Their souls had been snatched and dismantled in Paris. To the untrained eye or to those who neglect the Spanish top-flight, Barcelona’s 4-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain came as a bit of a shock. But those who follow Barça closely knew it was coming.
In recent weeks, the domestic performances in which they avoided defeat were often characterised by the sublime nature of ‘MSN’, their Spanish opposition throwing away chances, a ref bottling a crucial call, or a combination of all three. In short, Barcelona had been hanging on.
A Barça midfield that knows what to do with possession is now gone, and their back line often looks stuck in a deep and unfamiliar trench when trying to play out the back. Their midfield looks lost in no-mans-land, often due to the trend of teams high-pressing them, a now popular tactic which the Blaugrana aren’t used to. They’re used to approaching penalty areas in which a maze of players await them, their task often involving stretching parked buses for the best way to the goal mouth.
While some still set themselves up in this manner against Luis Enrique’s men, Diego Simeone’s men didn’t last Sunday. Atleti smelled blood, just as the rest of Spain and Europe has, and they welcomed them at the Vicente Calderón with a ferocious high press.
Coming into the match, Atleti fans knew that Barça’s last outing involved another equalised score that was broken late by Lionel Messi. In what is becoming a defining trait of Barcelona’s season, Messi was the saviour of another average performance, and memes claiming he’d saved Enrique’s job yet again adorned Twitter and other social media.
Despite some of the pressure on Enrique being alleviated with that win, many felt Atleti could replicate the battering that happened in Paris, perhaps not with four goals, but a satisfying win certainly wouldn’t have surprised, and why not? The red and white side of Madrid was coming off a great 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen in midweek and a 4-1 thrashing of Sporting Gijón a couple of days before that. Summer signing Kevin Gameiro was coming into form and Diego Godín was returning from injury. All looked well.
The game plan for Atlético at the Calderón was to press high and cause discord between Barça’s back line and midfield, neutralise Neymar on the wing, and force the Catalan side to defend for as long as possible. Messi and friends, on the other hand, were going to try and spark ideas into their midfield by switching to a new formation and, of course, feed MSN as quickly and directly as possible.
Atlético used a 4-4-2 with little surprises to Simeone’s selected 11. Sizzling Gameiro was up front with Antoine Griezmann and the midfield had Koke and Gabi centrally with Saúl Ñíguez and Yannick Carrasco on the right and left sides. The back line featured Godín partnered in central defence with Stefan Savić.
At full-back, usual suspect Filipe Luis was on the left, his form and starting position never in question at any point this year, while Šime Vrsaljko has been favoured recently over Juanfran at right-back.
For the visitors, Luis Enrique opted to change things up using a 3-4-3 in theory and in possession, but often looked like a backline of five or six when scrambling in their own zone. Barça’s strongest players were all there with Rafinha and Jeremy Mathieu as surprise starters.
Barcelona’s initial possession strategy and Atlético’s central-axis priority
It’s no secret that during Pep Guardiola’s time at Barcelona, he would use a 3-4-3 as a way to keep ideas interesting in the dressing room and to add a sense of unpredictability to their game. On Sunday, this was certainly the case.
Luis Enrique’s men had drawn Atleti in the Copa del Rey earlier in the month and there is little doubt that that Enrique wanted to keep the Madridistas on their toes with a different formation, for he knows that Simeone’s men are quite familiar with their 4-3-3. Add to that fact that it isn’t as effective anymore, and Luis Enrique’s decision makes sense.
In the picture above, we see that the Catalan giants have opted for a 3-1-5-1 in the opening seconds of the match. Sergio Busquets (light blue) is in his usual pivot role, while Neymar and Rafinha (red circles) serve as wing-backs, and Luis Suárez is up front. This formation gives Barcelona four bodies operating centrally, two passing outlets on the wings, and they still have numerical advantage to Atleti’s two strikers with three central defenders. Atleti’s reaction to this unorthodox Barça formation was quite interesting.
Normally, when the ball enters Atleti’s half, the players fall to a low block with their two banks of four staying close and compact and their strikers working hard to cause overloads to whichever side the ball is played. Here, however, they don’t.
Los Rojiblancos recognise that Barça are trying out something different, and instead of focusing on what they can’t control, they focus on what they can – protecting the most important area of the pitch. In what is a 4-3-3 (with left-back Filipe Luis out of frame), Atleti occupy the central axis (orange rectangle) with one purpose: make it as unplayable as possible.
They use three forwards to keep pressure on Barça’s back three while their midfield three and centre-backs mirror each other thus keeping the rectangle intact along the length of their half. Wherever the balls goes, they’ll move in unison, making sure the rectangle coverage is never broken regardless of where Barça choose to attack from.
Furthermore, Atleti’s full-backs highlight the flexibility in their block. Below, you can see that Vrsaljko and Filipe Luis (yellow circles) are the players that are most withdrawn from the central axis (orange rectangle).
Atlético Madrid’s full-backs are always being mindful of Neymar and Rafinha hugging the touchline, so they anticipate when a pass will come to the wings. This dynamic in their block leads us to Simeone’s next game plan in defence.
When you have Latin flare that has been developed into effective and successful dribbling, you’re oftentimes going to be a go-to outlet when you’re looking to play out the back. With Neymar, this is certainly the case. The Brazilian is a crucial outlet when Barça brings the ball out-the-back, Atlético know this.
As a result, Vrsaljko (yellow circle) was assigned to a man-marking role on Neymar. Below, we see Busquets (red circle) about to play the ball toward Neymar’s flank (orange circle) and Vrsaljko already playing Neymar closer as the ball is about to be passed.
While the Croatian presses high up on Neymar, one of Atleti’s central midfielders (yellow circle), will turn his attention toward the space that Vrsaljko is leaving behind.
Atleti’s zonal high press
While Simeone’s career as a player in many defensive systems has influenced him as a coach, the modern game is seeing more and more teams becoming versatile in strategies. Atlético Madrid’s traditional 4-4-2 relies on a collective effort of space management and strict player-to-player organisation. Atleti are hard workers with tremendous endurance, so it made sense for Simeone to implement a clever high-pressing dynamic to their in-game repertoire.
Below, you’ll see Atlético (red) using a zonal press of two banks of three as they force the play out wide by staying inside the half-spaces and central-axis (orange lines). Atleti’s wide forwards (orange circles) stay in the half-spaces, waiting patiently for a pass to go to Gerard Piqué or Mathieu (blue circles).
The yellow circles above show Atlético’s wide central-midfielders tucked in closer than their forward counterparts. They too are giving up the width of the pitch, but when the ball is passed wide, that’s when intense sprinting and man-marking comes into play.
Below, we see that ter Stegen has now passed the ball to Mathieu (blue circle); this triggers Atlético (red) to man-mark the Barça players as they manoeuvre to help bring the ball out the back. However, one Atlético player (orange circle), will keep watch on ter Stegen to the front of him and Piqué to his left. ter Stegen, soon after this screenshot was taken, had to kick the ball out – high press successful.
How Barcelona won the match
The first-half consisted of Barcelona struggling to break the high-press, only threatening on the break, and for the most part they spent their time defending. Atlético Madrid had Barça on the ropes, but when it mattered most, they couldn’t finish their four chances in and around the penalty area. They huffed and puffed but ultimately went into the break with nothing to show for on the scoreboard.
As a result, Barcelona took advantage of an Atlético side that wasn’t going to start the second-half with the same energy. The intense north-to-south movement of Atlético was now replaced with their more traditional low-block. Atlético had used a tremendous amount of energy at the start, hoping they could score a few goals early on. As it happened, Barcelona broke the 0-0 deadlock when Rafinha (blue circle) received the ball (yellow) after a Suárez pass was deflected off Carrasco’s leg.
When the Brazilian got the ball, Gabi (red) was already on him and delivered a sliding tackle that just missed Rafinha’s shot. The ball went past Oblak and it was 1-0.
In both pictures above, you can see that Atlético were set up well, but Barça prevailed through decisive finishing and fortunate bounces.
A couple of minutes after Rafinha’s goal, Godín equalised off a header, but Messi would spoil the comeback in the 86th minute when received the ball near the penalty spot, Savić would block his shot but the ball deflected into the air and the Argentine collected the loose change and finished his second effort.
In closing, Barcelona won due to being decisive in the moments that matter most, but they were afforded lucky bounces and deflections in both of their goals. However, they did what Atlético couldn’t do, and that was take advantage of chances in the penalty area. Tactically, however, Luis Enrique still has much to improve, as in the first-half Barça looked lost.
By Carlo Valladares @C_V_News