For sure, Barcelona had already won La Liga title before the kick-off of Atlético Madrid’s match at Cornella de Llobregat. Though, it was still necessary for the Colchonneros to get the three points to secure second place. It’s also important to be convincing especially in terms of quantity and quality of goal-scoring chances. Atlético Madrid had struggled a lot in this area this season, especially against “weaker” teams.
On the other hand, Espanyol had almost secured their safety in La Liga. Only a disastrous end to the season could drop them into the relegation zone. A home win against one of the La Liga giants would be a perfect step to a satisfying end of the season. To resume, the stake was not huge. Though, the match represented a real chance to play some quality football without a big interest in the final result.
This tactical analysis will determine how Espanyol overcame Atletico Madrid and show difficulties encountered by the latter.
Even though the game seemed to be more like an end of season one, where chances are given to youngsters and other fringe players, both managers did not take any risks and aligned their quite typical starting 11. Diego Simeone maintained his 4-4-2 shape with an “offensive” minded midfield composed of Rodrigo, Saúl, Koke, and Thomas Lemar. Rubi made also quite “rational” choices. He put on his best team of the moment with his most prolific trio Borja Iglesias, Oscar Melendo and Wu Lei.
Espanyol’s ball circulation
Statistically, the locals did not really dominate their opponents during the first half of the match. Espanyol had less ball possession, attempted less passes, fewer shots. However, what I can say that they had the most interesting ball-circulation sequences. Espanyol players managed to get the ball out of their zone quite comfortably during the first period. They succeeded at moving into the middle third of the pitch most of the time. The locals had made Atlético’s Madrid pressing ineffective through different manners, depending on the situation. The main idea of Espanyol’s ball-circulation sequences is that the ball holder disposes of two to three potential receivers in different directions. To do so, they needed to bring midfielders to their defensive zone to give extra solutions. But they also had to move out their opponents in order to free up spaces.For example, when being pressed high on the pitch, Naldo and Mario Hermoso tended to stretch Atlético’s first defensive line. They tried to attract Morata and Griezmann, so central midfielders could drop and use the gap between them. This would be very effective especially if Atléti’s right and left midfielders went on the full-backs to block them. This did work for Espanyol but not in a perfect way as the Colchonneros tendency for years has been to cover the central lanes. For that Lemar and Koke would always protect the half spaces rather than flanks.
This situation did happen more than once during the first period but others did take place too. As said before the Perriquitos tried to profit off the presence of team-mates around the ball holder. When central defenders drive with the ball into the half spaces they formed a triangle with the full-back and the wide midfielder. Most of the time, these triangles did encircle a single Atlético player. It made him doubt in which direction he should move. Unfortunately, in modern football, a hesitation of half a second is enough for the opponent to surpass you.
The example below shows the locals’ wide midfielders dropping very deep to play one-touch passes. They were often man-marked which made them drag defenders with them and that opened spaces at their backs.
Thus, the hosts did succeed at numerous times to get the ball out of their zone. The next step of the attack is generally the crucial one and it’s also the one where even the “best” teams struggle a lot against a compact defensive organisation. Though, Rubi’s team was not that bad in this area. Certainly, they did not get a huge amount of high-quality chances due to the fact that they did not dominate the ball possession. They did destabilise their opponents’ solid system by multiple movements at the same time. They manipulated Atlético’s defence pretty well in the image below using this technique.
It’s well-known that Simeone always wants to narrow spaces between his two defensive lines. For that, if an opposition attacker drops out of position Atlético’s central defenders would come to close him down. He then will leave space behind him. Still, there are the other centre-backs to cover it, but when he has to deal with two players this becomes impossible to defend. This is what happened in the picture above and created one of the most interesting scoring chances for Espanyol.
Atlético’s difficulties in the attacking phase
While watching the game you cannot say the Simeone’s team was at its worst. The Rojiblancos tried to impose their rhythm during the first minutes and to monopolise the ball. They had attempted more passes and less long balls than usual. Atlético tried to use, as their opponents did, the dropping movements of their forwards and wide midfielders to get the ball out of their defensive third. The image below illustrates an example of these movements.
Though, other offensive problems remained without solutions for Atlético Madrid. The team is known for its inability to attack through the centre. Wide midfielders are often too far from central midfielders and combinations between them are quite rare. This continued to occur during the game against Espanyol. You can see here that Atlético Madrid, over the 2018-2019 season had almost 75% of their attacks from the flanks. Things did not change during Saturday’s game. The percentage of flank attacks is the same as usual.
Here you can see the average position of the players and notice the absence of a link between Koke and the duo of Saúl/Lemar in the first half.
Unfortunately, another problem occurred in the same context alongside with the non-establishment of connections between midfielders. Even if players tried to stay closer to combine, Simeone’s team is not predisposed to recover the ball when wide midfielders are out of position. This kind of movement can create a big hole in Atlético Madrid’s structure. Diego Godin’s own goal can be a perfect illustration of this. Koke came to the right side of the pitch. Once the ball gets recovered by Espanyol they sent it to their left side. Adria Pedrosa took advantage of Koke’s absence. He got enough space to make his impressive run that led to Espanyol’s first goal.
What happened in the second half?
Simeone noticed that his team lacked a collective and individual spark. You can notice that during the first 45 minutes, his players attempted only four dribbles. On the other side, the Catalans attempted a total of 16 dribbles with a success ratio of almost 60%. The Argentinian coach substituted Savić for Angél Correa, an audacious choice and something we’ve rarely seen from Simeone.
He moved Rodrigo to centre-back, with Koke and Saúl as central midfielders. Later Vitolo took the place of Lemar at the left side of the pitch. The idea was quite clear. Simeone wanted to have two wingers/wide midfielders who were able to get the ball behind the opponent’s midfield line, resist defenders and then combine with Griezmann and Morata. Vitolo tried to fill this role during the first minutes just after coming up. He positioned himself between the lines and did get the ball in this position as seen below.
However, the combinations were harder to find and to realise. Correa and Vitolo had often received the ball while being too close to the opponent’s defenders. Thus, Morata, for example, was also too close to get the ball. He did not make a huge effort on moving defenders away nor on making in-depth ball calls.
On the other hand, even if the short-passing combination was still a reliable solution, the hosts preferred the easy way. Naldo and Hermoso often played long balls in the direction of forwards. They combined to play eight long balls during the second half (almost all of them were chipped balls). They played only three in the first half.
Espanyol did deserve the three points over the 90 minutes. In two words, they played better football and had better organisation especially on the offensive phase. The game did show, once more, the offensive insufficiencies of the visitors. Simeone’s Atlético did not just struggle with creating opportunities, they struggled to master a single way of creating goalscoring chances. It’s a problem that has got more and more alarming over the past several years. I believe that it’s not just Simeone’s responsibility. This Atlético Madrid team does have the quality to create quality chances. Better use of Saúl’s and Koke’s abilities alongside with some structural changes in midfield can be the key to improvement.