Atlético de Madrid completed fewer passes (221) than any other side in action in this week’s UEFA Champions League. And yet the intensity and aggression with which they pressed Manchester United during Wednesday’s round of 16 first-leg encounter meant they probably deserved more than a 1-1 draw.
In this article presented by FedEx, UEFA’s technical observer panel observes how they did it.
1-0: João Félix (7)
The Portuguese forward scored his first goal of this Champions League campaign with a fabulous diving header. The source was the left foot of Renan Lodi, who revealed afterwards that it was a cross the pair had been practising. When Victor Lindelöf headed a far-post corner out of the penalty box, Lodi picked up the ball, sidestepped Fred and, from a deep position, fired a magnificent ball towards the near post. In flew João Félix to do the rest.
1-1: Anthony Elanga (80)
The 19-year-old substitute struck with his first touch, five minutes after his introduction. It was a goal that followed an Atlético throw-in in United territory, down the visitors’ left. Harry Maguire and Fred each won a header, then a combination of Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Fred ushered the ball infield to Bruno Fernandes. Elanga was on the halfway line when Bruno collected it; the Swede was 40m from goal and accelerating when Bruno released the ball. Reinildo, the last defender, dived in and missed, leaving Elanga clear to angle a shot across Jan Oblak and into the far corner. It was his first Champions League goal.
Player of the match: João Félix
It was Atlético’s Portuguese No7 who illuminated the contest and not just with his splendid goal. He worked hard off the ball for his team and crucially excelled when he had it at his feet, bringing sparks of creativity and helping his colleagues with ability to hold on to the ball, which allowed the home defence to step up from their low block.
Diego Simeone set his side up in a 3-5-2 formation with Ángel Correa (10) and João Félix (7) leading the line. With Luis Suárez consigned to the bench, the choice of this pair helped Atlético to press from the front and put pressure on United’s defenders when they had the ball. On the hosts’ left side, wing-back Lodi (12) brought plenty of penetration, particularly in the first half when his cross led to the goal. The impressive Brazilian had four crosses overall and three chances to his name by the time he left the action after 76 minutes.
There was some fluidity to Atlético’s formation, which at times morphed into a 4-4-2 owing to their movement, particularly down the left. Indeed this was how they ended the night with Reinildo (23) at left-back and Lodi’s replacement, Thomas Lemar (11), operating as a left midfielder.
United played in a 4-2-3-1 formation in which the presence of Lindelöf (2) at right-back was a talking point. Interim manager Ralf Rangnick explained afterwards that he thought the Swede’s aerial presence would help against Atlético, adding: “I also thought we could do with three central defenders in that game, defensively but also after seven minutes being 1-0 down, the plan [changed].”
United got little profit when wide forwards Marcus Rashford (10) and Sancho (25) swapped flanks but their fortunes improved after a triple change after 66 minutes when Lindelöf and left-back Luke Shaw (3) made way for Aaron Wan-Bissaka (29) and Alex Telles (27), and Nemanja Matić (31) replaced Paul Pogba (6). It was a change that, in Rangnick’s view, yielded more attacking actions on the flanks.
The video above offers several outstanding examples of the key tactical feature of Wednesday’s match, namely Atlético’s high press. From the opening minutes the Spanish champions’ plan was clear: to press high up the pitch, win the ball back and try to punish United. Hence the first example in the video, from the fourth minute, of Atlético players pressing right up the pitch and frustrating the visitors’ efforts to build play.
The work of midfield pair Geoffrey Kondogbia and Héctor Herrera was pivotal. Each of them managed ten recoveries. In a performance packed with power, energy and aggression, Kondogbia contested 14 duels with a 71.4% success rate – the highest ratio among all 32 players this week involved in ten duels or more. UEFA’s technical observer described it as “a complete performance” from Kondogbia, who along with his defensive work used the ball wisely too. The same applied to Herrera, the Mexican midfielder, who, in Koke’s absence, worked diligently alongside Kondogbia on what was his first start of the season in the Champions League. By contrast, United’s play lacked aggression – as evidenced by a 45.5% tackle success ratio which paled beside the hosts’ 73.7%.
The result was that the English side struggled to construct anything meaningful, in the first half in particular. Although they had 447 passes and 62.4% of possession, their passing too often lacked precision as they were hustled out of their stride. The abovementioned substitutions brought more energy to their performance, though United’s xG of 0.56 adds to the sense that they were fortunate to leave the Metropolitano with a draw. As for Simeone’s men, they ended the match with ten chances but only one attempt on target. That said, they did hit the goalframe twice through Lindelöf, the United defender, and substitute Antoine Griezmann.
Diego Simeone, Atlético coach
“Our team spirit was great, our collective work was great, our high press was great. I really liked how we competed and played the game. We need to carry on like this. Almost everything we did in the game, we did really well. You’d think the advantage was with them, but with the away-goals rule change that’s not the case.”
Ralf Rangnick, Man. United manager
“Conceding an early goal is difficult against Atlético, although it was difficult to defend. We have to be more aggressive, with more conviction and more deep runs. The way we scored the goal was exactly that. This is how we have to play against them.
“What we played in the first half – I still can’t believe it. We played without conviction and the necessary aggression against the ball. That’s why we were really struggling.”
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