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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-2 Barcelona | Messi proves to be the game changer

Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona – A fixture that whets the appetite of any football fan across the globe. This one was going to be as close as ever as both teams came into this one having won both of their opening games without conceding a goal. Played in the Vicente Calderon where the Catalans sealed their 23rd Spanish title just 4 months previously thanks to Lionel Messi’s goal in the 1-0 win. However, the Argentine was sat on the bench for this one, a mutual agreement between Messi and Coach Enrique due to the 28-year old having not trained with the team as his partner gave birth to their second son; Mateo in the hours leading up to the game.


Line Ups

Atletico: 13. Oblak; 20. Juanfran, 24. Gimenez, 2. Godin, 3. F. Luis; 10. Oliver (Carrasco, 60′), 14. Gabi (Vietto, 81′), 5. Tiago, 6. Koke; 7. Griezmann, 9. Torres (Martinez, 62′).

Barcelona: 1. Ter Stegen; 20. Sergi, 14. Mascherano, 23. Vermaelen (Mathieu, 28′), 18. Alba; 4. Rakitic (Messi, 60′), 5. Busquets, 8. Iniesta; 12. Rafinha, 9. Suarez, 11. Neymar.


Atletico Madrid 4-4-2: Koke and Oliver in advanced areas attempting to deny Barca’s full-backs creeping forwards whilst Tiago and Gabi were happy to sit and pick up any loose change. When in possession, the hosts transitioned to a midfield 4 with full backs Luis and Juanfran progressing to assist the central midfielders. The two wingers joined Torres and Griezmann in attack to supply great width.

FC Barcelona 4-3-3: The standard Barcelona formation that rarely changes style, no matter the scenario. Central defenders split and Sergio Busquets drops into the central areas to create a back 3. Since Enrique has been at the helm, Iniesta has taken on a new role, alongside Rakitic the Barcelona club captain has more defensive duties than ever, filling in the pockets and gaps behind the storming runs of full-backs whilst cleaning up and linking up with play in the final 3rd.

Atletico Madrid 1-2 Barcelona

Atletico’s early zonal pressing

As predicted, Simeone’s side came out of the blocks quickly and rushed the champions, hoping to capitalize on breaks and mistakes. A glorious chance fell to Torres as ‘Atleti’ pinched the ball from a hesitant Javier Mascherano and an extra touch taken by Atletico’s homegrown striker was enough to give Thomas Vermaelen the opportunity to make a last-ditch block on the slide with his outstretched left foot. Barca were pressed by Juanfran and Felipe Luis of Atletico, who jumped at any given opportunity to provide an addition to attacking solutions. Their aggressive style proved dangerous at times as Luis will have been counting his blessings after his third kick at Rafinha went unpunished. There was an occasion where both full-backs were caught too far inside Barca’s half and a long clearance by Mascherano sent Suarez and Neymar away with a 2v2 situation against Godin and Giminez. Luckily for the Rojiblancos, the latter made a superb block to spare the blushes of their marauding teammates that deserted the central defenders, leaving them exposed to the counters of the Blaugrana’s explosive South American frontline.


Atletico's Juanfran and Filipre Luis advanced

Atletico’s Juanfran and Filipe Luis advanced

Suarez and Neymar in a 2 v 2 showdown with Gimenez and Godin

Suarez and Neymar in a 2 v 2 showdown with Gimenez and Godin

Barca’s fleeing of wings for Roberto and Alba

Following his arrival to FC Barcelona, Luis Suarez has added a complete new dimension, look and feel to the club. With his dog-like attitude and willingness to run and create options, the team now has the opportunity to go against the famous ‘Barça way’ and play a longer, more direct pass. Suarez can latch onto these passes and run at goal, hold up play or bring teammates into the equation. If the Uruguayan does not win the first ball, you can bet your mortgage that he will be there, fighting for the second and third scraps, all in the meantime giving his pressed teammates the opportunity to breathe, re-shape and support him. With the option to remove pressure quickly by going more direct if necessary, Barca can surround and play off of Suarez, and they did so in the Calderon. With Rafinha and Neymar in and around the central areas and Iniesta and Rakitic taking it in turns to hold or support in the attacking 3rd, the wide areas were completely vacated for wing-backs Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba. When in possession, the wide midfielders would look to drive inside and link up, allowing the 2 full-backs to overlap and provide assistance. Barcelona registered 19 crosses in the game, compared to 8 from the hosts; who are well-known for their attacking prowess from wide areas.


14 of Barca's crosses were completed by the full backs.

14 of Barca’s crosses were completed by the full backs.

Atletico’s second quick start

‘Los Colchoneros’ (Matress-Makers) started the second period with a very provocative 4-3-3 system, Oliver abandoned the right side of midfield to join the attack and play on Barca’s somewhat inexperienced right-back Sergi Roberto; hoping to pin the 23-year-old into his own half as to limit the attacks of the blue and red hoops to the left-hand-side only. Predominantly this worked and Atleti were rewarded for their perseverance as their bravery paid off. The non-stop pressing of the Barcelona defence and amount of red and white bodies in the opposition’s half caused panic and having been denied a stonewall penalty seconds before, the endless movement of Griezmann dragged Jeremy Mathieu out of position and the usually reliable Mascherano was caught napping as Torres raced through on goal to finish, having been played in by a gorgeously weighted Tiago pass following a slick passing move on the right.

Hosts’ sensed smell of Catalan blood

Having witnessed what happened to Barcelona against Athletic Club Bilbao in the Supercopa, Atletico smelt blood after the goal and committed more men forward as a flusterred Barca played the ball flowingly across their back-line, seemingly without penetrating. ‘Cholo’ Simeone will have been furious with Griezmann’s lack of discipline; running on pure adrenaline, he was chasing the ball around his own half and this resulted in the clipping of the heels of Neymar 25- yards outside of goal. This rush of blood from the Frenchman was punished as the Brazilian dusted himself down to stylishly whip the ball into the angle to equalise for the visitors. Having played in USA twice in midweek and having had only one session with his club, Neymar had been very underwhelming but he proved yet again why he is indispensable to Luis Enrique with such a quality strike. Less than three minutes after taking the lead, all the hard work and discipline came to nothing, Barca were back in the game, had their tails up and to make matters worse, Lionel Messi was warming up.


Atletico's high pressing following Torres' goal.

Atletico’s high pressing following Torres’ goal.

Atleti’s Oliver in left-sided advanced position with Felipe Luis to squeeze Roberto as Messi waits to enter play.

Atleti’s Oliver in left-sided advanced position with Felipe Luis to squeeze Roberto as Messi
waits to enter play.

Introduction of Messi

Seconds after Enrique unleashed Messi into play, Oliver was brought off as to offer more energy and support to Luis Felipe. Simeone’s men changed to a 4-5-1 with the defence and a midfield with the addition of Vietto and Griezmann extremely compact. Messi roamed centrally, rarely touching the right side of the field, Atletico seemed disorientated and unsure whether to press or sit and cover against the current European Player of the Year who was looking to pierce a pass through to willing runners as his teammates fed him the ball on every possible occasion. Quite intelligently, ‘Lucho’ Enrique opted to change Ivan Rakitic instead of Rafinha. The former had at times marked 2 or 3 players and been a never-ending engine in the centre for Barcelona against Atletico’s overloading midfield. As Sergi Roberto continues to grow and impress in the right-back position, he has a lot to thank Rakitic for as he can depend on the Croatian to be there to cover defensively and also supply options for a safe pass inside alongside Busquets. Even though the young Brazilian represented his country twice in USA in the week leading up to the showdown in the capital, including a goalscoring performance to cap off a quite marvellous international debut in Brazil’s 4-1 defeat of USA, Rafinha’s energy was trusted and once again Enrique called upon him in such a frantic encounter. The 22-year-old was dropped back into midfield and supplied central cover as to allow space for the ever-dangerous Leo Messi to wave his magic wand. The atmosphere in the stadium changed completely as the four time Balon d’Or winner entered the equation, turning two Atletico midfielders inside out with his first touch of the ball; Messi threw a party that the hosts never wished to attend. Nutmegs, shoulder drops and 60-yard passes were on show in the 30 minute cameo and as Atletico dropped deeper and deeper towards their own goal (for the majority of the second half, 10 men were behind the ball with Jackson Martinez in a one-man-attack) more opportunities arrived for Messi and co. and it seemed like a matter of time until Barca would take the lead. The circulation of Catalan play was becoming more fluid and when spaces began to open up a passing combination that dazzled the Atletico defence led to Neymar applying a deft flick around the corner for whom else but Leo Messi to latch onto and clip over the out-rushing Oblak to put Barca ahead with 13 minutes remaining.

Defensively compact Atletico with Martinez spearheading a 4-5-1 formation.

Defensively compact Atletico with Martinez spearheading a 4-5-1 formation.

Heatmap showing Lionel Messi’s central position as he came on to dictate the game.

Heatmap showing Lionel Messi’s central position as he came on to dictate the game.

Atletico’s last push

Naturally, Simeone changed the 2013-2014 La Liga champions back to a 4-3-3 formation after his fellow-countryman’s goal and the midfield three of Tiago, Koke and Ferreira-Carrasco were all attempting to get in-between the defensive and midfield Blaugrana lines, this helped create stress on Barca’s back four but also left the Atleti defence extremely vulnerable to breaks, especially with Messi in the mood to cause havoc with Neymar and Suarez alongside him. Half chances fell to both teams but nothing came of them and Barcelona handed Atletico their first defeat of the season to take 3 points back to Catalonia and a 2 point gap at the top of the Spanish league table.

Players from Atletico committed forwards in hope of finding a late equaliser.

Players from Atletico committed forwards in hope of finding a late equaliser.

Leaving themselves subject to counter attacks against the world’s most prolific strikeforce.

Leaving themselves subject to counter attacks against the world’s most prolific strikeforce.

Written by Alex Clapham

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Alex Clapham

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