While much has been made of Chelsea’s new-found defensive solidity and an upturn in form since the German arrived at Stamford Bridge, Diego Simeone’s side pose a truly different threat than when they have faced Chelsea in recent years.
Los Rojiblancos are thriving at the top of La Liga and are playing with more attacking intent this season. Their recent performances suggest this game will have a different dynamic to the last few encounters between the London and Madrid outfits.
While Atletico have always been one of the best defensive sides in Europe under Simeone, they are now a real threat going forward as well. They are a goal short of doubling their tally in La Liga at this stage last season.
We decided to look at what ‘Cholo’ has done to make his side so effective going forward this season.
Atletico Madrid’s New Challenge for Chelsea
While it took Joao Felix a season to settle in at the Wanda Metropolitano, this season he has shown why Atleti paid €113 million for him. The Portuguese has been able to find himself isolated less often and is operating more like a number 10 this season.
The 21-year-old has nine goals and five assists to his name already this season, but the stats don’t do justice to his influence. He has often been the best player on the pitch for Atletico Madrid and a major factor in their increasingly fluid attack and newfound creativity around the box this season.
Part of the reason he has been able to find this form is because of summer signing Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan signed from rivals Barcelona and is tied with Lionel Messi at the top of La Liga’s goalscoring chart. He is consistently making a difference for Simeone’s side.
Suarez’s ability to link with Felix has changed Atletico this season. Using his impressive technical ability to play with his back to goal, he has added quality to his side’s build-up play to be worth more than just his goal tally. The pair are proving to be a world-class strike partnership.
A Change of Shape
Over the last decade, 4-4-2 and Diego Simeone have become synonymous. This season the Argentine has proven he is willing to adapt. While he has not abandoned this shape, he has successfully experimented with several formations.
3-5-2, 3-4-2-1, and 3-1-4-2 are some of the shapes Simeone has implemented this season. They have also adapted their usual shape to look more like a 4-4-1-1 while attacking, allowing Felix more of a free-roaming position.
These set-ups have all meant more positions that allow for fluidity in the final third exist. These positions have meant more of their players can focus on creating chances more often than avoiding concession.
They have also given more license to the full-backs to overlap and play crosses. Yannick Carrasco, Marcos Llorente and Thomas Lemar are some of the attacking-minded players that have caused havoc for opposition from wing-back/wide-midfield positions in these new formations.
While full-backs crossing has always been an important part of Atletico’s attack, forward-minded players being put in positions with less defensive responsibility has helped make them even more threatening.
Traditionally the central midfielders in Simeone’s Atletico Madrid sides have been defensively focused. The job of midfielders like Gabi, Rodri and Thomas Partey was to defend properly first and foremost.
Notably, this season Koke has played centrally instead of his usual position on the wing. He has been allowed to break forward from his holding midfield position and join the attack to create more chaos among opposition defences.
The Spanish international has joined the attack and created a triangle with Suarez and Felix. When three players play in midfield, the likes of Saul Niguez have also been allowed to roam and create an attacking quartet.
The midfielders have repaid Simeone’s faith with exceptional performances. Despite Atletico’s efforts to attack quickly, they have averaged more than 50% possession this season for the first time in many years.
Strikingly, Simeone has shown this ambition against the toughest opposition this season. When playing sides like Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Barcelona his side was given more freedom to move forward than in previous years. This has been consistent throughout the season, despite some losses, including a 4-0 defeat to Bayern.
He is unlikely to change that now against Chelsea. That should lead to a very different type of performance from Atletico than Premier League fans might expect.