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What went wrong for Atlético against Real Madrid

Atlético were outplayed in the first half with the second half spent trying to get back into a game they lost with the team selection.

Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

The main pieces of Atlético Madrid’s puzzle moving forward are in place but there are still questions that need to be answered about Cholo Simeone’s midfield and his go-to starting XI. His tactics on Saturday night against Real Madrid baffled many and it was a strange sight to see Luis Suárez and Joao Felix looking on from the bench as his side chased the game late into the night.

Three changes at half-time came after what was a inept performance across the board in the opening 45 minutes. Yannick Carrasco couldn’t find his rhythm, Atlético looked limp in attack and never fully secure at the back during that first half. Their midfield was swamped out of possession and hurried on the ball. Benzema rattled a shot off the post as an early warning sign and Casemiro scored the important opener from a set-piece after 15 minutes. Real Madrid worked harder than Atlético, that much is a given, but they were also outnumbered in midfield, had no width and Suárez was starved of supply, looking off the pace when he was involved.

Hindsight vision is 20/20 and it’s easy to second-guess Simeone after the fact. The Argentine is unlikely to give us an in-depth tactical breakdown of what he was trying to do so let’s do it ourselves to see what went wrong on Saturday night at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium.

The tale of the tape

Real Madrid won 2-0 and came out the other side of a tough week stronger than they’ve been all season. Sevilla fell first and then Borussia Monchengladbach as Madrid picked up an unlikely last 16 place in the Champions League. Saturday was supposed to be their toughest test to date but they came out looking like a team refreshed, happy to have slain another contender to their LaLiga throne. This wasn’t necessarily about Madrid being irresistibly good though.

The xG suggests Atlético had the better chances. Two of them came in the second half though. Thomas Lemar missed a handy chance at 1-0 and then Saúl saw his header saved from Courtois with Atlético 2-0 down. Atlético’s problem was the first half, their ceding of possession and the confusing tactics. Simeone, for the first time in a long time, entered this game with the feeling that he had something to lose; both Zidane and Simeone lobbed the favourites tag back and forth to each other all week like a hot potato.

With Atlético the ascending side, they froze — both the players and the manager. “The manager got his approach wrong,” Simeone said after the game.

Hector Herrera and Koke as a double pivot

I’m not sure what you call a two-man midfield in a lop-sided 3-5-2 but let’s stick with double pivot. Koke and Herrera lined up beside each other at the base of midfield and moved around this area. They had Marcos Llorente as cover on the right as he tucked in to help out with the troublesome trio of Toni Kroos, Vinicius and Ferland Mendy down Madrid’s left. For the most part, that didn’t really cause Atlético many problems.

The left-hand side of the pitch was mostly used as a set-up zone for Zidane’s side. The real problem for Atlético Madrid came on their own left-hand side where there was no Marcos Llorente replica to close space and give Luka Modric any problems. Joao Felix is not that player and Atlético were left short-handed.

The problem was that Modric and Kroos, the interiors, had space and time to do whatever they wanted. You don’t need me to tell you that Modric and Kroos with time to do damage will do loads of it. And they did.

We can see here, in the build-up to the goal how Atlético’s positioning hurt them. Madrid played with no number 10 so Koke and Herrera had to position themselves correctly to be effective. “They hurt us with their intensity, started the game better positioned,” Simeone said after the game.

The double pivot was too square. Herrera needed something to anchor him and for too long he just drifted around the base of midfield in search of work and never really finding his place in the game.

Just nine seconds after the first picture, Modric gets the ball in a dangerous area, he has an overlapping Carvajal to poke the ball to and Atlético have problems. In the photo below, Atlético have four men in the middle marking Benzema and Vinicius and a shortage of bodies out wide.

Building from the back

Ferland Mendy and Dani Carvajal were camped out in Atlético’s half for most of the first half. Trippier went toe-to-toe with Mendy with Llorente for support but Carrasco was less willing to commit himself to defending, Mario Hermoso was under pressure from Vazquez and Carvajal’s combinations and Koke was too busy trying to figure out where to sit to both stop Benzema causing mayhem in between the lines and to stop Modric from running the game.

When Atlético Madrid did finally win the ball back, Real Madrid pressed with the intensity Atlético lacked and stopped them from passing out from the back. Joao Felix was suffocated and Luis Suárez might as well have been sitting amongst the TV-implanted fake crowd.

Looking back, maybe Simeone would have competed for possession a little more in those opening stages and Atlético would have pressed more vigorously. He might have started Lucas Torreira or Geoffrey Kondogbia but neither have proven themselves yet in starting roles. Saúl’s exclusion could have been the difference-maker as he could have stopped Modric from bossing the first half. Simeone as much as admitted he got it wrong after the game. “To have more legs, more people in the middle, to recover the ball and to have more strength so as not to let the game get away from us,” he said about Saúl’s introduction.

Lemar’s second half performance suggests he should have started but who do you drop? The big problems for Simeone came when he panicked at the break. He had seen enough of Felipe, Carrasco and Herrera so he introduced Correa, Lemar and Lodi. That was a result of bad individual performances. Then he had tried to fix his tactics and he withdrew Joao Felix with the score still 1-0 before finally admitting defeat and taking off Suarez with the game out of reach.

Indecision is worst than a bad decision, they say. Simeone might not agree after Saturday night.