One of the questions that has haunted Atletico for much of the past three seasons is how Diego Simeone’s men would break down packed in defenses. During their title campaign, the team played the classic narrow, low block 4-4-2 that Simeone has perfected over the course of his time at Atletico.
But such a scheme only works if the opposition will attack you. As Atletico’s profile has grown, however, they have had to learn how to play in other styles as teams have begun to sit deep and try to beat them at their own game. This has forced the side to find ways of breaking down packed-in defenses and scoring goals when they don’t have acres of space to counter into.
That said, despite some concerns about the team’s ability to beat teams that try for the smash-and-grab, Atletico has actually been fine this season. The only match we’ve lost on expected goals is the trip to the Nou Camp. Even there, despite being badly out-played we scraped by with a draw. We’ve won all five of the other results on xG, which suggests we’re playing well, creating chances, and so on, but sometimes the goals simply aren’t coming. But that’s a normal soccer problem; not an Atletico Has a Problem problem. (If you are interested, I have a running record of Atletico’s performance on xG using Michael Caley’s xG data.)
Central to the way Atletico have attacked teams that defend first is the work of midfield maestro Koke. Several seasons ago, after our title-winning campaign, the midfielder was linked with a move to Barcelona as a potential Xavi replacement before the Catalan club signed Ivan Rakitic instead.
But it’s easy to see why Barça thought Koke could succeed in a similar role to the departed Spanish legend. Through six games this season, Koke has consistently been at the heart of the Atletico attack, sometimes almost fusing together the roles of Sergio Busquets and Xavi.
Briefly, Busquets is typically the passing metronome who sits deep for Barcelona and plays and receives more passes than any other player on the field. His role is essential to the team’s ability to squeeze opposition because he is how they maintain possession high up the pitch. Xavi, in contrast, played a slightly more advanced role, moved laterally much more than Busquets typically does, and sometimes had the freedom to make a late run into the box to get on the end of a scoring chance.
Koke is the do-everything passing maestro at the heart of Atletico’s attack.
Atletico kind of has the same deeper midfielder/advanced lateral drifting midfielder set up as Barcelona, but with one importance difference: Atletico’s number five, whether it’s Augusto, Tiago, or Gabi, is not nearly the passer that Busquets is. (To be fair, there’s like three players in the world who can match Busquets as a passer.)
As a result, Koke does both of these things for Atletico. He is the metronome the team uses to recycle the ball, retain possession, and pressure the opposition. But whereas Busquets maintains a deep, central position, Koke drifts laterally like Xavi so often did.
Here is the chart of passes he played at the weekend against Deportivo:
In addition to those 110 attempted passes (105 of which he completed!), he also received 103 passes. So that’s 213 passes that Koke either attempted himself or received from a teammate.
Atletico attempted 608 passes for the game. So Koke was involved in 35% of all the passes Atletico played. And the remarkable thing about this is how advanced Koke is playing. He’s not an attacking midfielder by any stretch, but you can see he’s playing a significant number of lateral passes well into the attacking third.
Koke’s Role in Atletico’s Attritional Style
It’s not a great surprise that even when they are on the front-foot, Atletico still play a more attritional style than sides like Real Madrid and Barcelona, or, looking abroad, teams like like Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City. Those teams are flair attackers who rely on the genius of their star players (and, in the latter two cases, their managers) to create an irresistible attacking style. This is Dortmund breaking down a packed defense:
Borussia Dortmund's third goal was a work of art. https://t.co/M6a45Y4kxo— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) September 23, 2016
Atletico rarely scores goals of that quality. Their method of breaking down the opposition is much more straightforward. Frequently it’s “play a delicate through ball toward the touch line to an attacking player who then fizzes the ball across the face of goal and hopes for the best.” That’s what it was this weekend on Antoine Griezmann’s winner, for example. It’s also how we got our late equalizer last year in the Champions League final. It’s simple stuff, but it can be effective.
The key to it working, however, is that you are able to keep sustained pressure on the opposition. Simple attacking moves can work, but if the challenge to playing a flair-style like Dortmund is that it requires incredible skill to pull off, the challenge in playing an attritional style like Atletico is it takes a lot of time to pull off.
The chance quality is often not going to be as high, so you statistically will need to create more chances to have a realistic chance at scoring a goal. Additionally, because simple attacking moves are easier to deal with, you also need to wear the opposition down a bit so that they switch off or are too fatigued to deal with the steady pressure applied by the attack.
Koke is essential to this approach because he, more than any other player, is able to keep the ball ticking over in the attacking third. He allows Atletico to keep the ball in the attacking third and to keep the opposition under constant pressure as they can never switch off for fear of shipping a goal to Atletico’s fast, direct attackers.
But if you remove Koke from the equation, then it’s hard to see how Atletico could sustain this system. Yannick Carrasco, Nico Gaitan, Kevin Gameiro, Fernando Torres, and, of course, Antoine Griezmann are all excellent attackers, but they are also all very direct.
Koke is the player who allows that possession to be sustained in advanced positions and forces the opposition to spend all their time chasing around fast attackers making vertical runs as he holds up the ball and looks for that defense-splitting pass.
There have been a few transfer rumors suggesting Antoine Griezmann may leave Atletico after this season. Losing the French attacker would be a sore blow to the team, but it’s probable that losing Koke would be much worse. Griezmann is a world-class direct attacking forward comfortable playing on the wing or up top.
There are probably fewer than five players like that in the world who can match Griezmann’s quality, but players who fit the description “direct attacking forward able to play on the wing or up top” aren’t that rare. If Griezmann did leave, Atletico could chase signings like Domenico Berardi, Hakan Çalhanoglu, or Andre Hahn and while they’d see a drop in individual quality, they could still play basically the same way.
If Koke left, however, it’s hard to see the next play for Atletico. The obvious move would be to try and play Saul in Koke’s role—and Saul just might be good enough to pull it off. But even if he could largely replicate Koke’s work, then you have to figure out how to replace Saul in his other roles in the team. And if he couldn’t do it, then you have to go out and find “a passing midfielder who can play literally any midfield position in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, who has an insane work rate, great technical ability, and knows how to read a game, time his runs, pick out the right pass, etc.”
Virtually all the players in the world who fit that description already play for bigger clubs than Atletico. So the club could try to chase down a player who plays for Manchester United, Bayern Munich, or Barcelona or they could take a flyer on a gifted player who might check all those boxes but who plays for a smaller club. But it’s hard to see who they could go after given the remarkable broad skill set Koke brings and how essential he is to the system.