Aamer Aslam provides a detailed tactical analysis about the standout fixture of the weekend in La Liga which finished Barcelona 2-1 Atletico Madrid.
Barcelona took on Atletico Madrid at the Nou Camp in arguably one of the most important matches in La Liga this season. Heading into the match tied on points, both teams were looking to strengthen their title credentials.
BARCELONA 2-1 ATLETICO MADRID
Barcelona lined up in their traditional 4-3-3 with arguably their strongest line-up. Pique was back into the starting XI to add much needed solidity to the defence. Rakitic was preferred ahead of Turan in the midfield trio and the deadly MSN (Messi, Neymar & Suarez) completed a very strong Barca lineup. Atletico lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, a slight tweak from their usual 4-4-2. The change was necessary to counter Barca’s extra man in midfield (typically Busquets). Carrasco was chosen for this role due to his attacking and defensive work rate, he was supposed to counter Busquets when Barca had possession in Atletico’s half and support Griezmann up top when Atletico have the ball.
The change to 4-4-2
Simeone’s plan was simple. Without possession, have equal (or more) numbers as Barcelona in their own half, keeping it tight and compressed in the centre. With it, push Carrasco forward beyond Busquets and take on Barca’s centre backs 2 on 2 along with Griezmann. The plan worked like a treat for the first 30 odd minutes as Barca had no answers to Ateltico’s pressing and aggressive man-man marking.
The Press in Barca’s half
Another tactic was to cut off passing lanes and press hard when Barca have possession in their own half. Once Barca overcame the initial press and entered Atleti’s half, Simeone advised all 10 men to gather behind the ball and maintain the 4-1-4-1 or the 4-4-2 shape never allowing Barca to have even one extra body in the centre. The only way through or the only route to the goal was from out wide. Covering all passing options in the centre, Simeone’s belief was that Barca had to rely on crosses and in Godin he has one of the best headers in the league at his disposal.
As seen from the shot above, Atleti were trying to cut Barca’s passing options in their own half and trying to force them into a corner. This pushed the Barcelona side who were failing to impose any form of control in the game to one side of the field to support the man in possession or to retrieve the ball from Atletico who had 4-5 people on the side of the ball in Barca’s half. Dani Alves got caught out of his right back position which left Koke completely unmarked to score the game’s first goal. Atletico’s disciplined positioning and work rate had paid dividends.
In the opening 12 minutes of the game. Iniesta – Barca’s midfield maestro received just 5 passes, out of which 3 where in the far touchline where he can have little or no impact. Messi received a total of 7 passes, 6 near the touchline in his own half. Barca were evidently struggling in their own backyard.
Godin, Luis and Juanfran were sticking to the MSN very aggressively and Godin soon received the first booking of the game for a late tackle on Suarez. Messi was moving in to the centre trying to get rid of Luis but kept running into more traffic in the centre. The only way Barca could conjure up something was through the wings according to Simeone’s masterplan. Atleti’s shape became a little too compressed when Messi tried to weave his way through a couple of Atleti defenders before Augusto cleared it to Mascherano. Mascherano released the ball to Neymar who quickly let it go towards Alba who found himself inside Atleti’s penalty box and not out wide. Alba brilliantly squared it to Messi who made no mistake. Atletico had all 10 outfield players inside the penalty box when Messi scored.
It was scintillating stuff to watch from both teams. Barcelona had failed to muster a single shot on target until the 27th minute in the game. Atletico had also managed to outrun their opponents by more than 3 km on average.
The Blaugrana soon went ahead. This time it was the other full back Alves who played a simple ball over the entire Atletico team. It was as if the entire Atletico team stood still while Suarez raced into the penalty box, got his body in front of Godin and placed it brilliantly in the bottom corner. Barcelona were leading 2-1 despite Atleti’s astute tactics and meticulous preparation.
The red cards
Despite Barca taking the lead, the match was evenly balanced before Atletico had Luis sent off for a reckless high boot challenge on Messi. The referee had no option. Atleti went from having taken the lead, limiting Barca to just 1 shot at goal, going a goal down and having their left back sent off in one of the best 45 minutes this season.
If there is one team that could give Barcelona a fight with 10 men, it is Simeone’s Atletico and that is exactly what Barca got. Gabi had been sacrificed for Gamez who slotted in at left back. And Atleti continued with the same tactics as in the first half. Koke took Gabi’s vacant central midfield role while Carrasco took the field on the left. Griezmann was now the man to stop Busquets.
Atletico got the best chance of the half when Carrasco brilliantly put in a ball to Griezmann who missed from point blank range. Atletico were putting up a serious fight. Godin got his marching orders soon after for a reckless lunge and the Madrid side were down to 9 men. The match was surely over but a single shot on target for Barcelona in the entire second half and a total of two in the whole match shows that Atletico managed to put up much more than a fight.
Having started the match brilliantly, Simeone would be disappointed to go away from the Nou Camp without a single point. Though the red cards surely had a say in the outcome of the game, it was more Atletico’s doing than the referees which leaves them completely responsible for the loss. Despite the red cards, the match showed us that the top 2 in La Liga are among the best teams in terms of quality around the world.
Written by Aamer Aslam
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