This year’s UEFA Champions League quarter final draw is as good as they come, with a number of tough teams pitted against each other. Spanish champions Barcelona were pitted against Atletico Madrid, and the 1st of April saw the 2 sides meet for the 4th time this season. The two teams are very evenly matched in every sense. Only 1 point separates them in La Liga, and neither has scored a victory over the other in the course of 90 minutes this season. Their styles are contrasting, but both have been able to get results this season, and that made this clash of Spanish teams led by Argentine’s even more interesting.
Barcelona 1-1 Atletico Madrid
Barcelona: Pinto; Dani Alves; Pique (Bartra, 12); Mascherano; Alba; Busquets; Xavi; Cesc (Alexis, 68); Iniesta; Neymar; Messi.
Atletico: Courtois; Juanfran; Miranda; Godin; Filipe Luis; Gabi; Tiago; Arda (Cristian Rodriguez, 77); Koke; David Villa (Sosa, 70); Costa (Diego Ribas, 30).
Space in wide areas
Atletico Madrid, over the course of this season, have tried to get their opponents to play in the wide areas. They do not like to allow play to go through the middle of the park. That’s why they work hard to protect the middle of midfield. The 2 forwards show opposition players onto the wings, and the 4 man midfield, which is apparently weak in the midfield, is strong because all 4 of the midfielders are very narrow, and make it a crowded midfield, i.e. one which is difficult to pass through. As a result of this, a lot of the play goes through the wide areas, especially those in midfield, just in front of the full backs.
Barcelona had a lot of play in this area, and consistently had players staffing this part of the pitch. Andres Iniesta, who started off in the middle, moved out to this area on the left hand side. On the right, it was Dani Alves coming forward from his position at full back to attack this space, and saw a lot of the ball. He had 128 touches of the ball, the highest number of any player on the pitch. His counterparts on the left hand side, Iniesta and Jordi Alba also saw a lot of the ball, getting 103 and 102 touches of the ball respectively.
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This resulted in the fact that most of Barcelona’s attacking play originated in the wide areas. All in all, 70% of the Barcelona attacks came from wide areas. They had to build their attacks from there, and players like Alves assumed great importance, as their crosses were one of the main avenues to goal available to the Catalans. The home team attempted 27 crosses over the course of the game. However, this wasn’t really a very efficient tactic for Barcelona. They really lacked the height or the aerial ability of seriously trouble the Atletico defence with aerial balls. Miranda, Godin and Courtois looked comfortable enough whenever there was an aerial threat, with just 3 of the 27 crosses reaching their target. The fact that the Atletico half, and penalty area was so crowded also meant that rather than passing, it was an aerial approach that was required, with a number of through balls being attempted, but failing to find their mark.
No successful through balls for Barcelona.
Getting space to cross the ball in the wide areas wasn’t really an easy task either. Generally, when an opposition player receives the ball in a wide area, the wide midfielder (Arda or Koke) and the full back generally come forward to close this man down. This leaves a small space behind the full back that is covered by the central midfielder, though not fully due to the fact that the central midfielder in question needs to stay near his position too. This leaves a little space to be exploited, and quick passes to a runner in the wide areas seem to be the key. This is what Barcelona did on the night, and a lot of their 27 crosses came from an overlapping full back, or Iniesta running into space. Dani Alves on the right had a number of such chances, but his crosses weren’t accurate enough to trouble Atleti.
Pressing from both sides
Both of the teams in action like to press their opponents and win the ball back quickly and high up the field. Both teams adopted this tactic last night, willing to take the risks that such a tactic entailed. Of course, they tried in different settings.
Atletico pressed forward especially hard when the ball went to the Barcelona keeper, Pinto. Pinto is a keeper who is known to have an error or two in him, and Simeone identified this as the weak link, and attacked it. It worked as well, with the goalie making a couple of mistakes that led to Atletico chances. David Villa in particular was guilty of wasting an excellent chance to put his side ahead early on in the game.
Atletico pressing high after a pass from the goalie.
What’s visible in the image above is Atletico’s commitment to pressing Barcelona high up the field. This was a moment just after Pinto received the ball and passed it back out to Cesc.
Barcelona too were very encouraged to press the ball in midfield, especially after Diego Costa was off. The big striker offers a genuine aerial threat and is excellent at holding the ball up in the opposition half. He was to be the Atletico out ball on the night, and did a good job while he was on the pitch. However, once he was injured, Atletico struggled to get the ball forward with any sort of purpose. David Villa simply wasn’t as brutally effective as Costa can be, which meant that Los Colchoneros had to try and play out from the back. Barcelona lapped up this invitation to press them. 27 of the 37 tackles Barcelona attempted took place after Costa went off.
Atletico defence supporting each other
Everyone knows that Barcelona are a very effective passing unit, and can beat most teams with their interplay, but another big element of their play are the skills of their individual players. The likes of messi, Iniesta and Neymar often create chances for themselves and the team by dribbling. On this occasion though, Atletico made it very difficult for the Catalan stars to weave their magic because of the way they supported each other in defence. There weren’t too many occasions on which the Catalans had dribbling opportunities, or one v one situations with defenders.
Messi without space to dribble.
As you can see in the image above, Messi, on the ball is faced by 2 defenders, and has no clear route to dribble into. Even if he goes on to the right, Filipe Luis, the left back who can be seen in the bottom right corner can challenge him.
On the rare occasions when the Atletico defenders did manage to isolate themselves from the rest of the group, the gap was picked off ruthlessly by the home team. The pass from Messi to Iniesta in the first half, and the goal were both examples of Juanfran being too far away from his centre back.
Gap between full back and centre back.
As can be seen in the image above, there is a huge gap between Juanfran and Godin. Messi and Iniesta move into the gap, with Messi playing a smart reverse pass to feed Iniesta. Miranda is next to Messi trying to win the ball off him, and Juanfran isn’t covering for him. It is almost a perfect ‘False 9’ goal, but Godin stops it with a terrific block. Unfortunately for Atletico, when the same play is repeated later on, Miranda doesn’t do enough to stop the shot from Neymar, and Barcelona draw level.
Where does this leave them?
With Diego Ribas scoring a beauty, Atletico go into the second leg with the advantage of an away goal. Unfortunately for them, they will miss Diego Costa who went off due to injury, and this will be a huge boost for Barcelona. The Catalans have to score at the Calderon in order to stay in the tie, so expect fireworks when the two meet again on Wednesday.
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Massive Chelsea supporter. Follow Mourinho and love Ronaldinho. Enjoy discussing tactics anytime, anywhere. Enjoy watching the Italian National team as well.
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