Tactical Preview: Atletico Madrid vs Manchester United

This season’s UEFA Champions League campaign has been the first time that Manchester United have progressed to the last 16, since the 2018/19 season where we then were led by Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

A win in the dying seconds against Young Boys at home with Marouane Fellaini‘s goal and a dramatic win away against Juventus were crucial for us to progress through. But that wasn’t enough to save the Portuguese manager’s job as his team lost in a sickening way against their old rivals Liverpool.

The next man in line was former United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and it was his task to go against Paris Saint-Germain in the knockout rounds of the European competition. Although a 2-0 loss in the first-leg at Old Trafford made things extremely hard for the interim manager of the time.

Paul Pogba wasn’t available for the second-leg game away in Paris due to his red card in the first matchup and days before the game United lost many key players. Not a single person was optimistic about progressing through to the quarter-finals bar the Norwegian baby faced assassin, “Mountains are there to be climbed aren’t they” were the wise historical words from the gaffer moments before the game. And the rest was history.

Ralf’s Reign…

And fast forward three years, United are now led by a German philosopher and one of the inventors of the modern game and the role model for many coaches in and around Europe, the ‘professor’ Ralf Rangnick.

Ever since he landed here he has tried to steady the ship as much as he can from trimming the squad to dropping and subbing Cristiano Ronaldo and others for the good of the team. The result haven’t been bad so far. The lack of compactness and aggressiveness in defence was apparent in the first few weeks when operating with the 4-2-2-2 and our recent shyness in front of goal while creating many chances gives positive signs.

The big game vs Atletico Madrid:

The defending La Liga champions haven’t been in form as of late and are already 15 points behind the league leaders Real Madrid.

But how do they play?

I have looked at their recent games against Osasuna and Barcelona.

Let’s start with their shape without the ball:

Without the ball, like always, they prefer to defend in a 4-4-2 mid-block, which will of course turn into a low-block if they get bypassed. But one thing they’ve developed in recent years is mastering the vicissitude between a four-man defence turning into a simple 3-5-2/5-3-2.

Their line up was a simple 4-4-2 just like you can see it in the pictures above.

When they play in a 3-5-2 Marcos Llorente will tuck inside and create a 3 man midfield which will help them to stay compact and close the half-space. Yannick Carrasco will stay outside just like Šime Vrsaljko but a lil bit deeper to create a 5 man defense alongside the 3 centre-backs Raul Gimenez, Stefan Savić and Reinildo Mandava.

Vrsaljko will jump out on Osasuna’s left winger Rubén García as soon as the ball reaches him, the same is true for Carrasco who will also jump out on Ezequiel Ávila. But if the ball doesn’t progress out wide they are happy to stay deep while the 3 CBs are happy to control the middle. 

 Atleti’s 4-4-2 mid-block 

When pressing, they have clear triggers on when to do so instead of running like a headless chicken. And 1 of their pressing triggers are the sloppy passes between opposition centre backs. Which awakens up the man who starts the pressing from the front to out wide, Luis Suárez and Marcos Llorente.

When Suarez jumps up on defender Juan Cruz, the pass to the lone pivot wasn’t accessible to bypass the pressure as Suarez put him under his cover shadow, but he got 2 other options. The first one is to pass it back to the goalkeeper which could’ve been the ideal scenario for most teams but some think that it hinders the build up which is false.

As Using the goalkeeper is also another way to establish superiority out of defense, progress past the opposition lines and move up the field to create an advantageous attack. and The 2nd one was to the left back Manu Sánchez which is another pressing trigger for Atleti but this time for Llorente to jump out on him and that was what certainly happened.

Llorente does his job properly and forces Sanchez to clear out the ball, which will eventually end up on Atletis hand. Savic easily won the aerial duel.

The other way Atleti used to steal the ball was from opposition throw-ins by easily crowding up the side of the pitch using the sideline as an extra defender too.

Atleti’s aggressive press

As soon as the 2nd half started, Atletico Madrid surprised the opposition with an aggressive press.

In the first half it was Suarez’s task to jump out and press the opposition centre back but not in the 2nd, this time they played in a high line in a compact way but what started their press wasn’t a trigger like the 1st one but this time it was the opposition who felt in the pressing traps of Atleti.

As soon as Osasuna’s centre back Garcia passed the ball to the lone pivot Torro, Atleti’s Hector Herrera jumped out aggressively to press the holding midfielder which forced the 27-year-old Spanish player to pass it back to his goalkeeper.

And that back pass alerted Joao Felix to step out and press the gk which is what Atleti desperately wanted as they can win the 2nd ball.

One thing is clear that Atleti even in their worst season by their standard in recent years, they still maintain to shape up a good block whether its high,mid or even low block. And despite all that there was still a good reason why they’ve regressed a lot this season,which we will try to analyze next. But first we will look out for their in possession shape.

Atletico Madrid with the ball

Atleti with the ball tries to play with calm and ease. Their shape will always be changing up on the midfielders who drop in between the cbs to split them up and allow the full backs to go high up and at times the 3 center backs will stay deep and their great treat is the diagonal switch from deep to the right back Vrsaljko been recurring.

And as soon as the ball reaches him he will try to anticipate his options, then the right sided midfielder Marcos Llorente will make very good underlapping runs to provide options then when he receives the ball he tries to cutback for the strikers.

Diagonals from Savic or Gimenez have been happening quite often and sometimes when Vrsaljko receives the ball he finds himself getting marked by the opposition left back, so he takes a quick decision to pass it with his first touch to find Llorente who always makes those underlapping runs. But it won’t always work as the opposition will find a way to steal the ball – but that’s where Atleti also flourish as they immediately counter-press aggressively to win the ball back.

Agai,n Atlei were trying to keep possession for a little longer before finding the runner in Llorente but the opposition took notice of it and tried to crowd him as soon as he received the ball, but again Atleti’s counter-press paid off before they faced any damage.

The other ways Atleti try to attack or score goals are winning the 2nd ball from the goal kick or a forced kick from the Gk. Sometimes they try to keep the ball and have a settled possession after winning the 2nd ball then try to find the strikers with a cross from out wide.

Not only did they create chances from winning the second ball, they have also scored their 3rd goal in the weekend from a very good quick break transition play after winning the 2nd ball.

Felipe won the 2nd ball ➡️ Herrera collected and passed it to ➡️ Serrano, the young CM then passed it quickly to ➡️ Suarez, who then found the Argentine striker Correa who chips in the back of the net to give Atleti a 3-0 lead.

Atleti’s structure with the ball higher up the pitch looked more like this. 3 centre backs, double pivot, Winger holding width as a WB in the left, RB holding width as a WB in the Right, the 2 strikers pinning the opposition center backs and most importantly behind or a bit alongside the strikers you will find Llorente as the interior in between the lines to be the free man/3rd man in the right half space. And to give support underneath.

Atletico Madrid’s pass map against Osasuna

Created by @Jdeposicion

How did Atleti get their early lead vs Osasuna?

One thing that will catch the eyes of Ralf Rangnick and his backroom staff most importantly Ewan Sharp and Eric Ramsay‘s eye will be expected to be Atleti’s early lead vs Osasuna from the set piece.

To be honest, United haven’t been bad defending wise from the set-piece but still it’s something we need to work on for the biggest game in the midweek at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. Fortunately, we’ve been lucky in scoring from the set-piece after 141 attempts this past weekend thanks to our captain Harry Maguire.

Manchester United’s corner kick analysis:

Created by @Odriozolite

When we come to Atleti’s corner kick analysis, they used 3 players in the near post to crowd the gk on one side and free up their strikers in the far post/back post. And the other 4 players will try to stay in front of the penalty box to control any sort of transitions or the rebound ball.

Their plan worked to perfection as Carrasco took the corner kick and placed it well in the near post which was where most of Atleti’s players were and the goalkeeper punched it away but unfortunately for him none of Osasuna’s defenders were focusing on Joao Felix at the far post where he just easily rocketed it in to give Atleti the lead.

Atlei’s strength (+)

° Counter attacks

° Attacking down the wings

° Creating chances through individual skill

° Attacking set pieces

° Stealing the ball from the opposition

° Defending set pieces

° effective at creating goal scoring opportunities from counter attacks

° effective at creating goal scoring opportunities from set-pieces

° strong at finishing

Atleti’s weaknesses (-)

° Lost possession often

° Gave away a lot of free-kicks around the box

° Avoiding offside

°Avoiding fouling in dangerous areas

°Protecting the lead

Their weaknesses in depth

Let’s start with their recent game against Osasuna, Atleti are well known for their deep blocks and at times for their aggressive pressing to force up the opposition to make a mistake or to force them to hoof the ball then win the aerial duels or win the second ball. And they’re so good at it but sometimes, like in their recent game, they struggle to stay compact after losing the first two battles and if it weren’t for the individual quality difference they (Osasuna) would’ve killed the team from Madrid.

The other mistake I have witnessed in their recent game was defending the far post/back post. Whether it’s from the right or left they just easily try to close the opposition’s ball carrier’s passing lanes out wide by doubling up on him which will then open a huge gap in their other side at the back post.

And what makes it a bit worse is that they are there just for the sake of it, without applying pressure at all. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Let’s check on the last 2 weaknesses:

1) wing backs jumping out lately to press without support from behind which will open up spaces for the opposition’s creative interior midfielders to attack the half space with a seam run. And 1 thing i don’t wanna overlook is how Osasuna’a double wide on the left attracted and pinned the Atleti left wing back which stretches him up and creates gaps in the pockets for the fwds.

2) The last one was again on how they (Atelti) were so passive and failed to exert pressure on Osasuna’s creative players in the dangerous positions. Frankly speaking it was a painful act for the fans. The player qualities will always make a difference to some teams preparations but it just doesn’t matter who you are up against if you can’t do the simple basic things right you will get smashed.

But how can Manchester United exploit all this and what do we need to improve on to beat Atleti ?

Like you have seen it in my preview analysis so far, Atleti prefer to always chase the ball rather than dominate the game, but sometimes where they excel with quick passing to find the runner. When we come to United, under Ralf so far we haven’t been impressive regarding playing out from the back. It could’ve been great if we were able to do so to gain control but that won’t be a big deal if we can win the 2nd ball and expose and exploit Atleti’s weaknesses in defending compactly.

 One great thing I have noticed from our game against Burnley which we can replicate against Atleti was how Rashford holds maximum width to stretch up the opposition, and how Dalot was also helping him underneath with a double wide just like Osasuna did.

How does maximum width helps us to create chances against deep blocks like Atletico Madrid ?

Thats what we are gonna look up at using tactical pictures, pass maps, touch maps and action areas.

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. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.”

Those wise words were from arguably one of  the greatest coaches of all time Pep Guardiola. explaining it to Marti Perarnau for his Pep Confidential book, as reported in the Telegraph.

Most teams with a good understanding of positional football use this often and found themselves having success. After losing out their identity under continuous changes of managers the creators have also been back using it ever since their legend Xavi returns to the club as a manager. Against Atletico Madrid this was their pass map.

Made by @Jdeposicion

And i think Pep’s words makes good sense here like you can see it on their pass map – their plan been clear. Its to overload one side with their technically secure players keeping the ball then switch to their isolated winger in the other side.

Made by @Jdeposicion

From the start it looked like Barca was gonna play in a city type 235 inverting their fb Dani Alves in the right but in the left they were flexible as it was more about functions and roles than positions.

The left side is where most of Barca’s technically secure players operate just like United. And it makes good sense to give them freedom to interchange and occupy different positions for the good of the team to help them flourish. In the first pic you can see De Jong dropping deep and tucking inside to create a 3 man midfield alongside the captain Busquets and the right back Dani Alves. While Gavi was playing inside the pockets, the left back Jordi Alba was holding maximum width on the left.

But in the 2nd picture, they have interchanged to disrupt Atleti’s backline, this time Alba inverted inside and Gavi went outside to hold width while Frenkie De Jong played in the pockets.

In the last picture you can see how much space the Atleti defenders gave Gavi on the left after getting pinned by De Jong and Ferran Torres. Dani Alves made the full back to full back pass in close range which was a trigger for Gavi to make an off the ball run behind Atleti’s defenders and thanks to FDJ and Ferran’s well executed pinning, they (Atleti’s) weren’t aware of it.

This is what I think Manchester United can and should try to do this wednesday. 

Against Leeds, United’s pass map showed that the left side is congested well with our creative players and good ball playing centre back.

If we can follow and try to use Barcelona’s way you can clearly see that if you have creative and technically sound players in one side not only they help you to overload one side and attract the opposition to make their other side weak and make a switch. They will also help you get numerical and qualitative superiority, on the same side to create chances even from there. You only need willing runners.

Manchester United v Leeds

Made by @Jdeposicion

Lets see Barca’s other strengths in that game which we can use in our game.

The other thing was the maximum width created by Adama. Which stretched up Atleti’s backline and created space for Pedri in the half space.

Pedri playing in between the line offered Adama a passing option to link up with a simple wall pass before beating them with his bursting pace.

Even their second goal came from Adama stretching up the pitch and using his mad 1v1 ability to beat the opposition and cross.

Which finds the 17 year old talented spanish midfeilder, who then heads it in Oblak’s net to give barca the lead.

Of course that wasn’t the only way Barcelona scored against Atleti, there were other ways too, like the Jordi Alba goal. You might be wondering that it was an individual brilliance goal and why is it gonna be included in this analysis piece. The answer is that it was great training ground work too.

Dani Alves makes a superb cross from the half space which arrived nicely in Jordi Alba’s foot before an absolute worldie.

Scoring goals from outside the box becomes very necessary especially in games like vs Burnley and Atleti where they will close up the passing lanes and defend the box in numbers. And just like that we got the answer for that question too. ⤵️

If you saw what I listed, one of Atleti’s weakness was their silly defending to give away free kicks in front of the box. This will be a great thing for us if we let Bruno take them. We all know the reason why. ⤵️

One thing needs to be clear here if we want to win against Atleti, all those ways will be crucial. But one thing that didn’t make me optimistic is our width structure. I will show up examples using our touch and pass map and action areas in recent games to see how bad our right side’s organization was and how heavily reliant we are on the left. ⤵️

Look where Elanga (36) is 👀

 And now look where Rashford is ⤵️ that needs sorting.

The development of our team and our chance creation rates have skyrocketed after the return of Pogba from injury and Sancho finding his form back. Which also simplifies Bruno’s work from an unwanted hero ball. 

We are so good on the left, in the center and in the half spaces too but our right winger problem needs addressing whether it’s now or in the summer. However, for Wednesday’s game I want Ralf to have a good tactical conversation with Rashford about staying in his line to stretch up the opposition and to beat his 1v1’s then to create scoring chances just like Adama.

One other thing we shouldn’t forget about is Pogba’s diagonal switches whether it’s from the left to the Right to find 1 of Dalot and Rashford or to the left to find Shaw and Sancho will be crucial and cash money to beat Atleti.

To find more about how important those switches are, look nowhere other than @UtdArena’s thread.⤵️

This is the line up I want us to use tomorrow.

But If Ralf doesn’t want to start Rashford then we might need to play an asymmetrical 3 at the back system, and play Dalot and Wan-Bissaka in the starting XI. The reason I picked Dalot to play there over Elanga is the latter always prefers to come inside to stay connected in the game, and he lacks patience to stay out wide for most of the game just like every inside forward.

And even though he sometimes prefers to drive inside, he is totally the opposite to Elanga. 

 Asymmetric 3-2-4-1 with Dalot as our right wing back

That is all I have observed, analyzed, and put together about our Champions League last 16’s opposition in how they play, what are their strengths and weaknesses are, and how can we use our strengths and other team examples to beat Atletico De Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano.

I want to thank @Jdeposicion for taking my request to provide me our touch maps and Pass maps for this tactical analysis piece and also @Odriozolite for allowing me to use his Viz on Manchester United’s 141 corner kick analysis.

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