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Atlético Madrid’s defensive paradox and the limit of expected goals

Atlético are underperforming their expected goals against, but it’s not just bad luck.

Sevilla FC v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Javier Montano/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

What can we say about Atlético Madrid this season?

Well, they’re objectively not very good.

For the first time under Diego Simeone’s watch, they lost four times in a row in LaLiga. On Sunday night, Unai Emery’s Villarreal gave them a bath at La Cerámica (even though the game ended 2-2). Every week feels like the erosion of the good work done over the last decade. There have been setbacks and doubts during that time under Cholo, but this feels more significant than any of those mini-crises.

Atlético Madrid are lost.

Despite the uncertainty over playing style, Atlético’s ‘xG against’ is the best in LaLiga (by some margin) and the third-best in Europe’s top-five leagues, according to StatsBomb via FBRef.

But that doesn’t tell the full story, because Atlético have conceded 24 goals to their 15.8 expected goals against.

So, congratulations to Atlético for beating the xG model, for a start.

Back in 2018, there was talk that Liverpool had figured out a way to create chances that the expected goals model could not capture.

“Part of [Liverpool’s 2018-2020 over performance vs xG] is a little bit of luck. But I think there’s stuff Liverpool do that’s not in the expected goals model,” Statsbomb founder Ted Knutson said.

Atlético have done the reverse. They don’t give up lots of chances, but they concede lots of goals.

Ben Torvaney has written about this, so I’ll piggyback off his work and try to get the heart of what is wrong with Atlético.

Torvaney concludes, after some heavy-duty modelling, that the truth about a team’s performance is somewhere between the two extremes below.

The quote that stands out from the article is this one:

Nonetheless, this suggests that teams with large differences between their xG tallies and actual goals are doing good/bad things that the xG models aren’t picking up on.

Where are Atlético conceding goals?

So far this season, Atlético have allowed 24 goals (including two own goals) from 127 shots, according to Understat. They have conceded 13 big chances, eight of which became goals. That consists of three penalties, two open-play goals, and two set-piece tallies.

So, what are Atlético doing so wrong to outperform the xG model?

Over the years, Atlético have become a more possession-based team, partly out of necessity and also because Simeone has better players with an ability to do more on the ball.

Simeone has acquiesced to this evolution, but Atlético under the Argentine have never truly taken on the identity of a possession-based side. It’s an inauthentic identity. The more Atlético try to fake it, the worse they get, because they simply can’t defend against quick transitions.

(It’s ironic that a manager who wrote the instruction manual on how to counter-attack teams in the modern game does not know how to defend against them.)

In the two examples below, Atlético coughed up the ball in midfield, and Granada and Real Sociedad countered successfully against a scrambling defense.

Simeone’s decision to play three at the back means Mario Hermoso tends to get caught up the field, Geoffrey Kondogbia is forced out to stop the crosser/passer, and Felipe is left to pick up the striker steaming into the penalty area.

There have been countless other close calls this season, and Atlético are constantly playing with a fear of getting pounced upon. You can’t expect Thomas Lemar or Joao Félix, or indeed Koke and Marcos Llorente, to feel entirely confident and at their creative best when they know they are one failed pass away from being humiliated on a counter-attack.

You could also point to Atlético’s attackers being unable to give them a big-enough lead where one counter would not lose them all three points. When the game is on a knife-edge against a team with nothing to lose and everything to gain, anxiety increases significantly.

The problems for Atlético are manifold, and fear seems to have gripped the squad. Felipe is an example of a player whose performances have nose-dived. But he is one of many players being asked to do something he isn’t comfortable doing — playing in a back three, constantly switching between three and four at the back.

Simeone doesn’t have the players to replace him or patch up the leaks. This is thematic in Atlético’s 2021/22 squad. The coach has to be more proactive against teams sitting deep, but he can’t seem to implement a system that doesn’t leave his defenders exposed to transitions. And around and around we go.

Throw in Jan Oblak’s steep decline and a risk-averse midfield, and you see the whole system, squad, and season as a whole start to crumble before our eyes. The issues are serious on their own, but amplified even further when combined.

Atlético were once a team with nothing to lose. But now they do have something to lose, and it’s not clear if they can shake the fear before it costs the team more silverware or a place in LaLiga’s top four.