Atlético Madrid – Real Madrid: Another Madrid Derby Conditioned By Conservative Tactical Decisions (0-0)

In yet another risk-averse Madrid derby, Real and Atlético came to a goalless draw that showcased both teams’ offensive problems. In the first half, Real failed to break down Atlético deep defensive block, in no small part due to their return to a more conservative midfield structure. In the second half, the substitutions of both teams did not significantly alter their game plans and tactics, and ultimately, had no impact on the result.

Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez

The last two years of Madrid derbies in LaLiga have not been particularly enthralling games for fans. Generally, both teams end up avoiding risks and do surprisingly little damage to each other. This is why five out of their last six league matchups have ended in a 0-0 or 1-1 draw. Unfortunately, this weekend’s game was no exception.

This week everyone has been talking about Real Madrid’s defensive improvements, with the team not conceding a single shot on target in the last four hours of LaLiga games. However, we must emphasize that these improvements have been mostly a result of players improving their defensive focus, intensity and workrate. Real Madrid still struggle to defend as a compact defensive unit.

And talking about compact defensive units, Simeone and Atlético seem to have integrated new signings Renán Lodí, Kieran Trippier and João Félix quite well into their starting lineup. Thus, Atlético have “drastically” changed their attacking approach; from creating chances through Griezmann and set-pieces, to creating chances through Félix, Trippier and set-pieces. Despite all the squad changes that occurred over the summer, Simeone’s team plays very similarly to previous seasons, which is a blessing in some respects and a curse in others.

Fede Valverde and Zidane’s shift to a more conservative midfield structure

Against Atlético, Real’s defensive line featured the usual suspects, with the only exception of Nacho covering the left back position in the absence of both Marcelo and Ferland Mendy. Meanwhile, it seems that Zidane is settling into a preferred attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. 

Midfield, however, has seen some changes. In the last two games against Osasuna and Atlético, Zidane has switched from the 4-2-3-1 shape – which often featured James Rodriguez – to a 4-3-3 formation that featured Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Federico Valverde as the midfield trio. Without James, now all three of Real’s midfielders stay back, behind the ball when in possession, with only the forwards moving ahead of the ball. 

Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 structure in possession against Atlético 4-4-2 deep block.

With the disciplined and hard-working Valverde, Real now have an extra man at the back to protect the team’s defensive transition from opposing counterattacks, but that comes at the cost of offense. Against Atlético, Valverde contributed little to the team’s possession play, both in buildup phases – which mostly happen on Real’s left side – and in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.

Despite an outstanding Kroos, Real Madrid produce very little on the offense

Upon initial inspection, Real producing fourteen shots throughout the game seems healthy enough, but the shot map reveals a troubling trend: only four of them occurred inside the box, with the vast majority of shots being long-distance. This makes it clear that Real struggled even more than usual in breaking down the Atlético defensive structure.

Real’s buildup phase was directed by an outstanding Toni Kroos on the left side, who dominated all sorts of ball progression metrics. This was further helped by Atlético not pressing aggressively, which means Real could easily pass their way into Atlético’s half of the pitch. However, things got complicated in the final third. 

Real’s left side tried to break down the Atlético defense through passing combinations among Nacho, Kroos, Hazard and Benzema. But Atlético players, in their usual defensive solidarity, made sure that their opponents would not have numerical superiority in the final third and generate a free man. Real did not help their case by focusing their possession game so heavily on the left side, making them more predictable and easier to defend.

Real’s problems in possession were a result of their conservative midfield structure. For example, when Benzema moved to the left side to combine with Hazard, one would expect his midfield and forward teammates to take up his place, either to occupy the box or provide a new passing outlet in the center lane. With Casemiro and Valverde mostly staying back when Real had possession, this did not happen. This resulted in Real passing the ball around almost exclusively on the left wing and having too few players in the box to trouble the Atlético defense.

The only movement that could really move around and disorder the Atlético defense was Real’s trademark switches of play from one side of the pitch to the other. This is how Real’s best chance of the game came about in the 74th minute, with an outstanding Benzema header stopped by an even more outstanding Oblak. 

However, Real were often not set up to take advantage of these switches of play. Both Real’s fullbacks and wingers often failed to show enough initiative to make more aggressive runs into space. To make things worse, Simeone and his men knew the dangers of these switches of play and came up with specific tactical solutions. The example below, shows how Vitolo often tracked back when Kroos had the ball. This formed a line of five defenders that aimed to shut down any potential runs into space that Carvajal and Bale could make to take advantage of Kroos’s switches of play.

Thomas Partey gives life to Atlético’s possession game

There’s surprisingly little to say about Atlético, since this game was business as usual for them. As expected, they aimed to generate chances through fast counterattacks, their fullbacks and the occasional set-piece. 

Diego Costa has gotten slower and weaker over time, and now has a hard time to get into goal scoring positions and win individual duels with defenders. However, he’s still somewhat effective at combining with his teammates quickly in counterattack situations, particularly with with João Félix. 

The passmap below is precisely what can be expected of a team who likes to play in fast counterattacks, accumulating several players in the same vertical lanes (in this case, in the middle) to move the ball forward as quickly as possible or lay it off to the fullbacks for a cross. However, congesting the middle so heavily comes at a cost. 

First of all, this leaves the fullbacks too isolated, which made it easier for Real to defend against them. Second, this organization works terribly when Atlético needs to maintain possession for extended periods of time. Thomas Partey proved to be a key asset in alleviating Atlético’s problems in possession. He moved around the pitch constantly and became the focal point of his team’s possession chains. His actions significantly helped moving the team forward through midfield as well as moving the ball more quickly in the final third. 

Substitutions have tactical impact but no effect on the result

In the case of Real Madrid, the key substitution was Zidane replacing Valverde for the injury-free Luka Modrić, around the 70th minute. This made Real into a more aggressive and unpredictable team when in possession. Modrić participated more actively in Real’s possessions and helped the team not build up exclusively on the left side. Besides, Modrić would often move forward and ahead of the ball to provide passing outlets for Casemiro and Kroos. However, Real still didn’t have enough players going into the box to help Benzema in his losing battle against the Atlético defense.

In the case of Atlético, Vitolo was replaced by Ángel Correa in the second half, with Simeone perhaps wanting to take advantage of Correa’s more aggressive movements into the box and his superior one-versus-one to break down the very focused Real defense. Correa’s increased aggression got Atlético their biggest chance of the second half at the 48th minute. 

In the 61st minute, left back Lodí was replaced by left midfielder Thomas Lemar, with Saúl moving into the left back position. This allowed Partey to have a more creative partner in midfield zones, but most of their attempts to break down Real’s defense through passing combinations failed. Finally, in the 70th minute, Simeone responded to Real’s Modrić substitution by replacing forward Félix with defensive midfielder Marcos Llorente, who played in a curious right winger role. As the attentive reader may imagine, this did not make Atlético – who already depend a lot on Félix’s productivity – any better at attacking their opponents.


Atlético underwent many squad changes throughout the summer, yet there have been no significant changes in their game plan, with the team preferring to defend deeper instead of pressing. We must praise Simeone for dealing with his squad departures so well and integrating his new signings so quickly, but at the same, not altering the game plan means that the team has exactly the same issues as last season. They still depend excessively on the chance creation ability of their fullbacks and just like they depended heavily on Griezmann, it seems like most of their danger this season will come from the boots of João Felix. 

As for Real Madrid, it’s becoming clear that Zidane now wants to build the team on more conservative principles. He’s gotten his team to show excellent defensive intensity and focus, even though the defensive structure is not particularly compact. Furthermore, Zidane’s use of Valverde and Modrić for midfield roles in the last two games—instead of James Rodriguez—shows that the coach is leaning once again towards a more conservative midfield trio. But…will Real’s forwards be productive enough to compensate the lack of goals and assists from midfield? Time will soon answer this question, but given how little the team produced against Atlético, it’s hard to be optimistic.

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Click to enlarge.
Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.

José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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