The famous analyst Leo Tolstoy once eloquently stated “Every great attacking team is pretty much the same; every team that isn’t great at attacking is not-great in their own, unique way.” Powerful and flowing words. Why is this? Mainly because our statistical understanding of soccer is mainly shaped by the team with the ball. We can measure most of what teams do with the ball and while 10 years from now we will look back on the rudimentary stats and conclusions we are reaching with amusement, we are least on a track that will lead us to a robust understanding of the game. When teams don’t have the ball we are still generally foraging in the dark. It’s not easy to get stats that correlate at even a .4 level while attacking stats correlate at .7 or more routinely. This makes not-great attacking teams often fuzzily look somewhat similar.
The one stat we know generally correlates well with preventing goals is possession. If you have the ball a lot, you can’t allow goals, think Manchester United here. This makes Atlético Madrid an even more fascinating case. Atlético are a, as Tolstoy would say, a “not-great” attacking team. They’ve scored fewer goals than Southampton, Eibar, Athletic, and Sampdoria. They don’t defend with possession at all: Las Palmas, Genoa, and Aston Villa are some of the teams who have had the ball more than Atleti’s 50/50 share. Despite this, they are commonly floated as a UCL dark horse and led La Liga for a while purely on the back of their defense. They’ve allowed fewer goals than any team in Europe until this weekend, and even then hassled Barca at the Camp Nou with just 9 men. Arguably no team has a more unique defensive profile either, when I did a cluster analysis of every team’s defense in Europe last season the team hardest to find a group for was Atlético Madrid. We will take a look at the data here and see if we can find out more about how they play so well and so uniquely without the ball.
What do they do?
We will start with what they don’t do. We already noted they don’t keep you from scoring by holding the ball. When adjusting for amount of time the opposition has the ball: Atlético allowed fewer shots than anyone else in Europe last season. They allowed just over 10 shots per 400 completions (average was 15.4, with a SD of ~2). This year once again no team in Spain allows fewer shots per opposition pass than Atlético:
They also don’t press high. Leverkusen, maybe the team most similar the Atlético in a philosophical sense, rely on heavy and high pressure to stop opponents. Atlético are basically league average in Spain when it comes to the high press.
What they do is to make it progressively harder for teams to move upfield. Of course every team does this, but Atlético stand out relative to any other team you can choose. We can see when opponents enter areas 70 yards from the Atlético goal, they are basically league average at stopping the pass. We see the z score increasing as teams get closer to goal, until they are basically 1.5 standard deviations tougher than average to complete a pass against when teams are getting into shooting areas.
There is serious space between Atlético and 3 other top teams until about 30 yards from goal where Celta joins, then Barca and Celta eventually are harder to pass against from around 40 yards and out. Those are two of the highest pressing teams in Europe, so this should make intuitive sense. You can’t cover everywhere and Atlético are making the conscious decision to cover the most dangerous areas first.
We can see that right around goal, no one in the league is tougher to complete against, in total. Above it says 2nd, those are entry passes only.
Now plenty of teams decide to guard this most precious area of the pitch, but what often happens is the opposition simply has the ball too much in the area for the increased difficulty to make a big difference. If you are tougher to complete passes against, it doesn’t mean much if you are allowing other teams more opportunities. This is where Atleti differentiate themselves from other teams like Villarreal, Eibar, and Getafe who defend their area well is they don’t actually have to defend in front of goal that much. Last year Atleti opponents played a lower proportion of their passes in dangerous areas than any other team. This year the same thing is happening.
They don’t just sit back and guard the most dangerous areas, like Gladbach did under Favre. More than any other team in Europe Atleti make you work to even reach the area where you can start thinking about shooting. Once you get there your journey has just begun. Completing a pass is near impossible (toughest last two seasons), getting a quality shot is rough (2nd longest average shot allowed this year), and even trying to carry the ball is a slog. The average La Liga carry in the 25-yard danger radius is broken up after 10 yards. This year Atleti break carries up after 6.2 yards. Last year, it was after 6.4 yards. These aren’t high-n samples but no La Liga team since 2012 has broken up carries quicker than either of their last two seasons. If you want to create a shot, you are unlikely to use a short, quick pass to get a quality chance. This is a map of all sub-20 yard passes that lead to chances created:
Unsurprisingly, they allow the fewest amount of these short assisted passes as well. When you’ve finally worked so hard to claw your way into the danger zone and actually carry or complete your way into a (likely poor) position to get a shot off, no team blocks more shots than Atleti do (29%). They just never relent. To recap:
So we know the what. Now can we figure out the how?
To pull this off you need a team that doesn’t stop working. Atlético’s midfield never stops working defensively. Tiago, Saul, Gabi, and Koke are the 4 players who have >700 minutes mainly in the midfield. Saul, Gabi and Koke all are in the top 10 in La Liga in tackles/90 by midfielders. Tiago, Saul and Gabi are in the top 11 in INTs/90. Tiago, Saul, and Gabi are in the top 5 in shots blocked by midfielders. None of these counting stats equals “Good Defense” but to see 3 different players at the top of all 3 defensive stats shows the effort put forth to stop the ball. It’s not just midfielders: the team as a whole tackles more than any other team tracked on WhoScored (12 leagues). What can we learn from this? If you want to stop teams, you need probably 2 or 3 midfielders who can combine to form a wall and ideally they all go by one name. Building a midfield only isn’t enough, but it figures to be one of the key factors needed.
Is it reproducible?
I think it’s harder to reproduce than almost any other style. After getting past the point that defense is always harder to produce than offense, you can’t have any weak links. Atlético don’t and they deserve credit for that.
But who gets the credit here? It’s an important and difficult to answer question. Obviously we have to first give credit to the actual players working so hard and making the plays. Simeone and the backroom staff should get credit for molding these individual qualities into a wall. This doesn’t happen immediately. The aforementioned players have been at Atlético for a long time now (Saul is the only one without >1000 minutes for 4 straight seasons) and this long working relationship has probably paid off in ways hard to replicate if you want to buy 3 players and plug them in today. When you have 3 or 4 years with the same coach and same players with the right mix of personalities, it’s believable that you can accrue benefits from knowing where your partner will be, what they are thinking, and what they will do next. It makes sense to me that these “experience points” would be worth more on the defensive side of the ball, where teamwork among players is generally more important and tactical movements harder to drill. When you have the ball, it’s not that hard to know where to go as you can design movements when the ball is at a certain part of the pitch. When defending, it’s harder to be certain of what will be going on on the ball so the tactical possibilities multiply. Defenders with an understanding of each other could be helpful here.
Is it repeatable?
Yes. Last season Atlético was by far the toughest in Spain to complete a dangerous pass on and allowed by far the lowest proportion of total passes to come in the 25 yard radius in front of their goal. This season those are the two key metrics fueling their defense. Juventus has in the past shown an ability to repeat defensive metrics to a similar extent. This is more rare than elite attacks but happens enough to suspect they aren’t candidates for strong regression.
There is a downside to being so defensively-reliant. No matter how good your defense is, the general trend is a high-powered offense can set the game tempo against a defense. The variation for a top defense is much higher than a top offense and depends a lot on the quality of the opposition. When Atleti goes up against truly elite attacks, the edge still probably shifts slightly to the attacking team being able to create a few chances. They’ve just pushed the bar extremely high for the quality the opposition needs to be at to impose their will on the game. However, that will happen in the Champions League more often than it does in La Liga and makes them a candidate to be upset along the way by a team who probably isn’t as good.
We see teams who attack at an elite level all the time, across many different leagues. Atlético’s outlying numbers without the ball make them a special case. No other team can top their league in so many different categories and top Europe in many as well. It’s not as simple as packing everyone in your box and hoping your guys are stronger, to breakup play at a steadily increasing level without leaving gaps at the back requires commitment and quality from a large group of players and no weak links. It’s hard to imagine this lasting for too much longer or being commonly produced elsewhere, so for now we should enjoy one of the best teams without the ball we will ever see.
As always, data courtesy of OPTA.
Top 10 Postscripts
Top 10 Lowest Proportion of Passes Allowed in DZ, 2014-15
Top 10 Lowest Completion % Allowed, Intrabox Passes, 2014-15