Atletico 1-0 Barcelona: Gabi v Busquets, and pressing the opposition keeper?

April 11, 2014

The starting line-ups

At the fifth time of asking this season, a contest between these two finally produced a winner – Atletico deservedly progressing to the semi-finals.

Diego Simeone was without two key players. Diego Costa hadn’t recovered from limping off in the first leg, and Arda Turan was also out. This meant Adrian Lopez played upfront and Raul Garcia played on the right of midfield.

Tata Martino continued with Cesc Fabregas and Neymar in the side, while Marc Bartra started as Gerard Pique was absent.

Atletico should have had the game wrapped up inside the first half, creating a number of great opportunities and hitting the woodwork three times.

Overall pattern

As said previously, the pattern between these sides remains permanent because they’re completely contrasting sides. Barcelona are possession-based and play with great width, Atletico are counter-attacking and play very narrow, crowding out opponents before bursting forward directly.

In this sense, the game wasn’t anything unexpected for long periods – although Atletico started the game extremely quickly, pressing high up the pitch.

Barcelona shape

Another minor point of interest was Barcelona’s shape. In the first couple of minutes, it seemed to be Fabregas in midfield and Andres Iniesta out on the left, the same as last week.

However, after Atletico went 1-0 up, Fabregas was further up the pitch as a false nine, with Iniesta back in midfield, Neymar on the left and Lionel Messi drifting inside from the right. It’s difficult to ascertain whether there was a deliberate switch after the goal, because Atletico’s opener came so early – but either way, Messi definitely ended up playing from the right, where he didn’t seem happy and didn’t influence the game.

Atletico compact and counter-attacking

This game was all about Atletico, however. Even by their standards, they were amazingly hard-working without the ball, and got themselves back into an incredibly compact shape when Barcelona had possession. Adrian played the Diego Costa role nicely – getting himself in shooting positions, but equally importantly dropping back behind the ball manfully. Atletico defended with all eleven men between Sergio Busquets and their own goal, denying Barca opportunities to work the ball forward.

When possession was won, Atletico’s transitions were very good. Particularly noticeable is how neat they were with the first pass out of defence – they didn’t thump the ball into the stands, they instead played delicate passes towards the forwards and the wide players breaking forward. There’s no such thing as an Atletico clearance – it’s the start of an attack.

Atletico press

They also started the game by pressing intensely high up the pitch, and just like in the first leg, the poor footballing skills of Jose Pinto were obvious throughout this game. He was almost caught in possession by Adrian during the first half, when he just about got away with some unnecessary skill on the ball, and poor kicking encouraged Atletico to press extremely high up the pitch.

Even when he got rid of the ball successfully, his balls into the defenders were poor, and Barca always seemed on the verge of losing possession when they played out of defence.

Garcia v Alba in the air

There were two specific features of the game that enabled Atletico to dominate the first half and create so many chances, however, and they were both simple individual battles.

The first was Garcia’s aerial battles with Barca left-back Jordi Alba. Garcia is an interesting player – a midfielder often used as a support striker this season, and fearsome in the air. Against a player of Alba’s stature, he was always going to dominate.

Exposing Alba’s lack of height was unquestionably a deliberate tactic from Atletico. Every time Thibaut Courtois had the ball, he thumped it into that area of the pitch – he completed 11 passes to Garcia, which was 10 more than to any other Atletico player.

But this didn’t simply help Atletico get the ball forward – it created two of their best opportunities. Garcia climbed above Alba to glance on for Adrian’s early shot, which hit the woodwork, with Koke opening the scoring seconds later.

Amazingly, Garcia created a chance for Villa midway through the first half from an identical position, although this time the long pass had come from the right-back, Juanfran. Garcia managed to win the initial dual against Alba, then reached his own flick-on, and his second header sent Villa through on goal. Again, the shot hit the woodwork.

Barca simply couldn’t cope with their lack of height in this zone – Javier Mascherano could hardly move across and offer more height. It’s worth remembering, too, that when dumped out of this competition by Bayern last year, their lack of aerial prowess when defending set-pieces was also an issue. It’s been a long-standing issue for Barcelona, but rarely have they had such a short side – and, of course, at the moment they’re unable to compensate at the other end.

What Barcelona didn’t do, which was probably the only part-solution to the problem, was to push a man forward on Courtois when he had the ball. He generally rolled the ball out, making up a few yards, before hitting flat, accurate kicks towards Garcia. If he’d been pressured, he would have been forced to kick from his hands, which means he wouldn’t have been able to advance, and would have found it tougher to locate Garcia accurately.

Indeed, considering Barcelona were having such problems with their own goalkeeper’s distribution, this concept was a huge part of the game. It’s a genuinely fascinating development: Atletico pressed Pinto to combat Barcelona’s tiki-taka, Barca should have pressed Courtois to prevent being exposed at the back.

Gabi v Busquets

Atletico’s second best source of ‘creativity’ was another individual battle. And this was much simpler – Gabi pressed Busquets like crazy, and emerged victorious from the battle.

The best example of this came just after the opener – Busquets was free in front of his defence for a pass, Villa charged into him from one direction but Gabi was steaming in from the other, so when Busquets tried to turn away from Villa, Gabi dispossessed him. Atletico then had a couple of half-chances inside the box, through Gabi and then Villa. This was a great example, incidentally, of Atletico hunting in packs: if the first man doesn’t get you, the second will.

Later, he similarly pressed Busquets on the edge of the Barca box, won the ball, Koke picked up possession and slipped in Villa – who managed to hit the woodwork yet again.

Gabi should have put the game beyond Barca after 70 minutes when he was first to collect a bouncing ball in midfield – simply outsprinting Busquets to get there first- and playing a one-two with Villa, before being allowed to run from the halfway line to the opposition box without another challenge. His finish was extremely weak, and this really should have been Gabi’s crowning moment.

Barca attempt a fightback

Atletico sat much deeper in the final half hour, and it was the classic situation – Barcelona possession against a parked bus. Martino again moved to a ‘proper’ 4-3-3 with Alexis Sanchez replacing Fabregas, and then went 4-2-1-3 with Pedro Rodriguez on for Iniesta, and Messi playing slightly behind Neymar, Sanchez and Pedro.

But Barcelona lack the clever passing patterns and cohesive movement of yesteryear – we’ve all seen them struggle in these situations before, but here more than ever, they really looked like a collection of individuals rather than a proper unit. Martino has made Barca play more counter-attacking football this year – which has been effective in spells – but towards the end of this game, the lack of ability to penetrate an (admittedly superbly organised) Atletico defence was quite clear. Like last week, Alves’ crosses for Messi and (surprisingly) Xavi caused the most problems – but Atletico were happy to reduce Barca to a crossing side.


The heroes of Europe this season are Atletico, regardless of what happens from here. Throughout the campaign they’ve looked extremely well-organised and excellent on the break, but this performance took them to another level. The first 20 minutes were amongst the most dominant spells you’ll see this season, and it was particularly impressive considering they were without both Costa and Turan, two of their stars.

Atletico go about their football in an entirely different way from Barca, and here their two areas of strength were individual duels. Arguably their best four chances in that opening spell came from two different ‘physical’ sources – Garcia overpowering Alba, and Gabi pressing Busquets. They proved, once and for all, that tackling can be a quality.

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