Atlético Madrid – Bayer 04 Leverkusen – Atlético’s Defense Edges Confused Bayer Offense (1-0)
Atlético Madrid’s stubborn defensive shape frustrated Bayer Leverkusen all evening, as the guests were unable to progress through their buildup play, or establish the lengthy spells of possession they have become accustomed to in the Bundesliga. The staccato nature of the match served Atlético well, as they hunkered down and found a winner through second-half substitute, Álvaro Morata.
Tactical analysis and match report by K.T. Stockwell.
Three straight wins to start the season had many tipping Atlético for the Spanish title. However, since that time manager, Diego Simeone’s side has registered a mere one win from their last six matches – only managing a single goal from the last three encounters. The stagnation of the offense is concerning, as it has become a trend in recent years: the club stocking Simeone’s cupboards with expensive attacking talents, only for the side to slide back into its familiar defensive mindset.
One of those attacking gems is 19-year-old João Félix, whom the club purchased for an astonishing €126m. The Portuguese international has quickly become a fixture in Simeone’s starting eleven and leads the club in scoring, with three goals. Unfortunately, an injury has sidelined the young phenomenon and therefore, Simeone was forced to make changes to his regular starting lineup for this fixture against Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
On Tuesday night Simeone opted for a 4-3-1-2 formation. Filling out the lineup he maintained his trust in the fullback partnership of Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi, who flanked a center-back duo of José Giménez and Felipe. In midfield, Thomas Party, Héctor Herrera and Koke formed a defensive base, while Saúl Ñíguez held higher positions. Without Félix upfront, Simeone entrusted the attacking thrust to Diego Costa and Ángel Correa.
It has been a similarly frustrating domestic campaign for Bayer, as solid performances against Fortuna Düsseldorf or RB Leipzig have been overshadowed by embarrassing displays against Borussia Dortmund, or last round’s capitulation to Eintracht Frankfurt. In recent weeks, injuries have complicated things for manager, Peter Bosz, as the club is presently without Wendell, Daley Sinkgraven, Leon Bailey and crucially, Charles Aránguiz.
The missing personnel has frequently forced Bosz to tinker with his formation, but the Dutch skipper was able to revert back to a more comfortable 4-2-3-1 shape against Atlético. However, a glut at left back meant Lars Bender was pushed into defense, joining Mitchell Weiser at fullback where the tandem was supported by a center-back duo of Sven Bender and Jonathan Tah. In holding midfield, Bosz selected Julian Baumgartlinger and Kerem Demirbay, while a three-man line of Nadiem Amiri, Kai Havertz and Karim Bellarabi supported lone striker Kevin Volland.
Atlético’s coordinated press
At present Bayer averages more possession per match than any other side in the Bundesliga. Bosz is adamant about his team building from the back and then maintaining ball-control in midfield. Once in comfortable possession, Bayer look to shift the ball around until they are able to find avenues to penetrate and create quality-scoring opportunities.
It was clear from the outset that Atlético had no intention of allowing Bayer to settle into a comfortable passing rhythm. In order to disrupt Bosz’s preferred game plan, Simeone employed a high block, A high block refers to a team that regularly leaves their own half out of possession, to disrupt their opponents far into the attacking half. which combined with his side’s famous stamina, made it incredibly difficult for Bayer to secure a comfortable position in the middle third. As soon as the ball was passed back to the fullbacks the Atléti press converged and time-and-again Bayer were forced to risk possession by launching the ball hopefully into midfield.
Fortunately for Bayer, Atlético were similarly stymied offensively – unable to find any sustainable links through midfield. Trippier and Lodi provided all the width for Atlético, as Saúl and Koke took up inside positions – flanking Costa along the frontline. Thomas acted as the central figure in the three-man buildup, while Correa sat underneath Costa with the intention of linking with the attacking unit.
Correa struggled in the role – rarely finding the ball in dangerous areas and when he did, often dribbled fruitlessly before ceding possession. Atlético were somewhat successful when finding Lodi or Trippier in space along the flanks – the duo able to put decent crosses into the box. However, the balls were rarely met with any ferocity by Atléti forwards, as Tah and Sven Bender dealt with the danger.
Atlético’s disjointed buildup.
In the first half, the two sides combined for only one shot on target and although Bayer enjoyed sixty-percent possession it mostly took place around the periphery with very few incisive actions.
Morata makes an impact
The second half began much the same as the first with Simeone’s tactics seemingly developed more in a bid to frustrate Bosz than to generate any type of scoring opportunity for his side. Oblak continued to distribute the ball long – negating any sort of Bayer press – while the Atléti frontline harried the Bayer defense – paying close attention to Lars Bender – moonlighting at left back.
Bayer were consistent in their inability to get established on the ball in the middle third and worryingly, were unable to find Havertz in many advanced positions – the youngster forced to drop deeper-and-deeper into midfield in order to help with the buildup.
In so doing, Atlético were able to dictate the terms of the match and forced Bayer into lengthy midfield battles, which kept the visitors’ shape narrow. The only outlet for Bayer was Bellarabi on the right-wing, but the forward was so isolated that his only option was to attempt to dribble inside in order to find a player with which to link play. Similarly, Atléti continued to find space on the flanks, but in most cases were not able to counter swiftly enough, or lacked the numbers and height in the box to meet the crosses put in by their fullbacks.
Simeone was the first to act and brought on Thomas Lemar for Correa in the 62nd minute, followed closely by Morata for Koke in the 70th. The two attacking players had an immediate effect, as Morata held a high position alongside Costa, but with his added pace, was willing to make darting angled runs on the counter. Lemar, meanwhile, assumed Koke’s role, but took up deeper positions and was therefore more effective in linking play.
Morata and Lemar’s impact.
It was this combination that resulted in the match’s first and only goal. Lemar picked up the ball in midfield and made a wonderful leading pass to Lodi on the left flank. Lodi, as he had been for most of the match, found himself in space and put a gorgeous ball into the box, which was met on the run by Morata, who headed it home to give Atlético the lead.
Trailing and bereft of ideas, Bosz brought on Paulinho in place of Havertz and Lucas Alario for Demirbay, but Bayer continued to struggle going forward. Atlético were so capable in grinding down the Bayer buildup that when the visitors were able to release the ball into the final-third there was little support and the counterattacks fizzled out quickly.
In the end, with the bulk of possession, Bayer only mustered one shot on target and very few meaningful offensive actions. Atlético were similarly pedestrian going forward, but as is often the case, managed to create one decisive attack, which proved to be enough.
The win moves Atlético into second in the group with only goal-difference separating them from leaders Juventus. The Madrid-based side has yet to lose in the Champions League and seem poised to move into the knockout phase of the competition. However, the offensive woes are concerning; this is an Atléti side with plenty of attacking talent, but one that continues to struggle to assert itself offensively. Simeone can continue to revel in his side’s ability to shut a team down, but at some point, both domestically and in Europe, Atlético are going to need to produce goals and as of yet, he’s been unable to develop a capable system.
As for Bayer, this can be added to the list of European disappointments, as Bosz’s side has nothing to show from three matches – looking decidedly second best in each encounter. The injuries to Aránguiz, Bailey, and Wendell are no doubt difficult to overcome, but more concerning is how unprepared his side were to adapt tactically.
Bayer’s buildup never looked threatening and Lars Bender seemed exposed for the majority of the match and yet, no adjustments were made. Bosz had to find a way to get Havertz more involved and advance the ball with more fluidity – but failed at both. It appears, at least in Europe, that Bayer required a plan ‘B’, which thus far, Bosz has been unable, or unwilling, to develop.
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