In their first six games since the resumption of La Liga, Real Sociedad only managed to pick up one point. However, five points from their last four kept the dream of playing Europa League football next season alive. Only two points separated sixth and ninth with the final round of fixtures remaining, so Real Sociedad needed a positive result at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Atlético Madrid were two points clear of fourth-placed Sevilla and feeling confident having conceded just once in their last four games. In this tactical analysis, we will delve into the varied tactics employed by both teams. We will explore how the managers set up their sides and how some tactics were adapted as the game wore on. Ultimately, we will provide an analysis as to why neither team were able to pick up all three points in their final game of the 2019/20 La Liga season.
Atlético Madrid set up in their usual 4-4-2, however, Diego Simeone made seven changes to the team which beat Getafe 2-0 just three days prior as Diego Costa, Koke, Felipe, and Jan Oblak were the only survivors. Simeone deployed a midfield pairing of Héctor Herrera and Thomas Partey, moving Koke to the left side of midfield. Vitolo, Álvaro Morata, Stefan Savić, and full-backs Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi were also named as starters.
Imanol Alguacil opted for a 3-4-2-1 formation, making four changes from the last match. Igor Zubeldia was dropped back to play as a third central defender, with wing-backs Nacho Monreal and Andoni Gorosabel looking to provide width. Alex Isak replaced Willian José and would act as a lone striker, supported by Mikel Oyazarbal and Martin Ødegaard.
Real Sociedad’s use of wing-backs
Alguacil knew that Simeone would desire to keep his team narrow and deep, with the aim of frustrating Real Sociedad and starving them of clear-cut chances. To an extent, this tactic worked, as Sociedad took over half of their shots from outside the penalty area, and had an xG of just 0.41.
To counter Simeone, Alguacil looked to a back three with the aim of remaining solid in defence, but also enabling the wing-backs to attack high and wide. With Atlético defending narrowly, the wing-backs were often allowed space in which to attack.
Gorosabel is shown at the bottom of the picture with a whole wealth of space ahead of him. Atlético’s left-sided players – Lodi and Vitolo – are incredibly narrow. A quick switch out to Gorosabel would cause serious danger to the Atlético defence, as the full-back’s quick turn of pace could have enabled him to get in behind. However, Gorosabel was not fed often enough to be a real attacking threat – under 30% of Sociedad’s passes were forward. Their attacking play in the opposition half was sluggish, and they were slow in transition too.
With Gorosabel and Monreal occupying the wide areas, Alguacil aimed to get his two most creative players – Oyazarbal and Ødegaard – into more central areas. These two had to get close to striker Isak to ensure he was not isolated against the Atlético defence, so they would often operate in the half-spaces, and also try to find pockets of room between the lines of midfield and defence.
Oyazarbal and Ødegaard vs Atlético’s low block
Oyazarbal and Ødegaard could cause real damage if they were able to get on the ball in the aforementioned areas. In the still below, we can see the two of them operating in these spaces whilst Real Sociedad aimed to build up from the back. It is also worth noting the space awarded to Gorosabel and Monreal here too. Alguacil’s formation meant that Simeone’s men had a decision to make: crowd the centre of the pitch and allow space for the wing-backs, or get closer to the wing-backs but risk the attacking-midfielders having more freedom.
As the game, and the slow Real Sociedad attacks, progressed, it became apparent that Atlético were far more interested in marking Sociedad’s attacking-midfield duo tightly. In the frame below, we can see all 11 Atlético players behind the ball, with the midfield and defence especially low and tight. Oyazarbal and Ødegaard are both closely marked by red-and-white shirts, and if they desired to influence the game in any meaningful way, they’d have to drop far deeper. Both players were near bystanders in the first half.
Credit must be given to Alguacil for his intuition, however. If the wing-backs would have been given more of the ball, Sociedad would have undeniably had more chances to score. Yet, the deployment of Oyazarbal and Ødegaard was almost lazy. We knew that Simeone would set up his team in the deep fashion for which he is known; the positioning of Sociedad’s two most dangerous players made it easy for Atlético to negate their attacking qualities high up the pitch. It comes as no surprise the Sociedad’s first half xG was just 0.07.
Though the low block of Atlético is a given, it worth touching upon. We can see an obvious 4-4-2 shape in defence in the still below. In this shape, strikers Costa and Morata are unwilling to engage the ball until it enters their half. Partey and Herrera are close to the Sociedad midfield pairing and would quickly intercept passes towards them, making 11 between them in the match. The back four remain narrow and close to Sociedad’s front three.
The low line of engagement has the obvious and simple benefit of allowing more men to be between the ball and the goal, thereby making routes to the goal far trickier for the attacking team. Furthermore, by allowing the back three of Sociedad time and space on the ball, Atlético had an overload in all other areas of the pitch. This made them extremely hard to breakdown.
Atlético’s attacking shape
Of course, Atlético were keen to defend in a 4-4-2. However, their attacking shape was something quite different from this. What is most notable is that the two ‘wingers’ – Koke and Vitolo – would come incredibly central and play just behind the front two. The full-backs would push on, but only rarely so as to ensure a lower vulnerability to a counter-attack.
During times of possession in the middle and final third, the full-backs would remain in line with the two central midfielders, and make bombing late runs down the line if the opportunity arose. This meant that Atlético’s attacking formation resembled something of a 2-4-2-2. We can see this in the still below.
Koke and Vitolo were the men that Sociedad’s wing-backs would have been marking in defence. Therefore, by coming in narrow, Monreal and Gorosabel were often sucked into the central areas of the pitch. Sociedad’s two central midfielders – Mikel Merino and Martín Zubimendi – were instructed to screen the back five, and so the middle of the pitch was very congested when Atlético attacked. Also, Oyazarbal and Ødegaard were far from keen to defend deep. Dropping too deep would lead to Isak’s isolation up front, something that Alguacil wanted to avoid. This meant that the pair often stayed high.
By starting deep, Lodi and Trippier would appear to be playing no part in the attack, but both men are quick off the mark, and could freely bomb into the wide space that was available. In the still below, we can again see the narrowness of Koke and Vitolo which led to the complete lack of width in Sociedad’s back line. The space for Lodi and Trippier is therefore obvious. We can see how much room both men had if they wished to attack it, and understand how they managed to put in six crosses with a 67% success rate.
Unlike Sociedad in the first half, Atlético managed to find and release their full-backs, and this led to the game’s opening goal. Just a few seconds after the still above, Koke elected to release Trippier on the right-hand side. The ex-Tottenham man had the freedom to pick a cross into what was a crowded box.
With this many men in the box, problems will be caused. Herrera chested down what was in truth an overhit cross by Trippier, but the ball was kept alive nonetheless. After a sequence of scuffed shots and clearances, Morata cleverly backheeled the ball into Koke’s path, who finished deftly, leaving Moyá with no chance. Though messy, the frame below shows the Sociedad penalty area moments before they went 1-0 down. 13 outfielders were in the box – five of which Atlético attackers. Loading the penalty area caused real danger and panic among the Sociedad back line.
Ultimately, it was the clever deployment of Koke (who started the move with the pass outside to Trippier and finished it with scoring the goal) into the central areas which led to Simeone’s men taking the lead.
Sociedad’s half time changes
After a poor display in the first half, it was clear that Alguacil and Sociedad had to change their approach. They made two like-for-like changes at half time, with Diego Llorente and Gorosabel being withdrawn for Aritz Elustondo and 18-year-old Ander Barrenetxea.
Atlético aimed to sit in and protect their lead – as displayed by a PPDA of 14.6 in the second half. Alguacil was aware of this, so made some formational adjustments which turned the game in their favour. They enjoyed 63% possession in the second half and made seven key passes, as opposed to just one in the first half.
The wing-backs were pushed much higher, and Oyazarbal joined Isak as a second central striker, as the Swede struggled alone in the first half, winning just three of his 18 duels. Ødegaard was deployed as an attacking midfielder, but he played in much more of a free role. We can see below the advanced positioning of the wing-backs and the withdrawn role of Ødegaard.
This gave Atlético much more of a defensive headache than in the first half. With wing-backs playing in line with the last defender, the immediate threat they pose is far greater. They also give the opposing full-backs a dilemma of staying narrow or going out to mark.
The use of two centre-forwards resulted in both centre-backs being engaged. This prevented Felipe from coming out of defence to win duels against opposing midfielders – something he enjoys doing. He won four duels and made six interceptions in the match, but after the second striker was introduced, he couldn’t do this freely. Finally, the opposition centre-midfielders were still focused on Merino and Zubimendi, meaning Ødegaard had a lot of freedom.
In defence, Alguacil made slight adjustments. The wing-backs played wider with the aim of marking the opposition full-backs, and the central midfielders played much deeper. This made Sociedad far more difficult to break down. The midfield and wing-backs worked tirelessly to get behind the ball, and due to Atlético not committing as many men forward for their attacks, defending in the second half was far more comfortable for Sociedad. Their defensive shape is shown below, with players ready to quickly close opposing attackers – unlike in the first half.
This defensive stability set the foundations for Sociedad’s dangerous counter-attacks. The pace of Barrenetxea aided this, and the youngster attempted five dribbles in the second half, but it was the introduction of Adnan Januzaj in the 78th minute – who flourished in the free role – that caused Atlético the most problems.
Adnan Januzaj – counter-attacking threat
By leaving three men forward in the fashion they did (two central strikers and one withdrawn to carry the ball), Sociedad posed a real counter-attacking threat. On the occasions where Atlético committed a few more men forward, upon winning back possession, Real Sociedad sought out Adnan Januzaj right away. He often benefited from large amounts of space such was the nature of his positioning, but his agility and technique made him the ideal man to drive Sociedad forward on the break. The attack below resulted in a shot for Sociedad.
Despite not scoring on the counter-attack, Sociedad’s late equaliser can be attributed to a combination of the freedom Januzaj was allowed and Januzaj’s individual brilliance. In the picture below, we can see Januzaj taking up a position on the wide right of the pitch. Any ball out to that side would leave Lodi overloaded. Januzaj received the ball and drove forward aggressively.
Substitute striker Portu came out to the right-hand corner of the box and played a one-two with Januzaj (note, if Sociedad had not switched to two up-top, Portu would not have been able to drift this wide). Upon receiving the ball again, and seemingly tying a string to it, Januzaj darted in-between two Atlético players and was fouled to the right of the penalty area. The ensuing free-kick was taken by the Belgian and dangerously whipped in with his left foot. The ball took a slight deflection off of Herrera and Oblak was beaten.
Januzaj had earned Sociedad a point – and in the end, European football – with his brilliance to win the free-kick and excellent delivery of it. However, Alguacil must be given credit for the changes he made in the second half, which made his team more solid at the back and more able to craft meaningful attacks.
This analysis showed that the match was truly a game of two halves. Atlético Madrid dominated the first half due to their interesting attacking tactics and rigid defensive shape. However, Alguacil made intelligent tactical tweaks at the break and it meant that Real Sociedad enjoyed all of the play in the second half. As a result, the points were shared.
Not only was a draw a fair result, but one which ended up suiting both teams. The point meant that Atlético Madrid finished third on goal difference, just ahead of Sevilla. For them, Red Bull Leipzig await in the Champions League quarter-finals next month. For Real Sociedad, the draw placed them in sixth on goal difference, and therefore automatically into the group stages for next season’s Europa League.