What is Atlético’s optimum midfield combination?

In the second part of our series, we take a look at Atleti's midfield this season

Midfield has caused selection issues for Simeone this year

Midfield has caused selection issues for Simeone this year

Diego Simeone’s men have been below par recently; some would argue that they have been below par since the beginning of the season.

I, personally, have heard that critics are suggesting that this poor form has manifested since last season.

It is clear that Simeone opted for a change in philosophy – from an unpopular counterattacking football to a more popular possession football – due to the fact that Atleti are now considered one of the big boys in Europe, and are immediate contenders for any title they participate in.

Atleti started the season in a bore draw, against a newly promoted team, with a 433 formation fielding Tiago, Gabi and Saúl.

Cholo seemed to question his newly adopted philosophy that by the next game he reverted back to a very defensive 442 fielding four center-midfielders – with Gabi, Augusto, Koke and Saúl – that ended with goaless draw against another newly promoted team.

Simeone was quick to adjust the mistake, which his hastiness has caused, by fielding a relatively more offensive 442 with Carrasco, Saúl, Koke and Gabi in the middle of the park.

Fortunately for the Argentine, Atleti had thrashed a stubborn Celta side, away from home, with a 4-0 win. This was when Simeone decided to drop the 433 formation in favor of his trusted 442 one.

Atleti seemed to continue their positive form, while managing to steal a point from the Catalans at Camp Nou and a 1-0 win against a powerful Bayern, until the 1-0 loss at the Sanchez-Pizjuan proved otherwise. Ever since this match Atleti’s form has been fluctuating to say the least.

What could be the reason behind this bad run? There are a number of theories floating around, but commonly are targeting the creativity, flair and passing in the middle of the park.

The fans argue that the poor form in front of goal is due to the lack of quality chances created by the midfielders.

The team has an average of 51% possession per game, though in some matches that figure drops to a disturbing 30%, with an average of 79% successful passing.

The midfielders managed to create 194 scoring opportunities in 20 games, in La Liga, which averages to 10 chances/game. Though this figure seems to be rather decent in reality isn’t, considering the quality possessed in the middle of the park.

The number of miss-passes in the middle is definitely one of the main reasons the team is underperforming, as it gifts away possession way too quickly that sometimes leads to lethal counterattacks.

Though the team’s average pass accuracy is a rather decent 83%, the average pass length is a whopping 18 meters. For a close-knit bunch that closes down spaces and press high, the passes should be a lot shorter.

Quality

The midfield possesses a number of talented individuals. From to creative wingers, playmakers to box-to-box midfielders. The likes of Koke, Saúl, Carrasco and Gaitán are being targeted by the big clubs, which only speaks volumes of the talent they boast.

The likes of Tiago, Gabi and Augusto, though the former two might be past their prime, bring experience that helps orchestrate the middle.

This leads us to conclude that the team has no shortage of quality in the middle of the park, whether it is raw talent or years of experience.

Form

The quality is definitely there, so our next question is whether the players are giving their all or not on the field.

El Capitano, Gabi, has accumulated 1457 minutes in 18 matches, 1 coming on from the bench. The Spaniard has created only 12 chances in 1457, without fruitful results. He averages 60 passes per game with a 84% success rate. He has a low shot accuracy of 30% out of only 10 shots.

This could be due to the defensive duties Simeone bestows on his skipper. Defensively the skipper has an average of 3.4 tackles per game, 3rd highest in the team, with a success rate of 35% out of 123 tackles averaging 1.9 fouls per game, 2nd highest in the team.

He averages 2.4 interceptions per game tallying up 43 interceptions in 18 games. It is clear that the skipper has been falling short of the expectations he had the fans accustomed to in his previous seasons.

This is largely due to the fact that Gabi is not getting any younger. At 33 he has already seen his best form, both technically and physically, and can no longer cover the entire field for 90+ minutes, which explains why he only completed the full 90 minutes 11 times this season.

It will be a difficult task to find the right successor whom embodies everything that is Gabriel Fernández.

Tiago has accumulated 333 minutes, out of 9 matches with 5 coming on as a sub. Keeping in mind that Tiago has been facing fitness issues with multiple injuries this season.

Tiago has managed to create one chance, which wasn’t fruitful, scoring only one goal. In light of his rare appearances he managed to maintain a steady form, despite his only defensive error that lead to a goal against Villarreal in a 3-0 thrashing in December.

At 35 staying in shape is rather difficult, which explains the recent injury plague that hit the Portuguese international. It is quite clear that he is playing his last minutes in the red and white jersey, and a decent successor will be hard to come by.

Augusto managed to play 3 times, 1 of which he was sub. He showed great passion and prospect in the minutes he played. The Argentine suffered a horrific ACL tear, in September, against Deportivo La Coruña in the 19th minute. He is still recovering and could be available to finish off the season with Atleti.

Everyone knows that there ain’t no party without a Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian international has the least amount of minutes with only 41, from 4 matches with all coming off as a sub.

It is unfair to judge his performance, or even compare him to his teammates, due to his limited minutes. Though he does boast the joint highest shot accuracy with 100% and pass accuracy with 91%, with Tiago and Augusto respectively.

He clearly has the potential to cement down a place in the squad, and has showed the raw quality he possesses by helping his national team reach the semifinal in the AFCON taking home a MOTM award in the process.

Koke has accumulated 1674 minutes, 2nd highest, out of 19 matches playing the full 90 minutes except in one occasion. The Spaniard is the team’s most creative player contributing with 46 key-passes that lead to only 3 assists, as well as contributing with 2 goals of his own.

He boasts one of the highest average pass accuracies with 84% success rate. Koke’s short passing is one of his greatest traits which is evident as he successfully executed 1023, while misdirecting only 150.

However his long passes hasn’t been as successful with an average of 62%. Defensively Koke averages 2.2 tackles per game with a success rate of a lacking 33%, averaging only 1.4 interceptions per game.

It is evident that Koke, though the best performer in his team, is nowhere near his usual standards. The Spanish international will have to step it up if he is to justify being touted the new ‘Xavi’.

The jack-of-all-trades, Saúl, has accumulated 1256 minutes, out of 14 matches with 3 coming on as a sub. However he has only managed to score 2 goals and create 1 more in 17 matches, which is rather poor.

He averages the lowest pass accuracy in the squad with a success rate of 77%. His shot accuracy isn’t any better with a troubling 39% success rate. Defensively the Spaniard averages 2.6 tackles per game with a success rate of 33% only.

He tops the charts with an average of 2.2 fouls per game; fortunately none have lead to devastating chances for the opposition. Though Simeone includes him in almost every lineup, the youngster has been one of the poorest performers this season in the league; though he does perform better, as does the squad, in the Champions League.

His poor form is temporary and does not mean that Saúl should be shipped off to China. His versatility, physique and skills prove that he has great potential and should be given the time, on the bench, to rediscover his stride.

Carrasco has accumulated 1142 minutes, playing 19 matches with 5 coming on as sub. He has 6 goals to his name, while creating 2 more. Though 6 goals might sound appealing, it is in fact not as the Belgians shot accuracy stands at a low 48%.

His pass accuracy is rather decent with 81% success rate, but he has only managed to create 12 chances. Defensively Yannick has been rather poor as he does not always track back, but when he does he only manages to execute 29% of his tackles successfully.

It is obvious that Carrasco is one of the key players, and has proven to be the right man by bagging 6 goals in the beginning of the season. However his performances have slumped lately and haven’t been getting on well.

He clearly needs to improve in the final third, and help his team out more often in the back. The Belgian has got what it takes to become world-class, but he needs to settle down and focus on his game to overcome his goal drought mentally before he does physically.

Last but not least, Gaitán, has accumulated only 533 minutes from 12 matches, with 7 coming on as a sub. The Argentine international got on the scoreboard 3 times this season but has failed to create any.

In his 12 appearances he managed to create only 11 chances, with an average pass accuracy of 79%, which explains why he hasn’t got an assist to his name yet. For a creative playmaker, his stats clearly show the he’s underperforming.

It took him a while to gain Cholo’s confidence and trust in order to be included in the lineup, but it seems has hasn’t met his compatriot’s expectations yet.

There is no question regarding Nico’s qualities, though the philosophy of the team might be hampering his style. Once the winger fully acclimates to the tactics, there is no reason to think he wouldn’t shine.

Partnerships

In the 6 draws and 5 defeats in the league, which the team performed the worst, the midfield saw a Carrasco and Saúl on the flanks while Koke partnered with Gabi in the middle; with the exception of the Villarreal and Sevilla matches where Tiago and Correa started respectively.

It was during these matches where Atleti recorded the lowest pass accuracy and possession, as well as highest amounts of fouls and miss-pass.

In their comfortable wins, with 2 or more goals, Simeone had fielded Carrasco and Correa, or Gaitán, on the flanks, while Koke partnered Gabi, Tiago or Saúl in the middle. The 3-0 win against Osasuna saw Simeone field Koke and Correa on the flanks while Gabi partnered Tiago in the middle.

From the stats we can deduce a common factor, which is that when Koke is deployed in the center while Correa plays out wide, the team performs a lot better.

When Carrasco plays down the left flank, given he has a good day, the team plays better too. When Saúl is deployed on either flank, the team does not perform so well, though he does manage to get on the scoreboard himself.

However when Saúl partners Koke in the middle, the team seems to perform better offensively yet defensively appear shaky.

We can deduce that the optimum midfield formation is when Cholo deploys, from left to right, Carrasco – Koke – Gabi – Correa. This has proven that the team as a whole holds up possession a lot more, and utilizing it efficiently through quick short passes and creative football, while still remaining solid in the back with the exception of personal errors from the defence.

Look out for our third part in the series coming this weekend!


  • It should be clarified that the 79% pass accuracy refers to the team as whole, while the 84% refers to the midfielders alone.

    Just in case it wasn’t clear enough.

  • koke

    I really appreciate these articles. I think our best midfield is Gaitan-Gabi-Koke, like we saw yesterday. Alternatively, Carrasco-Koke-Gabi-Gaitan, if you want a 4-4-2 (same players though). Simeone was doing it perfectly until that loss to Sevilla, then he reverted to ultra conservative again. And coincidentally, right before Sevilla is when we were playing our best football of the Simeone era. Also, there is zero evidence from this season that having Gaitan instead of Saul/Tiago/Augusto in the midfield makes our team any more vulnerable defensively. If anything, Gaitan presses hard, meaning we defend from the front like in the good old days, rather than just sitting in our own half inviting pressure. When you invite pressure, goals like Messi’s from yesterday happen.

    I can’t wait for Thomas to return. The kid deserves to fight for a starting spot.

  • Cheers! The tactical situation, morale and formations will be addressed at the end of the 3 part series.
    Stay tuned!

  • STALKER

    Can Simeone place a B team CM instead of Saul?

    Correa-Torres-Griezmann
    Gaitan-B/team-Koke
    Filipe-Lucas-Godin-Juanfran
    Moya

  • STALKER

    Subs: Carrasco/LW – Rober/SK – B-team/AM

  • Koke

    I’m happy to see this site grow, and grateful that people like you are committed to pitching in with great content!

  • STALKER

    Thomas is back.

  • AndersAT

    I would go with a 433:

    Gabi, Koke
    Augusto (when he comes back)

    Gaitan, Thomas and Saul could rotate in, with Gaitan also being able to play as one of the 3 forwards along with Griezmann, Carrasco and Correa. I don’t have much trust in gameiro anymore.

  • STALKER

    Thomas is a beast.

  • AnonX

    The problem to me actually is when the manager do not determine objectives for what the team should be ‘Fighting’ for game by game, be it ‘Fighting’ to win by at 3 goal margin with clean sheet, Defending an away goal lead or Coming back from two goal deficit.
    Then we won’t be activated.
    Coming into the game with a fearful and negative set up with no goals than just trying to not concede is Nothing But Kryptonite to Atletico de Madrid.

    Our Real Strength wasn’t utilized. That to me was the unidentified cause.

    Aupa ATLETI !

  • Aqil Azhan

    Yeah you got the point there.I hope the next match against leganes the team shouldn’t concede any goals.I’m expecting at least 3-0.