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The top 2 in Spain faced off for the first time in the league this season, in a clash that generated almost as much hype as most El Clasico’s. This season, Atletico have surprised one and all with their tremendous run in the league, staying 5 points clear of their city rivals Real for this long. Barcelona have been imperious, scoring almost at will, despite the absence of their talisman, Messi, and new acquisition Neymar. One of the meanest defences in the league was up against a free flowing attacking force, and it made for a great spectacle.
Atletico Madrid 0-0 Barcelona
Atletico Madrid: Courtois; Juanfran; Miranda; Godin; Filipe Luis; Tiago (Cristian Rodriguez, 83); Gabi; Koke; Turan Arda; D. Villa (Raul Garcia, 77); D. Costa.
Barcelona: Valdes; D. Alves; Pique; Mascherano; Alba; Busquets; Xavi; Iniesta (Messi, 45); Pedro (Sergi Roberto, 82); Cesc; Alexis (Neymar, 67).
These two sides have met before this season, with both encounters ending in draws, and that was something that continued last night. Another aspect that continued was Atletico’s insistence to press forward and stop Barcelona’s passing game deep in their own half. This isn’t something new for the home side, they’ve pressed almost all their opponents relentlessly this season, with the fitness levels of their players permitting them to do so for long periods of the game. However, they were keen to win the ball back high up the pitch from the Catalans and make them pay. If not score from these or win them immediately, they were quite happy to mark tightly, jockey the visitors and force them into playing the kind of passes they don’t usually play. Almost every Barca goal kick saw as many Atleti players in the Barca half as Barca players. Simeone wanted Barca to take the aerial route, which isn’t of the away side’s many strengths, and capitalise on this weakness.
In the first 15-20 minutes of the game especially, Atletico were really charged up and cause Barcelona lots of problems with their pressing and their enthusiasm. The home side made as many as 5 interceptions in the first 20 minutes of the game, with 4 of them coming in midfield. They successfully managed to hijack any plans of a bright and comfortable start for Barcelona by doing so.
Atletico Madrid had the clear aerial advantage over Barcelona, while Barcelona, are a much better passing side than Atletico. Simeone knew this, and hence, he kept his team playing very narrow while defending. The objective of doing so was two-fold- first, it kept Barcelona playing a type of football that they aren’t comfortable with, i.e. getting the ball into wide areas and the flanks, and second, it provided added encouragement for the away full backs to get forward, creating spaces at the back for Atleti to counter attack.
Barcelona generally like to play the ball through the middle, and get it near the edge of the box where they specialise in quick exchanges, one-twos and shooting. Atletico Madrid refused to let this happen. They packed all 4 of their midfielders very narrow to close out any space for through balls that might be played between them into the gap between defence and midfield. Secondly, the 2 lines of 4 sat very close together, to reduce the aforementioned gap and keep Barcelona at bay.
Thirdly, they were very happy to show the Barca players out wide, but reluctant to let them cut inside at all. Such a ploy left Barcelona with lots of space on the wings. Everyone knows that crosses aren’t the way Barcelona like to play their game, but they were forced to attempt 18 crosses in this match. This suited Atletico just fine, with the likes of Godin and Miranda dealing with these comfortably. The only occasion that Barca did threaten from a cross was when Pedro headed over the bar after a good cross from Andres Iniesta.
The problem that Barcelona faced was with the way they generally pass the ball. The difference in their approach with regards to passing the ball this season is there for all to see. Under previous regimes, they were incredibly patient with it, and willing to keep it to themselves for long periods of time. The midfield generally looked to pick holes in the opposition defence, and were in no real hurry to do so. This season, Martino has changed their tiki taka approach just a little bit. The Argentine has added a lot more verticality to their play, and Barca now look to get the ball to the front men like Messi and Neymar much quicker in an attempt to hit the opposition defence before it can settle down. In order to play these vertical passes though, the team needs its players to find spaces between the lines of the opposition defence. This simply wasn’t available to the Catalan giants, and they were forced into playing a number of horizontal passes. A lot of times, they brought the ball forward only to have to pass it back in order to retain it.
The energy and drive that the home team showed throughout the game was just incredible. Keeping a team like Barcelona out for 90 minutes, and probably even being the better side of the two takes some effort, and Atletico were outstanding on the night. As mentioned above, Atletico were able to stop Barcelona from playing vertical passes, and getting in and around the Atletico area to play their quick one-twos. A lot of this down to the extremely tight marking that the home side employed. there wasn’t a single Barcelona player who had time and space in the final third. As soon as an opponent entered that area of the field, he was picked up by one of the defenders who hung onto him like a magnet. This was another factor leading Barcelona not really creating any real goal scoring opportunities. They had a couple of dangerous headers, but with their feet, only a counter attack from Messi really threatened.
The fact that Atletico were playing so narrow meant that Barcelona had to add width to their game, as the wide areas was where the space was. The Barca forwards are generally accustomed to playing a very narrow role, and with two full backs who have pace and are known for their propensity to attack, the natural solution was to push the full backs forward to overload the Atleti half. In response, Atleti found a lot of space in the Barca wide areas while going forward, and this provided the avenue for their counter attacks. They primarily went down the right hand side, with an astounding 46% of their attacks coming down that flank. This was a ploy to target Jordi Alba, who just returned from injury. The man of the match, Turan too was placed on this side, and was engaged in an engrossing battle with the Spaniard. Either way, Atletico were very keen to get the ball to right hand side, despite the fact that Filipe on the left was far more of an attacking presence than Juanfran on the right, and this is why one feels that Simeone sought to attack the returning Alba.
Atletico were also quite keen to exploit the aerial weakness that Barcelona have. A number of times, the ball into the box and the final ball were aerial passes, rather than through balls or cut backs.
This result changes nothing really. There has been nothing to choose between the two sides all season, and yet again, they were inseparable. Atletico might feel a little bit aggrieved about the fact that they couldn’t come away with the 3 points, but their performance showed that they’re well and truly in the title race, regardless of what Simeone says.
For Martino, a point is a satisfactory result. The positive is that they’ve gotten through a really tough fixture with the point, and now have the return of Messi and Neymar to look forward to. These 2 will meet again on the final day of the season for what is hopefully a grand finale to the season, and on that occasion, Barca will want the points.
The biggest beneficiaries from all this are no doubt Real Madrid. The men in white have stolen a march on the leaders without even kicking a ball this weekend, and 3 points at Espanyol will see them breathing down the leaders’ neck.
What did you think of the game? Did you notice anything else tactically? Have we missed out on something? If so, do leave a comment below.