Zone 14: Defensive Analysis of Atleti

As performance analysis has developed over the years within professional football so too has the way in which we examine the game. In the past, a football pitch was commonly divided into thirds: Defensive, Middle and Attacking. However, these areas are far too large to produce any significant data or analysis and therefore each third was further divided into 6, creating an 18 zone pitch (see image below). Zone 14 or the ‘golden square’ has been identified as the area which produces the most goals in one way of another (assists or direct strikes) and is one of the most crucial factors in differentiating between successful and unsuccessful teams.

Barcelona Overview

Barcelona are undoubtably one of the greatest teams in world football, with many making a strong case that the current squad should be considered one of the greatest club sides ever. With an attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar supported by Iniesta, Rakitic and Busquets: Barcelona consistently dominate games regardless of the opposition, with many of their goals or assist coming from effective use of Zone 14. During the 2015/16 season MSN were responsible for 131 goals and 67 assists between them, as a result of individual skill, intelligent movement and link play which again often occurs in and around Zone 14. So this begs the question; how do you play against them?

The simple answer is obvious – restrict Barcelona’s use and possession of the ball, while screening passes into the front three and above all, protect Zone 14! However, as most of us understand football is a lot more complex in real life and executing a game plan accounting for these factors over 90 minutes is an almost impossible task. Otherwise everyone would be able to do it and clean sheets would be considered the norm. So what happens when the best attacking team comes up against one of the best defensive teams?


Simeone’s Atleti

Diego Simeone as a player was a competitive, intense and hardworking defensive minded footballer. Little has changed as he has transitioned from playing to coaching with his philosophy of how to play the most effective type of football remaining intact. In fact, his team mirror and symbolise all of these attributes which is a testament to his man-management and motivational abilities. As a result Atletico Madrid are now one of the most effective teams in Europe due in no small part to their defensive prowess. In this article, I will be reviewing Atleti’s set-up and style of play which has seen them overcome Barcelona and Real Madrid to win La Liga in recent years.


Atleti Formation

Simeone often makes subtle changes to his formation depending on the opposition, however for the most part he implements a 4-4-2 system based on 2 traditional banks of 4, especially when out of possession. Changes after occur regarding the system of the strikers with either one dropping deep to essentially create a 4-4-1-1, providing an extra player in midfield who can link the play preventing the front line becoming detached from the midfield.

Atleti utilise a low block, giving up space over the majority of the pitch in order to defend in and around Zone 14. This provides Barcelona with an abundance of time and space in deep positions (Zones 10, 11 & 12), but with no space for their forward players to play in-between defensive lines or receive the ball on the half turn. Instead Atleti force Barca to play in a U shape along Zones 13 – 10 – 11 – 12 – 15. Once the ball enters either of the wide areas they then attempt to create 1v1 opportunities to try and regain possession of the ball. One of the key aspects of successfully implementing this strategy is discipline (accompanied with game knowledge).

If one player breaks the team shape to go and pressurise the ball in the wrong area or if someone fails to position themselves in an area where they are screening forward passes then the whole system breaks down and becomes in-effective.

To indicate how difficult it is to defend Zone 14 against Barcelona, this video demonstrates the minor positional mistakes or poor decision making which is often punished.

Barca v Seville: Midfield four are unorganised with the Right Midfielder caught too wide and behind the Right Back while the two Central Midfielders are not working together to screen passes into the front three. As a result Messi is able to receive the ball in-between the lines which pulls out a Central Defender who must now break his shape to apply pressure. From there Seville completely lose their shape and discipline with players being pulled out of position and others simply not having the game understanding to know where they should be or who they are supposed to be tracking. Back 4 end up being fragmented and a simple through ball from Zone 14 leads to a goal.


Barca v Sporting Gijon: Again the initial problem arises by Sporting trying to occupy the entire pitch instead of specific areas. This leads to the midfield four being stretched across the width of the pitch with the Left Midfielder and Right Midfielder occupying Zones 13 & 15. Instead of forcing the ball to be played wide into these ineffective areas, a through ball can now be played in behind the defensive line (again from Zone 14) which takes out the whole teams and creates a simple goal scoring opportunity.


As previously mentioned, successfully executing a defensive game plan against one of the world’s best attacking teams for a full game requires an immense level of understanding first and foremost from the players. The video below demonstrates a training session under the guidance of Simeone working with two units of 4 (which could either be his defensive or midfield line) in a game based possession drill.

In my opinion the most effective drills are those which seek to replicate the game and include high levels of decision making. Although the drill is not stopped to add in coaching points or information (the way coaches are often taught to coach on coaching licences) the players are able to learn from the setup and nature of the drill itself. The inclusion of individual zones helps players to gain a greater understanding of both their distances between one another and also knowledge of who should press which player.

  • Out of Possession – Opportunity to work together as a 4, looking at communication, organisation, pressing, support, screening passes, while also recovering backwards if breached.
  • In Possession – Moving the ball at pace to try and exploit a gap for through pass
  • Transition – Going from an expansive wide shape to create space in possession, to a narrow compact unit as soon as the ball is turnover.

The last video demonstrates Atleti’s defensive structure but this time referencing the lessons learned from the training exercise and how they appear in a match context.

Cameron Campbell

All videos were created using the video analysis app CoachCam.

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