Up to now the reverse in fortunes at the Vicente Calderón has been somewhat underplayed. From escaping the possibility of relegation to looking down at the duopoly of La Liga, all under one man: Diego Simeone. He resurrected the dream and realised its reality through a tough and disciplined regime winning them the league and taking them within minutes from Champions League glory.
Cholo had, by comparison to Real Mardid and Barcelona, a second tier squad but made them do extraordinary things. The main tactical element to this success was his team’s organisation. Atleti were characterised by this rigid central framework that contracted when out of possession and expanded explosively with the ball. Simeone was a Bielsista in this respect – the entire team would press energetically and that was adapted to the opposition. Because they were so comfortable without the ball, they could win it back deep into their opponent’s half or on the edge of their box.
Pulling this off required an erudite understanding of the philosophy and tireless dedication to the cause. Simeone was exactly the man to drill this into the team – coaching the team as he played, leaving it all out on the pitch.
But sure, you’ve heard all that before, so moving onto this season: it’s been a similar story in terms of set up. The 4-4-2 has been the main approach and with their focus on pressing, it’s maintained a set up in which wide players are comfortable coming narrow to squeeze teams out. Attacking-wise, Griezmann partners Torres upfront, providing the creativity and ability to open space for the Spaniard. And Torres is dependent on Griezmann doing that for him – he can’t create his own chances, hence works best in that two-pronged attack.
Having signed Jackson, who’s well accustomed to playing as the solitary striker, he can lead the front line alone. Against Barcelona this weekend he came on and displayed his strengths to that effect, even with chances limited. Barcelona had a strangle hold on the game and Atleti’s strikers were often isolated, making Torres less useful than his Colombian team-mate. This was highlighted when, deep into the second half, Jackson received a hopeful pass in Barça’s box, with his back to Mathieu, brought it down on his chest, made room for the shot but scuffed it. Nevertheless, the point being he gives Simeone the option to play one man upfront.
This works well with the other attackers at his disposal. Griezmann, Vietto and Correa are all fast, can get in behind defences and provide support to a striker. The former pair, playing where they did last season – alongside or behind a partner – have an understanding of when to make dashes in the final third.
Atleti don’t seem to play with any natural width, so having any two of these three on the flanks allows the possibility of stretching games more than they have been but more importantly giving Koke the freedom of the middle. Cholo is a big fan of the energetic, defensive double pivot – that means Thiago and Gabi staying put in the centre – allowing Koke (a natural midfielder, placed out on the left) to play central or pull wide where a lot of his creative influence comes from; working well with the inward movement you’d expect from Griezmann and Vietto.
However, Simeone doesn’t thrust new recruits into the first team from the get go (but something tells you he is quite prepared to do that with Jackson) and so Vietto will be making most of his appearances from the bench, as will Correa. Plus, with Óliver Torres occupying the right wing, the system doesn’t look like it will change drastically any time soon. What it means is Atleti have a distinct and very operable attacking alternative.
If teams thought they were beginning to figure them out, they’ll have to try again. And the high intensity pressing game can only be sustainable over a certain period – as Klopp found out with Dortmund. There is talk from the players of a slight shift to a more possession-based game as well.
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