Atletico can make us better

Atletico Madrid's Argentinian coach Diego Simeone celebrates after Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League final football match between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid at San Siro Stadium in Milan, on May 28, 2016. / AFP / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

“Good artists create. Great artists steal”

And so the age-old saying goes. Two paradoxes exist between Los Colchoneros and La Blaugrana, and they are not just found in the cultural authenticity of Catalonia in contrast with the fast lane of the capital, Madrid. The first paradox is found where one team currently finds itself; at the pinnacle of world football and excellence, and where the other aspires to find itself. The second paradox is found in the manner in which excellence is achieved: art, grit inventiveness, toughness.

We Blaugranes know where we stand, on the artistic and inventive side. But is there any harm in looking at the structure of our neighbour’s fence and adapting it as our own?

Diego Simeone is no fluke. There is something to be admired in his chargers, who continue to defy the odds. But what is it that makes them so great? What is it in their play that is so hard to combat?

Atlético, most times, play a simple 4-4-2 formation. Something along the lines of this:

Atletico Madrid Formation

The simplicity of this structure brings to mind the classic 4-4-2 used by Sir Alex Ferguson, as simple as can be. But do not be fooled. This formation can shape shift, and often does. On paper, one would assume that the brawn of a two-man midfield leaves Atlético with little ability to impose themselves in midfield. If that is your immediate assumption, then you have fallen directly into the trap Diego Simeone has set for you. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

That simple two man midfield can shape shift into a five man midfield. Sound weird? Let me explain.

Although you see Koke and Saúl Ñinguez operating from the wing, do not be fooled. Neither of these players are wingers. This illusion has fooled many a side. Simeone’s side dominates their midfield by having an overload of players, depending on whichever side of the pitch they are attacking from. What does this mean?

Say Atlético is attacking from the right-wing, and Saúl currently holds the ball. This is the shape the team will form:

Atletico Madrid

Saúl will have the immediate option to relieve pressure from his marker by having Gabi open to pass. But importantly, the structure of the formation will contract, and form an overload number of options open and available to pass to. Koke will move deeper into midfield, with Antoine Griezmann moving closer to allow himself as an option. This will form an overload of five players (six if you include Juanfran). Why is this effective? Think about it. Whenever Saul has the ball, at the most, he will have three markers trying to disposes him; the left back, the left winger, and the left central midfielder. That is three vs five, an overload. This means that Saul will always have two men open to pass to (three if we’re including Juanfran). Not to mention, Saul will also have the option of passing the ball wide to Filipe Luis, who will be overlapping.

The same applies whenever Koke would receive the ball:

Atletico Madrid

This system is not perfect however. It has its limitations. The biggest would be that in order for it to work, it needs to be executed at an obscenely fast pace, which explains Cholo’s frantic energy on the sidelines. This is because after a while, the opposition can catch on and pick up the patterns, and match the overload. If its done at a tempo that is too fast for opposition to retaliate, it is almost unstoppable. Also, if the opposition does choose to match the overload numbers Atlético has on either flank, this would always leave the overlapping left or right back open to hit a long pass to. And Simeone has one more trick up his sleeve.

His 3 main creatives, Saúl, Koke and Griezmann, all have the ability to switch positions. Griezmann often switches positions with Saúl, Koke with Griezmann, and so forth. The fact that what I have just said is difficult to picture is the whole point. Each of these players is capable of operating in each others respective position, and when they do switch, this makes it close to impossible to predict where each run will be made. This also explains why whenever Griezmann scores a goal, he always seems unmarked as if to magically appear out of nowhere. Genius.

A conventional 4-4-2 formation would suggest that much is to be given away in midfield dominance, as opposition could impose themselves with a three-man midfield. Simeone allows his adversary to fall into this trap, as they are not expecting the overload. Knowing this, one could ask “why doesn’t Atlético dominate possession then”? Good question. This is made by design. Simeone does not want to dominate possession, it’s not his style, and goes against who he is. Simeone loves broken play, and has mastered the art of defending. His team, although having the players to dominate midfield, never has the intention to do so, and this is why Atlético struggle to score goals in situations where they are forced to attack. They just don’t have that mindset.

This piece is not to protest our current 4-3-3. Clearly, it has yielded surplus benefits over the years. However, it would be wise to have a second option. What if we had this as a plan B? What would it look like? This is what I have managed to conjure up:


Some notable omissions; you will notice the absence of Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta. Note, I am not advocating that either of these players be dropped. These are just the players I believe would be best-suited for each of these positions. Feel free to offer your own suggestions in the comment section. I have also made some notable inclusions, and that would be bringing Javier Mascherano into midfield, with Samuel Umtiti slotting in at the back, and Arda Turan in the supporting striker role.

Why Arda in the supporting striker role and not Leo Messi? As we all know, Messi is the best player in the world. And when you are Messi, this means you have the ability to attract, at the least, three markers on you constantly. That scenario would look something like this:


Usually having three markers on you would be a bad thing, but with an overload of five players on the right side of the field, Messi would always be in a three vs five situation. If Arda wouldn’t be open, then Neymar would, and if not Neymar, then Mascherano or Sergio Busquets. Not to mention Sergi Roberto.

If Neymar’s marker (likely the right-winger) took the bait and chose to follow him into midfield, this would allow Messi to play the long ball for the overlapping Jordi Alba, who would be in a one vs one situation with the right-back and moving at pace. However, this is a last resort. What is important to focus on here is the five-man overload on the right-wing. With at least 2 men always open, Messi would have the luxury of stringing up a pentagon of passes, and force his way up the field. The same would apply on the left-wing with Neymar:


The key to this formation would be the fluidity it would offer. Messi, Neymar and Arda can each play the others role, and this means that whilst passes are being strung up, they could simultaneously be switching positions, making themselves difficult for opposition defenders to track.

Why Mascherano? Mascherano is at his best when he is in midfield, this has been well-established for years. In recent times, the bit we get to see his expertise in this role is when he is playing for Argentina. Let’s not forget that Mascherano was arguably the midfielder of the 2014 World Cup, he is excellent in this role. But why him ahead of so many?

There are two reasons. Firstly, Mascherano is outstanding in his positional play, and this would be critical for this formation, as one would assume Alba and Roberto would push further up the field, leaving himself, Busquets, Umtiti and Gerard Piqué to figure themselves out positionally when the game is being played further up the field. Secondly, Mascherano has an excellent long pass. He would sit deep in the pocket, allowing Busquets to be slightly further forward and be able to relieve pressure and keep the tempo fast with his long passes to the wide open man, likely to be either Alba and Roberto. This would leave Busquets with the slightly more creative role of playing shorter passes in midfield and dictating play.

There is one more very important man yet to be touched on. Luis Súarez. The Uruguayan scored a staggering 59 goals last season. But what if I was to tell you that we haven’t seen the best of him yet?

We all remember the Luis Súarez of Liverpool, and his fearsome combination with Daniel Sturridge. That Luis Súarez was quite different from the one we see today. Back then, Súarez had a huge creative burden to carry for Liverpool, and would often come deeper into midfield. He would receive more of the ball, and also do more with it too in terms of dribbling. Seeing him dribble past three or four players was a common sight at Anfield, as he would use Sturridge fantastically to link up with. The Súarez we see today doesn’t need to do any of that, as the players he has around him take care of that role. Súarez only task is to put the ball in the back of the net. These days, Súarez can go entire halves with minimal touches on the ball.

Although he is scoring more goals, we are still not utilizing all of Súarez attributes. Assigning him a player to link up with directly in Arda, who is excellent in the final third of the pitch with his link up play and vision, would allow him more options in the final third. We would see Súarez using more of his creativity, and therefore get the most value out of him. He is at his best when he has a player to link up with, as we see him for Uruguay with Cavani. One could make the argument over the last few seasons that Súarez has been the only player able to match the standard of Messi and Ronaldo, but that’s a topic for another occasion.

Even more, Súarez could be aided by the constant switching of positions. He could find himself in this situation:


The fluidity and creative ability in this structure would also have one more important impact, it would relieve much of the creative burden on Messi. We should not doubt the creative ability of players such as Neymar, Arda or Súarez each of these three players shoulder the responsibility of being the creative spark in their national side, Súarez and Neymar especially. They should be allowed to roam and switch responsibilities constantly throughout games. Just like with Atlético, this will keep opposition on their toes and always guessing.

Lucho is a man who took over this side and immediately made an impact through innovation. Why not try something new again? Sometime down the line in March of 2017 when things really start getting serious, it could payoff to have a second option to surprise our opposition. Is there any harm in having two formations? Diego Simeone has a good thing going, and instead of just naively ignoring what’s been created at the Calderon, wouldn’t it be wiser to learn from it and adapt it into our own structures? Remember:

“Good artists create. Great artists steal.”

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  • Eivind Niclasen

    Great article and a well argued point. Indeed, why not enhance the team´s tactical arsenal?

    • Max

      Thanks Eivind! Yep, the more options, the better.

  • Igor Zivkovic

    When would we use this tactic? When we’re winning, there’s no need to defend, when we’re losing, subbing iniesta and raki for arda and masche isn’t going to do it. When we need to defend a 1-goal lead, the barca way in general is to hold posession. We’ve moved to a bit of counterattacking at times, but subbing 2 main midfielders to play defensively is just not the barca way. PS: it would be great if the TB writers could react more on post to create real interaction

    • Max

      Hey Igor! Thank you for commenting, your support is much appreciated!

      The general idea of the article was to offer an alternative
      to what we already have in our current 4-3-3. For every dominant side, there
      comes a time where the opposition is able to figure it out. A lot of people
      will say the reason we almost fell apart in the climax of last season was down
      to fatigue. While this is true to an extent, it would be disrespectful and
      arrogant to our opponents to just assume that when our team is fully fit, it is
      unstoppable. Every great side gets stale eventually, and this can be a chance
      to try something different and keep our opponents constantly guessing. We can’t
      be stuck on an idea of what “the Barca way” is. That’s exactly what Lucho has
      achieved- he has allowed our way of play to be adaptive to whatever challenges
      it comes up against- This would be another way of doing just that.

      Let’s explore the idea of a 4-4-2 being defensive. Simeone,
      although having very technical players such as Koke, has a personal preference
      to play an open and often defensive game. This is his preference. Because Barca
      would be employing a 4-4-2 does not mean we would be playing defensively. An
      overload of players means that our team would almost always out-number
      opposition defenders, depending on whichever side of the pitch they are
      operating on. What does this mean? Instead of having a midfielder less because
      we’re using 2 players in midfield, we have an extra 3. This means it will be
      easy to find an open man, and allow us to play free flowing, passing football,
      with the opposition constantly chasing shadows and struggling to disposes the
      ball from us- possession, and not defensive.

      • Igor Zivkovic

        Okay. You’re right on the 4-4-2 not being defensive per se. But I still doubt Lucho would risk subbing iniesta and rakitic in crucial games if they are fully fit. The idea and tactics are interesting though, good article 🙂 Cheers

    • Alex Fedder

      Why does 4-4-2 automatically imply that we are playing defensively? Just because Simeone uses it defensively doesn’t mean Lucho will do that. Remember that Mascherano and Busquets can be extremely effective deep-lying playmakers and every player in front of them in this formation by the author is an attacking, creative outlet that will make smart runs and link very welL I don’t see how this formation would be used for anything but attacking with these 11 players on the field. Great post and insightful analysis.

  • Kneowell Anyanwu

    Let’s not forget lucho has severally tried pairing masherano and busquet’s in a similar fashion with iniesta in front of them, the partnership never really worked and lucho got a lot of bashing for it even though we went ahead to win the treble afterwards. The little tweaks in the writter’s line up is intelligent but I think what we need to do is to strengthen our strengths which is exactly what lucho has been doing. Pep and lucho didn’t achieve greatness trying to play like some other team and frankly, if atletico’s tactics couldn’t get them past a madrid twice when they needed it most? Then it’s a failed system to me. However predictable one considers our system to be, it is still raking in more trophies for us than anyother side in world football currently. If it’s not broken, why fix it?

  • dri

    Without Iniesta and Rakitic in midfield, you can put pele maradona rivaldo messi ronaldo (the real one) and so on but they won’t have the balls, the possesion that Iniesta and Rakitic guarantee. Mascherano is the one of the best defender in the world and is outstanding even when he plays as a midfielder hasn’t the quality of others midfielders such as Raki or iniesta. I think the best plan B would be a 4-2-3-1 but with Raki instead Mascherano and either Iniesta or Denis Suarez instead of Arda (who isn’t properly a central attacking midfielder, he likes playing wide, that’s why these 3-4 games he is playing brilliantly).

  • Steven Rogers

    Isn’t there an old saying about not fixing what ain’t broke?