Atlético Madrid faced Valencia on Wednesday at the Wanda Metropolitana. This game, in round 34 of La Liga 2018/19 was important for both sides as Simeone’s Atléti losing would mean Barcelona win the La Liga title and Valencia winning would keep their hopes of a top-four finish alive. The match ended 3-2 in the Rojiblanco’s favour. In this analysis, we use statistics to do a tactical analysis of this match and examine the tactical trends we saw throughout the match.
Atlético Madrid had come off the back of a 1-0 win against Eibar, winning four out of their last five games. Second in the league, Madrid were trailing Barcelona by nine points. Knocked out of the Champions League and the Copa Del Rey, the Spanish League was Atléti‘s only mathematical hope.
Valencia had won four of their last five games, too. Beating Real Betis 2-1, Valencia were in very good fettle indeed. Making the top four was very important for Valencia and it was very well possible considering the small gap.
Atlético were playing in a 4-4-2 where Lemar was the attacking option in midfield with Rodrigo, Saúl and Koke providing stability in midfield. As always Ñíguez would frequently drift forward and provide cover to Lemar. The full-backs would tend to drift forward too, but not as much as usual. This prevented gaps as the centre-backs would pick up any loose balls with Rodri available as a passing option.
For Valencia, Parejo, Mina and Coquelin would look to prevent Atléti’s progression through the middle of the pitch. This meant Soler had to frequently move into a more attacking position during transitions. Gayà and Wass were playing high up the pitch however, Garay and Diakhaby weren’t as spread apart as Atléti’s centre-backs with Coquelin helping them contain Griezmann and Morata along with the full-backs.
Battle down the wings
The wings very much utilised by the Rojiblanco during the start of the match. This led to the first goal and it was also the foundation for what would be a very strong performance by Thomas Lemar.
Juanfran and Luis were instructed to join the attack whenever possible. Simeone’s team would then either use them as carriers or pass the ball to the wings in the final third. As mentioned before, Valencia had a clear plan to close down the middle of the field thanks to their midfielders.
Morata has the ability to play as a great target man and his recent form was beneficial too as he scored the opening goal from a cross by Juanfran. During this, Diakhaby played him onside and lack of communication between him and Garay caused the defensive lines to be quite weak. The team from Madrid had clearly caused multiple problems to Valencia with their use of the wings.
As mentioned before, in order to help close down the middle of the field, Valencia had kept the two centre-backs at a relatively lesser distance from each other. This was great for Thomas Lemar as he used his pace to make a few excellent crosses in the earlier part of the first half. He provided a new dimension to Atlético Madrid with his speed and agility. Wass would be caught too far up to backtrack and Gaya couldn’t handle Lemar on his own which caused him to require Coquelin’s help. This would reduce Atleti’s problems in midfield and give Saul more freedom when drifting forward.
A duel in efficiency
Till a while past the 30th minute, neither team were stringing together any excellent combination of passes that was progressive enough. Valencia were hardly getting any work done down the wings in the final third. This seemed to be where Valencia went wrong in their tactics. Rather, this was where Simeone was proving superior to Marcelino.
We already saw how Valencia looked to avoid letting the ball pass through the midfield. To get any attacking advantage, they would need to attack down the wings to avoid being heavily outnumbered. But with Godin and Savić spread away from each other and Luis and Gayà making their way back quickly, they could only be threatened by long balls which Valencia tried but couldn’t make anything out of. With the crowded midfields, through balls weren’t an option. This made Valencia hang onto a few sparse chances which weren’t enough for the equaliser. This made it a battle of efficiency considering the tactical inferiority.
Gameiro’s goal demonstrated this perfectly with the problem being Luis caught high up the pitch and him not being able to track back in time for Valencia to be dispossessed. Due to this the ball ended up with Mina and his pass combined with the panic of the opposition defence, thanks to the earlier mistake, caused his pass into Gameiro to be slotted in. This goal was completely due to lack of focus on the wings and the efficiency of Los Ches.
Had Atlético had the lead going into the second half, Simeone wouldn’t have felt the need to change tactics as his testing of Valencia’s efficiency was successful. But his team couldn’t afford Valencia showing that kind of efficiency again. To counter this, Luis and Juanfran didn’t drift as far as up as they did in the first half. Now, this meant the distance between the backline is reduced so long balls and pace were no longer an option, rather not a very reliable one. As mentioned earlier, this was a great performance by Lemar. One of the main reasons was that he was given a lot of responsibility. One of his excellent crosses was headed into the goal by a rather slow response by Gayà.
Marcelino instructed his team to make use of the spaces formed by the Rojiblanco full-backs not moving up as much as earlier which meant Valencia had many chances to cross it into the box but either the crosses were sub-par or Atléti had enough to outnumber them in the box by a significant number. For the rest of the match, most of the attacks were by long balls or frequent crosses for both teams. The midfield lockdown had proved incredibly effective however a bit detrimental to Valencia, too, as they were unable to get any shots on goal down the middle of the pitch.
It was a hard-fought match in which both teams had come with a clear plan. However, Valencia were affected by their own midfield congestion and problems in switching play. The Madrid-based side could have done a lot better if not for Marcelino’s improvisations which were successful to an extent.
This leaves Atleti nine points behind Barcelona and Valencia’s top four finish a very tough job. Now placed sixth, Valencia could fall out of the top six if they lose more than one match whereas, Simeone’s side could see Barcelona win the La Liga title within the next few days.
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