Atletico Madrid 0-0 Barcelona: different styles but similar lack of invention upfront
La Liga’s top of the table clash was intense and intriguing, but ultimately goalless.
Diego Simeone named his expected side, with right-back Juanfran available after his suspension was overturned.
Despite Lionel Messi’s return in midweek against Getafe, he wasn’t risked from the start – he joined Neymar on the bench, and Cesc Fabregas played as the false nine.
A draw was a fair result – both sides’ gameplan was clear, but the defences came out on top.
This game was interesting in a strategic sense, rather than a tactical sense. In other words, the clash between the two styles was obvious – Atletico’s narrow, deep, aggressive shape with a strong focus on tackling, against Barcelona’s high defensive line, their insistence upon width, and their emphasis upon pretty possession football.
However, neither manager made key decisions (either before the match or during it) to influence the shape of the game, or to gain a advantage in one particular area. This was essentially Atletico’s default approach against Barcelona’s default approach, with the caveat that both were more cautious than usual, and both seemed reasonably content with a point.
Although there’s generally a big difference in the typical pressing styles of the sides, in the opening moments things were more complex.
For example, while Atletico generally sat back in their own half – from the kick-off, they remained in position behind the halfway line – there were moments when they closed down in pairs and won the ball higher up. Sergio Busquets was dispossessed within the opening minute, mainly because of poor touch rather than any significant pressure, and he didn’t fully recover to have his usual influence upon the game. Diego Costa, a great physical presence, was often the one to win possession higher up than Atletico are accustomed to.
Barcelona pressed in phases but also sat back deeper at some points. It wasn’t unusual to see them in two banks of four at times within the first half, with Pedro playing particularly deep and trying to start some quick counter-attacks from the left. They were more fluid than Atletico, with the four attacking players often changing positions.
The key thing about Atletico’s defensive shape is the role of the forwards. Diego Costa and David Villa’s defensive work was absolutely outstanding – they rarely pressed high up the pitch (Costa sometimes decides to solo) but instead dropped extremely deep, usually back behind Busquets, and formed an extremely compact block that Barcelona found it difficult to play through.
Atletico get away with playing a 4-4-2 because it’s not really a 4-4-2 without the ball. Costa and Villa play deeper than most attacking midfielders, and therefore Atletico essentially use six in midfield when defending. It’s not an entirely unusual concept – Bayern Munich, last season, used Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic very deep in the Champions League – but it’s still extremely noteworthy.
Barcelona recognised they were unlikely to play through Atletico, considering the home side were packing the centre of the pitch and working extremely hard to cut off the passing angles, so instead they played passes out wide. As soon as one of their midfielders, often Xavi Hernandez, was presented with Atletico’s block he played a lateral ball out to the flanks. This is not unusual for Xavi, of course, but he barely even attempted forward passes.
Compare his passes to in Barcelona’s previous match, against Elche, and it’s clear his passes were much more frequently played into wide positions.
Out wide, Barcelona played some neat passing triangles on both flanks. Alves-Xavi-Sanchez and Alba-Iniesta-Pedro were the combinations that seemed most promising for the away side, and they attempted to switch play quickly so they could take on Atletico’s wide partnerships three-against-two. However, Atletico were very efficient at shifting across the pitch, and they almost always confronted Barcelona with a third man – Gabi or Tiago, providing close support.
Barcelona seemed to cross the ball more frequently than usual (or, at least, it formed a greater part of their attacking weaponry than usual), particularly from deep positions. Both Pedro and Messi (who came on in the second half) had headed chances, but Barcelona often centred the ball when Atletico had plenty of men back behind the ball, and the Simeone’s centre-backs were comfortable clearing the ball in the air.
Of course, Barcelona were playing this way because of Villa and Costa’s defensive work, but the knock-on effect was that Arda Turan and Koke also had to be extremely disciplined, and curtail some of their attacking instincts. These two were also extremely disciplined, dropping back into a second bank of four, but playing very narrow too. Atletico’s threat on the break seemed to prevent Alba and Alves taking up advanced, wide positions – they often stayed surprisingly narrow.
Turan was the better performer of Atletico’s wide midfielders, particularly excelling at attacking transitions. Koke, who has provided so many assists this season, did his defensive work well, but struggled to get forward into attack as frequently.
Atletico played primarily on the break, working the ball forward quickly to Villa and (more often) Costa. They broke forward as soon as possession as won, and the manner Costa picks up possession on the break is quite something – in situations others would hold up play, he turns and charges into the channels, happy to attack solo.
Busquets was sometimes on hand to help, but he rarely dropped in as a third centre-back, as might have been the case under Pep Guardiola or Tito Vilanova. Indeed, the first time Busquets played as a proper centre-back was against Atletico’s 4-4-2 on this ground three seasons ago.
Barcelona were therefore often defending two-versus-two at the back, and simply needed good individual interventions from the two centre-backs.
One moment midway through the first half summed it up. Costa picked the ball up on the run, and he and Villa were attacking two-against-two. Mascherano stepped out to tackle Costa, but the ball fell to Turan, who immediately chipped it over the top for Costa to continue his run. Pique had to come across and made a crucial challenge as Costa tried to get a shot away – Villa was briefly left free, but the angle meant Costa wasn’t able to square the ball.
Barcelona’s centre-backs won all twelve of their tackles.
Andres Iniesta was unable to continue at half-time, but Barcelona had a rather decent replacement: Lionel Messi. Fabregas moved back into midfield. Ordinarily this would be a game-changing moment, but Messi didn’t seem 100% fit and Atletico’s excellent defensive shape prevented him getting space in central positions.
His best work came in slightly wider zones, when working the channels and moving across to combine with the ‘triangles’ on either side of the pitch. His ability to play one-twos was particularly useful, and he had a decent headed chance when combining with Alba – he’d sprinted past three Atletico players between receiving possession and reaching the return ball, and that ability to go past opponents was needed in a game like this.
One-twos were also promising for Atletico, if they could work the ball up towards the strikers quickly. Mascherano was generally the one to come out from the defence first, and he dived into a couple of risky tackles that would have put Pique under great pressure if he was bypassed. One tackle actually led to Mascherano himself being clattered.
Another led to a booking for the Argentine, for perhaps the most obvious tactical foul you’ll see this season. Costa and Villa were both typically back inside their own third, Villa collected possession after a misplaced Barcelona pass, played a one-two with Costa to break past Busquets, but when the duo attempted to do the same past Mascherano, Costa was cynically brought down by Mascherano. They would have been running two-against-one at Pique, and that foul robbed Atletico of exactly the sort of situation they’d been trying so hard to create.
That said, fouling was a key part of Atletico’s approach, too. Gabi – and others – fouled Iniesta in the first half, which may have contributed to him being removed at half-time, while the home side generally broke up Barca’s rhythm with some scrappy fouls. Because of the nature of the game, Atletico’s fouling was more frequent, but Barcelona’s was more disruptive.
Having already introduced Messi, Martino also brought on Neymar midway through the second half, in place of Sanchez. He played wide-left but did little. Ten minutes from time, Sergi Roberto replaced Pedro which seemed a cautious move, designed to help Barca retain the ball rather than penetrate.
Arguably the most effective substitute in the second half was Atletico’s Raul Garcia, who replaced Villa when he tired. Although this was a midfielder for a striker, Villa’s role had been so deep, and so defensive, that there wasn’t a significant change in the way Atletico played. In fact, Garcia played a role somewhat comparable to that of Javi Martinez against Dortmund, breaking forward to provide an aerial threat upfront. One knock-down, to Turan, forced a save from Valdes.
We learnt nothing new about these sides. In fact, it simply confirmed the pre-match impression of both – they have very different styles but are extremely evenly-matched.
Although an intriguing game, there simply wasn’t the attacking invention on show to consistently create chances. Both defences deserve great credit for this, but with Iniesta and Messi less than 100% and Koke very deep for Atletico, the lack of quality in the final third was slightly disappointing.
There wasn’t a key battleground, or a particular decision that changed the course of the game. This was just two sides defending well but not quite getting it right upfront – Barcelona couldn’t find enough penetration, Atletico didn’t manage to run at Barca’s centre-backs as often as they would have hoped.
Atletico Madrid 0-0 Barcelona: different styles but similar lack of invention upfront