Through every Chelsea rumor linking Diego Simeone to Chelsea, he remained unchanged. His sides would play 4-4-2, often with inverted wingers or just wider center mids. They defend compactly, in numbers, and then spring on the counter to crush opponents. It may sound boring, but Simeone has created arguably the most consistent top striker farm in Europe in his decade plus with the club.
Since Joao Felix arrived at the club, Simeone has tweaked some things to find a role that suited him. More or less, however, he simply returned to the 4-4-2. At least until this season. This season, Simeone has used 3-5-2 more and more. Not enough to call it their main formation but surely enough to call it different from a side you could expect to play 4-4-2 for every game for nearly a decade.
Why the change? One major reason is the goals dried up last season and nearly cost Atletico their “best of the rest” crown. Their defense stayed solid but without goals ahead of it, it became harder and harder to justify playing as pragmatically as they usually do.
So, Simeone split the difference somewhat. 3-5-2 collapses into a 5-3-2 on defense, giving the Spanish side more bodies at the back and forcing play wider. They can handle crosses into the box even with four at the back so that is not a dangerous switch from them. The second effect is how it changes their look playing out.
Few would instantly recognize Atletico Madrid as a team playing out of the back but many are only watching their matches against sides near them in quality. Their issue last season, in part, was the teams that parked the bus against them or pressed around them that they had no real answer to.
Three at the back also helps with that, as Thomas Tuchel could attest. To press a back line well, a team needs to committee more bodies forward. More in the back line means more forwards have to press which means more gaps for vertical play. If the opponent isn’t pressing, then that back three can flair out and almost look like one centerback and two fullbacks, forcing the opponent further back.
The difference in Simeone and Tuchel is the amount of midfielders the two use to help with that transition from back to front. Simeone opts for the extra man with three, in part because he wants to pull players away from his forwards getting in behind. Tuchel would rather pull players deeper to get his line higher, allowing for more possession. Neither is right or wrong, they are just different ideas.
But overall, the 3-5-2 isn’t a radical change from Simeone’s 4-4-2 and they often do one on defense and another on offense and vice versa this season. The same ideas remain. Fullbacks/wingbacks create all the width as the rest clog of the center. Instead of it being a 2-2 box from midfield to the forwards, it is now a 3-2 trapezoid. That frees the forwards up to roam left and right more than they would have before, allowing overloads wide just as much as centrally.
Of course, a great deal of their success has been Luis Suarez’s renaissance. The Uruguayan is looking back to his old self after a decline that saw him leave Barcelona. His intelligence on and off the ball allows him and whoever he partners with to link things together and score.
Atletico Madrid will be Chelsea’s toughest opponent under Tuchel if not this season. They are arguably Europe’s strongest team at the moment and the Blues will have their work cut out for them.