Three wins away from the La Liga title, and into the final four of the Champions League for the first time in forty years: Atletico Madrid’s rise into a genuine European superpower isn’t a one-off, but the culmination of an exponential process under former player turned manager Diego Simeone. As Carlo Ancelotti put it, "Atletico Madrid play like Simeone played…tough, focused, and tactically perfect."
Atleti's rise is not news to Chelsea, of course, having been subject to a 4-1 humiliation in the European Super Cup last season. That was a first-hand demonstration of their qualities under Simeone: terrifyingly compact without the ball, fast, powerful and efficient with it. This will be a far more cautious tie than the other semi-final -- in which both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are probably planning to dominate the ball and build waves of attacks. Atletico play more defensively, and will focus primarily on closing down space for Chelsea’s attacking midfielders.
Real have issues in deep midfield -- Xabi Alonso can be overloaded as the lone holding midfielder -- and Bayern Munich look vulnerable to counter-attacks, particularly in wide areas. Atletico, on the other hand, are an incredibly well-organised, supremely balanced side with no obvious weaknesses. They do not have the best players out of the four semifinalists, and they are not the best side, but their execution of the system and the understanding between players is superior to any other team in Europe. Chelsea are facing an enormous challenge.
Diego Costa seems to have shaken off his injury fears -- crashing into a post at full speed and splitting your shin to the bone would probably rule most players out for an extended period of time, but not Costa -- to be fit and ready for the tie, playing ninety minutes in the match against Elche on Friday (and securing the win in the final minute with a penalty). He’ll start upfront alongside David Villa.
The only other real worry for Simeone is the fitness of Arda Turan, who’s been out with a groin injury for three weeks. Turan wasn’t fit for the bench on Friday, but has rejoined the first-team in training. There are rumours he's fit to play, and he'll probably be involved in some capacity, if only from the bench. His place in the starting lineup for the first leg, then, could be taken by either Adrian, who started there against Elche, Raul Garcia, who replaced Adrian at half-time (and started against Barcelona), Brazilian playmaker Diego, who returned to the club in January, or even Cristian Rodriguez.
Of all the options, Garcia, an attacking midfielder with a penchant for goals from out wide, seems most likely -- although the role of Atletico’s wide players don’t significantly change regardless of personnel, as we’ll explore later.
The rest of the side will be as it has been for most of the campaign: Diego Godin and Miranda at the back, with Filipe Luis and Juanfran at left and right back respectively. There’s a minor debate in central midfield, but Gabi and Tiago has recently become Simeone’s preferred partnership. Mario Suarez will have to settle for a place on the bench.
Finally, there is the goalkeeper. Chelsea loanee Thibaut Courtois is far and away Atletico’s first choice, but there is, of course, the equal parts ludicrous and hilarious situation surrounding the loan arrangement, UEFA’s rules and Chelsea’s seeming transfer pursuit of Costa, which seems to have complicated matters beyond easy explanation. However, recent talk has suggested Courtois will play.
Atletico Madrid starting XI (4-4-2): Thibaut Courtois; Filipe Luis, Diego Godin, Miranda, Juanfran; Koke, Gabi, Tiago, Raul Garcia; David Villa, Diego Costa
To draw all that up…
Recent years have seen the decline of the 4-4-2 formation because of the growing emphasis towards possession-based football (and in turn, the three man midfields of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1). However, Simeone’s primary concern is to control of space, not possession, and so the 4-4-2 is a good framework for his side’s defensive shape. The wingers drop very narrow and deep without the ball, tucking in to create a second bank of four ahead of the defence. The strikers, too, must cover lots of ground in the defensive phase, tracking back to keep the side compact and prevent passes being played into opposition midfielders.
With the ball, Atletico’s 4-4-2 is more expansive. The strikers work the channels, the wingers move inside and the full-backs get forward to provide attacking support.
Atletico’s strength is clearly their defence. They’ve conceded just five times in 10 Champions League matches, and 22 times in La Liga, easily the best of any Spanish side. The solidity of the back four is obviously key, but it’s a team effort -- the entire side works tremendously hard without the ball to make the side compact, narrow and difficult to play through.
From the front, Villa and Costa tend not to press but instead focus on dropping back to a position around the halfway line, looking to shut off passing angles into midfield. This immediately forces the play wide, but also allows the opposition time to work the ball forward into midfield -- Chelsea's back four will enjoy time on the ball, and be free to bring it forward from the back.
It is in the midfield zone that Atletico’s defensive efforts come to life. Their primary aim is to push the opposition wide, and do this by tucking the wingers in very narrow. Turan and Koke do an excellent job mucking in defensively, and often they’ll be positioned further infield than the full-backs behind them. When the ball is played wide, the full-back and winger on that side double up on the player receiving the pass, with the central midfielder in that zone pressing the inside passing option from behind. Atletico create a triangle around the player in possession, squeezing them towards the sides and using the touchline as an 'extra' defender to create turnovers.
If the opposition attack comes centrally, Gabi and Tiago tend to press aggressively in their zone. The match against Barcelona was an excellent example of this: Gabi constantly stormed forward from a deep midfield position to harass Sergio Busquets, preventing the Barcelona player from hitting forward passes. Gabi is always the more proactive of the two midfielders, and Tiago generally takes up a covering position in behind, with the potential space to either side of him occupied by the two narrow wingers. This can’t be emphasised enough -- Atletico do a tremendous job occupying the central areas in the defensive phase, made possible by their absurd work rate.
The by-effect of a narrow defensive shape, of course, is that they can be vulnerable to switches of play, and in the Champions League quarter-final, Barcelona twice got in behind a fullback when hitting cross-field diagonals to the opposite flank, with both moments leading to their best chances of the game (a Messi header, and Neymar coming close to getting on the end of an Alves cross). Cross-field diagonals can work, and the space on the opposite side is there -- but the attack needs to be quick, given how hard Atletico work to defend the goal.
At the back, both Juanfran and Filipe Luis are very strong in one on one situations, and are protected from potential overloads by the wingers ahead of them. Generally, if the ball is played wide, the full-back will move out to pressure the man in possession -- but Atleti are happy to concede crosses, given the aerial strength of Miranda and Diego Godin.
Like the midfielders, both centrebacks are aggressive when the ball is played into their zone, and will look to dart in front of opposition attackers to win the ball. Because of how well Atletico press in wide areas, the centre-backs are very rarely sucked towards the sides, and so can stay central to defend against crosses and shots.
Atletico's defensive system brings to mind the instructions Jose Mourinho gives Gary Cahill and John Terry -- if you stay central, you’ll always be in a position to block goal-bound shots and dominate in the air. It explains why both players have enjoyed such fine seasons.
Even cut-backs are guarded against well, with Gabi and Tiago always in position near the edge of the box to defend against crosses from the by-line.
The transition is where Atletico generate most of their chances, and with Mourinho also likely to take a counter-attacking approach, will be the key area of the game.
When the ball is turned over, Atletico look to play forward very quickly -- that doesn’t mean they go long, though, and they’ll often work the ball out from the back with a series of short, rapid passes. They average about 49 percent possession this season, and they spend little time on the ball in deep positions. Against a team that presses high up the pitch, they will clear their lines with a longer ball towards the front two, and both Costa and Villa are good at challenging those high balls. Garcia on the right will also be an outlet -- Atletico deliberately targeted him against Barcelona because of his physical advantage over Jordi Alba.
From long balls, Atletico are nearly always first to the second ball, with Costa often the one to come short towards the long ball and flick it on to the players running beyond him.
Turan and Costa are the two most ‘vertical’ players, and with the ball at their feet, will drive Atletico’s attacks forward with purposeful dribbling. Because Atletico so commonly win the ball near the touchline, Costa (and Villa, to a lesser extent) drifts towards the channel -- in the space behind opposition full-backs -- where he can take on centre-backs one on one. His energy is tremendous, and he often simply overpowers opponents with sheer force of will.
Costa has a knack for drawing fouls, but his main attribute -- as Stephen discussed a few weeks ago -- is his finishing. He has a tremendous chance conversion rate, scoring 35 goals in 28 different games in all competitions (in 37 appearances). Remarkably, every time he's scored, Atletico have won.
Costa makes very direct runs off the ball (so often latching onto through balls knocked into his path) and will shoot generally when in space inside the penalty area. Chelsea must be wary of not ‘jockeying’ him into the penalty area -- if they do, he’ll use the yard of space to finish ruthlessly. He's also the penalty taker, tending to wait until the keeper moves, then shooting powerfully to the opposite side.
He’ll lead the majority of Atletico’s counter-attacks, with support from Turan (if, as discussed earlier, the Turk starts). Originally a central playmaker, Turan’s become more of an explosive, direct winger this season, capable of running at speed and dribbling past opponents. Of all of Atletico’s options in wide areas, he’s the most mobile, sometimes drifting across the pitch to create overloads on the opposite side with Koke.
Like Turan, Koke is capable of sparking counters with his pace, but is slightly ‘calmer’ in build-up play, cutting infield to find space but also capable of curled crosses in behind the defence for Costa -- he has six goals and 13 assists this season. Koke plays much narrower than the right-sided player, opening up space on the overlap for Filipe Luis -- which can cause problems for the opposition right-back, who become uncertain of whether to follow Koke into his very narrow positions.
Furthermore, if Atletico are chasing the game (and this is probably more relevant for the second leg) it’s possible for Simeone to drop Koke into central midfield as to add an extra attacker. Getting the ball to these players on the run is Atletico’s most common pattern of play, and they’ll be consistently dangerous on the counter-attack throughout the tie.
When the counter isn’t on, and the opposition gets into shape behind the ball, one of the two central midfielders will drop wider, to a position on the ‘outside’ of the centre-back, to collect possession unchallenged and allow the fullbacks to push higher up. From here, attacks are often built in wide areas, with the full-back, winger and a midfielder creating a triangle down the side, looking to get a player in space to cross. Filipe Luis is stronger with his delivery down the left, and will cross from the middle where the two strikers can attack the ball, supported by the winger on the opposite coming narrow at the far post.
Overall, Atletico are at their best when attacking the space in behind opponents (sound familiar?) -- therefore, they require teams to come onto them, so that the front four can explode forward when the ball is turned over.
Atletico defend corners with a mixed zonal-man marking system, with three zonal markers: one in the near post zone, one in the middle of the six yard box and another further out at the top of the 18 yard area. The rest are assigned man-markers: Miranda tends to pick up the strongest aerial attacker.
At the other end, Koke takes corners, with the two strikers and centre-backs always attacking a ball hit towards the edge of the six yard box. Costa and a centre-back generally work the near post, with Villa often dropping off towards the far post. Koke also takes free-kicks, and sometimes Atletico will try to catch opponents unaware with a quickly worked pass to the near post, which is attacked by Costa looking, as always, to shoot.
With all that in mind, then, how will Mourinho approach this, selection-wise? With Branislav Ivanovic suspended, he has a tough choice at right-back -- common sense suggests Ashley Cole would return to the left with Cesar Azpilicueta shifting over to his natural side, but there have been rumours suggesting David Luiz may play at right-back instead.
There are a few possible lines of thought here. Firstly is to keep Azpilicueta on the left to defend against Turan in the channel - the Turk moves into the channels with his dribbling, as does Costa, which suits the right-footed Azpiliceuta. The Spaniard’s been excellent in direct individual battles this season, sticking tight to his man and not allowing them to turn. Atletico’s right is their stronger side, because of how Costa tends to work that side of the pitch, and keeping our strongest full-back on that flank thus seems practical.
Furthermore, Mourinho may be concerned about the lack of height in the side, particularly at the back, in the absence of Ivanovic (and Matic). Having Luiz in the back four means Chelsea won’t concede a physical advantage to Atletico when they cross from wide areas in open play towards Costa and Villa. Finally, there is the issue of pace -- Luiz is clearly superior to Cole in this regard, which would be useful against the pace and power of Atletico’s counter-attackers.
The by-effect of using Luiz at the back, however, is that you lose his dynamism in midfield, as well as his height which would be useful in defending the long balls towards Costa and Garcia. Chelsea’s best performances this season have come when the Brazilian has been paired with Matic in the centre, and pressing high up on opposition midfielders, as they did away to Manchester City and more recently at home to Arsenal.
However, without Matic -- who seems to have some sort of a calming effect on Luiz -- and more significantly, in the likelihood Mourinho will ask his midfielders to sit deep and protect the back four, rather than pushing high up to pressure through midfield, it’s possible the attributes Luiz brings to midfield aren’t required. Frank Lampard, Ramires and John Obi Mikel have all shown they can play disciplined holding roles, and a pairing from that trio might make more sense if Mourinho considers the benefits of playing Luiz at right-back outweigh his benefits in midfield.
Higher up the pitch, there remains the possibility of Fernando Torres being used (as he has been in away ties this season) because of his counter-attacking threat. However, because Atletico pack the midfield zone so tightly, Chelsea will actually have to create from long periods of possession - it’s unlikely they’ll get many opportunities to counter. Therefore, Eto’o -- the strongest striker in terms of breaking down a deep defence, because of his intelligent movement -- would have more sense had he been fit to travel. Demba Ba seems illogical against a physical defence happy defending in the air.
But Eto'o's latest injury throws a spanner in the works. It raises the possibility of Andre Schurrle being used once more at centre forward, in that unusual not quite false nine, not quite striker role: against PSG, Schurrle was fairly ineffective when playing off the last line of defence, but his work in dropping back onto Marco Verratti when Chelsea were without the ball helped stem PSG's possession play through the middle. That isn't so much of an issue here seeing as Atletico are not a possession based side, but it is still a consideration for Mourinho.
Behind whichever striker starts will hopefully be Eden Hazard, or instead, Oscar, Willian and Andre Schurrle. While Hazard will inevitably operate from the left, and dribble past players by cutting inside -- which will be Chelsea's most effective ploy in breaking down Atletico's compact shape -- it’s worth considering whether Chelsea might benefit from using Willian centrally. Chelsea will need players capable of skipping past the pressing of Gabi and Tiago, and Willian, more agile and explosive than Oscar, might be better suited.
So there are a number of selection possibilities for Mourinho to consider, but here’s what we might get…
Regardless of what team the manager opts for, though, his approach will remain to be cautious, defend against the counter-attack and spring forward on the break -- his general approach to big games this season. The key question is where the side presses. They won’t close down high up and force his defenders to play a high line, but he’ll either press through midfield, which would suit Luiz, or ask the side to sit off and play compact, preventing space for Atletico to break into.
Mourinho will also commit very few numbers forward, wary as he will be of Atletico’s counter-attacking threat, although Atletico’s defensive approach, dropping deep and packing the middle, will tempt players forward (which is their wont, of course, as to open up the space to transition into). It's important the side remain disciplined with their positioning.
There are a few minor areas Chelsea can target. The primary focus should be not to be sucked into the pressing trap that Atletico create in wide areas -- so look to overload the central midfielders in the initial build-up phase, rather than advancing through the full-backs (as this will leave them vulnerable to being overloaded to Atletico's pressing, and thus the counter-attack).
By playing forward through the middle, rather, one of Gabi and Tiago will come forward to press aggressively in their zone -- a Chelsea midfielder could skip past this challenge and get into the space behind, knowing there is cover directly behind in the centre-backs.
Another possibility is to bring the full-backs narrow, so again Gabi and Tiago press forward -- then quickly work the ball out to the wingers (preferably Hazard or Schurrle) so that they can take the full-backs one on one. Otherwise, Chelsea’s attacking midfielders will constantly be surrounded by players when they get on the ball -- get dispossessed in a wide area, and that’s an immediate invitation for Atletico to hit you on the counter.
Ideally, Chelsea will be clinical with the few chances they’ll get.
This will be a tight game -- neither manager will want to give much space away, and it benefits Chelsea to be playing the first leg away: it increases the impetus on Atletico to get a positive result at home.
Chelsea must be wary of Atletico’s early wave -- against Barcelona, the side started at a tremendous pace, blowing the Spanish giants away with a frenzy of positive energy, supported by a raucous crowd. Atletico are very good at ‘spells of pressure’ (as well as striking on the break after soaking up pressure for an extended period), and controlling the opening quarter of the game will be vital for Mourinho, having seen his side concede early in the PSG tie.
The battle down Chelsea’s left will be hugely decisive. The first consideration is that Azpilicueta has been the target of opposition target men in the past -- for example, Victor Anchiebe was deployed in a high and wide-left position when Chelsea faced Everton last season, with the striker constantly winning the ball in the area and helping Everton get forward into the attacking third.
Against Sunderland back in December, Azpilicueta struggled when Altidore drifted across to his side, and likewise last Saturday in the 2-1 defeat -- and although Azpilicueta’s improved in terms of his aerial ability over the season, this is an area of advantage for Atletico they will look to exploit. Even if Cole starts, they’ll probably still target this.
Secondly, because Costa likes to drift towards the channel and isolate centre-backs, there’ll be times where John Terry will have to take the striker on directly. Costa’ll be confident in his ability to beat Terry for power and pace, and Chelsea must be wary of the full-backs not getting too high up the pitch, leaving the centre-backs alone against Atletico’s counters.
* * *
When watching Bayern Munich and Real Madrid this season, I’ve always had the nagging feeling that for all their comparative attacking firepower, they remain vulnerable to a certain approach. Indeed, Chelsea have shown time and time again this season they’re at their best attacking opponents who leave space in behind them, and although it’s not to underestimate the strength of Real and Bayern going forward, it always felt possible that if nullified that, we could hit them on the counter-attack and thus win the tie.
Instead, we got paired with the one side whom there’s no ‘obvious’ way to beat. They’re tremendously organised without the ball, lightning-quick and efficient with it -- the coordination of their game plan is phenomenal. They have very few weaknesses across the pitch and although their players may not be on par with those at Real and Bayern, Simeone’s template elevates them into a superior team unit.
This will be a tight, cagey tie, and with both sides likely to be cautious, it will probably be decided by whomever is most clinical.