Raghunandhanan Narasimhan writes a detailed tactical analysis about the La Liga match that ended Atletico 1-2 Barcelona.
Atletico Madrid hosted Barcelona for the final time at the Vicente Calderon in a La Liga match as both teams have been suffering indifferent bouts of form this season. Barcelona came into the match enjoying a brilliant run of results against the Rojiblancos in La Liga fixtures. It would seem that Barcelona needed the win more to assure themselves that the blip in form was a minor one especially after the drubbing against PSG in the Champions League. Atletico on the other hand needed to keep in touch with the teams above them, with Sevilla placed ahead of them in the Liga table.
Atletico Madrid: (4-4-2) Oblak; Vrsaljko, Godin, Savic, Luis; Gabi, Koke, Saul, Carrasco; Griezmann, Gameiro.
Barcelona: (4-3-3) Ter Stegen, Roberto, Umtiti, Pique, Mathieu; Busquets, Iniesta, Rafinha,;Messi, Neymar, Suarez.
Barcelona with a new outlook
The major feature of the match was how Barca lined up. Though it looked like Roberto would play at right back on paper, the Catalan side were playing a new structure. With Pique, Umtiti and Mathieu in the three man backline during build up, Roberto moved up alongside Busquets and Iniesta. Messi drifted inwards and the shape was now a 3-3-1-3 or a 3-4-3 diamond with Messi forming the tip of the structure on top. The role of Rafinha was important here as he was the player to stay wide and provide the width as a pseudo wide forward.
With the three man backline, Barcelona tried to maximise their space so that they would not have to be hounded by the Atletico players when they built up play. With Busquets staying a bit deep, Iniesta and Roberto flanked him on either side in the 8 space. Messi was in his familiar territory up front while Rafinha and Neymar were well wide on the flanks.
This modified structure was done presumably to offer cleaner progressions into the second and final phases of build up against a well drilled Atletico. With Iniesta increasingly operating on the left half space, the added presence of Roberto in midfield meant that there was lateral occupancy on either side of Busquets so that there was a free passing option to bail him out in case of excessive pressure. Busquets, being an excellent press resistant player he is, does not necessarily need this back up to relieve himself of pressure, but in light of recent results, the decision might have been taken in order to offer passing options in midfield.
Atletico’s excellent adaptations in pressing
Atletico Madrid are an extremely versatile side and tactically adept to adjust themselves and reorient their pressing schemes. With Barcelona playing a diamond in midfield, Atletico adopted a strong focus on closing down the central spaces despite Barca’s increased presence in those areas.
With Pique in possession, the Atletico forwards- Gameiro and Griezmann did not move forward to press the ball carrier in these situations as the increased spacing between the back three would render the press ineffective. Instead the narrow positioning of the two forwards focused on preventing the pass to Busquets while Carrasco slotted in to cover Sergi Roberto. Koke followed suit from the other side as he closed down the space centrally denying access to Iniesta in the half space. With Gabi sweeping in behind to cover Messi, Saul functioned in the alternate half space so that the lane from Pique to the central areas was closed down.
The asymmetry seen in Barcelona’s shape was somewhat mirrored by Atletico as they were reactive in their approach to close down the Barcelona side. They were orderly in their pressing and holding down of space as they did not engage in extremely man oriented schemes as this would have meant that Barcelona could use swift pass combinations to carve them open.
Barcelona struggle to gain a foothold despite the tweak
Barcelona did not enjoy results of their formation tweak as they would have expected. As was previously mentioned above, Saul was mainly focused in covering the passing lane to central areas and Messi, in particular. This meant that Saul would usually move forward and press the ball carrier at times. He did this in such a way that his cover shadow would be sufficient to prevent the pass to those key areas. By leaving the back three free, Atletico could manage to keep their back four in shape so that they would not be exposed against the wide men in Rafinha and Neymar.
The key aspect in limiting Barcelona’s usually dangerous attacks down the flanks was the way Vrsaljko and Filipe Luis functioned against the wide players as they were aggressive in their pressing of those players. Their forward momentum was key in making sure that Neymar in particular could not turn around and have a chance to run at the defence. This well organised press resulted in a lot of turnovers and loss of possession from the Catalan side which was key in the initiation of Atletico’s attacks, which will be discussed subsequently.
Firstly, notice the positioning of Filipe Luis who has decided to retreat only after deciding that the play is to be switched. This limits the influence of Rafinha on the flanks and does not present itself as a viable passing option. With extreme congestion in the middle helped by the tucking in of Koke and Carrasco, the natural route lout would be to the other flank. However the nature of the long passes from Pique in particular would mean that Vrsaljko and the Atletico defense had enough time to adjust themselves and press forward. The long passes were not the best option out but the limited passing options in front of the defense in the centre meant that there was no other choice but to go wide. This was why the aggressive movement by the full backs helped by the tucked in Koke and Carrasco was vital in reducing the influence of any switch in play. Gabi’s positioning in these situations was instrumental in covering the half spaces that was left vacant by the advancing full backs and the midfielders.
Atletico’s attacking play and the transitional battles
It must be mentioned that Barcelona retreated to a back four when they were out of position and were resembling their usual 4-4-1-1 when out of possession with Messi and Suarez up front. Rafinha helped form the midfield chain. Atletico benefited from a lot of quick direct attacks that were effective when Barcelona were not stationed in their shape. The nature of attacks from Atletico was varying but the way they oriented themselves was evident in the way Gabi orchestrated the attacks from deep. Koke on the right would slot in and this meant that Vrsaljko could offer himself on the overlap. There were a lot of attacks from Atletico that used crosses to test the Barcelona defense. By playing on the counter Atletico could use the pace of their forwards and Carrasco to hit Barcelona in transition based attacks. The in between structure that Barca tried to adopt when in and out of possession was a main feature as to why they struggled initially against Atletico’s relentless pressure. This being said, Atletico Madrid were let down by some poor finishing and decision making in the final third.
Barcelona could not fashion out the best of chances as they would have liked but the presence of Messi in the ten space offered them the spark at times. Though Messi was not connected enough as Barcelona would have liked with the midfield, the individual actions from Neymar on the left flank along with Iniesta would mean that there was just about enough supply up front. The left half space was targeted by Barcelona at times as Vrsaljko was found up field at times to compensate for the slotting in of Koke. However the covering up play by the defense and Gabi was just about enough to make sure that clear opportunities were denied.
The nature of goals scored by both the teams was a bit indicative of the match. Barcelona managed to bundle in two goals while Atletico scored from a set piece. A draw might have been a fair result with Atletico playing well to shut down Barcelona in their new look formation. The way Barcelona adapted to get around the Atletico defense is also to be lauded as quick combinational play down the flanks helped them get the winner that gives them the three points to stay on Real Madrid’s heels. The match was an interesting tactical battle with both teams having their own moments in the match.
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