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Analysis

Do or die: why the Atlético de Madrid game is the title decider for Barça

With two points separating Barça and Real Madrid in La Liga, the Catalans’ next game against Atlético Madrid could decide the fate of the title race

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Joaquín Corchero Arcos / Cordon Press via Imago

The excitement before the season’s restart has been justified by a neck-to-neck title race that has entertained the neutrals. However, from Barcelona’s standpoint, the title seems to be slipping away. Real Madrid picked up all three points against RCD Espanyol. And so, the gap at the top has widened from a mere head-to-head to two points. The Barça home clash with Atlético de Madrid on Tuesday could prove to be the title decider in La Liga.


Quique Setién’s Barcelona camp is currently in massive disarray. Off-pitch problems, dressing room politics and players vocally speaking against the manager, the focus seems to be entirely away from the La Liga title race. And this is what Real Madrid’s fans would be pleased to be witnessing. There’s no way anybody in the Catalan’s side can deny that they are distracted by the various dramatic enigmas that are surfacing off the pitch. Nevertheless, with Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid visiting the Camp Nou in one day, anything short of perfection could see the defending champions lose more points.

Comparing the stances

Let’s be honest. Barça is handling the Arthur Melo situation in the worst way possible. Arthur’s departure to Juventus is about to be confirmed, even if he will have to end the season at Catalonia. As a consequence, not only is the board receiving heavy criticism from the Spanish press and fans, but it is unable to control the unrest that’s arising in the dressing room. One can only feel sorry for coach Quique Setién for being put in a situation beyond his control. The Cantabrian has only been trying to keep his head on the issues on the pitch as he is aware that he is powerless in all other aspects.

In contrast to Barcelona’s rather shocking activities, Real Madrid seems to be in a composed situation. It is worth noting that even they are on the verge of losing a player who was touted to be a permanent piece in their puzzle, Achraf Hakimi. The Moroccan is expected to join Inter Milan without a buy-back clause installed in his contract. Even though their fans are disappointed, the club seems to be handling the entire situation subtly.

There isn’t much noise coming out from Los Blancos‘ camp. Despite losing a firm contender to their right-back spot for the years to come, the club only appears to be focussed on the challenge ahead. The media isn’t clawing into Real Madrid’s transfer activity because of how silently the rumours have emerged. The rumours, negotiations, and agreements all happened within two or three days. Unlike Barcelona, who made Arthur’s issue public for the past three months, Madrid have been careful.

Thus, one team was able to keep the entire situation under control, and the other has gone into a self-destructive mode.

Facing the wrong team at the wrong time

Much to the distress of Barcelona, they are facing the mightiest challenge amidst this distracting period. Atlético de Madrid is already a team that’s impossible to beat because of its defensive rigidity. We have seen on several occasions in the past that the clashes with Atleti required individual moments of brilliance to break open their shape. A majority of Barça’s wins against them were 1–0s solely because it usually took over 60 or 70 minutes to find an opening. Sometimes, the meetings were even decided in the final moments through Lionel Messi’s match-winning expertise.

Barça’s lack of complete concentration was evidently visible in their previous fixture against Celta de Vigo. As much as the players may try to deny it, it was clear that their heads weren’t entirely in the game. Both the goals that Celta scored could have been avoided if the footballers were a bit anticipative. Iván Rakitić lost the ball and Samuel Umtiti did not track back properly for the first goal, while the second, although a set piece, could have been stopped if the defensive wall had been careful.

Koke Resurrección Ángel Correa Atlético de Madrid Barça La Liga title decider

After the Spanish Super Cup, Atlético de Madrid will be looking to end Barça’s title hopes again | Photo by Giuseppe Cacace / AFP via Getty Images

The lapses of concentration allowed the home side to pull the scoreline back to square twice. The blaugranas had received some appreciation for the form they had been displaying at the back. Before the Celta game, they had kept clean sheets in their last five games. Just when fans and pundits began to praise the defence and shift their attention to the static midfield, the backline faltered. Samuel Umtiti had a match to forget and has convinced the fans that he no longer has a place in the squad.

A proficient team like Atlético de Madrid would find it easy to exploit the various areas of vulnerability that the Catalans exhibited on Saturday. The colchoneros already beat Barcelona in January’s Spanish Super Cup, which was the final nail in Ernesto Valverde’s coffin. Even back then, several off-pitch issues disrupted their focus, which saw them knocked out prematurely and cost Valverde his job.

Now, the situation seems like a Déjà Vu for the fans. Some have already begun to call for Setién‘s head, which is not only surprising but shameful. The 61-year-old has been giving his all for the club. However, he is unable to bring the best out of the players due to the looming predicaments. Anything aside from a win against Simeone’s side would put the race beyond a comeback. And it’s clear that if Quique fails to retain the title, he might not be the coach for next season.

An absolute lack of game management

One thing that Barça should learn from Real Madrid is their ability to see off games this season. Especially since the restart, los merengues haven’t been playing champagne football. That said, they are still able to win their games. Against Eibar, Valencia, Real Sociedad and even Espanyol, the backline has been shaky. But still, they have been grinding results. Usually, they inconsistently drop off due to lapses of concentration and put the title in Barcelona’s hands. But this season, Zinedine Zidane’s men have been determined to succeed.

They have won all their matches since the restart. Even if it hasn’t been in the prettiest ways, they are aware that picking up three points per game is the principle goal. We know that this isn’t the time of the year where fans would be critical of how well teams play. During a close title race, it’s more important to achieve victories no matter how under par the performance may be.

Diego Pablo Simeone Atlético de Madrid Barça La Liga title decider

Diego Pablo Simeone surely knows Barça more than well enough | Photo by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images

Barça’s away-day blues continue, with the Catalans dropping a majority of their points on their trips away from the Camp Nou. The gap is still only two points, and it only takes one slip up by Real Madrid for the situation to change. Notwithstanding, judging by how things are going lately, it doesn’t look like they are up for the challenge. Gerard Piqué has been vocal across social media to state that the race isn’t finished. But the team hasn’t been showing the same level of aggression on the pitch.

The fans aren’t expecting to see their club win every game from hereon by a lengthy margin. They just want Barça to win and put pressure on the league leaders. Game management is an essential quality that’s required to achieve results even with a bad performance. The azulgranas have been dominant domestically solely because of their ability to pick up clutch results. And it’s now more important to be mentally ready for winning games than ever.

Conclusion

Atlético de Madrid will prove to be the title-decider in the fight for the league trophy simply because of how Barcelona and Real Madrid have been playing lately. One team is distracted and bothered by matters that aren’t relevant to the pitch. The other is hell-bent on doing everything to ensure that they don’t bottle the established lead. Two points already look like a herculean margin to overcome due to Zidane’s team’s consistency. But anything beyond the already challenging gap would put the race to bed.

Atleti have their own agendas to fulfil, with Champions League qualification on the verge of being secured. Simeone will be coming with a gameplan that frustrates the home side. Judging by how Barça has been crumbling when the situation isn’t going in their favour, one can say that they might drop points once again. With Real Madrid playing Getafe Club de Fútbol in a Madrid derby on Thursday, they are likely to turn up for the occasion.

“Remember one thing, we are Barça and this is not over yet. Fighting till the end is a part of our DNA. We will fight again on Tuesday, with our heads held high”

Gerard Piqué

All eyes will be on Lionel Messi to convert draws to wins. But even if he is at his best, there’s no way the club can achieve its goals without the remaining players entirely focussed. The title race is obviously not over, but if Barcelona don’t amp their game against the rojiblancos, it could well be done and dust. A win might not guarantee anything, as Madrid would still have to drop points, but a loss would end whatever hopes the blaugranas have got on retaining the title.


See more

Editors’ Takes: Debating on the Celta de Vigo 2–2 Barcelona

• Umtiti against Celta: The game that may have ended his Barça career?

• Tactical analysis: Celta de Vigo 2–2 Barcelona

• La Masía youth cannot be compromised, even for a 70 million Pjanić

I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

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Analysis

Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo via Imago

With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?

Player Profile

Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.

Isak is Sweden’s next star. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.

Tactical and Statistical Analysis

Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.

Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.

Isak has the speed and strength to bully players anywhere on the pitch. (Photo via Imago)

Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).

In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.

Isak’s goal scoring locations for the 20/21 season, retrieved from understat.com

His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.

Where would he fit at Barça?

Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.

Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.

Isak is built for the modern game with immaculate pace and power. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.

Should Barcelona pursue him?

There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.

There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.

Isak is incredible, but he has a long way to go. (Photo via Getty)

He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.

While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.

Closing Thoughts

On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.

Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.

Maybe in a few years. (Photo via Imago)

Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.

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