Atletico Madrid and Chelsea faced off on Tuesday night in Bucharest in what figured to be an interesting matchup between serious Champions League contenders. Atletico currently sit atop La Liga but have seen their form take a slight dip in recent weeks; having won just 1 of their previous 4 games leading up to this contest. Injuries are a problem for Atletico at the moment as well, and they would be without key figures Kieran Trippier and Yannick Carrasco in this match. Chelsea, on the other hand, have yet to lose a game under Thomas Tuchel. The new boss has transformed the style and shape in which Chelsea play and has given new life to players like Marcos Alonso, Cesar Azpilicueta, and Callum Hudson-Odoi – players who struggled for minutes under Frank Lampard. As a result, Chelsea may have entered the contest as the more confident side, but any team that faces off against Atletico knows they are in for a tough battle.
It became clear early on in the contest that Simeone and his men did not want to concede an all-important away goal to Chelsea (Atletico were technically the home side despite the game being played on a neutral ground). Atletico set up their low block with a 6-3-1 formation and put the onus on the Blues to break them down. Chelsea went to work doing just that and eventually they got their away goal in the form of an extraordinary overhead kick from the ever-reliable Olivier Giroud.
In possesion, Atletico lined up in a back 3, which turned into a back 6 when defending deep. Oblak covered the goal, with Hermoso, Felipe, and Savic in front of him in defense. With Carrasco and Trippier unavailable for this match, Simeone surprised many by using Lemar and
Llorente as wingbacks. Both of whom are usually deployed higher up the pitch. In the center of midfield Simeone opted to for the experienced Koke and Saul Niguez. In front of them were Correa (who was tasked with coming back to the wingback position when defending), Joao Felix, and Luis Suarez.
Tuchel and Chelsea stuck with their 3-4-1-2 / 3-4-2-1 shape. Tuchel has used this system consistently since taking charge of the team. Tuchel opted for Mendy in goal, with Azpilicueta, Christensen, and Rudiger in front of him forming the back 3. Hudson-Odoi and Marcos Alonso played in the wingback positions. Jorginho and Kovacic formed the central midfield pairing with Mason Mount, Timo Werner, and Olivier Giroud up front.
Atletico’s Defensive Tactics
Atletico’s defensive strategy became clear early on in the game; in their own half they would set up in a 6-3-1 and be tremendously difficult to break down, but higher up the pitch they looked to press aggressively and force turnovers and mistakes. Early on in the game this pressing was quite effective and led to a couple of quality chances for the Spanish side.
Just 1:50 into the match, Atletico show their pressing intensity and force Mendy into a dangerous mistake. Here, Lemar is quick to pressure the back pass to Azpilicueta with Saul and Koke joining in. The two central midfielders were integral to Atletico’s press throughout the night and caused Chelsea problems with their work rate. Atleti’s attackers cut off the right side of the field forcing the ball back to the middle.
The team shifts over as the ball is played, and Saul continues his run to pressure the keeper. Mendy’s touch is poor, and Saul is able to win the ball. Unfortunately for Atletico, Saul’s touch takes him away from goal and he is not able to capitalize on the error. Chelsea were lucky not to be down 1-0 early. Mendy made a few mistakes throughout the night and looked susceptible to the press.
Another effective tactic deployed by Simeone was encouraging his outside CBs to step out of the backline to follow Chelsea’s attacking midfielders, Mount and Werner. They did this when set up in their low block but also at times when pressing higher up the pitch. Since Tuchel has taken over, Chelsea have found success creating overloads in midfield and Atletico was determined to deny that advantage.
Here, we again see intense pressing from Atletico; triggered when the ball gets played backward from Kovacic.
Suarez and Felix have stepped up to pressure Chelsea’s backline. Saul and Koke pressure Jorginho from either side when he receives the ball. Typically, this would leave Mount open in space as he makes a run to the right side of the pitch, however Hermoso smartly steps up and out of the backline and is able to intercept when the ball is played there.
Because of Atletico’s shape, Hermoso is able to step up out of defense without leaving the backline exposed. There are still 3 Atleti defenders deep behind Hermoso able to deal with the threat of Giroud and Werner. Meanwhile, Atletico are able to create an overload in midfield and cause the turnover with Hermoso joining in and denying the outlet ball to Mount. This interception leads directly to a cross by Felix and a chance for Correa at the back post.
So, we have seen how Atletico defended higher up the pitch with their pressing game. Now let us look at how they defended in their own half.
Atletico used this 6-3-1 shape when defending deeper in their own half. On the right side, Correa dropped back to the wing-back position, with Llorente tucking inside of him. Lemar came back similarly on the left side to form the back 6. Saul, Koke, and Felix shielded the backline in front of them, shifting from side to side with the ball. Suarez was at the head of the midfield trio forming a diamond shape. He would look to apply pressure to the Chelsea’s CBs and also deny the ball into Jorginho at the pivot spot.
Chelsea struggled to break down Atletico’s low-block all night. In fact, they never really did with their lone goal coming from transition play. Typically, when Chelsea’s wingbacks join the attack, they are able to create a 5 v 4 overload with their front line when facing opponents who play with a back 4. But against Atletico they were actually facing an overload themselves – 6 v 5. I believe that is the main reason why Simeone went with this system, and it worked to frustrate the Blues, particularly in the first half. Now let’s look at what made it effective.
It was clear that Atletico wanted to limit the threat of Werner and Mount. Understandably so, the two of them are some of Chelsea’s most dangerous players; Mount in particular has been in
great form lately and is often the engine of the Chelsea attack. Like we saw earlier, Atleti’s outside CBs followed these players further up the pitch when pressing. Similarly, they tracked these players in their low-block setup as well, following them if they dropped off looking to pick up the ball in space.
Here, Hermoso is once again stepping out of the backline to cover Mount who has shown to be very dangerous when given space to turn and run at defenders.
And in this case it is Llorente on the near side stepping out to cover Werner. Again, denying a dangerous dribbler the space to turn and run at the backline.
Using a back 6 and giving the CBs freedom to step up was a clever way Simeone denied Chelsea their midfield overloads and slowed down Chelsea’s most dangerous attackers.
Suarez and Atletico’s midfield trio were also integral to Simeone’s defensive tactics. Koke and Felix marked the attacking midfielders at times as well, with Saul blocking the passing lanes to Giroud in the center. Koke, in particular showed a fantastic work rate – closing players down in his own half and pressing intensely in the opposing half; he led the team with 4 successful tackles in the game. In this example the diamond has shifted to the far side of the field. Felix is able to deny the pass to Mount while Saul cuts off the option to play the ball into Giroud’s feet.
Chelsea Against Atletico’s Low Block
Chelsea struggled to break through the Atleti wall but eventually took the lead in the second half through a Giroud bicycle kick. In this next section we will look at how the Blues tried to break through Atletico’s low block.
Atletico were content to let Chelsea have possession. The match ended with the Blues having completed 701 passes to Atletico’s 410 with 63.1% of possession going to the London side. Atletico did well, however, to limit the involvement of Chelsea’s attacking players for much of the match. The CBs therefore were often the ones afforded time and space in Atleti’s half. Azpilicueta in particular played a key role, finishing the game with more touches and more completed passes than any player on the pitch. Jorginho and Kovacic as well had opportunities to orchestrate attacks from midfield but were hesitant to play risky passes and were mostly content to pass sideways and retain possession. Chelsea attacked pretty evenly as you can see in the chart below.
The wide areas are key to Chelsea’s play and they made use of both flanks in this game. Werner and Alonso occupied the left side with Mount and Hudson-Odoi down the right. As we can see in the positional map below both sides attacked differently.
Werner on the left often pushed higher and narrower. He looked to run in behind, taking advantage of his speed and creating space for Alonso in the wide areas. While Mount, given more of a free role on the right, was more likely to drop off and swap sides looking for space.
Hudson-Odoi played more like a traditional winger on the right side looking to run at defenders and cross or combine with Mount around the edge of the penalty area. Alonso on the left was not as inclined to run at defenders, rather he preferred to cross from a deeper position. He also looked at times to get into the penalty area to provide an aerial threat on crosses and run in behind off the shoulder of Correa in the space created by Werner moving inside.
Here is an example of an early Chelsea attack down the right side. Mount moves to the touchline to find space, realizing that he needs to move wider to escape the pressure of Hermoso and Felix. Here, free from his marker, he can turn and look to orchestrate an attack down the right. Notice that Hudson-Odoi is the furthest forward on the right side, playing more like a traditional winger than a wing-back, and he will look to come wide to give Mount the passing angle.
Mount plays the ball to Hudson-Odoi wide and makes the underlapping run looking for the return ball in the space vacated by Hermoso. This was a good idea by Mount, but his run is not found and Hudson-Odoi plays back to Jorginho. But this illustrates pretty well how Chelsea looked to attack down the right; Mount dropping off to find space and Hudson-Odoi occupying the high and wide areas.
Here is a look at how the left side tried to attack. Werner loves to make these type of runs in behind from the left-side half-space. Naturally, this run drags Llorente to the center and creates space for Alonso to potentially receive the ball and cross. Correa at times in this game was caught out of position, not knowing whether to stay deep and wide or move up to mark Kovacic. Jorginho has the opportunity to play the ball into the space here, but instead opts for the safer ball sideways to Kovacic and nothing comes from it.
Despite the best efforts of their attacking players, Chelsea really never could break down Atletico once they were set up in their low block. The game remained scoreless until the 67th minute despite the Blues dominating possession. What we will see in the next section is that Chelsea found success with quick transitions, attacking before Atletico were able to set up their defense.
Chelsea Break Through With Quicker Attacks From Deep
Chelsea were dangerous in transition, when they were able to break through Atletico’s initial press and attack quickly they were effective. Mount was instrumental to this success, the few times that he was able to escape his marker and run with the ball he created chances. We saw earlier how Hermoso and Felix teamed up to defend him and now we will look at how Mount responded.
Here is a very similar attack to the one we saw earlier. Only this time Mount starts the attack from a deeper position where there is more space between the lines to attack. Again, Mount goes wide to escape the marking of Hermoso and Felix. He then has space to dribble and attack the 2 v 1 opportunity against Tomas Lemar.
Mount plays Hudson-Odoi who holds the ball up before returning the ball to Mount who once again makes an underlapping run. This time, with more space available, he is found and has the opportunity to cross. Werner and Alonso look to attack the ball in the center.
Here, Chelsea are able to execute a quick counter attack leading to a Marcos Alonso cross. Like we saw earlier, Atletico press high after turning the ball over, but this time Chelsea are able to play out through Christensen. Christensen does really well to protect the ball and play a pass out of pressure to Werner. As you can see in the image below, Atletico are in a dangerous position with Correa, Koke, and Saul pushed high up.
After the pass out to Werner, Atletico are in a very vulnerable position with their entire midfield in front of the ball and on the same side of the pitch. Kovacic, therefore, has a lot of space to run into when gets the ball from Giroud.
Kovacic is able to carry the ball forward before finding Marcos Alonso who has the space to cross. Mount gets on the end of it in a good position but is unable to get it on target.
Atletico’s press almost paid dividends for them early on in the contest, but as you are seeing it became a dangerous tactic when Chelsea grew more comfortable in the game and started to execute their attacks faster. Chelsea’s goal came from another instance where they were able to get passed Atleti’s initial press. This time they bypassed the press completely with a long ball to Giroud.
Here is the start of the move leading to Chelsea’s lone goal. Correa and Koke once again push up higher to press Rudiger and Jorginho, respectively. This time Llorente is pressed higher up as well. Alonso receives the ball from Rudiger and chooses to play long to the head of Olivier Giroud, bypassing the press and leaving Atletico vulnerable once again.
Giroud heads it down to Kovacic who once again has space to drive forward with Koke pushed up the field. Alonso makes the overlapping run and Llorente is caught on the wrong side of him after the unsuccessful press. Giroud, Mount, and Werner drive towards the box anticipating the ball in.
Giroud proves that he’s still got it with a fantastic overhead kick to give Chelsea the lead.
Chelsea were unable to break down Atletico’s 6-3-1 low block, but credit has to be given to them for finding another way through. Tuchel’s men found success executing quick attacks from deep and using Atletico’s aggressive press against them. Atletico’s high press led to their best chances of the game early on, but ultimately cost them a goal at the other end. Tuchel will surely be pleased with the result, and the Blues should feel confident in their chances of advancing to the next round. Simeone on the other hand will be frustrated to have conceded a goal at home, and Atletico will now have to display much better attacking football in the next fixture.