For Atlético Madrid, less attacking is more
After three rounds of action, Atlético Madrid lead La Liga with three wins out of three. They’ve taken 17 shots. No, not 17 shots per match. Seventeen shots in three matches. Less than six per match.
Even in what has been a particularly shot-shy start to the Spanish season (with the average number of shots per match down over two shots from last season’s 23.75 to 21.63), Atlético have taken fewer shots than anyone else. Only six times over the last couple of seasons and this one to date in La Liga has a team taken less over a three-game stretch. No team has achieved three consecutive victories with a shot count anywhere near as low.
Atlético do have a bit of form for these kinds of runs. Seven times over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, they put together three-match stretches in which they took between 21 and 25 shots. But their best points haul from any of those runs was seven points. This time around, they have managed to combine an even lower shot count with nine points out of nine.
It hasn’t even been a case of Diego Simeone’s side sneaking a trio of fortunate victories. They have comfortably outperformed their opponents in terms of expected goals (xG) in all three of their matches. In fact, they currently have the best expected goal difference (xGD) in the division, at 0.79 per match. That is partly because they have the league’s second best defensive numbers (0.44 xG conceded per match), but also because while they may have taken very few shots, those they have taken have been of very high quality. Just look at this shot map:
Those are about as good as collection of 17 shots (plus one penalty) as you are likely to see. Fourteen from inside the area, 12 of those within the width of the six-yard box and four that are usually converted at a rate of one in three or higher. One that is converted more than two-thirds of the time. The only significant blemish being an undepicted effort from beyond the halfway line. An average shot quality of 0.22 xG/shot; up to 0.25 xG/shot if you include their one missed penalty.
That is pretty unprecedented. Even during the aforementioned spells in which they previously put together three-match stretches with low shot counts, Atlético’s xG per shot varied between 0.07 and 0.14. Only once over the last two seasons in La Liga has a team sustained an average shot quality of 0.20 xG/shot or higher for more than three matches; even then, Barcelona’s run of four such matches in the 2017-18 season included a penalty. The best seasonal average shot quality anyone in the big-five leagues has managed over the last two seasons was Paris Saint-Germain’s 0.14 xG/shot in Ligue 1 last season; the best in La Liga was Barcelona’s 0.13 xG/shot in 2017-18.
So what’s going on here?
Atlético have always been a side whose shot profile has leaned more towards quality than quantity. They have been below-league-average shooters in terms of volume in each of the last two seasons, getting off between 11 and 11-and-a-half shots per match on average (only five teams took fewer shots than them in 2017-18); in contrast, their shot quality was the fourth-best in the league, well above average, in 2017-18, and ninth-best, right on the average line, in 2018-19. Last season, only Barcelona created a larger percentage of their xG from throughballs and entered the penalty area less often from crosses. Atlético also generated a larger percentage of their shots from high press situations (25.28%) than any other team in the league. Perhaps this quality-first approach has been further refined.
The more likely explanation is that even if that is the case and their season-long numbers move in that direction, it is a combination of schedule and in-game situations that have led to such a distinctive start to the season. Let’s break down Atlético’s matches to date:
Getafe (Home, Won 1-0)
Atlético took two shots inside the opening 22 minutes of this one: a 0.44 xG chance for João Félix that he was unable to convert on the stretch, and the goal that won them the game, a 0.10 xG opportunity headed home by Álvaro Morata.
Thereafter, they dropped back, and comfortably defended Getafe’s deliveries into the area. Each side had a man sent off towards the end of the first half, and that seemed to fortify Atlético’s resolve to simply clog things up and limit the concession of chances. There was not a single shot at either end between Morata’s goal and the 49th minute, and not another in open play until the 74th. Stefan Savic’s 0.11 xG header from a corner had brought Atlético’s average shot quality down a tad, but the fresh legs of Vitolo provided a 0.27 xG chance in the closing stages to push it back up again.
Atlético worked the opportunities they needed to take an early lead and bunkered down thereafter to see off a primarily defensive team in a match in which both sides played a full half with 10 men.
Leganés (Away, Won 1-0)
The lowest average shot quality Atlético have managed so far this season, and while still a high figure, not quite such an outlier as those from their other two matches. This was a story of them struggling to break down defensive hosts, creating a pair of pretty good chances either side of half-time, and then not mustering another shot until their 70th-minute winner. At that stage their shot quality stood at 0.17xG/shot (reduced by Mario Hermoso’s effort from within his own half). Then, in the closing stages, as Leganés pushed forward in search of an equaliser, Morata got behind into the area for a 0.33 xG chance that bumped up Atlético’s average.
Eibar (Home, Won 3-2)
The least surprising of the three. Eibar have a unique profile in La Liga at both ends of the pitch. Coach Jose Luis Mendilibar has long been known for his insistence on a high press and defensive line regardless of the opposition. It is an approach that has proved successful in suppressing shots -- Eibar have conceded the least shots in La Liga in both of the last two seasons; only three teams across the big five leagues conceded fewer last season -- but does mean that his side concede good opportunities whenever teams do break through. In both of the last two seasons, Eibar have conceded the highest-quality chances in the league. Last season, Eibar were one of only three teams to concede shots with an average quality of 0.20 xG/shot or higher in more than one match. They did so three times -- alongside Athletic Club, a league high. And so even though Eibar led 2-0 after 20 minutes of this encounter, there was never any real likelihood of them sitting deep and soaking up pressure.
Against Eibar, you either nearly get in behind, like this:
Or you do get in behind, and create a chance like this:
Now, those aren’t always converted, here's a random example of a similarly high xG chance that was missed. They really do exist:
But it’s the sort of opportunity you’d expect your new, €120-million forward to be able to sweep in as comfortably as João Félix did to notch his first goal for the club. Atlético’s other two goals, and four of their seven shots, were taken from central positions inside the area. Thomas Partey worked his way through to leave just the goalkeeper to beat for their late winner.
Atlético’s combination of an abnormally low shot count and abnormally high shot quality has been the most interesting statistical quirk from the early running in La Liga, but it is highly likely that their numbers will even out over the next month or so. They may still prove to be a side who prioritises quality over quantity in their shots, they may still average similar xG per match, but they’ll do so by taking more shots of lesser average quality. If they don’t, we’d be looking at one of the most unique attacking teams in the major European leagues.