As I began my research on Atletico Madrid, one ideal became evident: the club is Arsenal’s polar opposite. The juxtaposition of these sides is clear and should make for an incredible 2-legged tie. Under Simeone, Atletico embody an identity based on organisation, discipline, and graft in a system where roles are meticulously ingrained. On the other hand, Arsenal are “flow-based” and rely heavily on organic partnerships and in-game problem solving. If you agree with Klopp’s assessment a few years ago about Dortmund vs. Arsenal as a case of “Heavy metal” vs. “Orchestra,” then this match-up with Atletico will be the case of death metal vs. orchestra.
Atletico’s Stylistic Values
I was shocked hearing Simeone in his post Real Betis press conference mention he might opt for a back three on Thursday. My recollection of Atletico over the past few seasons has shown an almost steadfast dedication to 442 with the occasional sprinkle of 4231 and 4411 thrown in.
Regardless of formation, Simeone preaches positional interchangeability and clearly defined roles based on tactical approach. Whoever makes up the likely midfield 4 will have the capacity to play both wide and central. Koke and Saul Niguez will certainly feature, whereas the rest of the midfield will depend on tactics. Simeone is likely to play Thomas or Gabi if he plans to stay more narrow or Vitolo or Correa as wide options if he looks to exploit space behind Arsenal’s fullbacks and counter with more regularity. Either way, they will all be drilled to close space and control area in unison with the rest of the team.
Simeone’s system is similar to Mourinho’s–he’s unwavering in employing a compact defensive structure first and attacking players can enjoy some freedom only in the final third. They will hope to use their defensive shape and specific types of pressing to create a transitional chaos to exploit teams with their devastating counter attack.
As proficient as they are in the attacking transitional phase, they are even better transitioning to defense. They recover to defensive areas rapidly. It will be incredibly difficult to exploit space in their defensive third.
Foremost to Atletico’s success is the ability of everyone to defend and close space. You’ll see the strikers as the first line of defense attempting to dictate play into certain areas. From here, they look for specific pressing triggers based on game context. They will look to predominately press wide along the touchline but also press high as the game dictates.
Atletico tend to let teams have possession in central areas with 9 or 10 outfield players behind the ball. By staying narrow and compact they want teams to try and build play on the wings and/or switch play to wide areas. This is when they strategically choose to swarm with the wide press. A player on the wing has limited options compared to players centrally or in the half-spaces, so these are very much high-reward and low-risk opportunities for Madrid. If they do dispossess the opposition, Atletico break with incredible speed to catch the defense running backwards.
The common approach under Simeone has been that against better teams he stays compact behind the halfway line and looks to counter as the preferred method of attack. Against lesser teams or when he feels opponents are susceptible, he’ll press high with aggression and look to turn teams over in their half.
The final regularly used tactic is their vertical long-ball play with an emphasis on the second ball. This tactic is very German and aligns with the theme of gegenpressing. Atletico look to play the percentages and swarm the areas where opponents clearances are most likely to fall. This is an incredibly effective way to play in advanced areas without having to build play.
Arsenal’s Keys to the Game
1. Robust In Midfield
Fighting in the center of the pitch and matching Atletico’s bodies will be crucial in central midfield. Madrid will cut down passing angles and limit space in between the lines so it’s essential we recover 50/50s to maintain possession and ensure we are not overrun. Along with the channels behind fullbacks, Arsenal often commit too many men forward leaving a gap between defense and midfield. Additionally, we’ll need to limit time Griezmann has on the ball, as he’s capable of producing magic moments out of nothing.
2. Build Play with Variety
This is not a game for safe, sterile possession along the midway line and many flank touches from fullbacks. We need a plethora of different plans to trouble Atletico’s defensive shape and escape pressing situations. I can see three ways to effectively build play: First, direct balls to Lacazette and Welbeck. Second, half-space overloads and quick passing, forcing Atletico’s defense to converge. Or third, concede possession and force Athletico to play through the thirds (easier said than done).
3. Plan for Defensive Transitions
Arsenal need to recover quickly when losing possession, preventing Atletico’s attacking options and wide players from exploiting space. Keeping our fullbacks tucked in and having midfield bodies sitting deep more often must be the order of the day. We need to be cognizant of this being a two-legged tie and even one away goal scored by a team like Atletico is massive for them.
Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree. I think Wenger sticks with the shape we’ve played of late in the Europa League. Based on form, Wilshere shouldn’t be near the XI, but Arsene will give him the nod seeing as he’s played almost all of our Europa games. Personally, I would play a back 3 with AMN on the left for his recovery pace, 1:1 duel prowess, and ability to shadow Griezmann.
Injury issues mean their first choice LB (Filipe Luis), RB (Juanfran), and CF (Diego Costa) should miss out in this one. With roles and responsibilities clearly defined, they will still have a strong first XI due to players having versatility in a multitude of starting places. My eyes will be on who starts as the wide midfielders as they are the ones that act on wide pressing triggers and break at pace on the counter.
Score Prediction: 1-1
I don’t see us scoring more than one against an Atletico side that has 26 clean sheets and have only conceded more than one goal six times in all competitions this season. In comparison, Arsenal have 18 clean sheets and have conceded more than one goal 19 times. Given our off the ball mentality, it will be hard to prevent them an away goal. COYG!!
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31 year old based in the U.S. I am an elementary school teacher by day whose passion for teaching is only rivaled by a love for the Arsenal. I release a weekly piece each Tuesday that is oftentimes analytical but sometimes eccentric. Founder of the U.S. supporters group Syracuse Gooners (www.cusegooners.com). I enjoy interacting with any and all Arsenal-based opinions on Twitter. Have a younger brother who chose to support Spurs. Fielding suggestions for ways to disown him.