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Atletico Madrid vs Man United Pre-Match Tactical Analysis

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Champions League: Atletico Madrid vs Man United Pre-Match Tactical Analysis ahead of their Wednesday clash in the UEFA Champions League

Let’s talk about Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid versus Ralf Rannick’s Man United. Both of these teams are flawed, but one has to win.

Atletico’s switch to a 5-3-2 block has been the hallmark of Simeone’s tactical evolution in the past couple of years. However, the block still resembles a 4-4-2 a lot of the time, and this is because of the way he wants to create defensive overloads to press within his mid-block.

Atletico Madrid are an aggressive team, but passive in style. They allow the opposition to build play out from the back through their central defenders and goalkeeper. This can see them get pushed back into their low 5-3-2 block with relative ease.

However, Simeone’s style isn’t as reductionist as just defending deep. The Argentinian attempts to defend aggressively within that mid-block to;

1) Force the opposition back into a deeper phase of build-up or

2) Win the ball back & exploit them in transition/mount a settled attack

Atletico Madrid attempt to achieve this by creating defensive overloads on the sides which has always been a staple of Simeone’s game. When the fullback receives possession, the ball-side wide player presses him & the midfielders & fullback on that side of the pitch match up aggressively.

However, considering Atletico Madrid play a 5-3-2 block, they also encourage the wingback to step up and become a part of the midfield in case the opposition fullback receives on the far side of the pitch.

So, this means that Atletico Madrid are successful in pressing teams’ fullbacks within their mid-block on each side of the pitch. This means that their block is more aggressive than the typical mid-block and it means they can create via pressing/transitional moments high up the pitch.

However, the reality of the situation remains. Atletico Madrid typically let teams play out from the back. They will only press high if the opposition have a throw deep in their own half, if their own attack breaks down in the final third, or within the above examples.

Otherwise, Atletico Madrid are forced back into a low block. So, for Man United, it’ll be imperative for their fullbacks to deal with these defensive overloads on the sides with technical security. They can opt to recycle and work another attack or be aggressive and play through the press.

Either option can work, but the balance between the two makes the most sense. If Man United are secured in this regard they can stifle the successfulness of the mid-block press and ultimately drain Atletico Madrid physicality and mentality before pushing them back and sustaining pressure.

If Atletico Madrid are successful within those pressing moments, they have a lot of technical quality to keep the ball or create something in transition, but the don’t have a pacey outlet to immediately punish teams in behind their discombobulated transitional defensive shape.

The same outlet-issues dampens Atletico Madrid’s transitional threat when defending deep. They lack players to help them get up the pitch quickly. They’re very reliant on technical quality to find passes into the feet of Correa/Griezmann/Suarez/Felix, but that’s such a tough task.

It’s near impossible to find a ‘to feet’ player high up the pitch straight after the oppositions attack breaks down in the final third. There are countless players in close proximity ready to counterpress. Koke, De Paul, and co are top technicians but still can’t reliably do it.


Atletico Madrid are compact when defending deep within their 5-3-2 block which covers the width of the pitch well and their player profiles are athletic, tenacious and good at defending their box in the air. But, because of that outlet flaw, they’re easy to sustain pressure against.

Atletico Madrid are a pain in the ass to play against because of their relatively compact tactical approach, physical nature and the notorious hostility within their style, but when judging them in terms of pure quality, they’re quite simply not that good, or at least anymore.

They are relatively easy to build play against, they’re not particularly dangerous or great at creating transitional moments, and they’re pretty easy to pin back. Alright, they’ve got some top players, but the tactical flaws and player profile issues are clear for all to see.

Again, when considering how Man United play, Atletico Madrid will also have to deal with some difficult defensive rotations. Man United play in a 4-3-3 with two touchline wingers so when the play is circulated and switched, Atletico Madrid’s centre backs will have to come out and mark the winger.

The ball-side wingback will have to push on and press the fullback within the midfield line so the ball-side centre back will have to push out to ensure the winger isn’t unmarked. This requires aggression. The longer Man United have the ball, the less likely Atletico Madrid will commit to this.

Man United have a lot of areas they can exploit Atletico Madrid in, but Atletico Madrid’s  CB’s will have a lot of time on the ball because of how wide United’s wingers are in their pressing block. So, Atletico Madrid will get joy in settled possession. Atletico Madrid are also very physical. United must be too.

Atletico primarily punt the ball long from goal kicks to challenge for 1st and 2nd balls in midfield. United are flawed in this regard, but can also get joy here. It’s a key game feature. If United win the duel, they can exploit Atletico Madrid’s high line with runners in behind.

Atletico Madrid, on the other hand, don’t have those runners apart from Carrasco, so they’re not as dangerous in that regard. Alternatively, Simeone’s men will attempt to win those duels with their tenacious battling characters to take control away from United and make the game a battle of chaos which they’re experts at.

This is something that Atletico Madrid excel at and United don’t. The likes of Pogba & Bruno Fernandes aren’t midfield battlers. They’re flair players. Atletico Madrid don’t have players like that apart from J. Felix. United have the physical qualities, but not the characters. That wanes in games.

So, what I mean by that is the likes of Pogba will be aggressive early on because they’re fresh and motivated to attack the game, but as the game wears on in terms of physical and mental demands, Atletico Madrid’s players will get the better of United as they’re battlers at heart.

Here, Atletico Madrid can sustain pressure and create within their 4-4-2 attack via wing combinations, crosses into the box, or general combinations between the lines. However, they must be wary of United’s counter-attacking qualities within these moments which can be devastating.

Overall, on paper, the game is in Man United’s hands. They can play out from the back with ease, can force Atletico Madrid’s mid-block press back if technically secure, and sustain pressure vs their lack of outlets if technically secure again. There is a lot of factors in United’s favour.

As for Atletico Madrid, their CB’s will have time on the ball, but not often. Settled Atletico Madrid possession won’t be a common theme unless they’re dominating midfield duels and pinning United back, but even at that Man United are no slouches in those duels physicality & threat wise in transition.

If Man United don’t crumble mentally within the atmosphere (particularly technically and physically), they’re more likely to win, despite their flaws. Atletico Madrid are a relatively compact and resilient bunch, but they’re very exploitable in a number of regards.

However, overall, even when considering all game themes at hand, it’s difficult to pinpoint a clear winner. The game is in Man United’s hands but they’re not a particularly reliable bunch. They are favorites to progress over the tie, but let’s see what Man United shows up in Spain first.

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