.

Atletico out-shot Real 17-4, and the away side’s only effort on target came after 80 minutes. Ronaldo, meanwhile, had only one effort – his joint-lowest La Liga total since joining Real in 2015.


This was the perfect performance from Atletico – solid when defending, fluid when attacking. Without the ball they dominated the centre of the pitch, with the ball they worked overloads on the flanks. It was a masterful performance in terms of organisation, although the actual tactics are roughly what we’ve come to expect.

The movement at attacking transitions was particularly notable, and reminiscent of the excellent Villarreal side from a few years ago. Villarreal mastered 4-4-2 in a possession-based side because movement made the system unpredictable, and while Atletico were most threatening on the break rather than with long spells of possession, they were able to do something similar here.

Real were completely outplayed. They weren’t dominant in any zone, at any stage, or at any concept of the game. Injuries are clearly affecting them, but Ancelotti might have to consider how to reformat his side against strong opposition – they barely competed here.

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