In a season where everyone expected Atletico to eventually fade out leaving the traditional strongest two teams to compete for the title, Atletico proved doubters wrong as more and more started to believe that Simeone’s men may actually be a genuine threat. Those doubts were raised again when Atletico failed to beat Malaga last weekend as many expected the club to cave in with their small squad; it certainly seemed a possibility when both Costa & Turan went off injured (the effects of their injury lay offs are yet to be known). But Simeone’s side came out strong after a poor first-half and prevented Barcelona from getting a win (which never seemed much of a threat besides parts of the first 45).
Sanchez gave Barcelona the lead with an unstoppable shot; Godin equalised with a powerful head and the point was enough to confirm Atletico as champions for the first time since 1996. Tata Martino announced his intention to leave the club after the game.
Barcelona 1-1 Atletico Madrid
Barcelona: Pinto, Mascherano, Pique, Alves, Adriano, Busquets (Song 57′), Fabregas (Xavi 77′), Iniesta, Pedro (Neymar 62′), Alexis, Messi
Atletico: Courtois, Miranda, Godin, Juanfran, Luis, Gabi, Tiago, Koke, Turan (Garcia 23′), Villa, Costa (Adrian 16′, Sosa 72′)
Atletico with much of the same as Barca continue to struggle
One win and four draws against Barcelona this season is certainly something Atletico can be proud of. Their approach for all those five games was pretty much similar. The difference between then and now is the fact that Atletico were playing under-pressure at the Nou Camp on the final day while they had pretty much nothing to lose in all other five games. You’d expect Barcelona to take advantage of an under-pressure Atletico at home; but with largely the same set-up, Atletico were more than capable of keeping the Catalan club out with Martino’s men looking as lost as earlier in finding a way through.
MORE READING | Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona: Tactical Analysis
Atletico made it compact around the box, where Barcelona look to be at their creative best. This is something they have done throughout against Barcelona, preventing their attacking third from finding their way through with neat passes & quick movement. Personally partly expected Messi to maybe be deployed in a wider role to prevent the level to which he gets shut-out by the Atletico defense. Messi has played the same role all five games to the same successful result from an Atletico perspective. not only did he not have a single goal or assist in all six games, his influence on the side was completely cut out. He attempted just one shot the entire game.
This also kept pushing Messi further deeper in his bid to influence play, leaving Barca lacking in attacking areas. Pedro & Alexis were brought into the game to bring a more direct approach in the attacking third, with the intention of the two utilisng their pace if (as it was always going to happen), Atletico make it too difficult for Barcelona to penetrate with passes. It was a smart move from Martino but the compactness was too much to contend with.
The organisation by Simeone’s men is immense and the above bears witness to this. A fully compact defensive line, with the midfielders required to deal with the full-backs, as opposed to the full-backs itself, and a system that forces Barcelona to utilise a crossing system which plays completely against their strengths.
Thus Atletico’s approach left Messi deep, and Pedro/Alexis wide, thus nearly nothing in the attacking third. Much of Barcelona’s attacking threat was thus cut-short because of Atletico’s compact set-up. This forced Barcelona into wider areas, and more lateral passes with very little in terms of penetration.
Koke’s influence on proceedings
The youngster has impressed many with his performances this past campaign, and the level of commitment & intelligence was superb at the Nou Camp. Defensively he had a duty to do, but in an attacking sense he seemed so threatening as well.
Taking up his position in midfield, he was required to ensure the creativity from deep is lacking from Barca while also maintaining a check on the advancing full-back. He slowed down the play from Barca’s midfield trio and also ensured Brazilian Dani Alves was largely ineffective throughout the game. The illustration above is an example of the same. He did remarkably well in breaking play up from the midfield area, putting in 10 successful tackles. That’s quite astonishing at any level, let alone a title decider at the Nou Camp.
Not only did he contribute his hand to the defensive phase but his influence in an attacking capacity was equally important. You’d often see good hard-tackling midfielders win possession and look for a creative head to play a short pass to rather than retaining possession. But Koke’s ability to win the ball back and play penetrating through balls was clearly evident at the Nou Camp. Although he did seem a bit rash at time to get the ball through, his persistence to play direct forward passes into dangerous areas certainly troubled Barcelona.
Koke also managed to complete 10 clearances, more than any other player, again showing how vital he was to the side. He continues to impress with his ability to strike a balance between attack & defence, equally contributing in both measure. He symbolises the system Simeone has implemented, which comes to light most when faced against a possession based Barcelona team.
Baffling omission from Tata Martino
Xavi, for the second week running, was confined to a spot on the substitute’s bench until late in the game. Xavi certainly hasn’t been his usual self, but he still brings the quality he earlier did. His reliance on his passing continues to make him an important component of the Barcelona side. It’s quite possible that some external factors have forced Martino into this decision. It doesn’t seem to be an injury issue as he was named on the bench for both the last games and came on at the end as well. If he’s capable of doing so then certainly injuries & fitness shouldn’t be an issue.
When we’ve come to learn how Atletico make it compact in the attacking third (as explained above) and despite the midfield’s pressing, they do tend to withdraw and be less intense in their defensive work in the central area. We’ve also seen how crosses aren’t really Barcelona’s stronghold.
That leaves us with the deep central midfield area for creativity, the only zone from where Barcelona can make a considerable impact on the Atletico defense. Who better to foster creativity from midfield than Xavi himself. The decision to not use this threat from the start and rather do so late in the game understandably surprised many. Fabregas played in place of Martino, but he certainly doesn’t have the same level or type of creative influence.
Added to that, Jordi Alba was dropped in favour of Adriano while Neymar wasn’t a part of the front three; the latter decision made sense but didn’t work out as effectively. Poor team selection from Martino which concludes an unfortunate & baffling period under the Argentine.
Where does this leave them?
Atletico Madrid are now experiencing the most successful period in their history. 3rd last season, champions after 16 years this season and arguably the biggest game of their history in a weeks time. They deserve the plaudits, a little celebration but it’s back to business Monday morning with the Champions League final against neighbours Real, potentially without Turan & Costa. For Barcelona, it’s back to the drawing board. A period of transition & introspection. Martino has played scapegoat, and while he did deserve criticism, blame has unfairly fallen disproportionately upon him. Truth is that Barcelona’s quality in terms of their playing personnel wasn’t up to task, with a change in tactics needed (which takes time) as many teams found ways to play them and the obvious issues with the board.
The final score of Barcelona 1-1 Atletico Madrid was probably a true reflection of the game, but also of the season. No Barca weren’t up to their best, but time and again Atletico were able to match them stride for stride, better them to a level which few before have managed to achieve. Teams that have stopped Barcelona from winning have been applauded, Simeone did it six times in one season.
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