If recent football has felt like a march towards more passing, more possession, an endless ride on the Barcelona carousel, then this season there have been two very sharp reminders that there is a different way to play.
Leicester City and Atletico Madrid are the two greatest stories in European football right now, although of course Atletico have been excellent for a few years. But what unites them is far more than their underdog spirit, their competitive courage and their upturning of the odds.
In the methods, too, there are similarities, even given the different contexts and resources of the teams. They are both throwbacks, standing against the steady progression of the game in one direction. And that single-mindedness has been the source of their success.
It all starts with the recognition that you do not need the ball to win the game. Or rather, that possession for its own sake – what Arsene Wenger once famously called “sterile domination” – is not just ineffective but can be damaging. A team that keeps passing and moving without scoring will eventually open itself up, and the team that sits and waits should be able to hurt them. Both Leicester and Atletico routinely have less than 50 per cent of the ball, entirely intentionally, as they welcome opponents into their traps.
This has to start from the back, with a defence that is strong enough to withstand long spells of opposition pressure. The modern fashion is for centre-backs that split and full-backs that push all the way up. Leicester and Atletico both reject this, with a narrow, compact back four whose first priority is to defend. Rather than defenders whose first gift is building up play, they are built on partnerships between ball-winners at the back. Atletico had Diego Godin and Miranda at centre-back when they won La Liga in 2014, now Miranda has gone but they have Jose Gimenez. Leicester have Robert Huth and Wes Morgan.
The proof is in the defensive records of the two teams. Atletico Madrid have by far the best defence in Spain, conceding just 16 goals in 35 La Liga games so far. They have 22 clean sheets, six more than the next best defence of Villarreal. Real Madrid have only got 12. It is the joint-best defensive record in Europe. When Atletico won the title in 2014 it was also built from the back, with 26 conceded from 38 games – the best record – and the most clean sheets (20).
In this season’s Champions League campaign, Atletico have conceded just five goals in 11 games, with a remarkable eight clean sheets. That is how they beat Barcelona 2-0 to knock them out of the Champions League quarter-finals, and Bayern Munich 1-0, to step towards the final this week.
Leicester have not yet got to the same defensive level as Atletico, who have been working to Diego Simeone’s demands for years now. But their success is also built on their canny defence, conceding 33 from 35 Premier League games, with 15 clean sheets.
Most teams in modern football play a variation on 4-2-3-1, a formation that allows for creativity in midfield but often sacrifices control of wide areas. Leicester and Atletico, though, have proven that 4-4-2 can still be effective, as long as the two wide players both work hard enough to protect their full-backs.
Atletico have the hard-working Koke and Saul Niguez playing in wide areas this season, who work hard enough to make sure that their two full-backs Felipe Luis and Juanfran never get isolated, and have protection if they want to get forward. Leicester have Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton, ferociously hard workers who are both incisive on the break and able to cover their full-backs to stop opponents from attacking down the outside.
While 4-4-2 can leave teams overwhelmed in midfield if it is not executed properly, both Atletico and Leicester have forwards who work hard enough out of possession.
“What links Leicester and Atletico, and what makes 4-4-2 work, is having hard-working selfless centre-forwards who will do a defensive job for the team,” Danny Higginbotham wrote in The Independent last December. “As soon as they lose the ball, one of the strikers must drop in on the opposition’s deepest lying central midfielder. At that moment, the 4-4-2 becomes a 4-5-1. No team that does that will be outnumbered in midfield.”
That is what Leicester have with Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, who work tirelessly out of possession to close down the opposition. Atletico Madrid have the same, with the usual combination of Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres up front, supplemented by Yannick Carrasco.
Having hard-working strikers allows Atletico to press from the front, with the front two accompanied by the wingers and Gabi from midfield. Then, if the opposition penetrates their first press, they retreat and defend deep and narrow, forcing the opposition to find a way round.
Of course, the biggest difference between Atletico and Leicester is the quality of players available to the Spanish side. They are a bigger club and have been developing for years under the inspirational management of Simeone. He won them the 2012 Europa League and Uefa Super Cup, the 2013 Copa del Rey and La Liga 2014 – and came within seconds of the Champions League that year – before taking them towards those two titles again this season.
Leicester, remarkably, are in their first year of development under Claudio Ranieri. Their defence is not quite as systematic or ferocious, although it certainly stands firm under pressure. Having been in the second tier just two years ago, they have not been able to spend big money on top players. As good as Mahrez and Vardy have been, they do not have as much individual quality in their side, not as much as Antoine Griezmann, Koke and Saul deliver. With more examination there may be more differences.
In outline, though, there is a resemblance between the plans. Possession is not pursued but in fact willingly given up. They hold their shape, block out the opponents, wait for the space, then pounce. That, in short, is how Atletico upset the odds to win the Spanish title two years ago, and how Leicester will do the same in England this season. It may even make Atletico champions of Europe, a historical achievement in the age of the superclubs. There is more than one way to play football, and the best way to surprise people can be to swim against the tide.Reuse content