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The pros and cons of Atlético Madrid’s back three

Diego Simeone started with a 3-5-1-1 against Leganés, but he had to change formations to secure the victory.

CD Leganes v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

“Two 1-0 wins, same boring Atlético Madrid” is a thought that more than one onlooker will have had when looking up Los Rojiblancos’ results to start the 2019/20 season. But it hasn’t been boring. Far from it — Atlético’s start to the campaign has been tactically very interesting.

In the first half against Getafe, up until Renan Lodi’s red card, we saw an attack-minded side going straight for the visitors’ throats. Atlético were quick but purposeful, direct but precise. It was fun. Then, against Leganés in the second round, Atleti set up in an intriguing 3-5-1-1 system, with the line-up as follows:

Jan Oblak; Stefan Savić, José María Giménez, Mario Hermoso; Kieran Trippier, Koke, Thomas Partey, Thomas Lemar, Saúl; João Félix; and Álvaro Morata.

As well as being a way to deal with Lodi’s absence, this was a clear response to the 3-5-2 system Leganés have consistently used since halfway through last season, and it’s not the first time that Diego Simeone has decided to mirror the formation of an opponent that uses a back three. He has done likewise against Celta Vigo, Real Betis and Club Brugge in the recent past, with mixed results.

The problem with this formation is Atlético lose something in attack and in midfield. Many teams opt for three centre-backs in other to provide sufficient cover for their full-backs to get high up the pitch, but Los Colchoneros do this anyway even when playing in a back four. The average positions Lodi and Kieran Trippier in the back four against Getafe were around the halfway line. So having that third centre-back doesn’t mean Atleti’s full-backs will play much more advanced — it simply means that there’s a man missing in midfield.

This was evident against Leganés. The back three comfortably succeeded in their primary job of handling Lega attackers Youssef En-Nesyri and Martin Braithwaite, but when Atlético were in possession, three players stood in space unable to contribute much at all. From the stands, it looked weird and wasteful. From the TV footage it must have seemed even more so as Giménez, Hermoso and Savić must hardly have been in the frame.

Atlético dominated in the first half at Estadio Butarque with 62 percent possession. Thomas, Koke, Lemar and Félix were able to play lots of passes between each other, but they lacked that extra body to create the numerical superiority that would have brought more and better chances. That extra body was redundantly standing in front of the world’s best goalkeeper.

In the second half, Simeone reacted and Vitolo came on for Hermoso — one of those extra bodies. This saw the 3-5-1-1 become more of a 2-5-2-1 in attack, or a 4-5-1 in defence when the full-backs dropped back. And it worked — not only because Vitolo scored the game’s only goal, but because Atlético looked more dangerous on the whole.

The back three certainly served some purpose, as it helped Atleti stifle Leganés’ underrated front two. But as the clock sprinted forward, there was a need to take a risk and add that extra man in attack. This is exactly what Simeone did, and he deserves full credit for winning this match on the tactics board.

Utilizing the back three really must be a specific option for specific circumstances. There are limitations and side effects that come with it for this Atlético side — for example, the frustration of Saúl, who in this scheme basically returns to the left-back role he so dislikes.

I think we’ll see more tactical variation from Simeone than ever before this season. Let’s hope, though, that the back three is only brought out for the situations where it’s really needed.