Barcelona 1-1 Atletico: Simeone’s side seal historic title victory at the Camp Nou

May 19, 2014

The starting line-ups - and Atletico's enforced early changes

Atletico fought back from 1-0 down to record the most amazing title victory in years.

Gerardo Martino surprisingly left out Xavi Hernandez from his starting XI, with Neymar also only on the bench. Cesc Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez were preferred.

Diego Simeone named two strikers in an attack-minded line-up, although he lost both Diego Costa and Arda Turan through injury before half-time, with Adrian Lopez and Raul Garcia replacing them.

Barcelona had spells of pressure, took the lead and rallied late on – but overall this was another superb defensive performance from Atletico, meaning they ended the season unbeaten against Barca, with one victory and five draws.

Right-backs

In a positional sense, one of the most obvious features of the game was the advanced positioning of both sides’ right-back. In previous meetings between these sides, Daniel Alves has generally been the freest player on the pitch, finding space out wide as Atletico form a narrow defensive shape, and the same thing happened here.

Alves pushed forward and pressed high up the pitch, winning possession inside the Atletico half a couple of times, which is relatively rare for Martino’s Barcelona. He also had plenty of crossing opportunities, although there’s the inevitable problem about the lack of genuine outlets for these balls – one excellent cross was played onto Pedro’s head, but the forward couldn’t control his finish.

With Barcelona dominating possession, Alves’ opposite number Juanfran had fewer opportunities to get forward, but when he did, his runs were almost decisive. Most notable was one early run in behind to meet Gabi’s pass, which was reminiscent of the move Atletico played twice at Stamford Bridge to defeat Chelsea.

The more the season continues, the more these patterns of play have become obvious. Another key feature of Atletico’s play is their clever free-kicks, with Simeone’s side favouring both a ‘Zanetti‘ short free-kick around the wall, and a move Stoke City often use, where they reverse a central free-kick towards the near post, rather than hitting it towards the group of players at the far post.

Atletico bravery

The most impressive thing about Atletico’s performance was their commitment to attack. This, after all, was a match where 0-0 would have suited them perfectly, and they’re a side very capable of playing out a 0-0 because of their excellent defensive record.

But that didn’t happen – Atletico broke quickly and attempted to get numbers forward when possible. They often found themselves with three or four players ahead of the ball when moves broke down, but were excellent at delaying Barcelona’s attacks, preventing the home side from breaking quickly. The man in possession would be pressed quickly while other players recovered back into a good, solid defensive shape. Combined with Barca’s apparent reluctance to counter-attack, it worked very nicely.

It was interesting that Atletico recovered the ball in more advanced positions than Barcelona.

Atletico defensive shape

As ever, Atletico’s real brilliance came from their defensive shape. The two forwards dropped back goalside of Sergio Busquets and worked extremely hard without the ball, which meant the midfielders could concentrate on covering space laterally when the ball was shifted wide, rather than having to work up and down the pitch to shut down Barcelona’s midfield players.

The defence and midfield stayed extremely compact, and yet against Atletico managed to deny Lionel Messi having much of the ball – he’s failed to score against them in six meetings this season. Atletico’s only real problem was on their left flank against Alves and Alexis Sanchez, and while the latter’s absolutely superb strike was a moment of individual brilliance rather than anything Atletico can be blamed for, it was no surprise the goal came from that flank.

Replacements

Atletico’s organisation was particularly impressive considering the loss of two of their most potent attacking weapons. Costa’s injury wasn’t entirely surprising, and Simeone summoned Adrian Lopez rather than Raul Garcia because he wanted to keep pace high up the pitch.

Turan’s injury was a further blow, with Raul Garcia onto replace him – offering his height to reach long goal kicks, as he did so effectively against Barcelona in the European Cup second leg. Indeed, while Atletico had clearly been weakened by the injuries, the XI after the two changes was the same as they used in that excellent second leg victory over Barca.

Second half surge

Atletico secured a point here – and therefore won the title – with a brilliant, intense spell at the start of the second half. The man who really stepped up and dictated the game was Koke, from his left-sided midfield slot, and this was amongst the finest individual spells of the season from the playmaker. He played some excellent incisive passes, some clever one-twos and a couple of neat through-balls, ensuring Atletico started the second half on top.

It was this spell of pressure which eventually resulted in the equaliser, through Diego Godin’s header from a corner. Atletico’s set-piece height was an area of clear advantage, although the Barcelona marking was quite dreadful.

Perhaps most remarkably, Atletico continued to push forward at 1-1, playing with the same incredible intensity for another five or ten minutes despite no longer requiring a goal. It was this pressure that meant Martino elected to use Alex Song, rather than Xavi, when Sergio Busquets became injured – despite the fact that, needing a goal, it was probably worth gambling with Xavi in a deeper role than usual. Neymar replaced Pedro – who had been underwhelming without a proper attacking full-back speeding past him on the outside – but changed little.

Final stafes

Barcelona inevitably dominated in terms of possession and territory in the closing stages, but Atletico stood strong and their defensive shape remained superb. Again, the biggest threat was Alves – who crossed for Messi’s disallowed goal – but there was surprisingly little creativity from Barcelona in central zones, even accounting for Atletico’s midfield tenacity. Messi rarely dropped deep to good effect and Andres Iniesta couldn’t find a decisive pass either, with both crowded out as soon as they received possession.

It felt like Barcelona ran out of ideas – the lack of a Plan B has been a longstanding problem (Gerard Pique moved up front in the closing stages here) but they were also unable to depend upon their traditional clever movement and passing either. Atletico fully deserved to take something from the game, and the Barcelona fans’ reaction at the full-time whistle suggested they appreciated their achievement.

Conclusion

As a standalone game, this wasn’t a remarkable tactical battle. The match was played at great intensity in some periods, and Atletico’s organisation was as impressive as ever. Ultimately, however, this was the sixth match between these two sides this season, with almost identical systems used in each match – and therefore the tactical battle was completely as expected, down to Alves being the freest player and Barca’s best route of recording a victory. Open play chances were few and far between, with only a Sanchez wondergoal and an Atletico set-piece finding the net.

Nevertheless, Atletico’s achievement in winning this league must be considered the most amazing domestic achievement of the 21st century so far. When you consider the financial imbalance Atletico (and 18 other La Liga clubs) have suffered from in recent times, it might be one of the most remarkable title successes ever.

You can get a little lucky on the way to winning a cup competition or even a major international tournament, but you can’t fluke a title win over a 38-game season, and Simeone has created a superbly organised squad, a brilliantly compact defensive unit and a ruthless counter-attacking forward line too. Spain is supposed to be the country where possession is valued more highly than anywhere, yet Atletico have won La Liga averaging less than 50% possession, and boasting the most tackles in the division!

Amazingly their season isn’t yet over, with next weekend’s European Cup final against Real Madrid still to come. It would be a huge shame if this extraordinary campaign added in disappointment, but whatever happens in Lisbon, Atletico are the team of the season by a country mile.


Barcelona 1-1 Atletico: Simeone’s side seal historic title victory at the Camp Nou

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