La Liga 2021/22: Bold moves from Barcelona gave Atletico Madrid the victory – tactical analysis
It was a big clash in La Liga before the international break as Atletico Madrid played against Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano. The game was another classic Simeone victory as the hosts won with a lower possession%, also keeping a clean sheet. While there were many rumours about Ronald Koeman’s future at Barcelona, the Dutchman head coach could only impact the game from the stands. He gave fresh tactics to establish more control in this game, but the outcome was below expectations. This tactical analysis will give details on how “El Cholo” beat Koeman’s Barça.
Atlético Madrid played in a back three but Simeone chose an intriguing eleven. Both regular wing-backs, Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier started on the bench, as Marcos Llorente and Yannick Carrasco filled those positions. He also played Luis Suárez and João Félix as the strikers instead of Ángel Correa.
There were surprises in Barcelona’s eleven. Some starters in Portugal were dropped and Koeman decided to give young players the chances to play. Apart from Óscar Mingueza who played as the right-back, they also had Gavi and Nico González starting, and there was no real winger as Frenkie de Jong was the right-winger on paper.
Barcelona’s “no winger” approach
In this game, Atlético were more patient than usual. Their average PPDA was 15.7 this season but recorded 39.09 in this game. Simeone initially tried to contain Barça with a more conservative approach, but he also made on spot in-game tactical changes to keep the pressure on the opposition.
The first part of the analysis will dissect Barcelona’s performance against the hosts’ defensive system.
The initial setup of Atlético was a 5-2-1-2 in a high/midblock. Probably Simeone predicted Barça only had one holding midfielder in the build-up, so they wanted to keep two midfielders in front of the defence. Usually, it was Thomas Lemar to stay higher as the attacking midfielder.
The above image shows the pressing. In fact, Barcelona played with two holding midfielders as González started alongside Sergio Busquets. Then, Atlético conceded a 3v4 numerical deficit in the centre. Therefore, the far side striker must be able to take care of two oppositions, such as Félix here. The Portuguese international covered González while baiting the pass to Ronald Araújo. Meanwhile, Lemar was covering Busquets.
The intention of Simeone was to keep Barça on one side during the construction of the attack. But Koeman’s troops had their ways to circulate the ball.
The purpose to play without a “proper winger” was to allow midfielders roaming, so Barcelona could have a numerical advantage around the ball all the time. In this situation, Atlético’s strikers were orienting themselves towards the centre-backs, so Lemar must jump from marking Busquets to press González. Of course, he would be late as the distance to travel was big, the Barça holding midfielders never stay too close to each other.
You could also see F. de Jong’s position here. Instead of being a right-winger on the flank, he would drop into midfield to manipulate the second line, that’s why Rodrigo de Paul could not support Lemar instantly.
But you can see Atlético would be more aggressive in the press. When Barcelona kept moving the ball, they gave the oppositions time to shift and pressed in a more organized shape. Here, when the ball was moved back to Gerard Piqué, de Paul freed himself to press González while Lemar was marking Busquets. Then, very easily they forced Barcelona into the flank areas, where Atlético could close those spaces.
It was worth mentioning that Marc-André ter Stegen was a bit nervy today. The German international hit four long passes but none of them were accurate, this has never happened in his Barcelona career.
But Barcelona were quite good in the build-up and second phase. They had no issues in entering the final third, on 78 occasions they passed into the final third and it was more than the season mean (64.43). Koeman’s tactics to overload the ball with numbers in the attack worked, they used spaces behind the opposition strikers cleverly to move the ball from side to side.
The foundation of ball circulation was the manipulate of the second line. In this game, they had all front players intending to drop, fixing the attention of the Atlético midfield. The most obvious move was Philippe Coutinho and Memphis Depay sneaking in half-spaces, so they dragged Koke down to open spaces in the centre.
For example, Depay attracted Koke in the above situation and Atlético were in a 5-1-2-2. But the strikers could not access holding midfielders on time when they were attached to the centre-backs, while the wing-back press of Atlético was too far away to limit the angle too. Therefore, Barcelona moved the ball from one side to the other through Busquets operating between the lines.
Another situation here, you could see how Barcelona intentionally dragged Koke down with hole players to open spaces in the centre. On this occasion, Gavi dropped deep to receive, de Paul was not pressing him (and this might displease Simeone).
In the meantime, they also had Coutinho moving into spaces behind midfield, so Koke must react and go back. When Barcelona imbalanced Atlético’s midfield into a “V-shape”, Busquets simply moved on the blindside of strikers to operate in red spaces. Lemar would not press as he knew F. de Jong was around.
Therefore, you could see Simeone’s dissatisfaction even Lemar scored the first goal, he expected the team to be more aggressive without the ball. Since then, we saw Koke being more proactive to press, the intensity of the defending lifted, and Barcelona were more uncomfortable. At times Atlético capitalized on Barcelona’s weak mentality and created opportunities after the first goal.
For example, you could see Koke was moving back to cover Depay initially. But when he saw González was going to receive with a closed body shape, Koke did not hesitate to press. With this suddenly sharp turn of direction and pace, Barcelona could not dictate the rhythm of play when entering advanced areas.
Different Barça structure in the second half
Barcelona’s “no winger” approach did help them establish some control in the game, but this was not enough to create goal-scoring opportunities. Since everyone moved out of position, the guests always found themselves outnumbered in the final third. Also, given they were two-nil down during the halftime, Koeman substituted González with Sergi Roberto, and changed the Barcelona structure again.
The above scenario demonstrates the new shape of Barcelona, they were more like a 4-3-3 and F. de Jong returned to the centre. Now, Coutinho was the inverted left-winger who operated in the left half-space, while he would open the flank for Sergiño Dest. On the right side, Gavi was the winger, and Mingueza could have a hybrid role. Sometimes he joined the centre-backs to form a back three, sometimes he moved wider to operate as a deep full-back.
Atlético also made a change. It seems Simeone was not very happy about de Paul’s contribution. Apart from not pressuring the oppositions defensively, the former Argentina international was also lacking the forward runs in the attack, we would show Atlético’s offensive style of play in the next section.
The only advantage of Barcelona’s new shape was to create better structure to circulate the ball. Since they had Busquets flexible dropping between the centre-backs, they could overload the Atlético strikers in a 3v2 easier. Meanwhile, they also had F. de Jong to impact the game in the centre of the pitch, adding composure and techniques in the construction of the attack.
This was important as Barça wanted to keep the ball to attack in the second half. Since Koke was much more aggressive in the press as he did in the above image, Barcelona needed a player who could operate
But the biggest issue of the team remained in chances creation, even the likes of Ansu Fati and Luuk de Jong were introduced, they never looked like a threatening team against Atlético’s defence.
The low block defending of Atlético was too good. The players were defending with clear principles and knowing which space to defend. Even if Koke stepping up more often, they managed to close space well to push Barcelona out of dangerous zones.
In the above image, you could see Koke was higher to form a flat three-man midfield line, not in a 5-1-2-2 anymore. This was a good move as Atlético don’t have to worry about spaces behind, they had enough players to defend. If Koke was higher, he could better block the angle of pass into the centre as well.
In Atlético’s system, the wide centre-backs were given great freedom to leave positions when there were oppositions in front. Hence, you could see Stefan Savić going for Depay and made spaces between the lines tight. But an even more important role was José Giménez as the central centre-back. He has excellent awareness and body orientation to cover his partners, and to clear any danger if the oppositions sneaked behind Savić. That’s why the low block of Atlético was so difficult to break.
In addition, we want to show the importance of Koke and how he balanced the defensive structure. In the above image, Koke did what exactly Simeone expected. When Barcelona came from the half-spaces, the 29-year-old midfielder must get back to close the diagonal space, so they could not reach the likes of Depay and Coutinho. Then, with the concerted efforts of the wide centre-back and the wide midfielder, they could squeeze space and triple-press the ball as we’ve shown above.
Of course, Giménez also had an important role to defend the gaps if necessary. His body orientation and awareness were always important.
Classic El Cholo goal
For me, it was a bold move for Barcelona to play in a back four against talented attackers in the world. Even having more players in the centre could establish better control in possession, but they were very exposed without the ball. Without a clear pressing system, they let Atlético entered critical areas of the pitch very easily, and conceded chances and goals because of that.
Atlético were more direct in possession, but they also had clear positional concepts to create advantages in the attack. Since Barcelona defended in a 4-2-3-1 shape, Simeone’s side used a back three and “V-shape” to improve ball circulation between the wide centre-backs.
As we have drawn here, Giménez usually could pull Depay away from Savić, so Mario Hermoso could go lateral to find the right centre-back, allowing Atlético to go out on the weaker side of the defence
But the more interesting part was about their chance creation. They exploited the high line of Barça very well with simple movements. Since the first period of the game, they already used this route to create chances behind the high line.
We will show Atlético’s attack from the above screenshot. The strategy was to use the deep and wide wing-back (Llorente) to draw the full-back, they knew Barcelona defenders must come out to close wide spaces. Then, they could use the strikers’ (Suárez here) outward movements to drag the centre-backs away from centre, opening gaps to run into. Therefore, when the deep runners in the midfield outran the Barcelona midfielder, they were totally free to receive behind, such as Lemar in this situation.
The Lemar goal was from an alternative outcome of this setup, but the concepts were exactly the same. The above image was the situation before the goal. Initially, Carrasco was deep and wide to drag Mingueza out of position. Then, you could see Félix drifted wide and isolated Aráujo from his partner, as Suárez was occupying Piqué. When given such a big space, Félix was unstoppable as he could turn go into the centre.
Then, when Félix came inside, you could eliminate Aráujo in the defence as he was taken away already. González was forced to face the Portuguese international, but then opening the blindside for Lemar to run behind. Koeman believed it was González’s fault as he did not track Lemar all the way, but as we have analyzed, it was a very difficult situation to defend. The problem was Barcelona’s wide defending system was vulnerable, and the back four exposed individual issues from it.
In the second half, when Atlético had Trippier at the wing-back position and Llorente in the midfield, they made more runs in the attack. They just keep using the same way to open Barcelona’s defence, including the occasion above.
Here, Trippier dragged Dest out, while Suárez’s movement pulled Piqué away from the centre. The rest was simple, you could see Llorente once again made run on the blindside of the defensive midfielder, all the way into spaces in the centre. Of course, Aráujo could not jump out to press as he was occupied by Félix.
It might be a small wonder to see Barcelona losing another game after two 0-3 losses in the UEFA Champions League. Instead of being outplayed tactically, this team without Messi was lacking enough leaders, they were vulnerable mentally. Before Lemar’s goal, it was an even battle, but they just were broken after that.
On the contrary, Atlético were determined to win, they deserved it. Simeone’s side was extremely clinical as they scored two from 0.65 xG, but their defensive performance impressed too. Apart from Félix and Lemar, Koke’s contribution was also tremendous in this game. The holding midfielder was very good at covering teammates and keep Barça quiet. If the front players could stay fit and be lethal, Atlético could defend the title.