When Diego Simeone joined Atlético Madrid in 2011 as first team coach there were very few people around the world who suggested that it would lead to such a prolonged period of success for the club. The Argentine coach was already a firm favourite at the club after making 98 appearances over three seasons at the club and eventually becoming the club captain.
His coaching career, however, had been mixed to this point, having already coached six clubs over a five-year spell and having chosen to return to his native Argentina after just a single season in European football with Catania of Italy.
What we have seen since his appointment has amounted to something of a perfect storm. Simeone found a club that already had a core of exciting young players that were ready to be taken to the next level. He has been able to make his side completely buy into his footballing philosophy and give him the level of work rate that he demands. The results have been incredible.
Simeone led Atlético to the Europa League crown in his first season and has added a La Liga title, a European Super Cup and a Copa Del Rey to that list. Atlético have also made it to the Champions League final in two of the last three seasons.
This season, however, has been mixed for fans of the club. Simeone as assembled arguably his strongest squad with attacking depth in the form of Kevin Gameiro and Nicolás Gaitán adding to the existing defensive strength of the squad. That positive light faded somewhat with the news that Simeone and the Atlético board had reworked his contract.
Having recently extended his deal until 2020, Simeone requested that the expiry date be brought forward to 2018. This has led to speculation that Simeone is coming to the end of his tenure in Spain and will look to move to Italy within the next two seasons. This speculation amongst media and fans, however, has done little to slow down the productive season for Atlético as they welcomed Granada to the Vicente Calderon.
Atlético lined up in Simeone’s favoured 4-4-1-1 shape with Griezmann playing slightly off his fellow Frenchman Kevin Gameiro. This appears to be the favoured strike partnership, with both players capable of finding space behind the opposition’s back line and leading the defensive transition with their ability to press the opposite team.
In midfield, the central area was patrolled as usual by a combination of Gabi and Koke. The biggest surprise came with the inclusion of Argentine winger Ángel Correa on the left. The opposite flank was patrolled by the player who has made the greatest improvement for Atlético this season, Belgian Yannick Ferreira Carrasco.
The defensive unit was unchanged with Juanfran and Filipe Luis flanking Stefan Savić and Diego Godín.
Initial issues for Atletico
Under Simeone, Atlético are traditionally strong starters although in this match they experienced problems with Granada over the first 30 minutes. The 4-4-2 structure that Simeone favours is constructed to provide a strong defensive core which forces the opposition to either play around the defensive block or try to force their way through centrally, which plays to the strengths of Atlético.
The early stages of this match, however, saw Granada experience some success in finding space centrally between the defensive and midfield units for Atlético.
Here you can see Granada managing to penetrate the Atlético defensive structure centrally in transition with space opened up between the midfield and defence.
As the Granada striker takes possession of the ball centrally with his back to goal they are in an advantageous 3v3 scenario. As a result of the Atlético defenders having to mark man to man, they in a straight line with no cover in behind. In this situation it is extremely easy for the opposition to play a through ball in the space opened up between defensive players for an attacking player to run on to.
Atlético find their feet
Granada were able to take a shock 1-0 lead with Cuenca finding space on the edge of the box to fire past the unusually hesitant Jan Oblak. After this, however, the home side settled back into their familiar patterns and found their feet defensively.
Here you can see a typical defensive scenario from Atlético under Simeone. As Granada look to build through the thirds – as opposed to accessing the central area through a quick transition – they quickly come upon a fully developed defensive block ahead of them.
The lack of space between the midfield and defence forced Granada to play the ball out into the wide areas. In normal circumstances this is a perfectly viable method of attacking a side in a medium to low block as they look to stretch Atlético horizontally across the field and create space to play in to centrally. The 4-4-1-1 of Atlético is a different proposition entirely. As soon as the attack shifts to the wide areas they are drilled to force their way across the field and to press the man in possession in the wide areas to force a mistake.
The truth is that there is no easy way to play through this Atlético side.
This is a clip captured from the second half of the match and shows how well drilled the Atlético side is. As one of the strikers moves across to press the man in possession, the second striker retains a relatively high position to cover the pass into the central defenders and to present a passing option should they regain possession from the press.
The alignment of the defensive unit from there minimises the options that Granada have in the Atlético third of the pitch. The only possible passing option for the man in possession is back to his supporting team-mate 10 yards deeper in the same passing lane. Should that pass me made and the angle of the attack kept the same, then the Atlético press will simply move up in the same structure looking to force a turnover.
Atlético press intelligently
Atlético press and work relentlessly in the defensive phase of the game. The high work ethic of the side is a key characteristic as Simeone demands complete commitment to the team for the full 90 minutes of every match.
We have already seen that, in their own half, Atlético trigger an aggressive press when the ball is contained in wide areas but they also press high up the field at the point of transition to force a quick turnover of the ball.
Here is an example of Granada trying to play out from the back and finding Atlético pressing them straight away. The key to the initial press is the man closest to the ball, who is unlikely to be able to regain the ball on his own but he can use his body shape to cover the easiest pass and escape the press. The second and third players that press the ball are more likely to regain the ball and they force a hurried pass from the man in possession.
There are only two options for Granada to access the forward pass from this scenario. Option number one is an angled pass to the previously covered defender. This is a dangerous pass as the secondary pressing player is positioned to challenge the loose ball.
Option two is a longer and more difficult pass that would access the central area of the pitch. Any pass longer than 10 yards in this scenario has a lower percentage chance of being completed, with two or three players in position to try to cut the pass out.
Above, Atlético are pressing not only in the opposition’s half but also in the wide areas of the pitch. The structure of the press is similar to that seen above, with three players set out to engage in the initial press and two more players positioned to prevent the pass from being played forwards or backwards in the same passing lane.
Neither passing option has a high percentage chance of being completed and the press will most likely be successful in recovering the ball.
Use of midfielders in the build-up
It is a normal occurrence in football today to see a central midfielder dropping deep in the initial build up and splitting the central defenders to facilitate easier circulation of the ball. With the two central midfielders in the 4-4-1-1 system, however, we see different mechanisms utilised.
As the ball is being brought out from the back, the far side full-back advances into an attacking area and leaves his zone unattended. One of the two central midfielders will then drop into the half space on that side of the pitch in a deeper zone to allow a passing option should the man in possession be pressed.
The other central midfielder will retain his central pivot role to allow the ball to be played into his feet and for it to be pivoted to a supporting team-mate.
As Atlético then move into a more advanced attacking area, the central midfielders will retain their deeper shape, allowing the wide players to move infield and the full-backs to advance down the wide areas.
It’s not often that a team will win 7-1 and an analysis of the match will only touch upon the attacking aspects of the performance. That speaks to the strengths of Atlético under Diego Simeone that sit with the defensive organisation and pressing triggers.
When Atlético attack it tends to be quick and direct, looking to overwhelm the opposition quickly and prevent the them from building an effective defensive unit. This is why they tend to struggle against teams that sit deep and refuse to attack in numbers.
We may only have another season or two to enjoy this Atlético side under Simeone before he leaves for a new challenge. Few in the football world would bet against the Argentine coach adding more silverware before he does move on.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis