Atlético v Liverpool: a clash of styles
Atletico Madrid‘s Champions League Round of 16 contest with Liverpool’s looms as a captivating clash of styles. With Liverpool in absolutely dominant form and brushing aside just about everyone, Jürgen Klopp’s taken his team to another level this season. So hard to beat, masters at controlling matches both with and without the ball and brilliant at executing their manager’s demands, they’ll be a formidable foe for Atletico.
Blessed with the amazing front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, plus their sublime fullbacks in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, where much of their offensive threat originates from, observing how Diego Simeone deals with this will be enthralling.
Although Atleti isn’t playing at their best this term, they’ve still been super solid defensively, as they possess the second-best defence in La Liga having only conceded 15 goals so far. Indeed, Simeone’s expertise at setting up his team to limit the effectiveness of their adversaries will be crucial if they’re to stand any chance against this dynamic, multifaceted Liverpool.
Typically well organised and regimented, Atletico will most likely deploy their tried and trusted 4-4-2 defensive formation. Always a team who makes life difficult to break them down, the way they remain so disciplined, focused and the players know their roles and responsibilities so thoroughly ensure their opposition don’t have it easy.
By keeping the space between their lines so compact and narrow in their mid and low block defensive shapes, this means teams struggle to find room in dangerous central areas. With pressure readily applied from all angles, this sees numbers 10s and dropping forwards like Firmino given minimal freedom in dangerous central areas.
Due to their often narrow stopping setup, inherently spaces are left out wide, for they back themselves to shift across to apply pressure to wingers and fullbacks and are an accomplished outfit at dealing with crosses and cutbacks. Seeing as the midfielders drop deep to support their backline, in combination with the intent on pressuring the crosser and their defenders being brilliant in the air, means they’re tough to get at in this area.
This fixture will be especially interesting, however, as Liverpool possess arguably the best fullback pairing in world football with Alexander-Arnold and Roberton, who effectively combine athleticism, outstanding distribution qualities and intelligent movement.
As touched on earlier, Atletico’s quick-shifting to the ball near side will need to be near perfect, as Liverpool’s fullbacks are outstanding at launching wicked switches of play to the opposite side to place their wingers or ball far fullback in ideal scenarios to attack with time and space. For the most part, Atleti’s fullbacks and wingers, plus midfield and defensive lines do a quality job of getting across, however, as they use the touchline as an extra defender superbly to compress the pitch in high pressing or when defending deeper.
Simeone’s men will want to be awake to Liverpool’s slick rotations, opposite movements and depth runs, for they coalesce efficiently to pull apart defensive units. Due to Los Colchoneros often defending in a zonal fashion with man orientations blended in, they’re pretty good at dealing with the aforementioned. Whether communicating marking crossovers, tracking opponents when they venture into their designated area of operation or being alert to runs in behind, you can guarantee they’ll be prepared to deal with Liverpool’s tremendous threat.
Also, the fact they typically get their staggering and spacing between each other spot on allows them to support each other and offer additional protection in case of a mistake or if a penetrative pass breaks their lines.
Indeed, their fantastic access to their opponents and proximity to one another also helps them win key second ball battles. Furthermore, their compactness also allows them to have many nearby options once they win back possession, which they use to beat opponents’ counter-pressing to launch dangerous counter-attacks of their own.
Despite being elite when defending in a low or medium block, this doesn’t mean they’re not good high pressers, for their competent in this regard too. Frequently a team who blends man and zonal marking, Simeone’s troops do a tidy job of covering nearby options and potentially exploitable spaces soundly.
To start with their first line of pressing, and their front two are usually confronted with the opposition’s two central defenders and a dropping midfielder. They handle this by the ball near striker pressing the nearby defender and the other forward pushing onto the holding midfielder. Then, if the play is switched they reverse roles like a pendulum. Also notable is how they curve and angle their pressure to use their cover shadows to block pass lanes behind them.
The wingers will typically mark the opposition fullbacks and keep an eye on any nearby midfielders, as they perform their dual roles nicely to support Atletico’s midfield duo, who are concentrated on their direct opponents or any dropping attackers.
Knowing when to hold their post, shift across, step out, drop back or respond to pressing triggers, they’re a well-oiled machine with their harrying. Some particular triggers include back passes, passes towards the touchline, slow or misplaced balls, long passes and when an adversary is about to receive in an open body posture or with their back to goal.
Blessed with so many talented individuals, who are so adept at winning duels, fighting hard and adhering to their manager’s demands, it’s little wonder they’re a challenging proposition for any team to breakdown. Moreover, upon factoring in they have one of the finest goalkeepers in world football in net, Jan Oblak, and this only compounds issues for their foes.
By the numbers, the fact they’re seventh for least shots allowed per 90 on 8.96, sixth for most shots blocked with 61, third for highest duel win percentage on 60.7%, sixth for most aerial duels won on 44 per 90 at the fifth-best rate of 49.9%, second for least goals conceded on only 14, plus have the second-best Expected Goals Against reading on 18.41 and are number one for giving up quality chances with an XG per shot conceded of just 0.092, aptly demonstrates what a force they are to be reckoned with on the defensive end.
Masters at frustrating their opponents and giving them very little to work with, if they can improve on the offensive side and start converting their chances (as they have the second-best XG in La Liga but have scored nine fewer goals than they should have), Liverpool will certainly be in for a tough test.
With Liverpool having lost to Napoli in the Champions League stage group phase and looking less imperious in Europe than domestically, the stage is beautifully set for a captivating knock-out match that just might suit Atletico Madrid’s approach down to the ground.
While it’ll be a massive challenge, if they can follow Simeone’s blueprint and produce their very best over the two legs, they have as good a chance as anyone against this scintillating Liverpool outfit.