Analysing Atletico Madrid's Defensive Structure Under Diego Simeone

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistNovember 16, 2015

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone and defender Diego Godin.
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone and defender Diego Godin.JAVIER SORIANO/Getty Images

Atletico Madrid have become known as one of the sides around Europe most capable of challenging for major honours each season and for having extremely capable players, with a style of play immediately identifiable.

They are tough to beat, are difficult for opposing attacks to break down and like to play on the counter. They are also equally able to play in possession and create chances when dominating games against inferior opposition due to their impressive attackers.

It is their defence, however, that their success is built on, with Diego "Cholo" Simeone leading his club to multiple trophies over the last few seasons as a result of the solid foundations in place and continuity in style, as well as the personnel he has managed to procure and develop.

Protective ranks

Atletico's main formation of choice is a simple 4-4-2. They alter it in-game on occasion to suit the opposition—they have used both 4-3-3 and a flatter 4-5-1 to stop attack-minded sides playing through the middle—but for the most part, a narrow midfield quartet sits in place, and the front two very much play as a pair.

Out of possession, it's easy to identify the roles and zones of the pitch each player and each line occupies, since Simeone's entire squad is worked ceaselessly on their responsibilities in each position they may occupy.

Koke might play anywhere across the midfield line, Angel Correa might feature up front or from the flank and Saul Niguez has played at least five roles over the last 14 months or so, but each know exactly where they need to fill gaps, how deep to drop and when to rotate into a new position for a team-mate.

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With the hard work, constant movement and game intelligence that Simeone demands of and instils in his players, the two banks of four—often with one of the two strikers dropping deeper to support and pick up cleared balls, too—become extremely tough to break down.

Atletico are confident in their own ability to defend constantly when required, so dropping deep—to the edge of their own box for long spells—isn't a problem, as long as they have pace somewhere in the four most attack-minded positions to break out quickly.

The central midfielders in front of the defence will patrol, close down, challenge and force backwards, leaving the defence behind them to clear any lofted deliveries into the area.

Aggressive centre-backs

Diego Godin is, by now, synonymous with both Atletico as a club and also with any conversation about the game's finest centre-backs.

The Uruguayan defender has been at the club since 2010, a year before Simeone arrived, and has won just shy of a century of caps for his national team.

He's phenomenally strong in the air, loves to tackle and challenge forwards directly and has the ability to burst forward on the rampage from time to time. His forays forward aren't graceful or technical—akin to Raphael Varane or David Luiz, perhaps—but the power and surprise element he brings is also effective.

Offensively, his importance has been known for years—he scored the goal that sealed La Liga for Atleti and netted in the Champions League final, too.

Alongside him? Another Uruguayan, who is of equal bravery and diligence in his defensive work. Jose Gimenez has established himself over the last season-and-a-half as one of Europe's best young defenders, displacing Miranda last term and now forming a vital component of Atleti's back line.

Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin.
Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin.Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

His fearlessness in the challenge and commitment to stopping the ball crossing the goal line at all costs is commendable yet, of course, also partly borne out of inexperience.

Both he and Godin have made individual errors this season already, unusual for both, but in general terms over the course of many games and months, both are far more likely to win significant points than lose them for the team.

Last season in La Liga, they compared favourably against the best the rest of Spain's top flight had to offer.

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With full-backs alongside them who first and foremost defend well, stop crosses coming in and are aerially proficient, there is very little weakness in the actual defensive line of Atletico.

Los Che: Future from the front

Only recently, Simeone spoke out at those who have suggested his team should play a different way. AS reported the boss saying the style wouldn't be changing any time soon.

What counts is that we keep the game we play clear, the history of this team is strength and solidity built on hard work and when that has changed it hasn’t gone well.

[...]

For those who don’t know their history or what we’re all about, it’s work, pressure, counter-attack, solid defence... Those who want to change history go against the Atleti way. It’s possible to play well in a lot of different ways. There’s no reason to confuse the fans, Atleti is work, effort, counter-attacking, competing... That’s the way whatever the comments are.

What Simeone didn't specifically mention, but that is relevant to Atleti's future as much as their past, is that the hard work and resulting counter-attack can begin from anywhere on the pitch—not necessarily just on the edge of their own penalty box.

Take the recent match against Valencia, comfortably Atleti's best performance of the season and surely an indicator of how Cholo wants his side to aggressively defend high upfield as often as possible.

Los Colchoneros suffocated Valencia's attempts to play around midfield with a dramatic series of high presses in groups, tough tackles and then using players with the ability to switch play or accelerate into space to take advantage before the away team could regroup.

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While many teams press, Atletico and a handful of others take that one step further and actually challenge; it's no surprise to see Gabi and Tiago tackle forcefully, but against Los Che, everyone else did, too.

That led to chances behind the Valencia midfielders, who were too ponderous to react...

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...and when individual players have the speed and technical level to take advantage of space, good things happen. Like Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, for example.

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Dominant goalkeeper

It would be remiss to ignore the last line of defence: Jan Oblak, Atleti's first-choice goalkeeper. The Slovenian international is 22 years of age and would have comfortably matched his years in national team caps by now if not for Inter Milan's excellent Samir Handanovic. As it is, Oblak remains his country's second-choice, as he was for Atleti last season.

An injury at the beginning of 2014-15, soon after joining from Benfica, meant Miguel Angel Moya took his chance and kept hold of the goalkeeper jersey in La Liga for Atleti, right up until late March. Moya himself then got injured, and Oblak, who had been the Champions League goalkeeper in the meantime, took over in La Liga and hasn't missed a game since.

Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak.Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Oblak's current run of 22 successive league appearances has yielded 13 clean sheets, an impressive tally, while overall this season he is conceding a goal on average just once every 169 minutes—better than Claudio Bravo, David De Gea and, indeed, Handanovic.

Those clean sheets are, of course, in large part down to the overall structure, ability and mentality of Atletico's team, but Oblak is a fantastic player to call upon at the last.

His large frame gives him dominance inside the penalty area on high balls and a great reach for shots high or into the corners; add to that his fine reflexes and ability to spread himself and it's clear why he's such a tough goalkeeper to beat.

Oblak is still improving with experience, and he can easily go on to be one of the best all-round stoppers in Europe, but even now he should be considered among the top group.

A spine of the team always showcases how good the overall defence is, and with Atleti's starting with Oblak and going on through the Godin-Gimenez partnership, it's no surprise whatsoever to see them defend so resolutely and reliably.

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