Football Features

A guide to exploiting Atletico Madrid’s uncharacteristic defensive weaknesses

By Sam Leveridge, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 13:59, 22 February 2022 | Updated: 14:11, 23 February 2022

Long gone are the days of a trip to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano being a daunting prospect for rival European sides.

In fact, Atlético Madrid are yet to win a home fixture in the Champions League this season, with only one win on home turf in the past two years in Europe’s elite competition.

Much of that is down to the fact that, this season, Atlético Madrid’s defence has become the laughing stock of La Liga. Diego Simeone’s team no longer defend as a solid block as they once did. Where a defensive unit saw them past Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich and Luis Enrique’s Barcelona only a few years ago, it is now their greatest weakness.

With Manchester United now facing Los Rojiblancos in the Champions League last 16, the Red Devils will be licking their lips at the chance of coming up against some of Atlético’s defensive weaknesses. Here, we’ll take you through four key areas that Ralf Rangnick will be hoping to exploit.

Take your chances against Jan Oblak

For most European fans who don’t follow Atlético Madrid closely, Jan Oblak is the name of a titanic goalkeeper who stops everything that comes his way. This season, that perception couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Since Oblak became a regular between the sticks in 2014/15, he never once conceded more goals than his Expected Goals Against. This season, he has conceded a whopping 11.23 more than would be expected, putting him as the worst-performing goalkeeper in La Liga in that regard.

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This is not to say that pot shots from distance are a surefire way through, but Manchester United’s attackers should be buoyed by the fact that Oblak is not as confident as he once was. Caught out by floating crosses, such as against Cádiz, and beaten at his near post, as he was by Valencia, show the kind of basic errors that mean Cristiano Ronaldo and company may not have to be at their most clinical to beat him.

That said, by keeping a first away clean sheet of the season at El Sadar on Saturday, Oblak produced one of his strongest performances of the season. That could give him a real confidence boost at the perfect time.

Pace in attack is a killer

Atleti’s defence is one of the slowest of those left in the Champions League, and with injury likely to deny José María Giménez the chance to feature, the defence just got even slower. Should Simeone go with his expected defence of Stefan Savić, Felipe and Mario Hermoso, anyone with pace could have a field day.

Hermoso, whilst possessing the most pace, is the one who struggles most. Adama Traoré ran rings around him at Camp Nou only a few weeks ago, with his trademark pace all that was needed to give the central defender a nightmare afternoon, beating him in four out of five take-ons.

Felipe, too, will struggle. Now aged 32, his best is far behind him, and any kind of good movement is enough to dislocate him and leave gaps in Atlético’s defensive unit. The thought of Ronaldo tormenting him alone is enough to fill Atlético fans with dread.

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This was a point that Liverpool sought to exploit when the two teams met in the group stages and did so with devastating impact. Sadio Mané, in particular, would look to drift central and then drop deep, inviting Felipe to join him, and then tempt him into committing needless fouls. It ended up with the Brazilian dismissed before half-time at Anfield.

A lack of youth and speed is not unique to Atlético in Spanish defences, but they do experience it more than most. The thought of a confident Jadon Sancho cutting inside and taking one of these defenders on will be a worry.

Target Atleti’s right flank

Following the departure of Kieran Trippier in the January transfer window as he joined Newcastle United, Atlético have had a weakness on the right of their defence. Daniel Wass was brought in as an experienced replacement from Valencia, but promptly got injured in a crunching tackle on his debut against Barcelona and will now miss much of what’s left of the season.

That leaves Simeone in a difficult position. The right-back slot will present him with one of his selection headaches as he must decide whether to go with Šime Vrsaljko or Marcos Llorente. The decision will be a clear reflection of just how brave the coach is being and whether Atleti will look to sit deep or not. Keeping Llorente in midfield, rather than defence, would suggest that Atleti are looking to play in a much more expansive way.

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Llorente is an adept defender, capable of keeping up in a foot race and adding some vital pace down the flanks, but he’s limited. His real strengths lie in his explosive runs forward which are constrained when operating as a wing-back. Where Yannick Carrasco has found the perfect balance on the left, Llorente remains either overly committed to defence and offers little going forward, or leaves himself exposed in defence.

Vrsaljko is the alternative, but is one that lacks the quality to play in such a high-profile fixture. His contract is up in the summer and he is not expected to remain at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano beyond June 30th. Simeone has tended to go with him in some crucial fixtures this season, but often ends up pulling him off early on, like when he was hauled off at half-time in the defeat to Barcelona.

Be prepared for changes

If anything has typified Atlético’s struggles of late, it has been Simeone’s indecision in how he lines his team up. That is almost certain to continue again against Manchester United. In more than half of Atleti’s fixtures in the 2022 calendar year, Simeone has made changes to switch the shape or system of his team at least once before the hour mark. More often than not, that involves switching between a back five and a back four.

The opportunity for Manchester United lies in that Atleti are not a flexible side who can adapt quickly. That means that Atleti are at their most vulnerable at these points in the game where changes are made. In particular, there is often a real lack of cover from the midfield. Central midfielders Koke and Rodrigo de Paul lack the bite or defensive protection that the backline needs.

It is a role which has only been fulfilled successfully this season by Geoffrey Kondogbia, given that he averages 3 tackles per match, compared to Koke’s 1.9 and De Paul’s 1.3, yet he seems unlikely to feature there against United. Bruno Fernandes will be looking to target this area in a similar way to how Mikel Merino did in Real Sociedad’s Copa del Rey win.

There has been some improvement in this regard in recent weeks, with the arrival of Reinildo on the left offering more flexibility, but it remains a weak point in Atleti’s armour. If Manchester United can react quickly to those changes and target Atlético before they settle back into their rhythm, they may be able to capitalise by striking while the iron is hot.

Article produced by Sam Leveridge in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown