The Madrid Derby between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid is considered by some as even bigger than El Clásico. When Madrid’s biggest two sides met in the 2013 Copa del Rey, Atleti had gone through 26 years without being able to beat their mighty neighbours. The last time they managed to do so, they were relegated from La Liga.
Diego Simeone had revitalised a side on the verge of being relegated once again, taken Madrid to a Europa League trophy, a UEFA Super Cup Trophy, and to the group stage of the Champions League by finishing third in La Liga 2012/13. Yet they still felt inferior to Los Blancos, losing both La Liga games to the weakest Real side under Mourinho. Simeone’s side finally managed to beat Mourinho’s this time, winning the scrappy final in extra time.
In this tactical analysis, we will delve into both sides’ tactics, and how Atlético Madrid beat Real Madrid.
Real (4-2-3-1): Diego López; Fábio Coentrão, Sergio Ramos, Raúl Albiol, Michael Essien; Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira; Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modrić, Mesut Özil; Karim Benzema.
Atleti (4-1-4-1): Thibaut Courtois; Filipe Luís, Diego Godín, Juanfran; Mario Suárez; Arda Turan, Koke, Gabi, Diego Costa; Radamel Falcao.
Real Madrid in possession
Real Madrid mainly built up with the centre-backs and the double pivot, while the full-backs pushed higher to occupy Atleti’s wide midfielders – giving quality long-range passers in Ramos and Alonso time and space to operate.
Atletico defended in a 4-5-1, with Falcao marking Alonso. They may press in a 4-4-2, with a midfielder (bar Mario) stepping out to press one of Real’s deep central players, while another player covering his nearest forward option in the centre – intense pressing was triggered with Real’s back/sideways passes towards one of them. This pressing scheme required high work rate and tactical awareness from the midfielders.
A typical pressing trap Atleti used is allowing (or forcing) passes to a wide player, before having a player rush at him while others kept compact and block central passing lanes. This forced the wide player to pass back, which would trigger intense pressing. Here, Filipe and Arda closed down on Essien, forcing him to pass back to Albiol. Arda instantly rushed at Albiol, while Koke rushed towards Alonso.
Atleti players also tried to use their cover shadow to cover passing lanes. The below incident started with Falcao marking Alonso. Albiol’s sideways pass towards Ramos triggered Costa’s press, forcing Ramos to pass to Albiol. Falcao immediately rushed towards Albiol (demonstrated below) while covering his passing lane towards Alonso, while Gabi moved towards Alonso, preparing to press him if needed. Gabi and Arda’s positioning here was sufficient to cover Khedira and Essien. Albiol was forced to go long.
In most cases however, Real Madrid didn’t need to worry too much about Atleti’s first line of pressing, given their deep players’ numerical superiority and on-ball quality. Atleti’s compact 4-5-1 was set up to absorb pressure, prevent entrance to zone 14 and nullify Real’s needle players in Modrić and Özil. Alonso escaped Falcao’s marking by dropping as deep as a third centre-back. Real’s back three would have sided centre-backs in the half-space, meaning they don’t have any passing lanes straight down the middle – which Atleti’s system would cover effectively. They could quickly pass down the half-spaces towards the attacking midfield three, who often dropped between the lines to provide penetrative passing options. With more and better passing lanes, a back three also made Atleti’s closing down movements from the midfielders less effective.
Real tried to overload the left side, with Özil – by nature a central player – moving towards the centre, and the technical quality of Alonso, Ronaldo and Coentrão – compared to Khedira and Essien’s. In defensive transitions, Real utilised the close proximity of the players due to the overload to counterpress aggressively and quickly force long balls/overturns.
When receiving the ball between the lines, Modrić and Özil could attract some Atleti midfielders towards them and open some passing lanes. Here, Modrić attracted Gabi and Mario, meaning there was an open passing lane down the left half-space for Alonso. Modrić passed back to the Spaniard. Costa intended to close down Alonso, but it’s more difficult to close down a (temporary) centre-back when he’s in the half-space.
With Alonso as a left centre-back, Falcao could not cover Alonso’s half-space passing lane. He found Ronaldo, who was dropping, helping Real to break through Atleti’s compact midfield.
Benzema could also drop deep to combine with Real’s midfielders. Real tried to break through Atleti midfield with quick combinations and crosses, mostly to no avail. Atleti’s midfield five had enough numbers and stamina to cover the width of the pitch, so even quick switches weren’t effective.
When Real tried to break through either wing, Atleti’s ball-near central and wide midfielder (Gabi and Costa in the example below) would close down Real’s wide ball-carrier and position well to block central passing lanes, with the other central mids and the ball-near full-back sitting deeper to cover. This meant the full-backs could often stay close to the centre-backs and defend well against runs into channels or crosses. Atleti’s ball-far winger would stay rather wide instead of staying compact to defend against switches, which the likes of Alonso and Modrić are fully capable of.
Atleti’s defensive shape was vertically and horizontally compact. Khedira looked to help free the attackers or combine with them with occasional decoy runs towards zone 14, but there was no space to make such runs effective. A more effective solution was Coentrão’s inward runs and combinations with players in the box, one of which led to Özil’s shot that hit the post. Coentrão rarely made such runs, though.
Meanwhile, right-back Essien did not provide much offensive contribution, mainly helping retain possession and provide cover for Özil, who generally didn’t work too hard defensively and usually drifted towards the left in possession. Essien was effective in stopping Arda, Atleti’s best dribbler – the Ghanaian was not dribbled past even once in the whole 120 minutes. Arda was the one Atleti often looked for in counters with his speed and flair, and due to Real’s left-side overload. Essien proved to be rock-solid in 1v1 situations against Arda and co.
However, a lack of offensive threat on Real’s right wing made things easier for Atleti. The use of two needle players – Özil and Modrić – was superfluous as Atleti protected zone 14 too well. Using Ángel Di María, a disruptive winger on the right would have stretched Atleti midfield wider, opening up passing lanes through the middle, while Di María’s sole presence would have been a threat for Atleti’s left side. Real’s only goal of the match came from Ronaldo’s header from a corner in the 14th minute.
Atleti in possession
Atleti were more direct in their approach in possession compared to Real. Enjoying a minor share of possession, they looked to quickly hurt Real on the break, utilising Arda, Falcao and Costa’s dribbling and pace. Juanfran and Miranda usually attempt long balls when having the ball, but the results were quite bad. These were often lobbed passes towards Falcao or Costa, or passes down the right flank for Costa, who could then make use of his physicality.
Real defended in a 4-3-3, with their players usually rushing from the left (they overloaded the left in possession) to the right as Atleti mainly attacked down that flank, with the technical quality of Arda, Koke and Filipe. Real could maintain defensive stability due to the work rate and defensive quality of Essien and the three central midfielders. When Atleti had the ball on either wing, Real’s midfield would overload the nearby area, joined by the ball-near winger and full-back.
In possession, Arda and Koke were rather flexible in their positioning. They helped their side overload a certain area on the pitch (left side in the below image), looking to combine past Real’s midfield. Falcao also had excellent on-ball quality and often dropped deep to dribble or combine with the midfield. Overloads also helped Atleti counterpress well in defensive transition, which often slowed down Real’s counters.
Costa was not involved much in Atleti’s passing game, mainly contributing by runs from out wide. These runs proved to be particularly effective on the break. Here, he attempted a blind side run into the space behind Ramos, who didn’t notice the run. Costa’s run dragged Coentrão with him and open acres of space on the right for Gabi.
In the 35th minute, Falcao had the ball in offensive transition. He found Costa, who made a similar run, sprinted past Ramos and finished clinically to give Atleti the equaliser.
Second half and extra time
There were no changes of tactics or personnel and eventually, no goals in the second half. Things got heated as there were six yellow cards in this half alone, five of which for Real’s players. Real started extra time by substituting Álvaro Arbeloa for Coentrão, Gonzalo Higuaín for Benzema, and Di María for Modrić. Özil returned to his familiar central attacking midfield position, while Di María played on the right. While this change promised to help better Real offensively, Arbeloa’s substitution had a reverse effect. Real now had no offensive full-back, which became more of a problem when Miranda’s header gave Atleti the lead. In hindsight, Mourinho should have at least put Marcelo – the technically-gifted left-back who had just returned from an injury – on the bench.
Coming into the second half of extra time trailing, Real went all-out attack with an asymmetrical 3-3-4. Arbeloa played as a right-back, leaving the left-back position vacant; Essien joined Khedira and Alonso in midfield and along with Khedira, looked to made runs into the box; Di María and Özil hugged the two touchlines, with Özil now truly playing on the right wing; Ronaldo became the second striker. Di María’s speed and mazy dribbling on the left really troubled the tiring Juanfran. He created one big chance for Özil, whose shot was saved magnificently by Courtois. That was also their last chance. Some dirty fouls led to Ronaldo and Gabi being sent off in the final minutes, but 2-1 for Atleti was the final result.
This analysis showed that things were close between the two sides, and the difference in finishing quality proved to be decisive in the end. Real dominated possession but failed to create quality attacks and take advantage of Atleti’s individual mistakes. Atleti defended well and hurt Real on the break, which was not a surprise. Some heroic goalkeeping from Courtois kept them alive and eventually beat their city rival. Real’s trophyless season meant Mourinho was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, and both Madrid sides went on to be two of the biggest sides in Europe.