Atlético Madrid – Athletic Club: Morata And Correa Lead Atlético’s Victory In Duel of Directness And Tight Defenses (2-0)
In an old-school duel of two teams trading long passes, Atlético’s domination of second balls and their superior talent allowed them to create the better shots, which ultimately turned into goals. In the second half, Athletic were unable to change the game state through substitutions, conceding more spaces on the counter for Atlético to exploit.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
Despite the massive squad rebuild Atlético had to undertake over the summer, manager Diego Simeone has managed to make his team play similarly to previous seasons, which is a blessing in some respects and a curse in others. In defense, their deep block remains as strong as usual, the best defense in the league by the numbers. However, their usual attacking problems also persist, with the team struggling to create enough shots from open play, which results in an attack that’s only about league average despite all their individual talent. New signings João Felix, Renán Lodi and Kieran Trippier have integrated well into the starting lineup and taken up creative responsibilities. However, with a declining Diego Costa struggling to get into scoring positions, Atlético have had a hard time finishing off their offensive plays.
Against Athletic, Atlético started with their usual 4-4-2 shape, with a few changes due to injuries. In defense, the absence of starters Stefan Savić and Jose Giménez have forced Simeone to go for his substitute center-back partnership, that of Mario Hermoso and Felipe Monteiro. In midfield, the double pivot of Saúl and Thomas Partey continues, while Koke and Lemar played on the right and left wings, respectively (even though both drifted to the center often). With Félix injured and Costa in poor form, Simeone opted for a new forward partnership in the form of Ángel Correa and Álvaro Morata, who usually play as impact substitutes.
On the other hand, Athletic find themselves with very similar tactical issues to their opponents. They are the best defense in the league after Atlético, but also have an average attack that struggles to score from open play situations. Despite the heroic efforts of the productive Raúl Garcia and Iñaki Williams, Athletic’s offense is rigid and predictable. Coach Gaizka Garitano prioritizes order and rigid player positions to enhance defense, minimizing player mobility and positional switching. In these tactical conditions, it is difficult for Athletic to leverage the talents of more creative players like Iker Muniain to improve their offense.
Against Atlético, Athletic had no key injuries and thus featured their usual 4-4-2 shape and starting eleven. The only surprise in the lineup happened in the center-back positions, where Íñigo Martínez was paired with Unai Núñez rather than the usual Yeray Álvarez. Elsewhere, we saw the usual partnerships: Yuri Berchiche and Ander Capa as fullbacks, Unai López and Dani Garcia in the midfield double pivot, and Iñaki Williams and Raúl García up front. On the wings, the experiment of using Iker Muniain on the right side continues, with Íñigo Córdoba playing on the left.
The keys to Atlético’s superiority: second balls and the Correa-Morata pair
Morata’s controls and passes are less polished and creative than those of Diego Costa, but physically speaking he’s the better striker right now. He moves around more often and more quickly, always showing up where his team needs him, either running behind defenses or winning aerial duels. He is winning aerial duels at a higher than Costa and his speed allows him to get into scoring positions more easily.
It was hard for the hyperactive Morata to win aerial duels since Unai Núñez and Iñigo Martínez are among the league’s toughest defenders in the air. However, even if Athletic won the majority of aerial duels throughout the game, Atlético won the majority of second balls because they committed more men in these actions. After winning these second balls, Atletico would either get the ball to their fullbacks to try to produce a cross, or have one of the creative Koke, Lemar or Partey produce a through ball for Morata and Correa, who were darting behind defenders.
Atlético’s 4-4-2 shape during long balls against Athletic’s 4-4-2 defensive block. It’s a narrow 4-4-2 where Lemar and Koke constantly tuck inside.
Morata might not have won most aerial duels, but he was helping his team win the battles on the ground. He often managed to hold up the ball and quickly lay it off to his teammates, allowing Atlético to keep moving forward, while he and Correa were extremely active and successful at outsmarting defenders and running behind them. And once Atlético managed to long ball their way to the final third, EXPLAINER Lemar and Saúl were very active about moving to the opposition box to support their strikers and pin opponents down.
Through these mechanisms, Atlético managed to push Athletic back and ultimately score their first goal in the 27th minute. Correa brilliantly turned and dribbled past the hapless Unai Núñez to get into Athletic’s box. After eluding Ander Capa in the box, he passed the ball to the incoming Saúl for the shot and goal.
Athletic’s offensive struggles continue
Athletic struggled a lot more in breaking the Atlético defense. The same second ball problems they were having in defense also happened in the offense. Even if Raúl García and Iñaki Williams managed to win aerial duels against Atlético defenders, Atlético won most second balls. And when Athletic had the ball, Atlético would quickly retreat into their deep block. They made sure the fast and skillful Williams would have no spaces to run into, and force Athletic into their slow, rigid and predictable possession game.
When it comes to breaking down a packed defense, Athletic focuses their efforts almost exclusively on the wings, looking for passing combinations between their fullbacks and wingers. However, when making these combinations, the fullback-winger pair rarely gets support from their midfielders – who stay back to protect from counterattacks – and from strikers – who are staying central and moving to the opposition box. Without midfielders and strikers drifting wider, Athletic was almost never able to overload EXPLAINER and pass their way through Atlético’s defense. They simply did not have enough men on the wings. This lack of mobility from their attackers is part of Garitano’s defensive plan. He wants his men to stay in their positions most of the time to make tracking back in defense easier.
With Atlético shutting down Athletic’s long ball approach, counterattacks, and wing play, it comes as no surprise the Athletic’s only shots on target in the entire game came from an early second minute set-piece and a stunning long shot from Raúl García in the 31st minute. Both shots were saved by a colossal Oblak, for whom these extraordinary saves constitute just another day in the office.
Atlético shuts down the game in the second half
Little changed in the second half, with Atlético still having the upper hand due to their more creative talent, second ball dominance and their hyperactive striker pair.
Athletic and Garitano had little game-changing alternatives too. They don’t really have a “plan B” for second halves, so the best they could do was change players in the same positions and hope that they would execute “plan A” better than before. This is what happened in the 56th minute, when the underperforming Íñigo Córdoba was replaced by Ibai Gómez. As expected, the unfavorable game state continued for Athletic.
The final nail in the coffin came in at the 64th minute. Atlético once again managed to keep the ball after a goal kick, thanks to the efforts of Koke and Morata in fending off Athletic defenders. Partey accurately switched the ball to the right wing, where Trippier, Koke, and Correa quickly combined on the edge of the box to put Correa in perfect crossing position. To make things worse, Íñigo Martínez could not move forward to block that cross because he had to watch out for Lemar, who had moved into the box to compensate Correa’s movement outside the box. Correa let loose a tense cross to that flew past Athletic’s center-backs and onto Morata’s boot for the second goal. A wonderful team goal that captures all the tactical mechanisms described before: Athletic’s second ball dominance, the hyperactivity of Morata and Correa, and the aggressive movements of Lemar and Saúl.
After this goal, Simeone decided to shut down the shop. Morata was replaced by Diego Costa, while Correa was replaced by Héctor Herrera. Now Lemar would play in Correa’s striker position, while Saúl would move the left wing, with Herrera and Partey turning into the double pivot. Atlético also retreated into an even deeper block, trying to lure a desperate Athletic into attacking and leaving more spaces behind for potential counterattacks.
On the other hand, Garitano substituted Williams for Aritz Aduriz in the 67th minute. Perhaps Garitano considered that Aduriz was a better fit for those final minutes in which Athletic would spend more time dealing with the tight spaces of Atlético’s defense and crossing into the box.
Whatever his reasoning might have been, the move certainly didn’t improve Athletic’s offense, and they finished the second half with no shots target. Meanwhile, Atlético coolly waited for the end of the game, taking advantage of a more open Athletic and stringing very quick offensive sequences that turned into counterattacks. However, without Morata and Correa on the pitch, these counters mostly crashed into Athletic’s defense wall.
Strikers are the heart of any team who relies heavily on long balls for attack, and in this game the Morata-Correa pair were key to Atlético’s victory. Morata has shown throughout this season that he’s faster, wins more aerial duels and can get into scoring positions more easily than Costa. Simeone rewarded him with a start over Costa in this game, and Morata delivered a goal in response. Meanwhile, Ángel Correa showed that, in the absence of João Felix, he could make for a capable second striker. It will be very interesting to see if Simeone keeps using this striker pair in future games.
As for Athletic, results have stagnated, and it becomes clear that a great defense will not be enough to get them to European tournament spots. Winning against Atlético was always unlikely, but not producing a shot on target in 60 minutes reflects somewhat worrying trends in their offense. However, what’s required to improve offense – such as a more mobile attack – might come at the cost of defensive performance.
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