Atletico Madrid made the trip to the Mestalla to face Valencia knowing a 2-0 lead will put them in first place on goal difference. They sat in second place, three points behind La Liga table-toppers, Real Sociedad and three points ahead of reigning champions Real Madrid.
The game was a high-tempo game for the major parts of the game. Atletico Madrid came out victorious with a 1-0 win courtesy of Toni Lato’s unfortunate own goal after Valencia had a good defensive performance. In this tactical analysis, we will see the tactics deployed by both teams.
Diego Simeone made an un-usual change to his team as he changed his formation from his usual 4-4-2 to 3-4-3. The 3-4-3 alternated to a 3-5-2 with Llorente dropping into midfield. He left out João Felix and Yannick Carrasco who started their previous game against Lokomotiv Moscow and replaced them with Mario Hermoso and Thomas Lemar.
Javi Garcia stuck to his 4-4-2 formation. However, he made several changes to the team, last time out at Deportivo Alaves. The front-two was changed with Mario Gomez and Manu Callejo coming in. Goncalo Guedes came in for Dennis Cheryshev. José Gayá who got injured against Alaves was replaced by Toni Lato.
Valencia’s 4-4-2 mid-block
Valencia’s aim for most part of the game was to block space and hit on the transition. In order for them to this, they sat in a mid-block for the most part of the game. Valencia sat in a 4-4-2 narrow mid-block.
Valencia’s 4-4-2 narrow mid-block was aimed at blocking central progression against Atlético’s 3-1-6 on-the-ball shape. Valencia’s front two stayed narrow and marked the spaces around the single-pivot in Atlético’s 3-1 build-up shape. In the case where a pass is made to the single-pivot, the front two of Gomez and Callejo starts their intense press on the pivot, which was usually Koke. Most of the time it forced the build-up back to the centre-backs.
Atlético’s progression tactics was to use wide combinations through overloads and triangles. The 3-4-3 varied into in a 3-1-6 formation which gave the perfect shape for this. It gave the passing triangles and the diamond structure around the wings for the overload with adequate between the lines presence and width.
Atlético sought to create overloads mostly through the left flank as they had most of their combinative players on that flank. As mentioned earlier, the overload had a diamond structure at times, with two players positioning in the halfspace, one deep and one high, while the remaining two maintained width as they positioned themselves horizontally.
Valencia were able to defend these overloads well. The main task was to protect the halfspace, hence protect the inside passing lanes. The ball-side winger, full-back, centre-midfielder and centre-back were tasked to defend against this diamond structure as they maintained compactness. The ball-side winger or full-back presses the wingback at an angle and body position that prevents the inside pass and forces the build-up back. The ball-side centre-midfielder, full-back and defender move in sync with the winger as he triggers his press. This is blocked any nearby progressive passing option and force the build-up back.
Valencia were able to this on numerous occasions. This prompted Atlético to use the underloaded side by making a switch. On the underloaded side, mostly on the right, it featured Trippier holding width while Llorente positioned in the half-space.
Los Che was able to defend against these switches well. They were able to anticipate the switch from the body position and orientation of the switching player, usually Koke or Saul. This anticipation and reading of the body cues allow Valenica move their block in time. The far-side full-back, usually Toni Lato, read most of this situation and move started his press on Trippier as soon Saul adjusted his body position to play the switch. Račić , the far-side centre-midfielder, moved to track the underlapping runs of Llorente as Trippier’s instinct was either to control and release pass or a make a first-time pass to LLorente’s path.
In all, Los Che was very good at tracking the inside channel runs from Atlético on both sides. The wingers worked had to track back and occupy Atlético’s wing-backs. This allowed the full-backs or ball-near centre-midfielder track the inside runs of Atlético.
How Atlético exploited the gaps and issues in Valencia’s block
Even though Los Che really did a good job in defending against Atlético, they still had moments where they failed to do the right things. Apart from that, the narrow 4-4-2 block structurally had its’ deficiencies as they conceded a lot of spaces out-wide, as shown below.
Atlético took advantage of these spaces on the flanks by playing long diagonal balls to the flanks. The spaces gave them a lot of time on the ball to make the next action. Apart from this, this situations were further exploited Atlético as Los Che stopped tracking the inside runs. Here, Trippier receives a switch from Koke and allowed sufficient time on the ball. Guillamón steps back and creates a large seam which Llorente exploits as he makes an inside run. Trippier finds him with a pass and this leads to a good shooting opportunity for Lemar who receives a deflected cutback from Llorente.
In exploiting these spaces further, El Cholo made tactical changes as he first switched Lemar to the position of left wing-back and took out Renan Lodi for João Félix. This was to folster combinations and isolate Lemar 1v1 with Wass. However, Lemar seemed lethargic and fatigued. So he brought in Carrasco and played him in Lemar’s position. Carrasco, with his fresh legs, was able to beat his marker in isolated 1v1 situations which led to the deflection for the goal.
Another moment of defensive lapses from Los Che happened in situations where Atlético made switches. Usually, Los Che defended these situations well as mentioned earlier. However, the intensity and the decisions not to close the right passing lanes especially from Guedes meant Atlético could assess the inside passing options.
In the image above, Trippier receives a long diagonal ball. Toni Lato does his job and reads the switch well as he presses Trippier. However, Guedes is slow to react to the switch and loses his man, Llorente, who makes an inside run. This moves leads to a good shooting opportunity.
Also, the midfield line became unorganised as the game moved on. The midfield line wasn’t as compact as it used to be towards the later part of the second half. Atlético took advantage of this by overloading the central spaces as evident in the subs he made. He brought in Félix, Vitolo and moved Lemar back into the central area. Overall, the central spaces had Correa, Félix, Vitolo and Lemar overloading them.
How Atlético Madrid defended against Valencia’s progression tactics
Los Che always looked to progress through the halfspaces either to vertical line-breaking passes or loafted balls in-behind for the striker or winger to run into. In the case of line-breaking passes, the wingers invert into the halfspace to provide passing angles. They created these passing angles to the halfspace by positioning players, especially centre-midfielder or full-back, at depth on the halfspaces. In the cases of long balls, they hold width and make runs into the vacated spaces by the wingbacks. Apart from this, they also sought to use goalkicks to progress play by winning the first-ball or second-ball.
Like Los Che, Atlético also put up a solid defensive performance. Diego Simeone showed his tactical flexibility as Atlético has defensive shape showed positional variations. Atlético defended in a 3-5-2 formation which alternated to a 4-4-2 when pressing high or in a mid-block . The 3-5-2 was usually used in a low-block or sometimes in a mid-block. In the 4-4-2, Renan Lodi pushes up to act as the left-winger and pushes back in the 5-3-2 to act as a wing-back.
When pressing high, they press with intensity against Valencia’s and positional rotations. They were alternating roles and positions between Trippier and LLorente on the far side. In some scenarios, Trippier pressed the full-back when he received a pass and Llorente man-marked the ball-side winger. The front two were tasked with pressuring the Los Che’s centre-backs.
In the case where the build-up pushes out-wide as shown below, the far-side opposition full-back is left free. The far-side wing-back tucks back into the defence line. The far-side interior(RCM) midfielder comes in-field and stays narrow. The ball-near wing-back pushes up to mark the full-back. The ball-near outside centre-back or left centre-back marks the winger. The outside centre-midfielder(LCM) and defensive midfielder pushes up to mark the pivots while the strikers focus on the two centre-backs.
In the mid-block, they mostly defended in an alternating formation of 4-4-2 and 5-3-2. They aim to block passing lanes to the double pivot of Račić and Soler by Lemar and Correa ensuring they are in their cover shadows. This guided the build-up wide, when it reaches the wide area, either the left winger in the 4-4-2 formation or the outside centre-midfielder in the 5-3-2 presses full-back. The ball-side striker moves to block the inside passing lane as he moves to mark the ball-side pivot.
This forces the build-up to circulate to the other flank or forces a long ball into the path of the running forward or winger. In the scenario it forces the build-up back, the far-side striker presses the far-side opposition centre-back. The ball-side interior centre-midfielder or the wingback presses the ball-side opposition fullback.
Atlético controlled every facet of the game. However, due to the lack of focal point in attack, they didn’t have the outlet to play their balls to which meant they took outside shots. Their defensive performance was good, stopping Valencia’s progression and transitions.
Valencia also had a good defensive performance. Although, it showed gaps as shown earlier in this analysis. Guedes and Musah proved the necessary transitional threat although thwarted by Atléti’s immense transitional game. Račić was also good at winning second balls, blocking pass lanes and providing runs and depth.