The last time Atlético Madrid and Juventus faced off in the Champions League, the clubs produced two thrilling games that had just about everything. In the end, Diego Simeone’s side walked off the pitch stunned after a heartbreaking elimination.
Six months later, the two met once again in a highly-anticipated Champions League group stage duel. Atlético sought redemption after last season’s collapse and responded with a comeback of their own, as they scored two late goals to finish a 2-2 stalemate.
Diego Simeone can certainly feel jubilant after the fight his team showed, along with how they performed over the entirety of the game. Atlético played with exceptional poise in several components of Simeone’s game plan, but there are also a few valuable learning lessons the team can take away from their performance.
For the second straight game, Atlético lined up in Simeone’s signature 4-4-2 formation. Over the first three games of the season, Simeone pitted his team in a new 4-3-1-2 setup with Thomas Lemar in the role of a central attacking midfielder. But in both the Real Sociedad and Juventus fixtures, Simeone elected to revert back to the 4-4-2 formation he’s used for years.
As with any 4-4-2 setup, the key to this formation is how the team is balanced across the pitch. Balanced spacing is what makes a 4-4-2 function when the team is in control of possession. Here, fullbacks Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier are positioned as the farthest and highest wide players on the pitch. Diego Costa and João Félix roam the space up front as the two main forwards while Thomas Partey hovers over the space in the center as the team’s main defensive midfielder. Koke and Saúl drop further deep to provide a passing option and space the pitch. Last but not least, Thomas Lemar has a free role roaming out of the midfield line.
When Atlético looked to build out play from their own half, they were often met with a high line from Juventus. This tactic was not an overly aggressive one from Maurizio Sarri’s side, to the extent where multiple Juventus players would swarm the Atlético ball carrier in an attempt to win back possession. Thus, Atleti did not have much of a problem pushing the ball into Juve’s own half.
In instances where Atlético firmly held possession in the bianconeri’s half, they did not have much of a problem pushing possession into the final third. Juventus operated under more of a zonal marking system in their 4-4-2 defensive setup — a tactic centered on marking areas on the pitch rather than specifically shadowing players or aggressively challenging the ball carrier. Atlético were given much more space to operate when distributing possession and had more options to push play into the final third. This allowed for more passing lanes to open up.
Atleti relied more on Partey and their fullbacks to find open pockets of space and transition the ball into the final third. For example, Trippier was often left wide open on the right flank due to Juve’s overload positional setup. Thus, the hosts responded by sending out long balls out to the right in order to push play. Trippier is able to make a good run here but is unable to control possession.
Partey was just as instrumental in the distribution of play upfield. He was not man-marked , so he was often in possession with swathes of space around. Not only was he able to continually hold possession, but the Ghana international strived for more direct play. This is exemplified here as his forward pass between the lines opens up space for Atlético to veer into the final third without much of a threat from a potential overloading press from Juventus. Trippier also comes in to assist in the build-up of play.
Here, Partey is able to navigate into the final third with ease due to the lack of pressure from the Italian side. He then distributes a pass to Trippier and once again, Atlético are able to move the ball from the middle to the final third.
Since neither Costa nor Félix was able to effectively drop out of their lines and get involved in play, Atlético continued to rely on Partey and the fullbacks to anchor the team’s passing and movement upfield. These three players were the team’s catalysts in their exceptional effectiveness in driving play to dangerous areas.
That said, Atlético struggled to create high percentage goal-scoring opportunities throughout the game. The team had an extremely difficult time attempting to build up play through the center against Juventus’ sturdy low block. Instead, they opted to create chances for both the forwards by sending crosses and long balls into the box.
In fact, Atlético went to the extreme with this tactic. The team attempted 28 crosses — their most in nearly a year, when they went for 29 crosses in a home win against Real Sociedad in October 2018. Out of those 28 crosses Atleti attempted, they were only able to connect on seven of them. The team’s wide players were the nucleus of this tactic as Trippier, Lodi, Koke and Lemar combined for 24 of the 28 attempted crosses.
This bombardment of crosses largely resembled Juventus’ tactical gameplan in their comeback against Simeone’s side in last season’s Champions League. The Serie A champions attempted 36 crosses in that game, their goal being to provide Cristiano Ronaldo with scoring chances. While Juve’s tactic basically worked, Atlético were unable to string together the same success with their forwards. Costa did not attempt a shot while just one of Félix’s five shots came from an aerial ball.
The capital club became stubborn with their continued approach of relentless crosses into the box. As a result, their attack became largely predictable. In some instances, Atlético sent in crosses into the box even when they had better options to build up through half-spaces or center.
See here from one of the game’s early cross attempts. Partey is in position to send in a cross and potentially create a goal-scoring chance for a striker. The problem? Juventus are organized with seven players in the box including five around Costa and Félix. Rather than push up play in the box with a quick run or pass to an open Lemar in the half-space, Partey sends in a cross that Danilo cleared immediately.
Even in situations where Atlético were comfortably situated in the final third, their attackers were still relentless in launching crosses into the box. But with Matthijs De Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci combining for 15 clearances, Atleti did not garner the success they hoped for in open play situations. The lack of movement into the box and the inability to build from the center made Atlético too one-dimensional. Just 22% of their attacks arrived from the center, according to WhoScored.
Atlético’s tactical approach out of possession was arguably their most impressive. Simeone orchestrated his team to play under two main aspects: a high-line pressing system and their usual 4-4-2 defensive setup. These two tactical approaches coincided as the team transitioned from one to the other depending on the situation at hand.
For instance, see this sequence from early in the match. Atlético defend under their 4-4-2 setup with their backline keeping a compact defensive line. The two main forwards have the responsibility to roam their given space and press the centre-backs when either has possession.
Within seconds, Juventus are forced to track back into their own half due to Atlético’s press. Watch how Atlético organize a moderately high press with seven players in Juve’s own half. Due to the positioning of Simeone’s side, almost every Juve player is closely marked. Atleti are able to subsequently win the ball back after an errant Danilo pass.
The compact 4-4-2 defensive setup not only frustrated Juventus’ midfield trio but also prevented both Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín from operating with space in the final third. Atlético used their midfield four to form an astute line that would glide across the pitch and clog up any available passing lanes for either Ronaldo or Higuaín.
Here, Atlético’s midfield four are effectively able to position themselves in front of both Higuaín and Ronaldo while both forwards are also marked by José Giménez and Stefan Savić. The goal is simple: isolate them out of the game when either approach the final third.
Atleti were not entirely narrow in their defensive setup due to Juve’s alternating attacking formation. The Old Lady switched between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 saw Juan Cuadrado positioned deeper alongside the midfield line with both forwards centered up front as the main strikers — a setup illustrated in the image above. But when Juve moved to a 4-3-3 with both Ronaldo and Cuadrado occupying the flanks as wingers, the rojiblancos responded accordingly, marking with their full backs and wide midfielders.
This is perfectly exemplified here as Atlético are able to create a 3v3 out wide with both Trippier and Koke involved. They are able to prevent their opponent’s ability to seamlessly drive play from out wide and also prevent them from creating a man advantage in vulnerable open spaces.
The other tactic Atlético used was a high-line press. Atlético do not typically trigger high pressing setups against an opponent in their own half, but they did against Juventus for a number of reasons.
First, Simeone hoped with this tactic the team would be able to deprive Juve of open space in transitions and prevent quick counters — a key aspect to high pressing’s popularity in Europe. Second, Juve have the tendency to use their fullbacks to help transition downfield with ease. Thus, a higher press would aid in preventing both Danilo and Alex Sandro from moving with the ball under no pressure and from creating 2v1 advantages on the flanks.
The high line — a fundamental basis for an aggressive pressing system — is used here. Due to their ability to shorten the space on the pitch, the team was able to successfully win back possession thanks to Giménez’s ability to come off his line and secure the loose ball.
And here, the team once again mitigates Juve’s build-up and wins back possession on the flank.
For the most part, Atlético enjoyed great success in winning back possession due to their stern precision in how they organized their pressing arrangements. But Juventus were able to beat the press on several occasions, including on their two goals. While Atleti were able to track back on defense, Juve’s quick counters and ability to find open space left Simeone’s side disorganized, which granted Cuadrado and Blaise Matuidi open shots without much of a challenge.
Fortunately for Simeone, his team were able to will their way back into the game with two set piece goals — an area of play which has become the bianconeri’s glaring weakness. No tactics or analysis can thoroughly describe the intensity and passion that Atlético play with when faced with adversity.
In the end, Sarri’s game plan and approach mirrored several elements of play under which Simeone’s Atlético operate. They defended in a 4-4-2, crossed the ball more than usual with 22 attempts, elected not to man press and maintained a sturdy low block throughout the game. The 2-2 final score is to an extent reflective of just how even both teams played and managed against the other’s similar setup.
As mentioned before, Simeone should feel pleased with the result and his team’s performance. But there are several aspects he will look back on and thoroughly analyze as well.
First, the Argentinean should have looked into going away from the plan of simply crossing the ball into the box and instead strived to build up play from within. When Ángel Correa was subbed on, Simeone could have reverted back to the 4-3-1-2 and pitted Correa at striker alongside Costa, while Félix would have dropped into the central attacking midfielder role. This would have put a higher emphasis on pushing play through the center with Félix as the main play driver.
Secondly, Atlético’s high press had a high success rate, but it needs more polish. As illustrated with Juventus’ goals, Atleti left open space and were not entirely aggressive in pressing to win the ball back in the two sequences. The framework is certainly there to improve the team’s innovative high pressing setup.
Overall, Atleti responded well to the pressure after being down two goals and showed that they have a unique mentality this season.