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Atlético picked their poison and were battered by Liverpool

Simeone’s three-man defence was overkill against Klopp’s strikerless Liverpool.

Liverpool FC v Atletico Madrid: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid were hammered at Anfield on Wednesday night. The scoreline read 2-0, but this was as good as a five-goal thrashing for Diego Simeone’s team.

Two goals down after 21 minutes and reduced to 10 men after half an hour, Atlético never got going against a team they have come to develop a rivalry with in recent years.

Atlético have played Liverpool eight times now with three wins, two draws and three losses. Four of those games have come in the last two years. In one week, Jürgen Klopp has avenged two defeats in 2019/20 which saw his Reds knocked out of Europe just before coronavirus swept through the globe.

Two weeks ago in Madrid, Atlético partook in a fairer fight despite Liverpool taking an early two-goal lead. Atlético came back and nearly snatched a draw, but an Antoine Griezmann red card and a silly Mario Hermoso penalty were enough to see Klopp win at the Wanda Metropolitano.

On Wednesday night at Anfield, Simeone had to accept both he and his side were outclassed by a team that looks to be reaching another peak under Klopp.

Griezmann was suspended for his red a week earlier, and Stefan Savić is still sitting on the bold step dating back from last season. That conditioned how Atlético played, but their three-man defence was overkill on a night when Klopp played zero strikers.

How did Atlético set up?

Against Liverpool, you have to pick your poison. You can either shut down the middle and send everything out wide where Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah can burn you, or do the opposite and let Sadio Mané and the gang go through you like a dose of salts.

Atlético opted for the latter, with Rodrigo De Paul helping Koke in the middle, which left Hermoso to fend for himself at left centre-back. The paradox of Yannick Carrasco’s importance to this team means he is constantly a threat on the wing, but is often left wanting at the back.

Liverpool exploited this on Wednesday night. Klopp’s whole gameplan revolved around getting the ball over to Salah as quick as possible with Carrasco caught up the field, reluctant to track back and incapable of sensing danger.

Klopp knew, with De Paul and Koke occupied with Mané and Diogo Jota between the lines, that Jordan Henderson would be able to cause problems. The Liverpool captain pushed out to the right to overload Hermoso, and it paid off immediately.

For Liverpool’s first goal, Kieran Trippier played an ambitious pass out to Carrasco, which Alexander-Arnold intercepted. From there, Henderson pulled out to the right again to leave Hermoso in a quandry. De Paul and Koke were marking Mané and Jota — and Atlético were outnumbered and in trouble.

For the second goal, Atlético were caught out just like they were for Hermoso’s early yellow foul (as shown below). It was exactly what Pep Guardiola told Martí Perarnau in “Pep Confidential”:

“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak.”

John Muller has written about the science of switching play, and it’s excellent. Liverpool wanted to switch play as often as possible to “sucker punch” Atlético. But they were smart and patient about it.

With Henderson running the show, TAA arriving late to deliver the ball into the box, and Liverpool’s movement from the front two, Atlético never stood a chance.

There were numerical advantages for Liverpool on every line of the field; they had a spare man in every situation. And Atlético’s chances evaporated to zero when Felipe was sent off after 36 minutes.

Felipe has been vilified for his poor performance, but this was a whitewash by Liverpool. Klopp used Simeone’s new-found dedication to a back-three against him, flooding the middle and (Liverpool’s) right before hitting Atlético where Salah and Alexander-Arnold could do damage.

For Liverpool’s second goal, you can see Felipe, Hermoso, and José Giménez — and not one of them has anyone to pick up directly in front of them. Alexander-Arnold, a late runner, sets it up for Mané, who finishes a tap-in after slicing through Felipe and Giménez.

Simeone has a lot to figure out after this match. While Griezmann and Savić alone might make a difference, improvement across the board is needed if Atlético want to advance and make a run in the Champions League.