During his extremely successful six-year spell in Spain, Diego Simeone has built and maintained a side that’s helped to see Atlético Madrid’s status rise to the level of an international superpower. With five trophies to his name, including silverware from La Liga (2013/14) and the Europa League (2011/12), the club have undoubtedly been going through one of the best periods in their history under his leadership.
Currently 10 points behind their city rivals in the league, though, and out of the Copa del Rey after a semi-final defeat to Barcelona, the hopes of them getting another set of winners medals this season to mark their final year at the Vicente Calderón are very much resting on their performance in the one competition that, heartbreakingly, has eluded them – the Champions League. While Atleti haven’t quite been able to lift the famous trophy, though, they’re extremely familiar with these late stage fixtures of the tournament.
Two finals in the last three years, and a trip to the quarter-finals in between, have all ended in familiar fashion; at the hands of Real Madrid. A late Sergio Ramos equaliser and the following extra-time defeat in Lisbon during the 2014 final kept them from glory and what would've been a truly historic campaign, while last season ended in an equally cruel manner; Cristiano Ronaldo sending Jan Oblak the wrong way to win the penalty shootout. The losses, to Madrid of all teams, have been tough on them.
Regardless, the first three games of this year’s knockout round have shown us that Atleti are right where they ought to be. And Simeone is pretty much exactly where he’d like to be, too, following their dominant 1-0 home victory against Leicester in the first leg of the quarter-final. Fans may be slightly disappointed with their single goal and likewise, Leicester supporters encouraged that they only trail by one, but both are probably looking at the wrong number on the scoreboard. The English side’s zero is one of the biggest reasons why Simeone will feel comfortable as his side steps onto the pitch at the King Power Stadium on Tuesday night.
Fans, pundits, and even those within clubs will continue to debate the downsides of the away goals rule until the end times, but few can make use of its merits as much as Simeone’s Atleti have. During this year’s Champions League they’ve let in just a single goal at home, which occurred during the group stages in a 2-1 victory against Rostov. And arguably more impressive was last year’s accomplishment. Only two goals were scored against Atleti on their way to the final when they played at home, both again coming during the group stage (in a loss to a strong Benfica side). Simeone got the goal and clean sheet combination advantage he craves in home games, and that will likely dictate the rest of the tie.
Even in a league match, an early Atleti goal would lead to thoughts of a dull, procession-like affair. Diego Godín and the rest of his backline would sit deep, waiting to draw their opponent in and expose them on the break. In European competitions, the effect is even more dramatic. Simeone’s teams reduce risk better than nearly any other professional side. With two banks of four and the pair of Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres (Kévin Gameiro has been cleared and should play a part, but a start is in doubt) placed ahead of them they’ll create three lines of defence that are near impossible to break.
Vertically the team will look to be incredibly compact, and maintain dominance in the middle third by playing a narrow four behind the front two. One of the ways they control this area is by having their entire system commit further to the ball-side, while they leave the entire weak-side third, vertically-speaking, open. This shift achieves two things. First, they are now in a better area to press either the wide midfielder, such as Riyad Mahrez or Marc Albrighton, or a full-back if they have made the decision to venture forward.
Using their own full-back and a wide midfielder together with a forward, Atleti form a triangle that closes down the opposition and usually rushes the attacker’s decision, forces a negative pass, or generates a turnover. In addition to being able to press, this shift also congests the middle of the field. While numerous 4-4-2 set-ups struggle to properly mark in the middle as they are outmatched and outnumbered, Atleti’s are usually fine as the weak-side midfielder will come incredibly far in and aid defending in this crucial area.
Furthermore, it helps that, while Atleti play a flat midfield, only Yannick Carrasco is a true wide player. Koke is normally the opposite wide midfielder, but can easily drift inside and is fully comfortable operating in that space. Leicester will most likely not have this extra man in the middle, unless it’s a striker dropping deeper than they’d like, or the weak-sided midfielder coming to overload a side. The Foxes’ biggest strength is exactly what Atleti can do with their lead, only better. Sit deep, resist pressure, and explode immediately after winning possession.
While their banks of four may be somewhat bland on the eye to some, their counter-punch is undoubtedly special to all. Atleti attack with devastating pace; too much even, at times. Los Rojiblancos are averaging 3.8 offsides per match in the league, the most in La Liga, which is a neat demonstration of how Simeone prefers his side to get forward. While a player of Griezmann's talent could fit into any number of tactical set-ups, his skillset meshes in a dazzling manner with this counter-attacking style, and against a backline that will most likely include Wes Morgan and Robert Huth his ability could be on full display.
Whether it ends up being Gameiro or Torres in partnership with the Frenchman, their strikers have learned to recognise the proper time to press and win possession (or when their side are on the cusp of it) which leads to breakaways and counters. This instantaneous reaction means early runs come that, as a result, will help drag the oppositions defence around, allowing space for others – such as Carrasco and Koke – to attack and exploit.
Even though it’s clear that Atleti would be happy to cede possession, who exactly will control the ball in this second leg is a somewhat interesting discussion. In only one knockout round tie has a Simeone team won the possession battle in both fixtures. That was last year against PSV, where both matches finished with them having 51% of the ball, including a first leg which saw the Dutch side go down to ten men.
Similarly, in the 10 matches his Atleti side have played in the Champions League quarter or semi-finals since 2014, they have managed more than 42% of possession just three times. And two of those games were against José Mourinho's Chelsea side, who attempted to adopt a very similar strategy to that of Simeone’s team. Even more extreme was last season when they beat both Barça and Bayern Munich on their way to the final, with their average possession for those four matches being little more than 30%.
Tuesday will no doubt look at least a little different, as Leicester are neither Barça nor Bayern. Currently the Foxes rank 17th in the Premier League for possession, keeping the ball for only 43.9% of each match. The numbers are even more dramatic in the Champions League itself. Of the 32 sides that have played a part in the competition proper, Leicester rank 29th, with 41.0% of possession per game on average. In all likelihood this leg will have a closer possession breakdown than the first (where Atleti recorded 68.1%), although they may still end up 'winning' the battle for the ball due to their advantage in quality and the fact that Leicester don't really know any other way to play.
But their possession should prove to be safe in manner, due to having a system that looks to build attacks without being too open and vulnerable, and the personal to pull it off. While Atleti’s central midfield pair are lacking a true goal-scoring or creative threat, they provide a gift by means of peace of mind. Either side of them Carrasco, likely to be the left midfielder, will drift high and inside, becoming another forward at times, and Koke can perform a similar sort of role on the opposite side albeit in a far more conservative manner. They then, when the moment is right, use their full-backs to give the team width through well-timed, well-positioned runs.
With four attackers occupying a mixture of the opposition's back four and central midfielders, penetrating, or line-breaking balls, can come from both the full-backs or their central midfielders. Together the attack's movement and technical proficiency allows nice combination play to take place, which can lead to quality opportunities within the box or the space for those willing to line up strikes from distance.
Atleti have the talent to possess and attack, but will willingly opt to play directly into their forwards; while also challenging Leicester to build possession for themselves. It's how they like to play, and that crucial goal in the first leg should allow Simeone's side to do it. Even if they win the possession battle, they won't seek to dominate it like Sevilla, who fell into the Foxes’ trap in the last round (albeit under some somewhat fortuitous circumstances). If Craig Shakespeare’s team make the mistake of staring down Atleti and assuming they’ll overcommit or expose themselves, prepare both for a comfortable night for the Spanish side and an end to Leicester’s Cinderella story.
This piece was written by Christopher Harwick. You can follow him on Twitter here.