La Liga 2018/19: Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona
The glorious Wanda Metropolitano stadium was filled with 67,204 people, creating the passion and atmosphere of a true gladiatorial arena. Somehow, the roars of the crowd made the great derby between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid an even bigger event, if that is even possible for a game that is slowly but steadily catching up to the great El Clasico.
Still, for all the hype, and the importance the three points at stake, the match did not really live up to it. We witnessed a brawl between two conservative teams who were more concerned about committing no mistakes. As a result, they lost that initial spark that was expected and wanted.
This tactical analysis will use statistics to determine how things played out in Madrid and how both teams fairly collected a point each in a not so dramatic fashion.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen – Semedo, Pique, Umtiti, Jordi Alba – Vidal, Sergio Busquets, Roberto, Arthur – Suarez, Messi
Subs: Cillissen, Rafinha, Lenglet, Munir, Malcom, Alena, O. Dembélé
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Atlético Madrid (4-4-2)
Starting XI: Jan Oblak – Lucas Hernández, Stefan Savić, Filipe Luís, Santiago Arias – Rodri, Saúl Ñíguez, Thomas Lemar, Koke – Antoine Griezmann, Diego Costa
Subs: Antonio Adán, Nikola Kalinić, Vitolo, Thomas, Ángel Correa, Gelson Martins, Antonio Moya
Coach: Diego Simeone
Ernesto Valverde had the chance to shuffle the cards a bit and be creative with the squad for the big derby. His only two notable absentees included the Croat, Ivan Rakitić, who suffered an injury on international duty. Rakitić was on a red card anyway that he collected during the Betis spectacle a couple of weeks back. The other unavailable star was the injured Brazillian, Philippe Coutinho.
Still, ‘the Ant’ had the option of the returning Samuel Umtiti. Valverde immediately opted for the Frenchman, dropping his compatriot Lenglet in the process. Apart from that, Sergi Roberto got a start in midfield while Semedo was at right-back. Arturo Vidal was given a nod instead of the injured and suspended Rakitić.
The team operated in a diamond-shaped 4-3-1-2 with Vidal assuming the role right behind the strikers. He also sometimes fluctuated to the wings for some width. The introduction of natural wingers opted a change in the system as we got later on in the game.
Atletico Madrid setup
Diego Simeone did not have to think too much in terms of the organization of his team. We saw what was probably the strongest eleven El Cholo could have mustered, given the rough circumstances he was, and still partly is, in.
Notable absence were all caused by injuries. This meant he could not count on the backbone of his defence: Diego Godin, and his compatriot Jose Gimenez. Out injured was also Juanfran. In their places came Stefan Savić, Lucas, who slid over from left-back, and Filipe Luis respectively.
Atletico were compact and solid from start to finish, operating in a tight 4-4-2 formation. This didn’t change much throughout the match apart from the slight and occasional difference in or out of possession.
Saying that the first 45 minutes were not really action-packed would be a huge understatement. You could call it testing the opposition or maybe playing not to lose, but the fact remains that there were only three total shots between the two teams at half-time with Atleti having one more, and not one on target.
Once again it was a battle of patience between the best attack in La Liga and its best defence. Atletico turtled up as much as they could while Barcelona circled their prey, looking for space to breach the fortress.
In possession, Barcelona formed the aforementioned diamond-shaped 4-3-1-2 with Vidal playing in the number 10 role, something similar to what Paulinho would so often assume during his time in Catalunya.
Atletico were happy to not contest possession, soaking up Barcelona’s attacks while waiting for a perfect opportunity to counter-attack. Their mid-block with two banks of four was meant to stop ball circulation through the middle. For the most part, it succeeded.
Lack of Barcelona width
Barcelona’s problem was the lack of any real width. With the introduction of this new 4-3-1-2 system, Ernesto Valverde mostly resolved the problem that was present in the Betis game. The right side was once again targeted by their opposition but this time, the team was ready for it.
Messi and Suarez would still stay high up the pitch and sometimes not take part in defending. Sergi Roberto and Semedo compensated for this. Roberto and Alba were the only real width outlets in the first half as both overlapped constantly. The Portuguese would remain behind to keep the Spaniard’s back safe.
Note how Semedo moves just a bit higher to form a line with Arthur and Busquets while Roberto acts as a winger. This was a bit conservative but it provided enough cover for the center-backs who were now not so cut off from the rest of the team.
Arturo Vidal had a really interesting role. His was mostly free to roam all over the field having started nominally as a number 10. However, he would occasionally swap places with Messi to allow the Argentine to drop a bit deeper to create. Sometimes he would even slide into the wings to provide link-up for Semedo. In those cases, Roberto would move to midfield. There were also situations where Vidal would accompany Busquets in a double-pivot scenario.
Simeone knew that his only true chances would come from counter-attacks. Valverde knew this as well. With both teams playing in extremely defensive systems, the lack of clear-cut chances was not really that surprising.
Old habits die hard
Nothing really changed after those 45 minutes to forget in Madrid. Ernesto Valverde was forced to make an early substitution since Sergi Roberto injured himself two minutes before the break. On came Rafinha in a left midfield role, and Barcelona reverted to a 4-4-2 formation.
With four men constantly in the middle of the park, ball circulation got a lot better and the Catalans were once more really fluid in possession. The direct result were 737 completed passes to Atletico’s 317. This change, however, did not bring about anything significant as far as the attacking edge went.
Atletico were still doing the same thing since it clearly worked, and Barca were reluctant to opt for a riskier approach. Until they were forced to, that is.
The passing network clearly shows the areas in which Barcelona were most active. Notice how there is a significant drop in activity in the final third of the pitch and how, for the most part, Blaugrana used their wings to recycle possession.
This was especially evident on the right side where Semedo rarely had anyone to link-up with. As a result, he would get further up the pitch and then send the ball sideways or backward. This was mostly true in both the scenario that included Roberto and the one where he was away.
Reactive not proactive
Atletico really needed one slip-up, one chance from a set-piece to break the deadlock. The initial cross was cleared but only as far as the corner flag. The second attempt saw Antoine Griezmann send a pinpoint ball to a diving Diego Costa, unsuccessfully marked by Rafinha. Costa capitalized on a clutch Marc-Andre ter Stegen mistake to make it 1-0 with 13 minutes of regular time remaining.
In general, they would rarely attack through the middle since it was mostly closed up by Barca’s high press. This forced them to go down the wings. Once they did overcome the press and start moving to the opposition’s half, Barcelona would form a defensive 4-4-2 system, the same their attackers used.
It was not until the 80th minute that Ernesto Valverde decided to make his first voluntary substitution. On came Ousmane Dembele, and Malcom followed soon after.
Barca’s low xG of 0.2 before the wingers were introduced is indicative of the problem they faced against Atletico’s defence. Only then, when he had to chase the result (again), did ‘the Ant’ decide to act.
An ace up the sleeve
Dembele brought some much-needed raw pace, width, and creativity to Barcelona’s attack. Malcom did his job opposite the Frenchman, but it was the former who once again saved a point for the Catalans.
Barca’s xG rose to a still mediocre 0.57 (as opposed to Atleti’s 0.43) but they were visibly much more dangerous when moving forward. Messi gave the assist and Dembele finished lethally to deny Oblak his clean sheet.
Before his arrival, though, they had no width and almost no support for Suarez, the lone striker up front. Barcelona were a blunt dagger trying to pierce steel armor. With Messi dropping a bit deeper, and the emphasis almost solely relying on overcrowding the midfield for mostly defensive purposes, Suarez was isolated and completely cut off from the rest of the team.
The direct result was that Suarez received only 39 passes and gave 25, among the team’s lowest.
Still, it all changed with Dembele. The young Frenchman has secured the most La Liga points with his goals this season: five from seven strikes. What’s even more interesting and impressive is the fact that he now has the same amount of left-footed first team goals for club & country (16) as he has right-footed assists.
His crucial goals include the 78th-minute winner against Sevilla in the Supercup, the 57th-minute winner against Valladolid, the 66th-minute winner against Real Sociedad, the 87th-minute equalizer against Rayo Vallecano, and now the 90th-minute equalizer against Atletico Madrid, all in La Liga.
It was truly a battle of two defensive-minded coaches who were maybe too afraid to lose to one of their biggest title rivals. Two late goals saw the teams fairly distribute the points in the colosseum of Wanda Metropolitano. The fans might have left the stands just a tad disappointed, though.
Atletico played their game through and through so their style was not really questioned as much. Some old habits of Valverde’s troubled him, mostly evident in not reacting properly until forced to.
Funnily enough, his substitutions are the ones that have scored the most goals this season in La Liga. Ousmane Dembele and Arturo Vidal have scored two, and Philippe Coutinho and Munir El Haddadi have one each. Still, they usually have around 10 minutes to make an impact. Realistically this is not enough, no matter how big a super-sub they might be.
This draw means that Sevilla are now the league leaders after their narrow victory over Real Valladolid this Sunday. This just goes to show how the competition in Spain has never been tighter. For general football fans and neutrals, it is a beautiful time to watch it.