La Liga 2018/19 Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
Artwork by @chapulana

As much as La Liga has been a big mystery for the majority of the ongoing campaign, Saturday’s clash between Barcelona and Atlético Madrid at the Camp Nou very much feels like a league-deciding game. The battle between first and second is always a special treat, particularly now that a win for either of them could have a huge impact on the grand scheme of things, one way or the other.

At the moment, both teams are enjoying good runs in the domestic competition and there doesn’t seem to be much separating them. In fact, even the first fixture which was played at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium ended in a one-all draw.

That is not to say that they are flawless in their execution. Just this midweek, Barcelona suffered greatly facing Villarreal and only managed to secure a 4-4 draw due to some late Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez magic. Diego Simeone’s troops had to bow down from chasing the Champions League trophy after they blew a 2-0 lead to Juventus, and suffered another huge blow that saw them question more than just their initial approach.

A win for Barcelona would see them jump to an 11-point lead while a win for Atlético Madrid would see them cut it to only five. Either way, this could very well be the be-all, end-all matchup in La Liga.

This tactical preview will analyse both teams and what they will bring to the table, together with some team news and finally, a bold prediction as to who is more likely to get the three points when the two meet this Saturday.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
La Liga table after 30 fixtures played with Barcelona and Atlético Madrid leading the pack. [Credit: Google]

Team news

Barcelona

The Catalan camp could sleep tightly on Friday knowing that they can indeed bring their first-choice XI to today’s clash. The only real question mark for Barcelona is Ousmane Dembélé as the young Frenchman is still recovering from an injury he aggravated against Lyon in the Champions League.

Although Dembélé has reportedly been participating in some of Barcelona’s training sessions recently, he is expected to miss the Atlético Madrid game so that he can be 100% ready for Manchester United come next week. The other good news is the return of Jasper Cillessen, who also seems to be regaining fitness and could feature on the bench as the reserve for Marc-André ter Stegen.

The rest of the Blaugrana squad is in good shape since only Rafinha will join Dembélé in the stands as the other injury-ridden player in the team. Barcelona can also not count on Arturo Vidal who will miss the game due to yellow card accumulation.

Atlético Madrid

The visitors will arrive in Catalunya with their ranks a bit diminished due to injuries. So far, a total of four players are set to definitely miss out on the clash against Barcelona, and what’s even more worrying is the fact that two of those are important strikers.

Both Diego Costa and the returning Álvaro Morata have been sidelined, with the former getting a muscle injury against Alavés and the latter a knock to the knee in the victory against Girona. Other than those two, Atlético Madrid cannot count on Bayern-bound Lucas Hernández who has successfully completed his season-ending knee surgery and also Thomas Lemar who met the same fate as Morata, interestingly enough in the same game.

As far as the rest of the team goes, Los Colchoneros will have them at their disposal and ready to cause some havoc in La Liga this Saturday evening. All the main pieces are Simeone’s to manage, and knowing him, he will do so extremely well.

Key elements

For a clash of two titans of the Spanish league, the Barcelona vs Atlético Madrid matchup is usually a low goal-scoring affair. Instead, those games come to down to tactical masterminding and one coach outwitting the other. Just looking at the strengths and capabilities of both teams, we can try and predict how either is going to exploit the other’s weak spots.

Let’s start with the approach both teams are most probably going to implement on Saturday night. Knowing Atlético Madrid’s defensive tendencies, it’s easy to presume El Cholo’s men will leave the possession to Barcelona, as they traditionally do in games with an average of 48.3% this season. This becomes even clearer when we take a look at the opposing camp. The Blaugrana average 62.14% possession in the 2018/19 season, and it suddenly becomes obvious that they will dominate it in this clash.

But the main take from this is that both teams base their play on exactly that. Barcelona thrive on possession, while most of the time Atlético Madrid surrender it willingly, which should play into both of their game plans.

Atlético Madrid

Defending

Knowing Atlético, they will set up a mid-to-low-block ensuring Barcelona have to go through quite a crowd in order to reach the final third. As a general rule of thumb, the Rojiblancos will most likely deploy a 4-4-2 formation when welcoming the Blaugrana into their half. Atlético, this season alone, have used that system in 82% of all of their games.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
Atlético Madrid’s default 4-4-2, which is used both in attack and defence. Another thing to note is the zig-zag positioning of the midfield which is used to cover the entrance to the other half/ final third.

Other than sheer defensive stability, this system offers much more to Atlético Madrid. The first thing to note is the responsibility among the players in such a setup. The two strikers up front are always divided and have different tasks when it comes to defending. In general, and this also depends on the game itself as well as other factors, Atlético will not press high up the pitch but will rather opt for a middle block.

In that scenario, one of the strikers will usually stay deeper to occupy the defensive midfielder or a player who is used as the link to midfield, in general. The other forward, the one closest to the opposition’s backline, is there to track the ball movement and apply as much pressure as needed.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
Atlético Madrid’s forwards have specific roles when defending; one is tasked with marking the midfield-defence connection and the other puts pressure on the ball. And once again, the positioning of the midfield is distinctive.

Even though this is a good strategy in delaying the opposition in entering Atlético’s half, it is not what ultimately gets them the clean sheets. Simeone’s troops are the best team in La Liga when it comes to defending with only 19 goals conceded this season.

The key is to cover their final third and the most dangerous zones extremely well. So how exactly do they do that? There is a detail from both of the examples above which might tell us the answer to that question. Notice how Atlético Madrid’s midfield sets up in a zig-zag formation. This is used to cover the entrance to the final third very well.

When defending, they don’t necessarily use a traditional man-marking technique but rather opt for a more active and yet individualistic approach. What I mean by individualistic is that it follows a pattern of one player contesting the ball at a time. A sequence of the opposition’s passes activates a certain player’s press trigger and he reacts to it, and contests the ball.

This is a very organised way of pressing the ball-carriers and is something Diego Simeone is very well known for. As a result, most of the danger zones are completely blocked and the opponents are forced to go down the wings.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
An example from Atlético Madrid’s game against Juventus in the Champions League. Zone 14 is exceptionally well-covered as there was no real need for interventions there. Instead, Atlético diverted Juventus’ attempts to the wings.

The image above shows Atlético Madrid’s tackle chalkboard from the first-leg clash against Juventus in the Champions League, which they won 2-0. Notice how there are only three tackles near the edge of the box, the area also known as zone 14. What we can get from this is that Atlético successfully diverted all of Juventus’ attempts to the flanks.

Coincidently, this ended up being their demise in the second leg but here, it worked perfectly. The entrance to the zone that traditionally creates the most dangerous chances was shut off and very well covered, and we can expect them to try and do the same against Barcelona.

Once that has successfully been done, Atlético Madrid work extremely hard to remain as compact as possible and more importantly, to stay faithful to their default shape that comes with the system. Barcelona will undoubtedly circle around their prey and once they realise that Atlético have all the middle entrances blocked, they will try and progress down the flanks via quick side swapping and through-balls.

The end result will depend on how stern their opposition’s block remains. Knowing Diego Simeone and his Atlético Madrid, it’s likely that they will weather the storm entirely.

Attacking

Defending efficiently is something you can probably bet your house Atlético Madrid will do and considering they are playing Barcelona at the Camp Nou, it’s also something that we can expect them to make their priority. But the big question for Simeone, if he wants to contest the title, is how does he score? Because he will undoubtedly have to do so unless he’s ready to give the trophy to his rivals without any competition.

With all of that being said, their ability to execute counter-attacks will be essential in this aspect. Interestingly enough, counters are something Atlético Madrid are quite good at. As it stands, they are the fourth team in La Liga when it comes to scoring from counters, and Barcelona are the team most vulnerable to them with six goals conceded from them so far.

The key to Atlético’s counters lies in their recoveries and interceptions. On average they rack up 83.17 recoveries and 44.67 interceptions that set them up for quick transitions. When their opponents find the necessary space in Atlético’s shape, they usually have the skill and IQ to patch it up quickly.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
Atlético Madrid will have to utilise their counter-attacking capabilities to the fullest in the game against Barcelona. They are pretty good at recovering the ball and interceptions that lead to dangerous transitions.

Notice how the centre-backs take turns in applying pressure and collapsing on the ball-carriers, provoking a mistake and making the tackle that starts the counter. This is also a quick reference to the individual pressing trigger we talked about before in this analysis. A genuine balance between aggression and discipline is what gets them the upper hand in most challenges across the pitch.

La Liga 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid
Both examples show how Atlético Madrid turn defence into attack. The centre-backs take turns at moving out of shape in order to apply pressure and provoke mistakes.

As much as they are a defensive force to be reckoned with, Atlético Madrid will have to find inventive ways to hurt Barcelona in transitions, and will also have to be able to cope with high pressure. With the absence of two of their strikers, most of that offensive task will fall on Antoine Griezmann and the wide attacking midfielders in Saúl and Koke, if we assume that Ángel Correa starts on the bench.

Barcelona

Defending

Even though Ernesto Valverde is also somewhat of a defensive maestro himself, Barcelona have been struggling to replicate their impressive numbers from last season in that area of the game. Attacking is still what they are known for but defence-wise it’s been hit and miss for the majority of this campaign.

Barcelona have conceded 31 goals so far, which still makes them one of the most defensively solid teams in La Liga, but compared to Atlético Madrid they are still far from being a fortress. Taking into consideration that they will most likely have most of the ball during the game on Saturday, we can conclude that defending against quick transitions and minimising ball loss will be the uppermost priority for the hosts.

For that very reason, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić will play a pivotal role in the defensive phases. Both of them are pillars of Barcelona’s playing style but their importance is often best observed when the Blaugrana are on the defensive. Since they will undoubtedly have their backline set extremely high up the pitch, especially since Atlético Madrid are not exactly guaranteed to press, defending counters suddenly becomes that much more difficult. The game against Villarreal (4-4) is probably the best and the freshest example of that.

The Yellow Submarine managed to hurt Barcelona on the counter and continuously take advantage of a relatively slow centre-back pairing who were the only line of defence left for the opposition. So how exactly will Busquets and Rakitić come into play in this case?

Busquets regularly drops back to recreate a back four or at least make it a back three and deputise for the missing defenders, most likely the full-backs, to add some manpower to their defence.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić will be vital in defending counters for Barcelona. Here, Busquets is seen deputising for the missing centre-back as he reforms the back four during a quick transition by Villarreal.

A similar thing happens with Rakitić on the other side. The Croat is there to make sure the channels to the final third are shut completely, and also as additional cover for the right-back, who will definitely venture high up the pitch to provide the team with some width.

Usually, in possession, the defensive midfielder will assume the lavolpiana position between the centre-backs, and that applies to both Rakitić and Busquets. When off the ball, however, both of those players become defensive supplements to their respective sides of the pitch, crucial in stopping the opposition’s transitions.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
Similarly, Rakitić keeps Roberto’s back safe when the Spaniard ventures forward as the right side’s main width provider.

Traditionally, Barcelona defend in a 4-4-2 shape when their press has been bypassed, and leave Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez higher up the pitch with less defensive responsibility. With that being said, however, they will always move up the pitch with numbers, suffocating the opposition and forcing mistakes.

This gives them a chance to recover the ball in dangerous zones and closer to goal. In this perspective, they are different than Atlético , and so are the tasks the two forwards on their side have. As opposed to Atlético’s forwards marking the defensive midfielder and chasing the ball respectively, Barcelona will have Suárez in the latter role but Messi will be free of his unless prompted to do otherwise.

The main aspect here will be the way Atlético Madrid can cope with Barcelona’s high press which is inevitably coming to Rojiblancos.

Attacking

Boasting the fact that they are La Liga’s most proficient team in front of goal, Barcelona are usually more likely than not to trouble the opposition net. And yet, now they face their direct counterparts in Atlético Madrid, who are the team that allow the least amount of goals past.

Since their opponents from the capital will try to stay compact and close off all incursions through the middle, Barcelona will have to try and exploit their wings. This is not really great for Blaugrana since if they are forced to resort to crosses, they will definitely have a problem. Beating Atlético in aerial duels is not the way for Barcelona to go. With that in mind, stretching them, manipulating their movement and creating free space to exploit with through-balls is definitely one of the approaches Barcelona will try.

Having Luis Suárez in the team definitely helps with that. The Uruguayan is the master of manipulation as he will, more often than not, swap places with his teammates in order to break the opposition’s shape.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
Suárez often drops back and swaps places with his teammates, causing the opposition’s ranks to shuffle and their defenders to leave their posts. That is definitely one way Barcelona could breach Atlético Madrid’s compact shape.

As far as stretching the opposition goes, much depends on the personnel Ernesto Valverde opts for. Ousmane Dembélé is probably not in the picture which leads us to believe that true wingers are out as well. With Messi and Suárez in the lineup, the third man will either be Philippe Coutinho or Malcom.

The former generally cuts inside, meaning he is no width provider, but the latter is. Still, the chances of Valverde opting for Malcom are pretty low despite his great performance against Villarreal.

In a more likely scenario in which Philippe Coutinho graces the pitch of the Camp Nou, Barcelona will rely on their full-backs to stretch Atlético Madrid. That also means they will definitely overlap, and Coutinho will have to work well with Jordi Alba in order for them to wreak havoc down the left flank.

Atlético have good ways of stopping overlaps with their dual man-marking and control of the wide areas, but Barcelona usually find a way to exploit free space to the fullest. This season, they have scored 55 goals from open play, and also lead in the number of through-balls per game (4) and long balls (50). Atlético Madrid statistically let only one through-ball get past them per game this season so it will be interesting to see which side prevails in this aspect.

Barcelona Atletico Madrid tactical preview analysis
Barcelona’s progressive passes (left) and passes into the final third (right) in the first fixture against Atlético Madrid, showcasing that the Catalans have the firepower to penetrate Atlético’s defence. The fact that the most successful connections were made between Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez is the most worrying aspect for the visitors who will have to do a better job covering that in Saturday’s clash.

It’s difficult to talk about Barcelona’s offensive outlets without mentioning Lionel Messi, Europe’s deadliest forward (or midfielder?). Atlético Madrid will definitely have to keep at least on eye, possibly both, on the Argentine if they want to keep a clean sheet or just minimise the danger from the other side.

Messi has also been on fire with regards to free kicks as of late, scoring one in his last three appearances. Suddenly, set-pieces have become Barcelona’s strength instead of traditionally being their weakness. Fouling efficiently and ensuring Barcelona only get a cross from free kicks will be essential.

Atlético’s 18.9 aerial duels won as opposed to Barcelona’s 11.9 leads us to believe the visitors would rather face the Catalans in the air than on ground and in direct shots from set-pieces, regardless of the fantastic Jan Oblak between the sticks.

Possible lineups and score prediction

Historically, Barcelona still have an edge over Atlético Madrid in their head-to-head matchups, at least within La Liga. The Catalans are unbeaten in their last 17 encounters with the Madrid boys but both sides might be a bit shaken in recent times.

Form-wise, this is not as visible as one might assume. Barcelona have not lost a game stretching 18 matches back while Atlético Madrid have kept a clean sheet in six out of the last seven matches, winning nine of their last 12 in the process. Seeing how this is a crucial game for both, changes to their first-choice XIs might be minimal.

With that in mind, here are the starting lineups I would go for:

Barcelona (4-4-2)

Starting XI: ter Stegen – Alba, Piqué, Lenglet, Semedo – Busquets, Rakitić, Arthur, Roberto – Messi, Suárez

Atlético Madrid (4-4-2)

Starting XI: Oblak – Arias, Giménez, Godín, Luís – Rodri, Koke, Thomas, Saúl – Griezmann, Correa

The only doubt in Barcelona’s camp is whether Valverde will go with a more attacking or defensive mindset. Depending on his choice, he will either start Roberto as his right-back and Philippe Coutinho on the left-wing, or will start both Roberto and Semedo, the latter in defence and the former in a midfield quartet. In that scenario, Coutinho drops to the bench.

Atlético Madrid have to solve the forward dilemma. With both Costa and Morata probably missing the game, Diego Simeone has to pair someone up with Antoine Griezmann. The choice is most likely to be shortlisted to either Correa or Nikola Kalinić. The other question that needs answering is Arias in the back four. It’s likely that he will bench Juanfran to make a backline together with Giménez, Godín and Luís.

Finally, we shouldn’t expect goals galore in this game since Barcelona have seen under 2.5 goals in their last three home games against Atlético in all competitions, and there have also been less than 2.5 goals in six of Atlético’s last seven games.

For that reason and with just a touch of optimism, I’ll go with a 2-1 victory for Barcelona.  They should capitalise on their attacking prowess, but will let at least one goal through due to their weakness in covering transitions. La Liga is also entering its endgame and this match could very well be the one that introduces us to its final phase.


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