A second straight 2–2 draw for Barça, and another two points dropped. The goals against Atlético de Madrid once again involved controversy, poor defending, and heartbreak for Barcelona, which will now be discussed in greater detail.
From a neutral perspective, the clash between Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid was a wild and entertaining match packed with goals between two of La Liga’s biggest sides. Both teams started well, and it looked set to be a fight until the end, as most games between both are.
What followed was a lot of luck going both ways, very questionable refereeing, and some individual brilliance. In the end, though, neither side could overcome the other, and it was more disappointment for the culés. More defensive breakdowns leading to goals conceded, and even the goals scored were far from brilliant.
Barcelona 1–0 Atlético de Madrid
The opening goal of the match, and the one that started the trend of bizarre scoring, came for Barça off of a corner. This corner was won after a Lionel Messi free-kick was blocked out of bounds by Atlético striker Diego Costa. The attempt was from the right side of the pitch, just outside the box, at a very tight angle, and Costa had it covered. However, the experienced forward would not be able to handle what was coming next.
From the right corner flag, Messi whipped in a ball to the near post, seemingly aimed at Sergio Busquets. It was a very dangerous delivery, but Busquets could not jump up to meet the ball and head it in.
Instead, with Atleti midfielder Thomas Partey providing quite an obstruction, the ball traveled over Busquets. Standing right behind Busi and Partey was Diego Costa. But unlike Messi’s free-kick, the former Chelsea star could not clear this one.
Instead, Costa completely misjudged the flight of the ball. Perhaps he was anticipating a deflection or his view was obstructed, but either way he completely fluffed his lines. The number nineteen tried to head the ball when it was actually travelling, down just through his legs. Fortunately for Barça, it clipped right off Costa’s right thigh and past a helpless Jan Oblak at the near post.
The goal came from a brilliant Messi cross into a dangerous area, but the main contributor for Barcelona was still undeniably luck. Additionally, a set piece goal that wasn’t even scored by a Barça player is far from the quality expected of the blaugranas. Regardless, they had the lead and seemed to be in control of the match.
Barcelona 1–1 Atlético de Madrid
That lead lasted less than ten minutes for Barcelona, as Atlético got there equalizer in the nineteenth minute. It was shambolic defending all around for Barça combined with some brilliance from Yannick Ferreira Carrasco that created this goal.
The sequence leading up to it actually started all the way at the back for Atleti, with Jan Oblak gathering a failed through ball. The keeper started the move by throwing the ball out to his left back, Renan Lodi. The Brazilian then played the ball up the left side of the left side of the pitch to Carrasco, who received it just inside Barça’s half.
The move should have been ended there, as Carrasco was immediately surrounded by Gerard Piqué and Arturo Vidal. Nevertheless, they could not prevent the Belgian winger from turning. This allowed Carrasco to exploit the massive amount of space in behind Piqué, as his centre-back partner Clément Lenglet was about halfway across the pitch.
Once Carrasco had the chance to accelerate, Piqué had no chance. The center back was left on the ground as he tried everything to stop Carrasco’s burst forward. This left the Atleti winger with plenty of time and space around him as he entered the penalty area, but he had no clear angle for a shot or pass.
Just as it looked like time had run out for Carrasco and the move had amounted to nothing, he cut back to try to get the ball on his right foot. As this happened, Arturo Vidal stuck his foot out in an attempt to win the ball. Unfortunately, it was a very poor and unnecessary challenge by the Chilean.
Vidal completely missed the ball and swiped Yannick’s left leg to give Atlético the penalty. The experienced Diego Costa stepped up to take it, giving him the chance to redeem his earlier mistake. Although, Costa placed his spot kick low and to the right, exactly where Marc-André ter Stegen dove, and it was saved comfortably. It seemed as though the keeper had bailed out Barcelona once again, but upon the VAR review, this was not the case.
Instead, Ter Stegen was given a yellow card and Atleti got to retake the penalty. This was due to the keeper coming off of his line before the shot was taken. Even if it was just by a few inches, it was the correct call.
For the retake, Saúl Ñíguez stepped up to shoot. The midfielder put his shot into the bottom right corner, similar to Costa, but this time Ter Stegen had dove the opposite way. After a strange turn of events, Atleti had their equaliser.
This was a truly poor goal for the Barça defence to concede. All it took was two completed passes followed by Carrasco’s dribbling run for Atlético to go from their own box to winning a penalty. The ball could have easily been won back at midfield when Gerard Piqué and Arturo Vidal had Carrasco surrounded, but their defending was dismal.
Vidal then had a chance to make up for it by keeping Carrasco out wide when he got into the box, and instead he went in with a rash and unnecessary tackle. Just several minutes after taking the lead against a tough defense, Barcelona now had to do it all over again.
Barcelona 2–1 Atlético de Madrid
For the second straight match, after giving up a 1–0 lead, Barcelona were able to take it again. For this goal, the penalty decision was given in favor of Barça, and it was far more debatable than the previous one given to Atleti.
Leading up to the penalty, Barcelona moved the ball wide to the right, where Arturo Vidal was stationed. When the Chilean received the ball near the touchline, Lionel Messi was in a central position after drifting inside earlier. This left unoccupied space ahead of Vidal, which was recognized by Luis Suárez, who moved into it.
The movement of Suárez created space between him and his marker, Felipe, and opened up a passing lane for Vidal. The South American midfielder did well to recognise this, and was able to curl in a pass with his left foot to the number nine.
As Vidal was playing this pass, right-back Nélson Semedo detected the space in behind the Atlético. Their left-back, Renan Lodi, had stepped up to Vidal, while Felipe was tight on Suárez. This made Yannick Carrasco, who is far from a natural defender, the marker for Semedo. Thus, the Portuguese full-back used his pace and burst into the space available.
Luis Suárez did very well to spot the run of Semedo, and he played a first-time ball ahead of him and into the box. Semedo got past Carrasco and got to the ball before Felipe as well. What followed was a very controversial moment.
As Semedo took his first touch and pushed the ball ahead of him, Felipe came in with his right foot and missed the ball. In the follow through of the defender’s challenged, he made very slight contact with the left foot of Semedo. Selling the foul, Semedo went down and the referee awarded a penalty.
Cool as you like, Messi stepped up to the spot and pulled off a panenka against one of the world’s best keepers. It seemed as though the penalty was undeserved, but it created a brilliant moment as that was Lionel Messi’s 700th career goal.
For Barcelona fans, the second of the goals against Atlético de Madrid certainly created mixed feelings. In addition to the great achievement for Leo and a crucial go-ahead goal, there was also some solid buildup to the penalty. In fact, the sequence of possession leading up to the foul was made up of twenty passes between nine players. Still, it was hard to deny that the newfound lead was undeserved. In a way, karma would end up hitting Barça.
Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid
Once again, just like the Celta de Vigo match, Barcelona gave up their lead for a second time. Just like Atleti’s first goal, this one came down their left side, and took advantage of the pace of Yannick Carrasco against the Barça backline.
The sequence started right around midfield, as Renan Lodi took a free-kick after being fouled by Lionel Messi. Lodi first played the ball back to Felipe, before it was returned to him. From there, the Brazilian split the Barcelona midfield line with a pass ahead to Carrasco. The Belgian had checked to the ball and received it just in front of Gerard Piqué.
Carrasco played a first time pass to quickly lay the ball off to Diego Costa, who had dropped into a deeper position. With Piqué stepping to close Carrasco down, and then Lenglet stepping to pressure Costa, a vast amount of space was left in behind the Barça defense. Carrasco recognised this, and quickly turned and ran into this space after his pass to Costa.
With the Barcelona defence completely imbalanced – the two full-backs much deeper than than the two centre-backs, leaving a massive gap in the centre – Diego Costa smartly played a return pass in behind for Carrasco. The Belgian’s pace was once again too much to handle, as he got ahead of Semedo and Piqué. But, before he could get a touch on the ball, Carrasco fell to the ground inside the box.
This fall was in response to this very minimal contact that Carrasco had made with Nélson Semedo. While bringing his foot back in his running motion, it had barely rubbed against the knee of Semedo. Another incredibly soft penalty claim, but it the referee gave another spot kick.
Just as he did with his first penalty, Saúl Ñíguez drove it low and to the bottom right corner. This time, though, ter Stegen dove the correct way and was able to get a touch on the ball. Nonetheless, the German’s save attempt was just not strong enough, as the ball made its way in.
With another very quick, direct move down the left wing, Atleti had another penalty and another goal. This sequence involved just four completed passes between four Atlético de Madrid players, but it was enough to slice open the Barcelona defence for the second of their two goals on the night. Unfortunately, there was no more retaking the lead for the Catalans after this, which meant another two points dropped.
While the focus of football should never be on the officials, the La Liga referees have undeniably made many poor decisions recently. There were the several controversial calls in Real Madrid’s fixture against Real Sociedad, the questionable free-kick given against Barça which allowed Celta de Vigo to equalise, and now this match. The second goals for both teams came from very minimal contact which was barely noticeable. Improvements must be made to the officiating and VAR in La Liga, but at least in this match there was one of those bad decisions in favor of each team.
While the penalty Barcelona earned yesterday was undeserved, it still serves as a reminder of some of the attacking deficiencies of the squad. Only two goals in these past four matches have been scored by a Barcelona player from open play, while there have been two from set pieces – one of those an own goal versus Atlético de Madrid – and one penalty. Improvements have to be made to make the attack more dynamic and far less reliant on these inconsistent sources of goals.
Lastly, something also must be said about the way in which Atlético de Madrid seemed to go right through the Barcelona defence leading up to both their goals. The sequences leading up to their penalty wins were just two and four passes. They took advantage of the poor structure and intensity of this Barça side, and absolutely made them pay. There is certainly much work to do on both sides of the ball.
Why the 3-5-2 can never be a long term option for Barcelona
Ronald Koeman’s greatest tactical revelation upon coming to Barcelona has without a shadow of a doubt been the 3-5-2 formation. Fully conscious of the frailties of the team in every department, the Dutch manager crafted out a setup with which the strengths of his players could be amplified, and their weaknesses quickly swept under the rug.
The full capacity of the setup was illustrated in the ties against Sevilla both in the league and the cup, against Paris in the UEFA Champions League, and in its full glory against Real Sociedad in Barcelona’s 1-6 annihilation of them. More than the results, the performances won back the hearts of fans. Barça were, as it seemed, back to their best, and not a single soul could deny this. Not a single soul, except perhaps Zinedine Zidane.
In the recently concluded Clasico, the Catalans endured one of their worst first halves of the season to date. Overrun defensively on every turnover, Barcelona’s seemingly airtight defence was reduced to rubble while their attack could neither get to nor could they make use of the ball. With that, their titles hopes, too, were damaged seriously.
In the second period, however, with the introduction of the 4-3-3, things changed for the better, and if not for some misfortune in the final seconds of the match, the comeback would have been completed. In this article, Barça Universal explores the identity crisis within the club, the setup’s unsustainability and the inevitable complacency that awaits the team should the formation overstay its welcome.
The lack of cohesion with club institutions
Formations are, after all, nothing more than telephone numbers; or at least that is how Pep Guardiola sees it. While this is true in principle, it is a train of logic that only applies to a certain extent.
It certainly makes a difference when one has four midfielders in comparison to when one has three, and the number of centre-backs, while a seemingly irrelevant figure, has a panoply of consequences on the shape of the team long term. The way the first team sets itself up is a reflection of what will trickle down to the academy level, but with a club that seeks a distinguishable identity from the ground up, should it not be the other way around?
Barcelona, as a football club, have the luxury of boasting one of the best academies in world football, La Masia. From the Pre-Benjamín to the Juvenil and all the way to Barça B, the academy players are inculcated with a strict set of values, intricately detailed roles with pertinent information for each position one can take up once they get to the end game, which is, for every academy player, to play for the first team.
The maintenance and furtherance of this school of thought and football ensure ease of integration into the first team, almost indifferent of age. Why so? This is due to the fact that a winger, for instance, at the tender age of 16 — while certainly inexperienced in the highest level — has all the necessary principles of what is expected of them in the big stage deeply rooted in his veins.
With coherence in the running of the club, from the academy level all the way to the first team, players have absolutely no need to be integrated into the first team. Everything that they need to do, they a priori already know, and will lead to them sailing ever so smoothly into a first-team spot. This is why players such as Ansu Fati and Oscar Mingueza have succeeded, where Nelson Semedo and Arda Turan have not.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that every single academy graduate will succeed, but merely that their presence will infinitely be of utmost utility to the club — as long as the happenings in the first team foster an environment for them to succeed in.
Most teams, as part of the La Masia, use the 4-3-3 to integrate players. This simply means that if ever a formation such as the 3-5-2 or the 3-4-3 is to be used at the club, it should not be for extensive periods of time. It renders an entire academy structure useless, and this then translates to club presidents having to spend ludicrous amounts of money to acquire players that will simply not be needed once the team eventually reverts to the core values it upholds.
Unsustainability in the face of change
If at all anyone desires to know to what extent the 3-5-2 — or any of its variants — is sustainable over the long term, one need only ask one question: Should Ronald Koeman be sacked right this instant, what formation is his successor — perhaps García Pimienta, or Xavi — going to implement once he arrives at the club?
A staunch believer in Barcelona’s core values both in style and in ethics, the Spaniard is most certainly going to revert to the 4-3-3. It is what he has known all his life, and also what the youth he trains have been instilled with over the course of their journey into first-team football. Why change what never once needed fixing?
The use of a 3-5-2 needs particular transfers to be made in order for it to be used to its highest level: a pair of strikers, a set of wingbacks, an attacking midfielder, perhaps a libero, an attacking midfielder and a double pivot. While not a complete representation of the needs of the setup — one whose use varies from manager to manager —, this is a general overview of what the 3-5-2 demands and the 4-3-3 does not.
Much like it would have a negative knock-on off on the academy for the fact it does not major in these specific positions, the sheer lack of durability of the setup will be put to show once the reverse is done and the team reverts to a back four. Suddenly the team will be in need of one positional pivot, a single central striker and interiors where the attacking midfielder would be of most use.
Knowing that Barcelona as an entity simply can not keep up with this particular setup for a year, let alone three, then it stands to reason that such a setup be used only for particular circumstances rather than be a regular occurrence at the club.
Ronald Koeman’s adoption of the back three was born out of one desire; to mask the flaws of previous systems. As Barcelona came to learn following Ernesto Valverde’s tenure, putting stop-gap solutions to long-standing problems is anything but desirable, as rather than put an end to a present-day problem, all it does is stall the defence’s eventual downfall by a couple of weeks or months.
The back three masks a panoply of positional issues within the players. As has been the case with both Oscar Mingueza and Frenkie de Jong, the back three system allows one centre-back to make runs into the attacking half of the pitch. This liberty stems from the fact that regardless of what one does upfront, they are going to be covered by the remaining two centre-halves.
Additionally, most modern teams prefer to set up with a single striker. It becomes almost too easy for a backline of three to deal with a single striker pressing them or making runs between the lines. And unless you have a midfield such as Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Leandro Paredes, the forwards cannot afford to stay up and pin the CBs.
In La Liga, the go-to formation is the 4-4-2. More often than not, the two furthermost players tend to stay at a certain distance from one another, with one fixated on the centre-backs while the other rests deeper in the pitch. Given the relatively low need to stay in one’s own defensive half, one of the players in the defensive trio could easily abandon his post and embark on his own missions in the opposition half. This has happened on more than enough occasions with Mingueza, even with Sergino Dest acting as the wingback.
Thanks to heroics from Marc Andre Ter Stegen, problems pertaining to his centre-backs’ positional negligence has been mitigated, but not for much longer. Relying on the goalkeeper to cover up for their inadequacies is nothing more than a means to an end. It is their job to make saves, however, this should not now become an excuse for future complacency.
For young centre-backs like Ronald Araujo and Mingueza, this is far from ideal. Eventually, they will have to move away from a three-man system which is bound to cause trouble in paradise.
The sages once coined that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and there are several concrete examples to further this theory. One need only look at David Luiz’ career to get a glimpse at the long term negatives of the pursuit of a back three. Throughout his career, the Brazilian has been marred by defensive issues. His overall decision making, positional awareness and his ability to mark attackers have often been permeated with his dreadful inconsistency and woeful uncertainty.
Offensively, Luiz is a sight for sore eyes. His prowess in attack, owing to his pristine ball control, reliability under pressure and impressive passing range are rather impressive for a centre-back. Despite this, the fact that one would constantly need to have two near him for him in order for him to excel speaks volumes about his defensive ability. If anything, it was Arsenal’s 3-0 mauling of Chelsea in the Emirates back in the 2016/17 season that pushed Antonio Conte into making the switch to a back-three.
This example, and many others, illustrate the detrimental effects of a back three to the unit itself. It is a method in which a team can shoot itself in the foot. It fosters complacency in defence, and what for?
Koeman has spoken highly of Jordi Alba in the past, and this season, the Spaniard has been revitalised. This has been one of his individual best offensive seasons in a Barcelona shirt — he has five goals and 13 assists from 40 appearances this season to his name, averaging more or less a goal contribution every two or so games.
The same, however, cannot be said about his defensive abilities. It is his failings in this sector that have meant that rather than be considered the best left-back in all of Europe, he lags behind, and for obvious reasons.
Tasked with defending as well as attacking the left flank in conjunction with his wingers, the Spaniard has shown aptitude in only one of these things. He has, on far too many occasions in this and preceding campaigns, been caught out of position to the detriment of the team. The Blaugranas’ defeat to Athletic Club in the Supercopa final best illustrates his sheer defensive ineptitude. He recorded two assists, which on its own was phenomenal, but on the flip side, he gave away two goals as a result of his complete lack of positional and spatial awareness. He was just about as much a blessing in attack as he was a curse in defence. That is, up until the introduction of the 3-5-2.
Koeman sees Alba as indispensable for the team, and as such, he shaped up the team in such a way that it would accommodate him regardless of how he would perform. Thus far, this ambitious project has borne fruit. The 32-year-old has since scored two goals as well as provided two assists in La Liga, as his newfound offensive privileges have relieved him of all his backbreaking defensive duties.
Much as was the goal with the centre-backs, this new system has been put in place not to remedy previous issues but rather to paper over the cracks. For all the virtues the system has, it has done absolutely nothing to improve Alba’s — or Dest’s — defensive capabilities but rather conceal them by use of the back three.
It should stand to reason that if a manager has to change a system because he is incapable of placing any trust in his full-backs to defend, which is after all the bare minimum they have to offer, then there is a dire need to stir up things. The American has shown on several occasions that he is dextrous enough to alternate between his offensive and defensive responsibilities with relative ease. The Euro winner, however, has not.
More often than not, teams that take up a three/five-man backline use two strikers upfront. There are issues that have a detrimental impact on the 3-5-2 as a general formation and others that affect Barcelona in particular.
Much like the centre-backs and fullbacks have a toxic and symbiotic relationship with one another, the strikers do too. They tend to be excellent when partnered up with one another, but not so much so as sole strikers. Sebastian Haller and Luka Jovic formed a formidable partnership when deployed together in such a system at Eintracht Frankfurt, but once put asunder, they immediately regressed.
The opposition defence has to leak outwards to cope with the wingbacks, and in the process, stretches the centre beyond help. Consequently, with as many as three central midfielders, one of them can afford to rove into the final third, after which it essentially becomes a 3v2 scenario in the centre. The strikers can then exploit this space. Atalanta did this by using Alejandro Gomez as the focal point, while Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan does it by pushing one of Nicolo Barella or Stefan Sensei up.
Moving to a single striker system, then, becomes a lot more complicated because you are not given this kind of space in the attack.
At Barça, there is an entirely different set of issues at hand. To start, the team has no true striker but rather a false 9 and a winger in the form of Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, respectively. The Frenchman has suffered greatly in the novel setup. While he has been on the receiving end of innumerable crosses from his teammates, his sheer inability to make hay while the golden sun shone brightly upon him has come back to haunt not only him but also his team.
Bar his inability to bury chances presented to him, he is simply incapable of forming partnerships with his teammates. As a result, he oftentimes finds himself isolated, much like an outsider looking in. his decision making is just as woeful as it was before, but this time, as the last man, they perhaps carry more weight.
This setup reduces wingers to ashes. The likes of Alex Collado, Francisco Trincao, could each lose a place in the team if at all this setup is to be used in the long term. No winger has a place in it, which is quite ironic given how much of Barcelona’s history has been shaped by players of that position exactly.
In and of itself, the 3-5-2 is not a horrible formation but simply one that will fail to stand the test of time. It is an excellent formation should one require a dangerous attack and a defence capable of covering up its flaws, but in the long term, it will collapse in on itself. Teams such as Inter Milan, good as they are, are ticking timebombs. A managerial change is always around the corner in this fast-paced footballing world, and should Antonio Conte depart from the Nerazzurri, then the current Italian leaders could see a majority of their squad turn to deadwood in the blink of an eye.
The onus is on Ronald Koeman and the current board to discuss the way forward. The 4-3-3 is, has been, and will continue to be the way that Barcelona will best play their football. The team needs reinforcements and pruning of unwanted players in equal measure wherever necessary.