It might have been League Cup week in both England and Scotland, but this midweek saw a full card of league fixtures elsewhere in Europe. In Spain, Real Madrid were held in the early kick off against Villarreal. This meant that not only did Barcelona retain their jointly held record of 16 consecutive La Liga wins, after Real had equalled it against Espanyol at the weekend, but a potential six point gap was pegged at just four at kick off.
Real’s city neighbours were a point further back so victory for either side would put them within touching distance of the league leaders and Sevilla, two points back in second. An already mouthwatering clash between Barcelona and Atlético Madrid had just become even more crucial.
After losing at home to newly promoted Alavés last week, Luis Suárez claimed that Barcelona couldn’t afford to drop another point this season. But since that shock reverse, Barça’s attacking triumvirate of Messi, Suárez and Neymar have clicked, in truly devastating fashion, as Celtic and Leganés were dismantled 7-0 and 5-1 respectively.
Going into this match, the trio had collectively scored a quite incredible 270 goals since Suárez arrived to join his fellow South American superstars at the Camp Nou at the beginning of the 2014-15 season. Luis Enrique would have been looking to take advantage of this hot streak to put a dent in Atleti’s challenge with the season still in its infancy.
Despite taking the unusual step of announcing that Diego Simeone’s contract has been reduced from 2020 and will now expire in 2018, Atlético Madrid were also in form ahead of this match. Having drawn their opening two La Liga fixtures against Alavés and Leganés, Los Rojiblancos won their next three matches, scoring 10 and conceding none in the process.
However, for all of Simeone’s success with Atlético, he was yet to taste victory against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. You have to go back to 2006 when a 21-year-old Fernando Torres scored twice in a 3-1 triumph for Atleti’s last win at the home of the champions.
A 2-0 victory at the Vicente Calderón en route to last season’s Champions League final ended a run of seven straight wins for Barcelona in all competitions. In the league, the stats made for even more grim reading for Atleti fans – they had lost 10 and drawn two of the previous twelve meetings against La Blaugrana.
Teams and formations
Luis Enrique sent his side out in a new 3-4-3 formation against the high press of Leganés at the weekend. The theory held that a four-man midfield would be able to get the ball to the front three quicker and exploit the inevitable space behind the defence. It worked a charm, of course, but with Samuel Umtiti picking up a knee ligament injury in training, it was no surprise to see Enrique revert to a 4-3-3 with Javier Mascherano retaining his place alongside Gerard Piqué in central defence.
Barcelona: ter Stegen, Mascherano, Piqué, Jordi Alba, Iniesta, Rakitić, Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Messi, Suárez, Neymar
Atleti predictably lined up in their normal 4-4-2 shape. Simeone is a coach who will look to disrupt his opponent first, with two banks of four sitting in deep and looking to hit on the counter. Here he paired Gabi and Koke centrally with Saul on the right and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco on the left of midfield.
Atletico Madrid: Oblak, Juanfran, Filipe Luis, Godín, Savić, Gabi, Saul, Koke, Carrasco, Gameiro, Griezmann
It was all set up for a blockbuster with La Liga’s most fearsome attack pitched against the division’s meanest defence. What ensued was more of a psychological thriller than an action packed classic.
Atlético play deep
Atlético Madrid possess some of the world’s best defensively minded players and this is reflected by the fact that they conceded just 18 league goals all last season. Any team that comes up against Barcelona this term could do a lot worse than to look at the nuances of Simeone’s 4-4-2 system as proof that Barça can be shackled despite the embarrassment of attacking riches at their disposal.
The image below shows the basic shape of Atleti, an easily recognisable 4-4-2 with two banks of four holding a line on the edge of the box. Nothing particularly groundbreaking about that, but the devil is in the detail.
Firstly, note the position of Antoine Griezmann (circled). He has taken up a deep position to give Atleti numbers in midfield. You can clearly see that the plan here is to double and triple up on Lionel Messi as the obvious danger man for Barça. This was evident time and time again throughout the first half and accounts for how to subdue the M of ‘MSN’, the roaming playmaker of the three.
Next, just 10 seconds later, Barça have recycled and switched the angle of attack. The defensive set-up shown here is even more impressive. Atleti are man-to-man marking from a deep position, forcing Neymar to come into midfield to show for a pass. This significantly blunts his threat as you’d want him facing goal and turning the defence. However, Simeone had his side perfectly set up to deny Barcelona the space to hurt his team. The organisation in this frame is second to none.You can see Juanfran, the right
You can see Juanfran, the right-back, has tucked inside, eliminating the space in the channel between himself and his centre-backs. He points to the run of Neymar and you can see Koke sprinting to close him. This leaves Juanfran marking space, meaning he can move on to Neymar, cover the give and go from Iniesta on the ball, or even get out to Jordi Alba if he makes a run down the flank.
Messi, on the other side, is covered by the left-back (out of shot), but Carrasco stays deep so that he can double up on Barça’s number 10 or move out to Rakitić, who Atleti would be happy to cede possession to in this deep lying position. Then you have Griezmann, circled, sitting in front of the defence. Like Juanfran, marking space and providing an extra man in the position that Simeone had clearly identified as being the area that Barcelona would be at their most dangerous.
Now we can have a look at how Barcelona looked to break down this disciplined and determined defensive unit.
Piqué and Mascherano would split to take a pass from ter Stegen as sweeper-keeper for phase one. The Catalans were even more dependent than usual on their two wing-backs to progress through the second attacking phase. With the midfield three narrow, Sergi Roberto, receiving the ball from Piqué on the right touchline here, and Jordi Alba (circled top left) were the outlets to try and link with the front three as Barcelona enjoyed plenty of possession. Sergio Busquets was dropping between Piqué and Mascherano to effectively become the third defender in a 3-4-3 as Barça controlled the tempo without having much in the way of chances to show for it.
With Messi, Suárez and Neymar being largely stifled, Andrés Iniesta tried to pick out Ivan Rakitić, who was ghosting into the box quite regularly. The first time this play was attempted, the Croat got his head on the ball but it was an easy catch for Oblak. Atleti would have done well to take heed, though, for reasons that would become apparent before half-time.
The sparring continued throughout the first half with the pattern shown below neatly summarising what Barça were coming up against.
Eighteen of the 20 outfield players can be seen in this one picture. With so many bodies packed into such a small area, Atlético were comfortable at this stage. Suárez had an unusually quiet night, but this was entirely down to the experience of his international team-mate Diego Godín. Suárez likes to play on the shoulder of the last man, but you can see the pair of them circled here and Godín was like a second skin to his mate. Even from this still
Even from this still image, you can see how pedestrian it all was from Barcelona. Gerard Piqué is standing looking for someone to move ahead of him. There was always an easy pass available to Barça in possession, but they thrive on finding a killer pass in the final third. The two black-shirted banks of four were completely denying the space for this to happen, though.
Neymar and Suárez were in the pockets of their markers, and you can see Messi, who normally floats in from the right touchline, wandering in a deep and harmless position here with three black shirts keeping him penned in. It was an absolute masterclass from Simeone’s men and MSN were very much offline.
Set-piece slackness punished
With Atleti’s defence perhaps looking forward to their half-time oranges, having soaked up all of Barcelona’s pressure for 40 minutes, disaster struck from a short corner. Five Barcelona players were being marked in the box, as was Messi on the edge. Atleti even had men to spare – no problem.
But as Gabi and Savić both watched Iniesta whip the ball in from a deep position on the left, neither was watching Rakitić who, just like earlier, had ghosted in behind them. Filipe Luis was closest to him as he rose unmarked on the six-yard line to glance a header past Oblak, but Piqué was Luis’s man. It was slack from the defence and Barcelona took full advantage to take a half-time lead.
For all that it was a quality ball from Iniesta, there was nothing particularly imaginative about the set-piece. It was a training ground move that you will see several times in any Barcelona match. In fact, two of Barça’s goals against Celtic came from very similar short corner routines. After Atlético’s prior discipline and organisation. it was all the more shocking that they should fall behind to such a rudimentary move that Simeone and his defensive coaches must surely have picked up on in planning for this match.
Simeone’s Plan B
With Plan A in tatters after that defensive lapse, Atlético were much more positive in the second half. The shape was the same, the personnel the same, but the two lines of four, as pictured below, were about 30 yards further up the pitch than had been the case in the first half. In addition, Griezmann was no longer dropping deep. He is circled here, staying up front to support Kevin Gameiro.
The result was that Atleti were able to begin their press much higher up the pitch and their counter-attacks now had more purpose. When Gameiro broke away this time, Griezmann was up with him to receive the pass and get a shot away.
It was a good indicator of Simeone’s intentions to get back into the game. Los Rojiblancos’ cause was helped as first Sergio Busquets, then Messi, limped off to be replaced by André Gomes and Arda Turan.
Atléticowere in the ascendancy and were having some joy testing the defensive capabilities of Sergi Roberto down the left. The 24-year-old Spanish international is essentially a versatile midfielder who Enrique has converted into a full-back over the past year. If there is a weak link in this Barcelona side then it is when Roberto is asked to defend.
Simeone had sensed that Atleti’s time was coming and made a double substitution, the likes of which every coach dreams of as the impact was immediate. With a new strike partnership of Fernando Torres and Ángel Correa on for Saul and Gameiro, Griezmann dropped back to the right side of midfield.
When Koke was fouled just inside the Barcelona half, there looked to be no immediate concern for La Blaugrana. With Koke still grounded, Filipe Luis took the free-kick quickly.
There was a touch of good fortune about the goal, but it was Atlético’s sharpness and the movement of the front pair that did the damage. Torres’ flick round the corner deceived Piqué and ran through his legs. Correa was onto it in a flash, and as he stepped inside Mascherano, the Argentine defender slipped, leaving his countryman to pick his spot with a fine finish off the inside of ter Stegen’s right-hand post.
Defensive and offensive transitioning
A much as Simeone would have loved to end his Camp Nou hoodoo with a win, you always felt that before kick-off he would have taken a draw, and his changes after the equalising goal proved this to be the case. Atlético once again retreated to the edge of their own box as Thomas came on in place of Carrasco and slotted into a three-man central block. With Griezmann on the right of midfield and Correa on the left, Torres was the lone striker in a 4-5-1 defensive set up with Barça in possession, as pictured below.
This transitioned back to the previous 4-4-2, on the now rare occasions that Atlético ventured into their opponent’s half.
Meanwhile, the Catalans’ transition from defence to attack and back was just as slick. Barcelona’s perspective on the exact same passage of play was fascinating to observe.
The shaded box shows Atlético’s central midfield block (plus Torres) with not a single Barça player in this area, as the four circled looked for space in wider areas. André Gomes, as Busquets had done before him, slotted into a back three as Enrique’s 3-4-3 system shows that he was chasing all three points with time running out.
However, his team were going more side-to-side than goalwards. Atlético were so compact again that this time you can see all 20 outfield players within 25 yards of Oblak’s penalty area – and all more or less within the width of the box.
Arda Turan was in the Messi position in the front three, and when Barça lost the ball he dropped back to right midfield, the wing-backs reverted to full-backs and Gomes stepped back up in to the left of a midfield four once more as Enrique’s men assumed a defensive 4-4-2, as shown above.
This was footballing chess at its absolute finest. Two master tacticians with world-class players that completely understand the systems they are a part of. In a game where clear-cut chances were at a premium, set-pieces were always going to be a prominent feature, and so it proved for the two goals we saw.
Simeone will be the happier of the two coaches as his team completely stifled the creative talents of Enrique’s men, who will see it as two points dropped rather than a point gained, and will feel that they did just about enough to edge it.
In the end, this was one of the most satisfying one all draws I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing – a technically outstanding display from two teams at the very top of their game.
By Graeme Ellis. Follow @3ll15_