A decade ago, when Diego Simeone first became a coach, he was asked what type of football side he wanted to build. “I want my team to have a style,” he said. The ‘a’ there is crucial. He didn’t want his teams to have style, but a style: an identity, a philosophy, something that made them distinctive.
With Atletico Madrid, that objective has unquestionably been achieved. In a country which places more emphasis upon possession play than any other, Simeone’s Atletico thrive without the ball.
Europa League winners in 2012, Copa Del Rey winners in 2013, La Liga winners in 2014, last year was an off-season for Atletico Madrid, a rare campaign without a trophy.Later this month, however, they have a chance to finally – finally – win the European Cup, having been denied by last-minute equalisers in both 1974 and 2014. Equally importantly, however, they have an opportunity to exhibit, and re-define, their style.
Under Simeone, Atletico are generally considered a defensive team. The reasons are obvious: they play significantly deeper than the majority of top-class European sides, they boast physical, aggressive players who never stop closing down, and they always boast an outstanding defensive record. This season, Atletico conceded just 18 goals in 38 La Liga games, the envy of every side in Europe. In reality, however, Atletico are no longer a particularly defensive side.
Atletico’s superb organisation without possession is as much as an attacking tactic as a defensive one, in the same way Barcelona and Spain’s possession play acts as a defensive tactic as well as an attacking one. Atletico’s attacking game depends upon speed rather than ball control, and therefore Simeone’s gameplan is geared towards giving Atletico plenty of space to sprint into. Just because a side sits deep and counter-attacks, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re defensive: Atletico throw plenty of men forward into attack. Tiki-taka has redefined what people consider ‘attacking football’, but it’s entirely possible to be more defensive-minded with 60% of possession than with 40%.
Would a defensive side feature full-backs who love overlapping like Juanfran and Filipe Luis? Would a defensive side use a playmaker like Koke in a midfield duo? When Atletico were struggling in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Bayern, Simeone decided to change formation completely, sacrificing defensive midfielder Renato Augusto, and instead moving Saul Niguez into the holding role. Saul had started the tie as a wide midfielder, and scored the first leg winner with a majestic dribble through Bayern’s backline. Defensive teams don’t play silky dribblers in the holding role. The change in shape, incidentally, meant Atletico had more midfield runners, and they pushed forward to score the goal which effectively sealed their progression into the final.
Since reaching the Champions League final two years ago, Atletico’s attacking game has improved significantly. In that 2014 meeting with Real Madrid, Atletico were handicapped by the absence of dynamic midfielder Arda Turan, their best player at transforming defence into attack, while Diego Costa lasted only five minutes because of injury. Adrian Lopez, speedy but hardly prolific, was Costa’s replacement alongside David Villa, who by this stage lacked mobility and instead attempted to play an aggressive, defensive-forward role. Raul Garcia, out on the right, was essentially a deeper-lying targetman. Only Koke, playing from the left, offered real invention.
Now, Atletico Madrid are a tremendous all-round attacking force. Sometimes, Simeone uses Koke in central midfield rather than out wide – an attack-minded tactic, but an approach he was happy to use away at the Camp Nou in the quarter-final. When playing that position, Koke receives the ball in deeper positions, dictates play, and allows Atletico to play on the front foot. They rarely command possession, but they’re not so reliant upon counter-attacking, and have longer spells with the ball.
With this format, Atletico can play four other attacking players: all-round midfielder Saul on the right, the lightening quick Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco on the left, plus speedy, prolific counter-attacker Antoine Griezmann alongside Fernando Torres, who is revitalised in a bustling, prowling centre-forward role. None of this is defensive. Even when Koke is used on the left, with Renato Augusto forming a more secure central midfield duo alongside captain Gabi, it’s still a positive, technical side significantly different – in both style and personnel – from their 2014 heartbreak.
Atletico still excel without possession, but their ball-winning tactics aren’t given enough credit for being thrillingly aggressive. Atletico remain extremely compact, with the forwards dropping back into midfield positions to ensure opponents struggle to play through the centre. If they do, Atletico press suddenly and cause quick turnovers of possession, leading to counter-attacking situations.
They also remain extremely narrow, but whereas for other teams this is solely a ploy to funnel opponents down the flanks before defending crosses – something Atletico are capable of doing excellently – the crucial factor is that they also press extremely well towards the touchlines, perhaps better than any side in history.
Often, Atletico’s full-back, wide midfielder and a central midfielder will all converge upon an isolated opponent, constricting their space and winning possession. Atletico’s other players arrange themselves intelligently to intervene if that press is beaten – the midfield shuffles over towards the same side of the pitch, ensuring there are no gaps between them. If an Atletico full-back is dragged to the touchline and gap opens up between him and the centre-back, a midfielder will drop into the backline to close the space. The rest of the side re-organises itself to allow Atletico to press towards the touchlines.
It’s almost like Atletico are using the ‘box ‘em in!’ tactic beloved of Sunday League sides when the opposition have a throw-in close to their own corner flag – but Atletico are applying that press in open play, all along the touchlines. It takes tremendous stamina, great organisation – and it’s also a proactive method of regaining possession and starting attacks.
Atletico are also increasingly using their defensive block much higher up the pitch, particularly in the opening stages of big matches. The same principles apply: they’re still ultra-compact, they still play narrow and shut down opponents quickly in wide areas with tremendous efficiency. However, they play 40 yards higher up the pitch and win possession closer to the opposition goal. They pressed aggressively in the early stages against Bayern Munich to great effect, a style that would have received huge plaudits had Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund or Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona been attempting to win the ball in the final third.
Furthermore, Atletico have started to depend less upon physicality. In Simeone’s early days Atletico were a genuinely aggressive team, sometimes spilling over into sheer dirtiness. They’ve often struggled against Barcelona and Real Madrid when going down to ten, and even nine, men. Recent, instances of genuinely dangerous tackles are rare, examples of petulance are hard to find.
For all Diego Costa’s brilliance throughout his final season at Atletico, his insistence on starting running battles with opposition centre-backs sometimes set the tone for a negative, spoiling approach by Atletico. Since his departure they’ve become more disciplined, while their ever-improving organisation means they’re resorting to fouls less frequently.
The most crucial part of Atletico’s attacking game, however, is simple – they barely ever play a clearance with their feet. Simeone emphasises the need for ‘quick transitions’ for Atletico to play their favoured attacking game, and he’s furious if his defenders batter the ball aimlessly clear. There’s no such thing as a clearance – it’s the first pass of an attack. Forwards drift into wider positions and position themselves to receive passes, while midfielders bomb on to play quick, one-touch combinations and get a teammate running towards the opposition goal. It is positive attacking football, right from the back.
You might not consider this attacking football, preferring teams which base their play around the ball. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. But Simeone has clearly developed a defined approach which has allowed Atletico to punch above their weight, upsetting the odds and defeating traditionally bigger clubs. If Atletico defeat Real at San Siro to lift the European Cup, the major reason will be obvious: Simeone has found a style, something Real – for all their superstars – badly lack.