Atlético Madrid – Real Madrid: Clinicality Delivers The Victory In A Brutal Madrid Derby (1-3)

El Derbi Madrileño was characterized by a gargantuan number of fouls, plenty of yellow cards, and a minimal amount of chances. While that sort of environment has favored Atlético Madrid in past encounters, this time around, it was Real Madrid who showed greater ruthlessness in front of goal and emerged victorious.

Tactical analysis by Om Arvind.

Santiago Solari’s team have been on quite a run since narrowly beating Real Betis in mid-January. Including Copa del Rey matches, Real Madrid had won seven out of eight games coming into El Derbi Madrileño. Every victory had led to an increase in confidence, prompting better individual and collective form, which then led to an increase in confidence, and so on. It now feels like an unstoppable cycle, much like the snowball effect in the Lopetegui era – except this time in reverse.

In contrast, Atlético Madrid had looked solid but slightly unconvincing within that same time span – a common theme for them this campaign. They had ground out results against Espanyol, Sevilla, and Levante, in typical Atléti fashion, before suffering a defensive collapse that saw them knocked out of the Copa del Rey Round of 16 by Girona.

Atlético have largely stuck to Diego Simeone’s conservative method this season after a brief flirtation with a more offensive system. This seems to happen every year, as Simeone appears to understand the need for evolution but is always forced to trust his defensive instincts when the experiment does not work out.

Last season, there were signs that Atlético were not the same defensive force as before, with goalkeeper Jan Oblak being forced to save his side time and time again. That issue has become even more apparent in 2018/19, perhaps due to Diego Godín’s age or the signing of more offensive players like Thomas Lemar. Whatever the reason, it has made Atléti’s lack of punch up front costlier, as merely scoring one goal against them may be enough to guarantee a draw.

Atléti’s scoring issues are undoubtedly why they went out and acquired former Real Madrid striker Álvaro Morata, who started alongside Griezmann in the derby. Behind them, the typical two lines of four were anchored by a Saúl Ñíguez-Thomas Partey double pivot 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 are two of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. in midfield and a Diego Godín-José Giménez pairing in defense.

Santiago Solari stuck with almost the same lineup that played in the midweek Clásico, only swapping out Marcelo for Sergio Reguilón, the injured Marcos Llorente for Casemiro, and Keylor Navas for Thibaut Courtois.

Atlético Madrid start on the front foot thanks to a well-drilled high press

Atlético Madrid are often stereotyped as a team that parks the bus. Though that is not a wholly unfounded characterization, it is often an inaccurate description whenever Los Colchoneros face Real Madrid. This is because Atléti have taken the game to their rivals with a high press in the lion’s share of Madrid derbies over the past half-decade.

Atlético Madrid’s 4-4-2 wing-oriented high press versus Real Madrid’s buildup

That high press often starts from their 4-4-2 formation in a very wing-oriented fashion. Over the years, the primary objective has been to cut off passing options back to the center and box Real Madrid in on the flanks. As Real Madrid formed a back three at times when building up – Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Raphaël Varane – Atléti tried to mirror them with Morata, Antoine Griezmann, and Thomas Partey, who stepped up from midfield and onto Casemiro.

Once Solari’s men elected to pass wide, Partey would hurry back into his deeper position while the far side striker moved onto Casemiro and the near side striker pressed the center-back on the ball. Atléti’s winger and fullback would then cast the rest of the net by tightly marking their counterparts on the touchline.

Due to the excellent timing of their pressing actions and the superb body positioning of Atléti’s pressers, Real Madrid were unable to progress out of their half for the first ten minutes or so. Whenever Ramos or Varane tried to play passes down the line, they were either stopped in their tracks by Griezmann or Morata, or one of Real’s fullbacks or wingers were dispossessed. If Real Madrid found a way to play a pass into Casemiro, Griezmann and Morata would block the passing lanes to the center and prevent Casemiro from playing the ball to the other side.

The game opens up and Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid trade blows

Football is more of a game of chances than it is one of territorial dominance, however, and Atlético Madrid only fashioned two shots as a result of their high press; both of which came from tight angles from the left-hand side of the box.

Real Madrid were much more efficient, and they soon got on the scoresheet when Vinícius Júnior’s genius finally started allowing Madrid to break away into Atlético’s half. In the fifteenth minute, Ramos won an aerial duel from a corner, which kindly fell to Casemiro in the box. The Brazilian reacted immediately and thumped a bicycle kick effort past the arriving Oblak to make it 1-0.

From then on, Real Madrid found more opportunities in transition and better retained the ball. But, as mentioned before, territorial dominance means nothing without end-product. Bar one half-chance for Lucas Vázquez in transition, Real Madrid created nothing, and were soon made to pay for it.

In the twenty-fifth minute, Vinícius was dispossessed by Ángel Correa in a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge, allowing the latter to thread a through ball to Griezmann. Onside and one-versus-one with the keeper, the French striker made no mistake and equalized.

The game dulls until Vinícius Júnior becomes the protagonist once again

Following the goal, the match suddenly became uneventful, as both teams had their spells in possession but found no way through on goal. This period showed both teams still have some structural attacking weaknesses.

Atlético like to attack in a very direct and structured fashion; one striker threatens to make a run off-the-shoulder, one striker drops and provides an option for a vertical pass, the wingers move into the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and the fullbacks keep the width. The idea is to play long balls or smash through defenses with line-breaking passes.

But Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos were astute defensively and protected the halfspaces, often forcing play wide. Due to the rigid nature of Lemar and Correa’s positioning, Atléti’s fullbacks often had to make long ground passes into tight areas to progress play, making it easier for Casemiro to win possession back.

In Real Madrid’s case, it had more to do with a lack of a plan then the wrong one, as Solari’s offense is predicated on allowing his attacking players to combine and dribble as they see fit. In this instance, it was just too difficult to play tight one-twos and consistently dodge past three or four defenders, creating the potential for a stalemate between the two teams.

But you would be foolish to bet against productive offense when Vinícius on the field, and as half-time drew to a close, the eighteen-year-old made a decisive contribution. After Casemiro won the ball back from a diagonal Arias pass into Correa, Vinícius was released down the left. He beat Giménez with ease and pranced into the box, where the recovering Giménez could only commit a foul. After long deliberation by VAR, Ramos converted from the spot and gave Real Madrid the lead going into half-time.

Atlético Madrid’s defense stifles Real Madrid’s offense

The second half’s opening exchanges seemed to promise similar excitement. After only barely a minute had gone by, Reguilón coughed up possession through an inaccurate pass down the left, and Atléti sprung forward and produced a shot through Morata. A couple minutes later, Griezmann got a pop from the edge of the box and Morata had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside call.

Unfortunately, from there, the game began to peter out into the stalemate that was seen later in the first half. When Real Madrid broke past the press, Atléti would settle into a 4-4-2 defensive block that still aimed to box their opponents in on the wing. Since Real Madrid’s offense relies on fluid combinations down the flanks and numerous ball carrying actions, Solari’s men were effectively nullified.

Atlético Madrid’s defensive block boxing in Real Madrid’s play on the wing

Solari must have recognized his side’s offensive lull, as he brought off Vinícius for Gareth Bale around the 60th minute.  That same substitution had not worked in El Clásico, but this time Real Madrid were in the lead, and perhaps Solari was looking to utilize Bale’s better defensive discipline in comparison to the young Vinícius.

If that was the case, it worked, as in the 74th minute, the Welshman intercepted a Partey pass arrowed towards the left halfspace and sparked a rare counterattack. Karim Benzema drifted into a pocket of space in typical fashion and sprayed play to Modrić on the right. The 2019 Ballon d’Or winner had no trouble finding Bale streaking in-behind Giménez, who finished from a tight angle with aplomb.

Thomas Partey gets sent off and Atlético Madrid concede defeat

Something that has not been brought up a lot so far in this article was how ugly this game was. Madrid derbies are usually ferocious, but the violence and animosity felt even more pronounced today. All in all, there were 37 fouls committed – 21 by Atlético Madrid and 16 by Real Madrid – and 11 yellow cards given out – 8 to Atlético Madrid and 3 to Real Madrid.

Atlético’s – given their aggressive defensive approach – were particularly cynical and, eventually, it cost them; Partey picked up his second yellow in the 80th minute. If there ever was any chance of a comeback after Bale’s goal, it was surely extinguished by this point.


Solari’s machine continues to roll forward and now their sights are set on the struggling Ajax. Given the way Real Madrid have managed to consistently create breakthroughs on the counterattack – not just against Atlético but against Barcelona and all their other opponents – there is a sense that they would match up well against the possession-oriented Dutch side. Of course, nothing can be taken for granted in a Champions League knockout tie, but it does not feel incorrect to say that Real are big favorites to go through.

It goes without saying that Atlético Madrid fans will be feeling a lot less confident going into their team’s European match against Juventus. Once again, Atléti looked below their historical best on defense even if it was solid by the standards of other elite European teams. Unsurprisingly, they were unable to compensate for this through improved offense, which may just be enough to see Juventus edge them into the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

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Om Arvind (21) is a massive Real Madrid fan who works as a Managing Editor for When not watching and writing about his beloved Los Blancos and contributing to Between the Posts, he spends his time crafting video analyses for the youtube channel The School of Real Madrid. He adores deep-lying playmakers, something that was molded by his time watching the likes of Xabi Alonso. [ View all posts ]


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