El Centrocampista

Atletico Madrid 3-0 Athletic Club: Tactical Analysis


Atletico Madrid reclaimed the Uefa Europa League trophy they last won in 2010 when they defeated fellow la liga side, Athletic club 3-0 in Bucharest on Wednesday night. It’s often a cliché in football that any key game, such as a final, requires an early goal. The belief being that it provides the platform for an open and attacking game to develop with both teams freed from their nervous shackled approach. The fear of conceding an early goal and falling behind is instantly removed.

Yet the reverse can equally be true. An early goal can close the game down. One team is content to sit deep and counter attack. An opponent forced to answer the question of whether they can unlock the defence.
Atletico demonstrated such an approach last night. Yet this was a highly entertaining game which witnessed a superb display of attacking prowess from Falcao combined with the excellent defensive performance from Atletico to stifle Athletic.

Line Ups

With only Tiago suspended, Simeone went with his expected line up in the usual 4-2-3-1 shape – Courtois; Juanfran, Godin Miranda, Filipe, Suarez, Gabi, Adrian,  Diego, Arda, Falcao.

Meanwhile for Athletic, Amorebieta passed a late fitness test allowing Bielsa to select his strongest line up also. Athletic adopted a 4-3-3 shape – Iraizoz; Iraola, Martinez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe, De Marcos, Iturraspe, Herrara, Susaeta, Llorente, Muniain

The Opening Exchanges

For such an important game, the first few minutes were surprisingly open, both teams attempting to establish themselves although Atletico were clearly quicker to settle. Athletic were misplacing passes, a sign of what lay ahead for them. Athletic had an early warning with Adrian’s header going wide. Arda crossed from the left, the Turkish international getting in behind Iraola.

Athletic have adopted a different style this season under Bielsa as outlined here with a key feature being the presence of Javi Martinez bringing the ball out from defence. Atletico recognised this and attempted to close him down and force Athletic to go long from the back. Yet this initial approach was largely abandoned by Atletico and the structure of the game changed in the 9th minute when they took the lead.

Defensive Weakness Part 1: Falcao vs Martinez and Amorebieta

After scoring the winner in last year’s final, Falcao again delivered this year with two goals in the final and finished the competition’s top goalscorer. His excellent movement and workrate throughout the night continually caused the Athletic centre back pairing of Martinez and Amorebieta problems.

Falcao looked to pull the defensive pairing around the pitch, prepared to drop deep and hold the ball up before laying it off to a team mate or he would run onto forward passes always seeking to exploit the space between the Athletic centre back and his respective full back.

The opening goal was a clear example of this. A loose ball was collected in midfield by Diego who released Falcao, who had pulled wide of Amorebieta. Aurtenexte was stranded in an advanced position and unable to provide any cover. Once inside the penalty area. the Venezuelan International failed to close Falcao down sufficiently and allowed him to get his shot away which curled into the top corner.

In the 44th minute and 79th minute there were similar opportunities for Falcao, on both instances dragging Martinez wide before beating him providing two chances for himself.

Changing Structure

The opening goal allowed Atletico to sit deeper and counter attack. Gabi and Suarez, in particular who had a very good game, operated just in front of the back four. Adrian and Arda offered support to their full backs yet always looked to move forward in support of Falcao. Diego remained central behind Falcao.

Atletico dropped off into their own half, only pressing Athletic when they crossed the halfway line. In the 24th minute during an Athletic attack, only Iraizoz was within the Athletic half. The closest Athletic player being Martinez on the halfway line.

Athletic Response

The response from Athletic failed to materialise in the first half. There was energy and workrate but it lacked focus and direction. The shape and balance of the team was wrong. Muniain performed his normal role, initially starting on the left and drifting laterally but he increasingly took up a central position. When he did this, on occasion De Marcos or Herrara broke left but not consistently. As a result, the centre became clogged. There were too many players from both sides. As Atletico sat deep, there was no space behind the defence either.

De Marcos and Herrara were far too direct, immediately moving forward at pace and offering nothing between the lines, admittedly there was little space to enter given how compact Atletico were.
Susaeta strangely moved inside to a central position also. One of the successes of Athletic this season has been the strength of the right flank with Susaeta moving outside, pulling the full back across and Iraola or De Marcos bursting into the space created between the full back and centre back. Yet this rarely happened.

Neither Aurtenexte or Iraola moved forward and linked with their respective wingers to any notable effect. Llorente offered little movement but given the congested nature of the area in which he operated, the only space was to move deep and seek possession. A tactic which Muniain adopted as the half wore on. Athletic lacked poise as everything became frantic, which was only heightened after the second goal for Atletico.

Defensive Weakness Part 2: Caught in Possession

On certain occasions when Atletico broke forward in the first half, they did press Athletic if there was sufficient presence in that area of the pitch and if the opportunity arose to press without compromising themselves to a counter attack. One such occasion was in the 29th minute.

Amorebieta failed to clear the ball when he had the opportunity at the edge of the penalty area, preferring to look for a pass. Previously, under Caparros, at this juncture the ball would have been launched forward but with the new style of play under Bielsa, a pass is sought. Suarez closed him down, won the ball and released Arda who cut the ball back from the goal line and Falcao scored after executing a lovely drag back to wrong foot Aurtenexte.

Athletic Changes

Trailing 2-0 at half time, Bielsa responded with two substitutions. Inigo Perez replaced Aurtenexte and Ibai replaced Iturraspe.

Athletic retained their 4-3-3 shape with De Marcos moving to left back. Inigo Perez became the midfield sitter replacing the disappointing Iturraspe. Finally, Ibai took up the left wing berth which allowed Muniain to be stationed in a central attacking midfield position.

The start of the second half was disrupted by a number of fouls. Given their tendency to push players forward, Athletic are prone to being caught out by the counter attack. However the majority of the fouls were conceded by Atletico. No Athletic player conceded more than two fouls but Athletic still accumulated four cautions with three of these resulting from late tackles in dangerous areas as Atletico attacked.

Atletico conceded twenty five fouls during the game with Falcao responsible for seven. If the final was a showcase of his attacking abilities, it also provided ample evidence of his workrate for the team, something which had been questioned in some quarters previously.

Ibai offered more width on the left and a willingness to run at opponents but the overall passing of Athletic remained too slow.
Torqero was brought on in the 62nd minute as Herrera, already cautioned, and becoming increasingly frustrated was removed. This necessitated an alteration to the system. Muniain dropped deeper again which offered him the opportunity to run with the ball towards the Atletico defence.

There were now two strikers ahead of him also but Atletico countered this with Suarez dropping between the centre backs when required to do so, proving three centre backs against the two strikers, always keeping a spare man at the back. There were fleeting glimpses of Athletic’s ability now as the tempo increased and there were a number of scoring opportunities yet the threat of the counter attack was never sufficiently dealt with.

The Final Goal

The third goal for Atletico started as a counter attack initiated by Diego in his own half. Yet Diego collected the ball just inside the Athletic half and moved unchallenged towards the box where he moved past a cumbersome Amorebieta and scored the final goal.

The only challenge Diego had to evade en route was from the rapidly backtracking Torqero. The space in front of the centre backs, normally patrolled by Iturraspe, had been vacated by Inigo Perez.


For Athletic, the same failings that have existed all season remain in place. The space behind the full backs, who push so high, was exploited by Atletico throughout with diagonal balls being played to the flanks where Arda and especially, Adrian, offered an attacking threat. The centre backs when pulled wide to cover for the full backs, struggle one on one.

The vertical movement of Iturraspe between defence and midfield did not produce any positive outcomes, his passing was weak. Yet when replaced with Inigo Perez, who did provide more vertical movement, the problem of space in front of the centre backs appears. Inigo Perez received a caution for his late tackle as Atletico broke through the centre in the 75th minute.

The warning was not heeded and 9 minutes later, Diego scored. And finally, the real issue facing Athletic. How do they convert their possession into chance creation and ultimately goals. Yet again, Athletic dominate an opponent in terms of possession and territory and yet again the opponent has more attempts at goal and walks away with the victory. Athletic and Bielsa must rectify this issue.

It also raises the same questions about Bielsa’s teams and their lack of defensive stability and the issue of fatigue at key points in the season. Athletic now have 2 weeks to recover before the Copa del Rey final. They are already assured of Euorpa League football next season offering the opportunity to rest players in their final league game.

For Atletico and Simeone, the season is already a huge success following the brief, failed tenure of Manzano. There is one more game to navigate with the prize of Champions League qualification at stake before the real work begins ahead of next season when Simeone attempts to install some consistency into this talented side.

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