Are Atletico’s Defence Leading Them To Another European Crown?

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Atletico Madrid’s reputation for gritty defensiveness and brutally effective counter-punching is well deserved. This season in La Liga no side has conceded fewer, 20 goals in 37 games, and no side has made more tackles per game (24.5); indeed, only Sevilla have also made more than 20 tackles per game (20.2). Atleti’s successful defence has taken them to second in La Liga and the final of the Europa League, and it is built on the partnership of two Uruguayans, Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, both of whom will likely line up for La Celeste in Russia this summer.

Atletico Madrid play almost exclusively in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1. They are superbly well-organised and hard-working, maintaining a vertical compactness and also looking to tuck in where possible, reducing their width across the pitch. They tend to drop off and fan out into a medium to low block, so that by the time the opposition are around 30-40 yards from goal, Atletico Madrid have two compact banks of four, with one striker or the attacking midfielder assisting the block, and the other striker pushed high for a counter-attack. The aim is to congest the middle of the pitch, push the opposition wide, and force them to play either from side to side in front of an impenetrable block, or resort to crossing towards Godin and Gimenez, both of whom excel in the air.When not in possession, Atletico are happy to bunch towards the side on which they are being attacked, keeping a strict, narrow defensive line, superbly organised by Godin. This allows them to press the side attacking in the wide space, who are unlikely to be able to switch the play. Once possession is won back, the back line fans out again. Godin and Gimenez tend to stay fairly close together, usually with Godin taking the opposition striker and Gimenez staying spare. Their proximity to one another increases the more they drop towards their own goal-line. Atletico Madrid’s entire defensive system is based on the minimisation of risk: the opposition can do little from the wide spaces, with both centre-backs so good at winning aerial challenges, and a solid wall of red and white shirts, dropping off towards their own goal, is hard to play through or round.

That is not to say that Atletico play on the back foot all the time. Both Godin and Gimenez are capable of stepping out of the line to intercept the ball but rarely do they then control it and carry it forwards themselves. While both are capable of passing well, Gimenez is more likely to spray a long, raking pass to spring a counter-attack, while Godin tends to either pass to his colleague or back to Jan Oblak in goal.When Atletico attack, they do so with pace and usually out wide. This means that the full backs push forwards and, while a central midfielder tends to sit in front of the back four, this requires both centre-backs to cover across in the wide spaces and, crucially, to communicate with each other so that they know their responsibilities. Godin is clearly the senior partner, as would be expected, and it is rare for a minute to pass in a game without him pointing and shouting, telling his teammates where to stand, when to drop or push, and checking that the defensive line is ruler-like. It is this, as much as his ability to head, tackle, mark, and, crucially, score goals from set-pieces, that makes Godin Simeone’s on-field leader at the back, setting the tone for Los Colchoneros.  

Diego Simeone’s first season at Atletico Madrid ended with them winning the Europa League against Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in Bucharest. Diego Godin lined up alongside Miranda, now at Inter, in that game – six years later, with Jose Gimenez by his side, Godin will try to replicate the feat for his beloved Atletico Madrid. Only a brave man would bet against him.

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