Barcelona heads into matchday 33 sitting at second, two points behind league leaders Real Madrid. With six matches left, every single game must be considered as a final. The Catalans will be playing the third horse of La Liga’s usual ‘three-horse race’ Atlético de Madrid on what will prove to be a six-pointer, and thus this tactical analysis will provide a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the colchoneros.
Barcelona are well aware of the situation they are in. Any more slip-ups and they could say goodbye to their hopes of retaining their La Liga crown. Unfortunately for them, they face arguably the toughest opponent at the wrong time. With Quique Setién facing an undeserved amount of hate, his side hosts the tricky and always tough Atlético de Madrid. Sadly, Setién is struggling with the dressing room politics and is receiving stick from the players and the press for his inability to control the dressing room.
He doesn’t have time to sort out the issues off the pitch and will now have to focus on the massive challenge ahead. Diego Simeone will be licking his lips as he will be bringing his side to the Camp Nou at the right time. With Barcelona in disarray and the players hardly focussed, Simeone will be looking to exploit the situation to his team’s benefit.
Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid are 11 points behind second-placed Barça. With a massive squad overhaul and influential veterans at the likes of Diego Godín leaving, the club had struggled initially. They spent massively on refurbishing the squad, particularly the signature of João Félix, that is yet to bear fruits. The faulty start to their season saw them fall out of the top four for quite some time. And at one point, people were worried if Simeone was going to leave mid-season. However, they have picked up the ground and got back to where they belong.
Notably, they began to pick up the pace for the Champions League knockouts. When the draw came out, and it was announced that Atleti would be playing defending champions, Liverpool, everybody predicted an easy win for the Scousers. But the rojiblancos surprised the world by beating them 1–0 in the first leg. Despite the narrow victory in the first leg, they were expected to bow out in the second leg at Anfield. And this is where they changed everybody’s thinking of Anfield.
Atlético de Madrid had a significant squad overhaul last summer | Photo by AFP7 via Imago
They turned up for the occasion, beating Liverpool 3–2 in their own backyard and winning the overall tie on a 4–2 aggregate. On a night when the odds were entirely against Simeone’s men, they pulled off a massive upset. And this should sum up what kind of a manager he is and the qualities that he has established at Atleti. It is safe to say that the Champions League round of 16 triumphs over Liverpool was least expected because of their form.
The second leg win was the last game they played before football had its unprecedented break, arguably the best way to close off to a three-month rest. Since the restart, they seem to have been carrying that momentum. They drew the first game with Athletic Club de Bilbao but followed it up with four successive wins. The defence seems to be in its usual rigid form as they have only conceded twice since returning.
Last five league finishes
2014/15 | 3rd · 78 points
2015/16 | 3rd · 88 points
2016/17 | 3rd · 78 points
2017/18 | 2nd · 79 points
2018/19 | 2nd · 76 points
As you can see, Atlético de Madrid are always near the summit. Since winning La Liga in 2013/14, they have established themselves as one of the best sides in Spain. In addition to their smart business, pragmatic ideology, and complete faith in the manager’s plans, they had patient fans. As we all know, Atleti doesn’t play the prettiest football. They are known for their rigid system that is virtually impossible to break down when in form. Most of the times, they play for the result, grinding out 1–0s, and even relinquishing possession to inferior sides for game management.
Nevertheless, that philosophy has come with a massive bonus of silverware. Under Simeone, they have won the league, the Copa del Rey, the Europa League twice, the Spanish Super Cup, and the UEFA Super Cup twice. El Cholo‘s defensive-minded approach may have received criticism from those who don’t appreciate it. But that doesn’t mean that everybody despises Atleti’s style of play. Their fans enjoy their footballing ideology, and many other neutrals appreciate Simeone’s approach to football.
The ‘Cholismo’ has become a way of life for Atlético de Madrid | Photo by Joaquín Corchero Arcos / Cordon Press via Imago
With another third-place finish on the way, Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid can be branded as one of the most consistent sides across Europe. Their only regret would probably be to not win the Champions League despite going to the peak on two occasions. Although they were denied the title on both occasions by their bitter rivals Real Madrid, Simeone’s side didn’t crumble and only got better with time.
The 2–1 triumph over Deportivo Alavés on Saturday was a landmark victory for Diego Pablo Simeone as he overtook Luis Aragonés – 194 wins – as the coach with the most top-flight wins in the club’s history.
To elaborately explain Simeone’s philosophy, it’s essential to understand the significance of his 4–4–2. Two banks of four, with a centre-forward and a secondary striker to feed off the striker’s runs. El Cholo‘s idea of defensive stability may be simple to comprehend, but it’s herculean to execute. The signing of João Félix makes more sense as you look deep into their tactics. The secondary striker has to exploit the space that’s left by the opposition to mark the centre-forward. He needs to be aware of these intricate vulnerabilities in between the lines and make the most of it.
Still, one can say for sure that the Portuguese wonder kid hasn’t performed to the expected levels. But he must be appreciated for working hard to adapt to Atleti’s contrasting philosophy when compared to his former Benfica’s. In spite of not justifying his hefty price tag, he has done his best to fill the shoes of Antoine Griezmann. He is the club’s second-highest goalscorer in the league only behind Álvaro Morata.
While the back four poses an impossible challenge aerially, they also make it tricky to be broken down within the lines. Simeone’s ideology works on the player’s understanding with each other. And this is why they found it tough to adapt immediately. Before teams can even think of attempting to bypass the backline, they must first get past the rock-solid double pivot.
The combination of Thomas Partey and Saúl Ñíguez can be regarded as one of the world’s best double pivots. Together, they boss the midfield battles, winning duels, and moving the ball quickly to the wide-men to threaten the opposition. Even after breaking past Atleti’s absolute barriers, a goal is never guaranteed. Jan Oblak is one of the world’s best keepers who is capable of pulling off inhuman saves to prevent the opposition from scoring.
“The matches against Atlético are always very tough”
Overall, the colchoneros‘ style of play is built upon the ideology that every player irrespective of their position, should be involved in the defensive process. It’s hard to break down a team that has all eleven men working in rapt synchronisation. They have the second-best defence in the league, having conceded only 23 goals, two more than Real Madrid and ten less than Barcelona. Just like every encounter, Barça’s most likely source for scoring is Lionel Messi. The Argentine’s dribbling, defence-splitting pass range, and set-pieces will be crucial to bypass Atleti’s rock-solid wall.
Player to watch
Conventionally, while analysing the opponents, the player to watch is always likely to be a winger. Still, for Atlético de Madrid, the person who should be continuously kept at bay is their defensive midfielder Saúl Ñíguez. With club captain Koke Resurrección suspended, all eyes will be on Saúl for providing inspiration and leadership on the pitch against the Catalans.
At first glance, the Spaniard would look like any other defensive midfielder. But when you particularly focus on him, you’ll understand that he is the fulcrum of Atleti’s philosophy. Their defensive system requires someone who can sit at the heart of the pitch and act as a link between defence and attack. While Thomas Partey is entrusted with a more rigid role of winning the physical duals and dispossessing the opposition, Saúl is the player who brings flair to the team.
He is one of the most versatile footballers in the world as he can play as a centre-back, fullback, wingback, and even winger. In addition to his ability to be an ideal distributing defensive midfielder, he can vouch for absentees at any part of the pitch. But if deployed in his usual position, he is responsible for kick-starting the transitions from defence to attack.
Saúl Ñíguez is close to undroppable for Simeone | Photo by Imago
No team can defend the entire 90 minutes without attacking, not even Atleti. The idea to hit the opposition on the break can only be achieved with a swift passer who can change the pace of the game. The reason why Saúl is so underrated is that he doesn’t have the goals or assists to show for his massive effort. He doesn’t dribble often and always focuses on ensuring that the ball reaches the striker before the opposition is ready to defend.
Saúl has a wide range of passing and will be relied upon for both distribution and ball retention. He wins fouls in dangerous positions, can slow-down or amp up the pace of the game, and also has an imposing presence on the pitch. Barcelona should look to ensure that Saúl receives less time with the ball, and also be wary of his defensive qualities while attacking. He is smart enough to read the various tricks the opposition have while building the attack and must be handled carefully throughout the game.
The significance of this game for Barça doesn’t need to be elaborated, as the league standings speak for themselves. With a cloud of negativity looming over the blaugranas‘ camp, Simeone will be looking to exploit the situation. Nonetheless, the gameplan and the overall pace of the game would be no different from any other Barça versus Atlético de Madrid tie. The Catalans are likely to have more of the ball and will be frustrated by the rojiblancos‘ unbreakable set-up.
The focus should be on both attacking and defensive set pieces as those are the most viable options for both sides to score. Atleti will make it close to impossible for transition within the lines. And so, individual brilliance from Messi could be the potential game-changer. That said, visitor’s attacking firepower must not be underestimated. Diego Costa, for instance, will always be a thorn in the flesh for Barça.
Anfield hero Marcos Llorente is also being used in versatile positions, and must also be observed carefully if he plays. Even though João Félix hasn’t had the most brilliant season, he must not be overlooked as he can be quite dangerous when he gets going. The game is likely to be a tactical clash between two contrasting ideologies. Will it be fluidity or pragmatism that comes on top? We will have to wait till tomorrow to find the answer to that question.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.