A match between two of Spain’s biggest teams was not the exciting football that would be expected. A well-drilled Atletico Madrid side reduced an uninspired Barcelona team to very little. Here are 3 takeaways from the match.
The game against Atlético Madrid proved to be another disappointing fixture for Barcelona this season. It was not just the result that should worry fans, but how they lost. The Catalans looked like a side that was out of ideas, drilled with little no motivation.
Culés are all aware of the mess behind the scenes at the club. The lack of a competitive squad, financial troubles, La Masia ignored, and an incompetent board still remain. However, the same issues on the field still persist without any signs of changing. A new manager was brought in, and a new-look squad was partially assembled to fix the shortcomings of the team in recent seasons.
Even with all of the changes since the beginning of the season, it seems little has actually changed on the pitch. Still, the Barcelona manager insists on playing attacking midfielders on the wings. This has never worked once over the last five years. The defence is still too open, and the team lacks creativity going forward. Players are still being played week in week out based on their status at the club instead of on merit. And, finally, the team is still too mentally fragile and lacks real leaders.
Furthermore, the injuries continue to mount up, and Barcelona are once again left with a limited squad. Clément Lenglet is currently the only fit first-team centre back at the club. It seems as though even the great Lionel Messi cannot save his club anymore, as Barça have repeatedly failed to take any of the pressure off of his shoulders and still depend on him to win games.
1. Lionel Messi is clearly unhappy
The only team Lionel Messi is haunting this season is his own. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
Lionel Messi is, without a doubt the greatest player in the history of Barcelona. He has been the main man behind the most successful period in the club’s history. Messi has brought magic to every stadium he has played in. The Argentine was, at one time, simply unstoppable and could decide a game at any moment from any position on the pitch. This season is different though, as the forward looks like a shadow of his best version.
Messi had an uncharacteristically quiet evening against Atlético Madrid. The forward struggled to make a significant impact on the game. A lack of options from his teammates and an inability to find their captain in dangerous positions are a major reason for this.
The away side had no game plan on how to break down Los Rojiblancos stubborn defence. There was no fluidity in attack, and the front four just strolled around aimlessly for much of the match. It is obvious the lack of chemistry between the players and the Messi – Antoine Griezmann partnership does not work as they want to play in the same areas. Having Pedri start out wide, and then Philippe Coutinho, offered very little and did not get the best out of either player.
As painful as it is to admit, the legendary captain’s heart no longer seems to be in Barcelona. There is clearly a limit on the great man with how many times he can be let down by his teammates and the club’s hierarchy. To make this worse, the media try to frame the Argentine as the reason for the problems at the club. This could not be further from the truth. It is disgraceful to see the club’s greatest ever player being treated this way and having to consider leaving under these circumstances.
2. Too many defensive problems
The Blaugrana have been fragile at the back for quite some time now. However, the same back four are still almost undisputed starters. After the three huge humiliations in the UEFA Champions League in a row, defeats in the Copa Del Rey and poor performances in La Liga, the situation still does not improve.
Only during the last transfer window was genuine competition signed at right-back for Sergi Roberto. This came in the form of 19-year-old Sergiño Dest. Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet have remained unchallenged in their starting role for too long. Lastly, Junior Firpo has been completely forgotten about, and Jordi Alba is still an unchallenged starter.
There is a clear lack of cohesion at the back. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
Against Atlético Madrid, Piqué and Roberto both suffered nasty looking injuries. This leaves Barcelona with one fit centre-back in Lenglet. The inexperienced but highly rated Ronald Araújo is injured, and Samuel Umtiti has rarely been fit since 2018. Even when the Frenchman has managed a rare appearance, he has been nowhere near his best level. The planning from the club’s hierarchy has been short-sighted, to say the least.
In the first half, Barça were all over the place defensively and players were caught out of position. The goal came from the Catalan sides right flank once again. A loose touch from Piqué allowed one ball over the top to be played and Yannick Carrasco was through on goal. Marc-Andre ter Stegen did not cover himself in glory, but he should not have been put in that situation in the first place. It is not looking good for the Spanish giants defensively.
“A team like Barça can’t concede such goals.”Ronald Koeman | Post-game Presser
3. Questions over Ronald Koeman
Ronald Koeman took the managerial position when the club had been at their lowest point in decades. The former Dutch national team coach was not able to build his own team in the transfer window due to financial restrictions. Additionally, he has still only had a limited time to impose his ideas, and the team are still learning his style of play.
With this being said, there are still signs that Koeman is out of his depth. The biggest issue is his stubbornness in ignoring Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá. At the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, Barcelona were desperate for an injection on energy into the midfield. Though the formation does not necessarily suit the talented youngsters, it has to be time to consider a switch back to the 4-3-3 formation.
Maybe hiring Koeman after the Everton disasterclass was not an intelligent option for the Barcelona administration. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
“It was a tough game. The opponent closed the spaces, and they made things difficult for us. The timing of the goal was bad.”Pedri | Post-game Presser
Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 formation is clearly not working. It was designed to accommodate Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets being able to play together. However, this partnership is not compatible. Moreover, the central attacking midfield position has offered almost nothing in terms of creativity.
The curse of strange substitutions continues to be a problem. This was the same under Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién. Ronald Koeman has a lack of a plan B. If Barça are behind it becomes a case of throwing on any attacking option from the bench and hoping for the best. This was again an issue against Atlético Madrid as the substitutions had almost no impact on the match.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.