Real Madrid: Tactically breaking down the 1-0 win over Atalanta

Real Madrid, Ferland Mendy (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Ferland Mendy (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

Los Blancos clinched a hard-working 1-0 away victory in Bergamo against 10-man Atalanta thanks to a spectacular goal from Ferland Mendy, 4 minutes from time. Mendy displayed sublime technique as he curled the ball with his weak foot, from 25 yards out, to put Real Madrid in the driving seat in their last 16 tie. In fact, the goal was so impressive and crucial to the tie that it even drew a rare smile from the usually stoic Zidane.

Isco was handed a rare start in a false nine role, in the absence of Karim Benzema, while Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio joined him in the flanks to form a three-man attack. As expected, the Kroos-Modric-Casemiro trio started in midfield while Lucas Vazquez, Nacho Fernandez, Raphael Varane, and Ferland Mendy took up the remaining four spots as teamsheet regular Thibaut Courtois took his position between the sticks.

The game started on a relatively slower note, with neither side taking initiative, but the first talking point of the game came in the 17th minute. The chance originated after Kroos-Modric-Casemiro resisted the press in the centre of the pitch with quick switches of play in between them. Ferland Mendy, recognising the opportunity, made a darting run into the space in front of him when the ball was played to Vinicius on the flank, while the opposition players looked disjointed because of the failed press and the quick switches of play that took place beforehand. And just like that Ferland Mendy was through on goal before he was brought down by Freuler on the edge of the box. Tobias Stieler, the referee, wasted no time in reaching for his pocket to show a red card and sent Remo Freuler into the backroom for an early shower.

For a team whose principles rely on its collective quality and the man-to-man approach for its press, the numerical disadvantage was a big hit for Atalanta.

The best chance of the first half came right on the stroke of half-time. Toni Kroos delivered his trademark cross into the area from a freekick, which was met by Casemiro only to be equally matched by Pierluigi Gollini. Real Madrid started the second half by creating another good chance as Luka Modric’s shot from the edge of the box was deflected a yard away from the bottom post as everyone looked over in slow motion. Real created a couple of good chances again, but Vinícius somehow ended up lifting his shot over the bar while Isco’s deflected shot did not even trouble the goalkeeper.

Los Blancos were without a number of key first-team players through injury, and it showed for almost the entire game. As has been the case all season, Real Madrid again faced difficulty to penetrate the opposition box. As the game grew on, the hosts withdrew deeper and deeper into the pitch, with Real Madrid ultimately dominating possession courtesy of their game plan and their superior technical quality. Atalanta changed to a 5-4-1 off-the-ball shape to cope up with the loss in midfield and impressively kept the 13-time Champions at bay until Ferland Mendy happened.

Very little observation went into how Zinedine Zidane managed to get the better out of his opposition in a big game once again, this time with 9 injuries to the first team and with key players such as Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Dani Carvajal, Fede Valverde, and Rodrygo Goes all sidelined due to injuries.

So, how did Zidane and Real Madrid manage to handle Atalanta’s press and their wide overloads?

We already know how Atalanta use wide pressing traps, outnumber their opponent on the flanks to win the ball back and how they use overloads in wide areas, for their positional interchange, as method for chance creation. In case you haven’t read the article yet, here is a small analysis of both Atalanta and Real Madrid on and off-the-ball structures.

The key factor to the performance was how Zidane used his full-backs as wing-backs to match Atalanta’s 3-4-1-2 shape.

Atalanta use a man-to-man zonal approach while pressing i.e the player closest to the ball acts as a trigger to the press and the players nearest stick to the opposition like glue even during movement, meaning if a player chooses to mark-mark an opposition player, he will keep following him irrespective of his position or movement.

Zinedine Zidane instructed his players to keep making off-the-ball movements, which would result in the markers being out of their zones. You could find Lucas Vazquez, Luka Modric, Isco, Asensio, Vinicius, etc doing random off-the-ball movements while the ball was circulated to the flanks in the opponents-third. While it seemed odd to the eye at that time, their job was to not get sucked into the pressing trap.

Zidane said this at the post-match press conference:

"“The plan changed. Knowing they were playing three at the back, we looked for Isco to move between the lines so we could then try and use Vinicius Jr. and Asensio’s pace in behind. Then it turned into a different game, it was a good outcome for us despite not being a great performance.”"

The Real Madrid players were not allowed to be on the same vertical lines in the opponents’ final third because this would be an opportunity for Atalanta to implement their pressing trap on the flank with numbers. Two players could be on the same horizontal lines, but never on the same vertical lines.

While the fullback stayed wide, the winger would come inside and when the winger stayed wide, it would pull the 3rd centre-back along with him, the fullback would drop into the half-spaces.

During the first 20 minutes of the game, when the pressing intensity was high, you could see Luka Modric a lot on the left side of the pitch. When the press seemed to be suffocating, Modric would come towards Kroos to have an extra number in build-up or move away because his marker would follow him. Similarly, Toni Kroos would always drop near the sideline in the league during ball progression, but during the Atalanta game, he would mostly be positioned centrally because Marten de Roon would always be marking him (Again, pulling the markers out of their zones).

Zidane’s use of the inverted full-backs added to their technical quality was an enormous factor as to how Real could handle the much-acclaimed Atalanta press with ease.

Take a look at the heat maps of both Real Madrid fullbacks in the game.

While their primary job was to hug the touchline to stretch the pitch during the build-up, they both have significant entries to the half-spaces for the very same reason — 2 players could not be on the same vertical lines.

Take the buildup to the red card incident, for example.

The chance originated after Kroos-Modric-Casemiro circulated the ball quickly in the centre of the pitch with one touch after the Atalanta press was initiated. While Isco dropped deep, centre-back Cristian Romero followed him till the centre of the pitch.

Mendy moved into the half-spaces while Vinicius moved outside. As Rafael Toloi moved wide to man-mark Vinicius, acres of space were left to be exploited because Cristian Romero was, near the center-of the pitch, marking Isco. Ferland Mendy sensed the opportunity to make a run into the space left deep and did so; even with Maehle (his marker, now too slow to catch him) on his heels. Freuler was the first one to notice Mendy’s run and accelerated in an attempt to chase him down, eventually bringing him down and resulting in the red card.

Real Madrid pressed in their usual 3-4-3 shape, matching Atalanta’s 3-4-1-2/3-4-3 in possession. Isco initiated the press, while the wingers pressed the right centre-back (RCB) and left centre-back (LCB) respectively. While the Atalanta wingbacks moved high or dropped deep, the Real Madrid full-backs followed them closely, causing irregularities in their passing patterns.

The red card made it easier for Real to implement their press and won the ball back from Atalanta frequently, thereby dominating a lot of the ball. The hosts, on the other hand, recognizing the drawbacks and damages this could cause, decided to change their approach and grew deeper and deeper into the pitch. Real ultimately dominated a lot of the ball due to their superior technical quality, but as has been the case all season, they failed to capitalize on the chances until Ferland Mendy’ s act of heroism put them ahead in the tie.

Despite going head-on-head with the best teams in the world, Zinedine Zidane still gets criticised, by the media and the people, for apparently not being a good enough tactician for a club of Real Madrid’s stature; When the Frenchman comes across stuff like this, maybe he lets out his usual half-smile, knowing his accolades and accomplishments speak for themselves.

Next. Real Madrid Predicted Lineup vs. Real Sociedad. dark

Gasperini knows that he’s missed his opportunity to tame a crippled Madrid side and that he won’t be getting that again because most of the regulars will have returned in time for the second leg in Spain. Nevertheless, the second leg at Spain won’t just be about the in-game tactics; it will also be about showing heart, resilience, and adapting to the situation. For someone who has watched Atalanta a lot this season, trust me when I tell you that Gasperini’s men will come to Spain with all guns blazing, for they have nothing to lose.