Barcelona 4-1 Atletico: Falcao’s opener wakes up Barca

December 16, 2012

The starting line-ups

Atletico started the match excellently, but still lost 4-1…

Tito Vilanova chose Alexis Sanchez rather than David Villa on the left of his attack, and Adriano started rather than Daniel Alves at right-back.

Despite the failure of the 4-4-2 at the Bernabeu, Diego Simeone again selected that system after Atletico’s 6-0 win over Deportivo last week. Miranda replaced Daniel Diaz at the back.

Atletico started the game very nicely, staying compact, pushing up and restricting the number of chances Barcelona created – but eventually crumbled.


There was a strong hint of the Celtic approach against Barcelona from Simeone. Diego Costa dropped off Falcao and tried to pick up Sergio Busquets, while the four midfielders played extremely narrow in the centre of the pitch, allowing Barcelona’s full-backs time on the ball, but trying to deny Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi space. They played very tight together, so if one of the central midfielders advanced up the pitch to close down (often Mario Suarez on Xavi Hernandez), the other three cut off the passing channels into the front three.

For the first half hour, the approach was extremely effective. Messi was barely noticeable and kept coming deeper than the Atletico midfield – which, considering Atletico were playing high up the pitch, meant he was often operating 40 yards from goal. Barcelona hadn’t managed a single attempt at goal by the time Atletico took the lead.


It took a while for Barcelona to start varying their positioning effectively, shifting around to get away from Atletico’s pressure. The key was Sergio Busquets, whose positioning throughout the game was exemplary – always trying to get away from Costa.  A couple of times he advanced higher up the pitch, allowing Xavi Hernandez to become the deeper midfielder, but more frequently he dropped into the backline to form a back three.

Busquets has frequently done that over the past few years – in fact, the first time Guardiola experimented with a back three was away at Atletico a couple of seasons ago, where Busquets played more as a centre-back than a central midfielder, allowing the full-backs to push higher up and stretch the play. It works excellently against a 4-4-2, and the more Busquets dropped deep and pushed Jordi Alba and Adriano on, the more Barcelona started to play good passing combinations in the final third.

Atletico lead

But first, Atletico had taken the lead. Falcao hit the post early on with perhaps a ‘classic Falcao’ – a header after good movement towards the near post. However, he then became more of a threat with his pace in behind, which is an underrated side of his game. From simple through-balls he had the beating of Barcelona’s back four – first firing wide of the far post, then chipping Victor Valdes for an excellent opener.

This changed Barcelona’s attitude. Until then, their possession play was impressive but lacked penetration – and although Atletico deserve credit for that, Barcelona were playing cautiously; with the situation in the league table, Barcelona had license to take it easy. They were playing ‘defensively’ – which, in Barcelona language, doesn’t involve sitting deep and parking the bus, but instead using possession to slow the tempo and keep the ball in the middle third.

Atletico essentially scored too early – Barcelona were suddenly more determined to get the ball into the final third and turned up the pressure. That said, the home side failed to create a clear-cut goalscoring opportunity in the first half – Adriano scored a thumping shot from distance, than Busquets calmly poked home following a corner. The first goal was almost unpreventable, the second involved dodgy defending at a set-piece. Simeone’s approach, at least in open play, was faultless.

Second half

But now Barcelona were in the ascendency, and Atletico’s shape became a little confused. Cata Diaz had to replace the injured Filipe Luis, forcing Juanfran to switch sides, which probably didn’t help the cohesion. Then, when Barcelona continued to dominate possession and Atletico struggled to win possession, Simeone introduced an extra attacker, Adrian Lopez, for Mario Suarez. Koke went into the middle, and Lopez went on the wing – but Messi scored a third almost immediately, and Simeone then made the reverse sub – Costa off, Tiago on, and pretty much back to the original shape.

At 3-1, with an hour gone, the game was over at a disappointingly early stage.


4-1 looks like a thrashing, yet the first goal was long-distance scorcher, the second was from a set-piece and the fourth from an inexplicable defensive mistake. There was much to admire about Atletico – their defensive shape was good, with the four central midfielders playing narrow and the side pushing up and combining a high line with pressure on the ball. Messi had his quietest game for a while – and yet scored twice, yet again.

Atletico also got the attacking part right – they played crosses into the box and exploited the high line, although they might have done more with set-pieces. In all, the approach was spot on – they were simply let down by individual errors and Barcelona’s usual brilliance. Playing a 4-4-1-1, with pace up top and a narrow midfield, has become a decent bet against Barcelona.

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