Ever since his arrival in English football (and perhaps even before thanks to his success at Porto), Jose Mourinho has been identified with a well-defined tactical approach: organized defending with plenty of men behind the ball mixed with ruthless, fast counter attacking. His teams are capable of some entertaining football, but he’s most comfortable when his teams can sit deep, absorb pressure, and then break at devastating pace.
That said, there’s always been a complicating factor with Mourinho that has made it hard to assess how universal his approach to the game could be. Since joining Chelsea in 2004, Mourinho has never managed a small club. He went from Chelsea, the best funded team in England, to Inter Milan at their peak, to Real Madrid, the club that invented the galactico strategy. So Mourinho has never been at a team where he couldn’t get the players he wanted. As a result, we never had an opportunity to see how his approach to the game might work at a side with less extravagant resources.
The biggest question mark concerns that counter attacking style. Sitting with eight men behind the ball is nothing new, of course. But what separated Mourinho’s sides from other more defensive (some might say “regressive”) teams is that Mourinho didn’t often rely on long balls lumped forward to a classic number nine. Rather, he relied on fast counters that used aggressive passing and direct running. But if you didn’t have an Arjen Robben, Samuel Eto’o, or Cristiano Ronaldo running at defenses, could it work? When you didn’t have Frank Lampard, Wesley Sneijder, or Mesut Ozil making the final passes, could it work?
For all the talk about “anti-football” and Mourinho, his style actually does require players to be technically proficient–otherwise those counter-attacking chances never develop because a pass is misplayed or not seen. So what happens with the style when you can’t simply drop £30m on an industrious playmaking midfielder to spring the counters? Until recently… we didn’t know.
Diego Simeone’s Adaptation of Mourinho Ball
Diego Simeone has taken Mourinho’s approach and adapted it to a club with good but not great financial resources. Don’t kid yourself–Atletico has money. They just don’t have Chelsea or Real Madrid money. But if Atletico get in a bidding war with a club like Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund they’re capable of winning it.
So this isn’t a story of a plucky under-dog triumphing over insurmountable odds. The closest analog to Atletico’s success isn’t Swansea winning the League Cup; it’s Borussia Dortmund winning two Bundesliga titles and reaching a Champions League final.
That said, what Simeone has achieved is still remarkable. Simeone has taken the core principles of Mourinho Ball, adapted them to a club with more limited resources, and then installed a system in which the players move more fluidly and work harder than any other club in Europe. The core principles behind Atletico Madrid’s tactics are familiar:
- The default posture of the team is to sit deep in a narrow, compact shape in order to prevent the opponent from creating scoring chances.
- The team only breaks the shape to press the ball when the odds of success are high and the cost of failure is minimal. (And even here it might be better to say that the whole team moves together, causing the shape to temporarily change, rather than saying that the shape “breaks.”)
- When the ball is won, it is played forward quickly because fast attacks can catch opponents off balance and turning the ball over in the attacking third is less costly than turning it over in your own defensive third or in midfield.
- Every player in the team has to assist defensively and sacrifice individual expression for the sake of the system.
What Simeone has added is a more aggressive pressing style in wide areas and in defined situations in central areas. Mourinho teams will press as well, but they’ve never been as fanatical about it as Simeone’s teams. (Part of this is likely due to the fact that it’s harder to motivate high-earners to press as aggressively as Simeone would prefer. With the exception of Pep Guardiola, none of the game’s most extreme pressing managers have worked at bigger clubs. Marcelo Bielsa, Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp, Roger Schmidt, and Simeone have all made their names working at second-tier elite clubs.) In this respect, Simeone’s system owes some debt to Klopp as well, as his team also knows how to lure teams into traps, press on cue, and then use the pressure to create scoring chances.
To understand this system a bit more, we’re going to look at five different phases of defensive play and see how the Rojiblancos handle each. In three situations, we’ll see the Atleti sitting deep and not pressing the ball at all. In the other two we’ll see them pressing the ball more aggressively. In both of those cases, the press is triggered by a specific cue from the opposition.
Atletico Defending in Their Own Attacking Third.
The first situation we need to look at it is what happens when an Atletico opponent wins possession in their defensive third (or in the Atleti’s attacking third). This is usually where the defensive work begins for Atletico because their style, when in possession, is to push the ball forward at pace–so they usually turn it over in the attacking third rather than in their own defensive third or midfield. The ball simply isn’t in those parts of the field long enough to be turned over in most cases.
So the opponent wins the ball and begins to pass it forward. This is the Spanish league so most teams are looking to play a possession-based style that uses shorter passing and builds from the back. Here is Atletico at this point in their opponent’s attack:
Here we have the two central midfielders, marked CM, sitting fairly deep. The wide midfielders are tucked in slightly to support the midfielders. Then the two center forwards have backed off the ball and allowed the opponent to pass it forward. (Note that Atletico tend to alternate between a 4-4-2 and more of a 4-4-1-1, but the system itself doesn’t change that much regardless of formation.)
At this point, Atletico are happy to let their opponent pass the ball. Short passing in the midfield areas doesn’t affect the scoreline in any way and doesn’t really pressure them that much.
Atletico Defending in Midfield
The screen capture below shows a compact Atletico defense setting up once the ball has been moved into midfield. Here they are still willing to concede space and time to the opposition because neither of those things hurt them. In fact, the more space they concede the better because it allows them more room to run into when they try to counter.
Atletico Defending in the Defensive Third
Once again, the operating principle stays the same: Atletico is happy to concede time and space outside of the 18 yard box to the opposition. They know that teams are unlikely to score from outside the area, so they’re willing to give that space in order to stay organized and compact in their defense of the area of the field that actually matters. So they’re willing to let Barça simply roll the ball around the perimeter of the area, somewhat like an NBA team that is willing to let a team pass the ball around the three point arc but never allows them to pass the ball into the area immediately around the hoop.
Atletico Pressing in Central Areas
So that shows how Diego Simeone’s team sets up when their opponent is in possession and isn’t looking to press the ball into the box. The Rojiblancos will give their opposition as much possession in the middle of the park as they want, provided they don’t try to push the ball into dangerous areas. One of the guiding principles here is that the vast majority of what goes on between the two 18-yard boxes does not matter.
That said, there are times in midfield areas where Atletico will try to squeeze their opponent. This is risky because players on the ball in central areas have more space and more places to play the ball than players in wide areas. So Atletico don’t press that often in midfield areas. That said, if a player gets the ball with his back to goal or a ball is slightly misplayed, then Atletico will clamp down and try to win back possession. Part of the genius of the system is that because they play so narrowly, anytime a ball is misplayed or a press is triggered they have a player or two nearby to hound the opposition player. The screen capture below shows one example of how this works. Xavi is on the ball here but is in the process of trying to turn, thus he isn’t able to play the ball quite as quickly or accurately. And Atletico’s two center forwards are playing deep enough that they can clam down on him quickly.
A second point to note here is that pressing the ball here is not risky. Simeone’s system is all about reducing risk and putting his team in positions where the odds are heavily in their favor. So even if they don’t win the ball… what’s Xavi going to do with it? He’s not in a position physically to play the ball wide or forward. He can shift it out wide to a fullback, but the fullback will receive it in a deeper part of the field. Or he can play the ball back to a defender or holding midfielder Sergio Busquets. In other words: Failing costs them nothing while success creates an instant goal-scoring chance as the two Atletico forwards suddenly are in possession and have tons of space to run into.
Atletico Pressing the Ball in Wide Areas
The other area where Atletico will press the ball is when it’s passed into wide areas. When this happens, the entire block (if you think of the ten players as basically consisting of two lines of four with a line of two on top) shifts left or right. Two or three players close down on the ball while the others either get ready to counter or sit back in case the trap fails and they have to keep defending. The screen capture below shows how Atletico close down on the ball in wide areas.
Here you can see how the whole team has shifted to the left as both left sided players and one of the midfielders close down the ball. There is a risk that the Atleti take in shifting this way, except it’s actually a very small risk: They are leaving the opposition’s left wing (Atletic’s right side) wide open. But this is a minor risk because the chances of a player who is being harried by three players being able to play a successful reverse ball across the field are remote. If he does try such a pass, he’s more likely to misplace it, in which case Atletico may win the ball or, worst case scenario, the opponent keeps possession and has to reset–which simply means Atletico reset to their narrow 4-4-2.
And in the event that they win the ball, which is more likely given that they have three players closing down on a small space where the opposing player doesn’t have many options, that means they are able to quickly launch a counter attack at the opposition. In the video below the ball was won higher up the pitch, but it was won in a wide area and Costa was already making his run on goal:
If you take Jose Mourinho’s system, remove the high-dollar flair players, and then make necessary adjustments (to compensate for the lack of high-dollar flair players), you end up with Diego Simeone’s Atletico. They are organized and compact, ruthless on the counter, and impossible to break down. Against weaker opposition this doesn’t always work because those teams won’t attack them in numbers. But against Real Madrid, Barcelona, and the top sides in the Champions League, Simeone’s Atletico are devastating. They likely won’t match last year’s accomplishment of winning La Liga and coming so painfully close to a European championship. But don’t be surprised if they win one major trophy this season.