Atlético Madrid – Barcelona: Ter Stegen, Messi and Some Midfield Adjustments Clinch A Last-Minute Victory (0-1)
During the first half, Atlético’s medium block and pressing trap approach dominated Barcelona, reducing them to a single shot in thirty minutes. With a small tweak in midfield and an adjustment to Messi’s position, Barcelona started overcoming the Atlético block. In the second half, an increasingly tired Atlético conceded counterattack opportunities that ultimately led to Messi’s inevitable 85th minute winner.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
Every week for the past two years, we have watched Marc-André Ter Stegen, Leo Messi and Luis Suárez dominate both ends of the pitch in LaLiga. This trio allows Barcelona to even win league games their team fails to control, something that happens with increasing frequency as the key players in the squad get older. The game against Atlético would be no exception to this trend.
Atlético came into this game with a dire need to break their bad streak. They still have the best defense in the league and the second-best expected goal difference after Real Madrid. However, their offense has been struggling in the goal conversion department, lagging behind their expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. created by 24 per cent. This has led to Atlético accumulating five draws in the last two months of league games and losing steam in their race for the Liga title.
Barcelona might lead the league table alongside Real Madrid, but we are already in December and manager Ernesto Valverde has yet to decide on his preferred team structure. This tactical identity struggle as well as Messi’s early season injuries have been duly reflected in Barcelona’s somewhat lower expected goal creation numbers. The Catalan side remain atop the table because they are overperforming expected goals by 66 per cent, but that is unsustainable even by the usual Messi standards. Valverde and his men must figure out the team’s tactics before Lady Luck decides to turn on them.
Barcelona stopped by Atlético’s pressing trap
Atlético defended in their usual 4-4-2 block, but with a few personnel changes. Substitutes Felipe Monteiro and Mario Hermoso are still taking the place of the injured Jose Giménez and Stefan Savić. Surprisingly, the versatile Saúl played at left back instead of the usual Renán Lodí, allowing Hector Herrera to partner up with Thomas Partey in midfield. Meanwhile, João Félix returned from a month-long injury to play alongside Álvaro Morata, displacing Ángel Correa to the right wing.
Meanwhile, Barcelona continued using their usual 4-3-3 formation, with Junior Firpo replacing the still injured Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitić replacing a suspended Sergio Busquets. Surprisingly, Arthur started playing the game on the right of the central midfield trio, with Frenkie de Jong playing on the left. They usually play the opposite way around.
Barcelona’s 4-3-3 shape in possession against Atlético’s 4-4-2 medium block.
During the first half, Atlético stopped Barcelona’s progression into the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. and outshot them by eleven shots to six. Atlético achieved this by pressing with a 4-4-2 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. structure that did not press Barcelona’s center backs aggressively. Instead, Atlético hindered the receptions of Barcelona’s midfielders, forcing them to play with their backs to goal. Rakitić suffered the most in this context, since he could not turn and dribble under pressure as well as Arthur and Frenkie did. This forced to Rakitić and the center backs to consistently pass the ball wide to the fullbacks instead of passing through the middle. And thus, they fell right into Atlético’s pressing trap.
It is usually easier to press an opponent next to the sideline, where passing options are more limited. By forcing Barcelona to play wide, Atlético could more easily press, recover the ball, and stifle their opponent’s ball progression. Right winger Correa in particular enjoyed great success pressing opponent left back Firpo, who struggles a lot when trying to play out from the back. With Rakitić and Firpo shut down, most of Barcelona’s ball progression depended heavily on the right flank with Sergi Roberto and Messi, as is duly noted by the passmap below.
To make things worse, Messi and Griezmann also stayed very wide during the first half, perhaps hoping to provide an easier passing outlet to their fullbacks. However, by receiving the ball so wide and far away from goal, both players had to rely too much on raw speed and dribbling to beat opponents, and Atlético defenders won most of those duels.
Having produced just one shot in the first half hour, Barcelona had to do something to overcome the Atlético defense. This led to Valverde switching Arthur and Frenkie back to their usual left and right sides, which worked out better for the team. When on the right side, Frenkie operated far closer to the wing than Arthur did, which allowed Messi to move inside. The long-time Barça follower might recognize this as the Rakitić role, which was vital to the tactics of Luis Enrique’s Barcelona between 2015 and 2017.
With Messi free to move inside, he could provide his defenders and midfielders with ball progression options through the center instead of moving just through the wings. Furthermore, Roberto, Frenkie and Messi formed a triangle on the right side that started cutting into Atlético’s defense and progressing into the final third and creating chances. This is how Barcelona managed to improve their ball progression and create five shots in the last fifteen minutes of the first half.
Piqué and Lenglet shut down Atlético’s open play offense
Atlético produced very few chances from open play in this game, amounting to a grand total of 0.26 expected goals (see shot map below). Thanks to the efforts of Piqué and Lenglet, Barcelona managed to shut down most of Atlético’s long ball threats, with the center back pair winning most of their duels against Morata and Félix.
With Barcelona shutting down Atlético’s direct play and strikers, the connection between Trippier and Correa became Atlético’s main mechanism to enter the final third (see progressive pass map below). Correa constantly aimed his runs into the channel between Lenglet and Firpo, while Trippier’s vertical but precise passing managed to find him time after time. However, most crosses or cutbacks they produced into the box were cleared, once again, by Barcelona’s center back pairing, who accumulated a grand total of twelve clearances throughout the game.
Ultimately, Atlético’s main shot creation mechanism was, as usual, set pieces. Their biggest chances of the first half, at the 19th and 41st minute, both came from corner kicks that led to miraculous Ter Stegen interventions.
Piqué and Lenglet push forward while Messi leads the counters
As if Piqué and Lenglet weren’t already having an outstanding defensive game, they also became one of the tactical keys to their team’s offensive mechanisms in the second half. Rakitic still struggled to bypass the pressing of Atlético players, so the center back pair took matters into their own hands, carrying the ball over the halfway line themselves and passing it forward. Their efforts allowed Barcelona’s fullbacks and forwards to receive the ball further upfield and in more dangerous areas. That is how Piqué finished the game as the Barça player with most progressive carries. Meanwhile, the Roberto-Frenkie-Messi triangle kept breaking past the Atlético defense producing chances from the right side.
As the match went on and Atlético’s players started getting increasingly tired legs, Barcelona started creating more chances on the break. In the 62nd and 68th minutes, for example, Barcelona crafted two counterattacks after Atlético set pieces that saw Suárez and Griezmann come close to scoring. The second one in particular, where Messi to took out two defenders, would foreshadow what would happen at the end of the game.
At this point, both managers started reacting through their substitutions. Simeone replaced an underperforming Félix with Vitolo in the 66th minute, as well as Correa with Thomas Lemar at the 73rd minute. These substitutions did little to improve Atlético’s attacking mechanisms. Without Correa, Atlético unsuccessfully tried to string together some passing combinations led by Partey and Herrera, but their attempts kept crashing against the wall of Piqué and Lenglet. Meanwhile, Valverde replaced Arthur with Arturo Vidal in the 73rd minute. This changed the Barcelona midfield yet again, with Frenkie once again moving to the left side and Vidal doing the Rakitić role as right central midfielder.
Ultimately, Barça’s victory came through yet another counterattack opportunity in the 85th minute, with Frenkie taking the ball past the halfway line, Messi taking the ball from the halfway line to zone 14 (right in front of the Atlético box), doing a one-two combination with Suárez, and firing off a tight shot that Oblak could not stop. Atlético tried to push forward in search for a draw, but it was too late.
Atlético started out with a solid defensive strategy to stop Barcelona, but Simeone and his men failed to adapt in the second half, once their opponents had figured out tactical solutions against the Atlético press. Correa has often served as Atlético’s plan B during second halves, but now that he is starting more and games, Simeone needs to come up with a different plan B.
With Arthur operating on the left side and Frenkie getting used to playing the Rakitić role on the right side, it looks like Barcelona has found their midfield structure. However, with Griezmann, Suárez and Messi as a forward trio, Barcelona effectively plays with no wingers, and that creates a massive offensive problem that Valverde and his men are yet to solve.
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