Welcome to our preview of Atleti and Chelsea - it promises to be a cagey affair for the mainstream viewer but for the tactical nerd, a game to be savoured. It is highly unlikely there will be many goals scored, but there should be plenty of shape shifting in and out of possession as both sides try to grind their way to a win albeit with completely different types of philsophies and approaches to the game.
Atleti will try to strangle and stifle Chelsea - should not be too hard based on Chelsea's recent showing against Southampton - and hit them on the counter in typical Simeone style, whilst Tuchel's side will try to control the game to a tee, starve Madrid of any possession and look to produce that picture perfect opening to finally unlock the finest defence in La Liga. If Chelsea's defence opens up like it did for Minamino, one shudders at the thought of Luis Suarez being unleashed against it although for all his recent plaudits, he does not have the same athleticism he once possessed.
When Atletico Madrid lost their opening fixture to defending champions Bayern Munchen, many experts believed the end was near for Simeone's tenure at the club. There was a lot of talk on how the team had come a full circle under his management. There were rumours that the Argentine wanted a new challenge and many clubs were linked. Unsurprising as he along with Klopp was THE coach of the 2010's and thus one of the most sought after coaches in the world.
The slow start to Atleti's season was looked upon as a phase of transition. Atletico, after all, had lost the Quarter final in last season's Champions League to a very youthful RB Leipzig side against a coach who was brimming with new ideas and verve. The manner of defeat did not go down well with the fans. The system as many pointed out, looked one dimensional and there was an evident lack of invention especially upfront. The start to the new season was pretty slow as well. In fairness to Simeone, with lack of preseason, players were expected to lack a bit of match practice as well as match fitness.
But come the business end of the season, there has been an undoubted transformation of fortune. Soon enough, Atletico were winning matches especially key ones. With 23 matches played, Atletico Madrid sit top of La Liga with record of only 2 defeats so far in this campaign. So how did it all change? For starters, there was a clear change in the tactical set up. Secondly there has been more focus on individual growth with players being allowed more freedom at certain areas of the pitch. Another key aspect has been the refocus on transitions. (both offensive and defensive).
With every match, Simeone seems to have developed a liking for playing 3 at the back. Of course, the 3 would become 5 in a defensive transition but Madrid do look more stable in this set up. This tactical set up has allowed them to be more stable and hard to break down whilst still enabling them to generate attacking momentum of their own. The numbers in attack are greater while the defense can also shift to a less risky outlook. As a result, the midfielders have to work extra hard to support both the front line and the back line - a key tenet of Simeone sides which function well.
The results are for all to see. Atletico have been winning matches at will. Players look to have upgraded themselves on another level. Koke looks to have revived his career. Llorente has continued his rise with some excellent performances. Felix is finally showing form while Luis Suarez has turned back the years, and been their key man in form scoring for fun. At the back Savic, Hermoso and Gimenez have become a stable combination having conceded only 16 goals in total.
Simeone's main weapon, however, are his wing backs. Carrasco provides the skill set on the left that helps combine with players like Lemar and Felix to unlock the opposition defense while Trippier on the right helps in giving box to box consistency needed to balance the books. It is this zonal occupancy that has given Simeone's side the ability transition in numbers whilst also providing safe cover. In other words, Atletico can very well play a flat 4-4-2 if need be. they can shift to 3 at the back to shape themselves for more attack and play 5 in defense if they need to protect a lead.
What this has done is that Simeone's side have now found the perfect formula once again. It affords them consistency at the highest level. It also provides players with the new level of confidence and opportunity to show bravado especially against the top sides. This Atletico side is seemingly getting better with every match (withstanding the recent stumble on the domestic scene). Simeone is slowly and gradually building another beast for the big time glory.
It would be fair to say that Chelsea, under new coach Thomas Tuchel, look far more exciting and purposeful. A lot of it has to do with the new system and set up. Indeed, much of it can be down to the players trying to impress the new coach in charge. But Chelsea look a different outfit as opposed to what they did under Frank Lampard. Quite evident are the new ideas in play, not just in training (like the use of smaller panel balls for more control) but also in real time matches (such as the introduction of Hudson Odoi at right wing back, even Pulisic has played in that role).
What Tuchel brings with him is the tactical superiority that many clubs do not have. He can change the tactical set up of his side to give them the advantage. His system changes during the course of the game and he is very flexible in his approach to big matches. Chelsea are unbeaten so far as they sit fourth and continue their rise to the Champions League spots in the English Premier League. The German is never shy in making the brave call as we saw in their last draw to Southampton where Hudson Odoi was subbed off in just 31 minutes.
It is an approach that has given the London club confidence ahead of their match against Atletico Madrid. They look to have themselves a good combination of talented players that will give any side a run for their money. Not just because they have a talented squad but because they have a talented coach who knows how to get the best out of the squad at his disposal.
The system begins with a 3-4-3 but it shifts drastically during the course of games. It is basically a 3-2-4-1 that can be broken down into two phases; Attack and Defense. The attack is all about dominance on the flanks. While Ben Chilwell has been somewhat overlooked, Tuchel has relied on the likes of Hudson Odoi or James on the right and Marcos Alonso on the left to provide him with the width. Both flanks are directed to expand the pitch as much as possible and create one v one with the opponents.
The central midfielders playing in front of the back 3, namely Jorginho and Kovacic are tasked with giving the team the tempo to build upon. Kovacic is their main playmaker and he provides with the drive and force to dominate the midfield with his silky touch and tactical awareness. He is the most important player in Tuchel's system. When he is not around, Jorginho takes over the responsibility. But the system relies heavily on the 2 central midfielders.Tuchel also prefers roaming attackers upfront. He prefers players playing off a target man in an essentially second striker/playmaker style approach which is makes life difficult for the opposition. Neymar was his go to man at PSG. Here at Chelsea, the German has played too floating attacking midfielders with specific duties. Whoever starts between Mount, Ziyech, and Pulisic, the mission is to create space by pulling the opposition away. Even Werner has played the withdrawn role albeit with the mixed response.Question marks remain upfront as none of the striker have been convincing as of yet. but with the team playing controlled possession with passing stats at an all time high, Chelsea are breaking their own club records in this regard. In terms of results, they are unbeaten and will look to continue that trend in Europe. Tough task ahead but with results so far it is clear that Tuchel is a man that can make things happen.
It is always interesting to see teams that have similar tactical set ups and like for like player duels and yet the systems and approaches are fairly polar opposites. Simeone likes to keep things assured and stable with less risks while Tuchel likes to chop and change to find a way through the opposition. Both coaches have their own way of thinking and their own approach to matches. Both will play 3 at the back and yet there could be only one side attacking and taking the game to their opposite number while the other sits back and closes their space with an assured defensive display.
Simeone might start with a backline of 3 but he may shift to 4 or maybe 5 at the back to nullify the threat coming from Chelsea's flanks while also adding another midfielder to nullify the threat from the middle. Tuchel's side will most likely take control of possession and will rely on intelligent movement from their attackers to generate space. But stats can be deceiving and for all their control, it might take moment of brilliance from an inform finisher (Luis Suarez) that could decide the game.
Chelsea have been warned. It is a two-legged tie of course and this might not be the end of it. A neutral ground at Bucharest favors the Londoners with no crowd advantage for Atletico. But Chelsea have not really faced elite opposition under Tuchel yet. And while Simeone has been successful with his modified system in La Liga, for both coaches and their respective sides this is the first true test of the season under their respective coaches.
Atletico Madrid: J. Oblak, Savic, Felipe, Hermoso, Kondogbia, Llorente, Lodi, Koke, J. Felix, S. Niguez, L. Suarez
Chelsea: E. Mendy, K. Zouma, A. Rudiger, C.Azpiliqueta, R. James, M. Alonso, N. Kante, Kovacic, Mount, T. Werner, O. Giroud
Prediction: A 1-1 first leg draw.
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