Barcelona travelled to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano looking for a first La Liga win at the stadium over Atlético Madrid, with the hosts desperate to secure the three points to keep faint hopes of a title challenge alive.
It was actually the home team who started the brightest with their high energy approach, Mario Hermoso hitting the post before Gerard Piqué did so at the other end for the visitors. However, it was a moment of magic from Lionel Messi late on in the second half, heading into the final four minutes of normal time, that would decide the game with a run which sliced through the Atlético defence to put Barcelona back on top of La Liga.
This tactical analysis will consider what both Diego Simeone and Ernesto Valverde can take from this game in terms of analysis of their tactics. Barcelona will go home the happier side, though Atlético Madrid may well feel hard done by not to have added even a single point to their La Liga tally.
Simeone lined up with central midfielder Saúl at left-back in an effort to control Messi, instead packing out his midfield with Hector Herrera to add a bit more bite whilst adding a more reliable option to the back line. Other than that, it was business as usual for the hosts, with João Félix lining up alongside Álvaro Morata in the front line.
Barcelona also lined up as expected, with Sergio Busquets missing the fixture for the first time since 2009 due to suspension. Ivan Rakitić came into the side in his place alongside Frenkie de Jong and Arthur Melo, whilst Junior Firpo was selected at left-back in defence with Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo both unavailable due to injury.
Atlético’s targeting of Junior
Atlético Madrid started the game by consistently looking to target the Barcelona full-back Junior on the left-hand side of defence, an area where Valverde had been left with no choice but to start Junior after injuries to his first two choice options. Simeone targeted this with his team selection, fielding Ángel Correa on the right flank, providing a more offensive option than the more narrow Koke on the left. Correa looked to use his movement and energy to provide Junior with constant problems and it was an approach which worked perfectly, in the first half in particular.
One consistent approach from Atlético was to drop Correa deep, bringing Junior with him. This allowed Morata to drift wide or Kieran Trippier to overlap. Both threats caused problems for Barcelona as it forced Antoine Griezmann to sit deeper to cover Trippier, with more help coming from Arthur in midfield, whilst Morata’s runs would mean that Piqué would be pulled out of position with a gap in the middle opening up for Félix or a midfield runner to exploit if a cross was eventually delivered.
With this approach, Atlético managed to disrupt Barcelona’s defensive set-up and create chaos in the final third, leading to free-kicks and corners being won as Barcelona simply looked to bring Atlético’s moves to an end. As the game wore on, Barcelona began to sit their midfield in a deeper position, providing greater cover for Junior and allowing Arthur to pick up the runs of Arthur, whilst allowing Junior to retain his position and add more defensive stability.
Unsettling the opposition in possession
Without Sergio Busquets in the holding midfield role, Atlético also saw an opportunity in targeting Barcelona by looking to press high from the off. What was intriguing was the different ways in which both teams looked to press, with Barcelona preferring a less aggressive method and instead looking to bide their time and avoid wearing themselves out. Given the timing of Messi’s winner, coming in the 86th minute, it may seem to suggest that it was the right approach to take, even if it did mean taking risks in the first half as Atlético’s intensity put them on the back foot.
In the first half especially, Atlético would press high and with great intensity. As soon as the ball came out from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, they would look to jump on the receiving player. With the front two and two to three midfielders immediately closing down, they were able to turnover possession in the final third on 18 occasions, many of them as a result of their high press which worked so effectively. In the second half, this faded and allowed Barcelona greater control as they began their build-up play with greater ease and it showed as they began to dominate possession more clearly.
Barcelona’s approach, perhaps as may be expected as the away side, was different. Particularly in the first half, they were content to sit in a deeper position, maintaining their structure and allowing only Luis Suárez to lead the press, with little support from Messi or Griezmann. With so few men pressing, it became easy to handle. Whilst Barcelona could cut out the ability to bring the ball forwards quite so often and force Thomas back, he would always have plenty of options, such as Felipe and Mario Hermoso, without having to resort to passing back to goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Barcelona falling asleep at set-pieces
If Atlético feel hard done by to have failed to score despite having 2.22 xG across the 90 minutes, they will know that their real opportunities came from set-pieces. In total, 1.33 of that xG came from set-pieces, with nine corners, far more than Atlético’s season average of 5.4 per match. Of those nine, three produced shots with three others leading to shots from rebounds and second deliveries, just going to show how dangerous a threat they posed to Barcelona as Atlético looked to overcome them with their organisation at set-pieces.
Whilst it is important to recognise the good organisation and impressive deliveries from Atlético, the major flaw came in how poorly Barcelona handled the threat. The visitors used a zonal marking approach, as they have done under Valverde for some time, but it was poorly executed. There is no better example than Hermoso’s golden chance early on, as he pulled off of his marker, Rakitić, to find space at the far post completely free and unmarked with Ter Stegen doing just enough to prevent a goal.
Set pieces have long been a concern for Barcelona and that was again the case at the Wanda Metropolitano. The lack of clinicality in front of goal from Atlético let them off the hook, and allowed Barcelona to get away with their poor set-piece defending. Atlético’s failure to capitalise on these chances, many of them in the first half, would cost them the chance to take home any points on Sunday.
Tactical analysis of games like this one can prove to be somewhat of a futile exercise. The winner of the tactical battle was undoubtedly Simeone, his team playing Barcelona off the park in the opening exchanges and having more than enough chances to put the game to bed. Barcelona came in with some luck that they had the unique talent of a player to decide the game with a single moment, but they also showed good game management. By refusing to match the intensity of Atlético’s press, they retained their energy for later on in the game, setting them up well to score a decisive goal in the final five minutes against Atlético for the third game in a row up against the Madrid based opposition.
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