Perhaps no sport in the world is more dominated by money than professional soccer. In a competitive economy with no drafts or salary caps, most clubs are routinely forced to sell their best players to the highest bidder.  The biggest clubs have advantages that dwarf those of even the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Lakers. When a smaller club makes a run at European titles, it is a big deal.

On Saturday, Atlético Madrid won the Spanish league title by hanging on for a draw against Barcelona. This coming Saturday, Atletico will play for the Champions League title against city rival Real Madrid. Atletico has succeeded while laboring under a massive economic disadvantage. These are the average wages per player paid by each of the three clubs last season.

What are the secrets to Atlético’s Moneybol?


Keeping players healthy

To get the most out of a much cheaper squad, Manager Diego Simeone has extended the playing time of his best players. Atletico cannot afford the depth of a club like Real Madrid, which paid $41 million for backup midfielder Asier Illaramendi. Instead, Simeone instituted tactics that not only maximize the quality of chances his team creates, but also provide his hard-working squad opportunities to rest and recover during the match.

The result is that eight Atlético players have been able to play more than 30 full matches in La Liga (more than 2700 minutes). No Barcelona player has been used as heavily, and only three Real Madrid players logged so many minutes.

The secret to Atlético’s health record is its tactics. The team plays a deep and narrow 4-4-2 formation, ceding possession so that its defenders can drop back and prevent high-quality shots. It has far less possession than Real Madrid or Barcelona, and was in fact the only club in the top four of any major European league to have under 50 percent possession. Simeone recognizes that while the opposition keeps the ball far from the goal, his club can hold its shape and avoid running itself out.

Where goals come from

This strategy works because very few goals are scored outside of one small region of the pitch: the danger zone, an area the depth of the 18-yard box and the width of the six-yard box. 675 non-penalty goals were scored in La Liga this season from the danger zone, compared with only 263 from outside of it. Shots from the danger zone are converted at rates triple or more the rate of shots from elsewhere.

Because of its defensive tactics, Atlético allowed the fewest danger-zone shots in La Liga. Barcelona conceded fewer total shots, but significantly more of those high-expectation danger zone attempts.

Clubs playing Atlético Madrid find themselves with time on the ball, but no room to create opportunities where they are likely to score. They pass and pass to little effect. Opposition clubs completed about 120 passes against Atlético for every danger zone shot they attempted, compared with about 63 and 80 passes per danger zone shot for Barcelona and Real Madrid opponents, respectively.  Simeone has instructed his players lay off occasionally rather than wearing themselves out by preventing passes that can’t threaten the goal.

In a mirror image of its defense, Atlético’s attack focuses on creating chances in the danger zone, spurning lower-expectation opportunities. As Rene Maric describes, when its defense springs into action, it presses decisively to win the ball and drive forward for high-quality shots.  Atlético is third in La Liga in shots attempted from the danger zone, behind only Barca and Real. However, in shots attempted from outside the box, Atlético stands 20th, having taken the fewest shots from distance in the league.

With tactics based on real distribution of goal-scoring locations, Atlético maximizes its attacking opportunities and keeps its best players healthy. These methods have taken Atletico halfway to one of the greatest seasons in modern soccer history. In Saturday’s Champions League final, it can seize the opportunity to complete the story.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A.