Atlético Madrid – Athletic Club: Atlético come back miraculously in surprisingly high-scoring game between lackluster offenses (3-2)
An injured Diego Godín scored an injury time header to complete Atlético’s comeback against Athletic Club. Do not be fooled by the result of this game, neither of these teams had a well-defined offensive game, but at least advantage was taken of the few big chances at hand.
Atlético is a strange case to talk about. Diego Simeone is still struggling to leverage the most talented Atlético squad he has ever had and form a coherent offensive system. On the other hand, defense has mostly remained stable, but the team now presses less effectively and intensely than before. Furthermore, they are conceding higher quality shots close to goal, which have often forced keeper Jan Oblak to do the impossible. Despite all these issues, Atlético still seem like a second most credible candidate in a La Liga title race that has featured many underperforming top teams.
Speaking of underperformers. Despite some initially promising games, Eduardo Berizzo’s Athletic Club has struggled a lot in this initial third of the season. Berizzo’s one-versus-one pressing system takes time to perfect and is physically exhausting. Athletic can usually execute this strategy well during first halves before running out of steam. This is a big reason why Athletic now have one of the five poorest defensive records in the league and sit just outside the relegation zone in the league table.
Simeone had to deal with an injury plague this weekend, with three center backs—Stefan Savić, Lucas Hernández and Jose Giménez—and two key midfielders—Koke and Thomas Lemar—all unavailable. Therefore, this game featured a start from youth academy graduate Francisco Montero at center back, accompanying eternal captain Diego Godín. Santiago Arias seems to have finally taken the starting right back position away from an underperforming Juanfran. In midfield, Thomas Partey and Rodrigo Hernández formed the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. , with Saúl Ñíguez and Ángel Correa playing as wide men. Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa formed the striker. As usual, all these players were laid out in a 4-4-2 shape.
After several games of using more physical starting elevens, Berizzo decided to go back to his technicians: Beñat Etxebarría in the double pivot, Markel Susaeta on the right and Iker Muniain as a number ten. To improve his team’s physical and defensive intensity. Berizzo opted for a “double left back” setup. Mikel Balenziaga started at left back while Yuri Berchiche—usually the starting left back—played as a defensively positioned left winger. Unai Nuñez replaced the injured Yeray Álvarez in the center back position, while Mikel San José replaced a suspended Dani García in holding midfield.
Unai Nuñez and Iñigo Martínez extinguish Atlético’s predictable offensive game
With Athletic struggling to continuously execute a high press, Berizzo opted to lay out his team in a more conservative 4-4-2 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half.. Front men Muniain and Williams tried to press Atlético’s center backs, with occasional help from wingers Susaeta and Berchiche. Since Atlético and Simeone are so conservative and risk averse, this pressing often led to Oblak, Godín and Montero to simply play the ball long to their forwards and Saúl. Athletic was well prepared for this scenario, and center back Unai Nuñez continuously won aerial duels (five of those won in the first half).
Atlético’s 4-4-2 formation in possession against Athletic’s 4-4-2 defensive organization.
Whenever Atlético managed to win an aerial duels or pick up the second ball, the team seemed relatively confused as to how to reach their opponent’s goal. Without Koke directing the team’s attacks, Atlético could do little more than just play the ball to the wings and try to cross into the box. Unsurprisingly, Athletic’s center backs were dominant in the air. Atlético’s predictable and ineffective offensive plan only managed to produce a single shot during the first half, no shots on target.
However, if we had to highlight the few positives of Atlético, we should talk about Rodri, Correa and Arias. Rodri – the holding midfielder – has established himself as arguably Atlético’s most consistent performer in this early season. His tense line-breaking passes were often the one guiding light in Atlético’s confused attack. On the right wing, Correa provided one-versus-one capabilities and dynamism, while Arias was outstanding at getting into crossing positions with his deep offensive runs.
Athletic gets ahead in this battle of poor offenses
This match turned out to be a clash of poor offenses. Without midfield director Dani García, Athletic’s offensive game was predictable as well. Midfielders San José and Beñat tried to play out from the back but had surprisingly few forward passing options to choose from. Atlético’s 4-4-2 defensive block has always been very good at cutting off access to front men Susaeta, Berchiche and Williams. Offensive midfielder Muniain would often try to drop deep and help his fellow midfielders, but he also had to face an impassable wall of red-and-white shirts.
Much like Atlético, Athletic was forced to rely on long passes to their forwards. On the left, Berchiche could do little else but cross into the box. Things got interesting on Athletic’s right side. Iñaki Williams was outstanding at making the most out of his team’s long passes and taking advantage of the inexperienced left center back Montero.
William’s offensive prowess often allowed his teammate Susaeta to get the ball in dangerous zones and cut inside for the shot. That’s exactly how Athletic’s goal in the 36th minute happened. Susaeta had a clear shooting opportunity that was stopped by Oblak, but the ball bounced off the inside of the post and right into William’s boot.
A desperate Atlético tries to stage a comeback and is beaten on the counter
The start of the second half was conditioned by a desperate Simeone using up all his substitutes in the initial fifteen minutes in an attempt to improve his team’s offense. The underperforming Costa was substituted by winger Vitolo. Soon after, at the 56th minute, center back Montero would be boldly subbed out in favor of yet another winger, Gelson Martins.
The team was significantly reconfigured by these substitutions. Saúl now played as a makeshift left center back, Martins played on the right wing, and Correa moved out from the right wing to accompany Griezmann up front. These changes didn’t really improve Atlético’s offensive game, but fortunately, one does not need much of an offensive structure when Thomas Partey can score a 30-meter screamer to tie the game in the 60th minute. In the 62nd minute, Simeone decided to use his last substitution to replace Correa for Nikola Kalinić.
Amidst the offensive chaos of Atlético, Athletic had opted to sit back, defend their lead, and strike on the counter. Their patience would soon pay off, as four minutes after Atlético’s goal, Iñaki Williams took advantage of a long pass into space to beat the slower Godín and brilliantly finish against Oblak. Athletic was once again ahead.
Athletic Club’s left wing was positioned very defensively all game long, which shows in their passmap.
Atlético finally comes back through set pieces and…an injured Godín?
Godín was injured when trying to chase Williams and prevent his goal, and Simeone was out of substitutions. The Atlético captain decided to stay in the game and play as a striker beside Kalinić, while Thomas took over his place at the back. Atléti’s central duo thus consisting of two midfielders at the time. Unable to move, Godín was mostly useless in open play; he could only help his team score from set pieces.
To take advantage of Godín’s position and to overcome their offensive structure problems, Atlético stopped focusing on open play attacks and tried to force free kicks and corners more often. Berizzo decided to further defend Athletic’s lead with a series of conservative substitutions: Perú Nolaskoain for Beñat, Raúl García for Iñaki Williams, and Ander Capa for Markel Susaeta.
In usual Atlético style, the set piece strategy paid off. In the 80th minute, Rodri converted a corner kick into Athletic’s goal to tie the game. In injury time, Atléti’s once again managed to perform a piece of black magic, as the limping Godín would heroically score the winning goal from a header.
Perhaps the most illogical aspect of this result is that over the last five years, Simeone and Godín have created a mental and tactical context in which this outcome seems completely logical. No one is surprised by this result because Atlético has turned these miracle victories into something fairly common.
However, even Atlético can not pull off these miracles every single week. They are not playing well, they still don’t have a well-defined offensive game, and Oblak still has to compensate for the team’s declining defense. Atlético will need a lot more than just “raw Cholismo” and old guard heroics to win the league.
On the other hand, this is a tough defeat for an Athletic team that finally looked like they could catch a break from their bad streak. While in previous matches their open play defense has let them down, in this game it was their set piece defense that failed. Athletic, despite having good defenders on the individual level, is one of the poorest defensive structures in LaLiga. This has led Berizzo to become increasingly conservative in his game plans, but one cannot help but wonder if a philosophy manager abandoning his philosophy is really a good idea…
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