Atlético Madrid – Barcelona: Barcelona’s Early Blitz Leaves Atlético Madrid Lost (0-1)

Barcelona responded to their draw against Espanyol in fiery fashion; they came out flying against Atlético Madrid, utilizing numerical advantages in midfield and a high intensity counterpress to give the hosts absolutely nothing for the first thirty minutes of the match. Though Atlético Madrid clawed their way back into the game, they could not overcome Ousmane Dembélé’s early goal. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Charlie Tuley

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Diego Simeone’s roller coaster ride of a tenure with Atlético Madrid has seen a larger amount of fluctuation of late, with the club hitting more lows than highs since their 2020-2021 title-winning season. Issues with recruitment and accommodating players in Simeone’s rigid system have greatly impacted the on-field product, though the mid season World Cup break will have come as a great relief to the Argentine manager as it gave him time to get his squad together before the second half of the season. 

Simeone made three changes to his starting eleven that beat Elche a week prior, with Nahuel Molina, Reinildo Mandava, and Koke returning to the lineup. Jan Oblak started between the sticks, with Molina, Stefan Savić, José María Giménez, and Reinildo forming the defensive line. Marcos Llorente Koke, and Yannick Carrasco were joined by Atlético Madrid’s recent breakout star Pablo Barrios in midfield, whilst João Félix partnered Antoine Griezmann in the striker roles.

Barcelona have finally begun to purr under Xavi, and the side were nearly perfect (12-1-1) in LaLiga prior to the month-long break. Now that Xavi has had the chance to build his squad and give them time to adapt to his football, things are finally beginning to look up for the Catalan side, though they did stumble in their first match after the World Cup (a 1-1 draw with city rivals Espanyol). Barcelona were without Robert Lewandowski for the trip to Madrid, and their reliance on the Poland international would force a heavy weight onto the shoulders of whoever was forced to lead the line in his stead. 

Like Lewandowski, Jordi Alba was suspended for the match against Atlético Madrid, though Xavi had no injuries to contend with when setting his squad for the first time in months. Marc-André ter Stegen was the side’s goalkeeper, with Jules Koundé, Ronald Araújo, Andreas Christensen, and Alejandro Balde making up the back four. Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong, and Pedri formed Xavi’s midfield trio, with Gavi joining Ousmane Dembélé and Ansu Fati as a pseudo-winger in the front three.

Barcelona set the tone, Atléti look lost

Barcelona immediately grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, taking the match to the hosts. Xavi’s shape and system seemed to stump Simeone and the Atlético Madrid players early on, and they found it incredibly difficult to stifle Barcelona’s buildup. Barcelona’s four midfielders formed something akin to a square in possession, with Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets sitting deeper and Pedri and Gavi finding space in half-spaces just ahead of the Atlético Madrid back line. The host’s two central midfielders (Barrios and Koke) could not possibly defend Barcelona’s four midfielders on their own, though they received little help from their teammates early on. Barcelona cut through Atlético Madrid like butter early on with their obvious numerical superiority in midfield, leaving Koke and Barrios in no man’s land in defense. Pedri and Gavi always had space between the lines to receive the ball, and it forced Atlético Madrid’s center-backs to step out of the back line to pressure them, giving Dembélé and Fati the chance to take advantage of the shift in defense. 

10th minute. Barcelona’s shape in possession, with De Jong and Pedri operating in the half-space whilst Balde occupied the space wide on the left. 

In defense, Xavi’s Barcelona were just as efficient early on in the match. Gavi, who put in the shift of a workhorse throughout the game, stepped into the center-forward role to lead Barcelona’s high press. This moved Fati out to the left where his duties were more accommodating for his work rate. Whenever Barcelona lost the ball in Atlético Madrid’s territory, they would collapse with as many players as they had in the immediate vicinity to put the Atlético Madrid players under as much pressure as possible. This resulted in Atlético Madrid either misplacing high-risk passes or just settling to clear the ball towards the Barcelona defenders, which kept Barcelona on the ball constantly. Atlético Madrid were forced to defend deep over and over throughout the first twenty minutes of the match, demoralizing the squad heavily. Players became frustrated with each other and the crowd were whistling the team throughout the first half. 

Barcelona’s pressure finally came to fruition after twenty-two minutes had passed, with Dembélé finding the goal that would eventually be the matchwinner. Pedri picked up the ball deep in the half-space, and he carried the ball through the weak last-ditch challenges of four Atlético Madrid players, before squaring the ball to Gavi in the penalty area. Gavi, who was heavily pressured by Reinildo, managed to get the ball to Dembélé on the far side of the penalty area, giving the Frenchman the space and time to slot the ball past Oblak in excellent fashion. Atlético Madrid’s response immediately after the goal was poor and the players began to pile on each other even more, and it looked as if the hosts were in for a very long match.

Atlético Madrid work their way back

Barcelona’s high counterpress was unsustainable though, and their intensity dropped near the thirty minute mark. Atlético Madrid were given more time on the ball in their own territory and they were able to play out of the back without having multiple Barcelona players diving down their throats. The home side were able to finally break into Barcelona’s territory, and Griezmann began to cause a bit of problems for the Barcelona defense with his off-ball movement. Most of Atlético Madrid’s attacks came from exploiting the space in wide areas since Barcelona were playing without traditional wingers (and Fati and Dembélé acted as attacking outlets, not tracking back to defend). Atlético Madrid also generated a number of chances in the first half through Barcelona’s mistakes in possession. Though Barcelona’s square midfield gave them quite the superiority in central areas, it was not always optimal in the buildup phase given the lack of width. It was also obvious that this was not the most refined system, and the Barcelona players often misplaced passes or hit the wrong off-ball run as they tried to shift and move in the traditional Barcelona way. 

The hosts took advantage of Barcelona’s mistakes, with their best attacking periods coming in transition moments. By attacking the isolated fullbacks they could usually get into good crossing areas, though Atlético Madrid’s forwards had a tough time getting onto the end of anything. Barcelona’s back line also had difficulties dealing with Félix and Griezmann dropping off the defensive line to receive the ball, mainly due to Busquets and De Jong’s issues with cutting off passing lanes playing as a horizontal pair. Atlético Madrid’s period of control lasted well into the second half, and they put Barcelona under quite a bit of pressure within their chances, especially from set pieces. 

38th minute. Atlético Madrid in transition, with the Barcelona players’ reactive pressing as they try to defend the chaos. 

Early in the second half Barcelona started to try to take advantage of Atlético Madrid’s time in possession, and they became much more direct on the ball. When they won the ball back deep in their territory, they would launch long passes over the Atlético Madrid back line to try and put Dembélé in behind. Using his obvious speed mismatch, Dembélé got the better of Reinildo and the Atlético Madrid defense multiple times, though he failed to add to his tally on the night. 

Barcelona slows it down before the game becomes choppy

With twenty minutes left in regulation, Barcelona made the obvious switch away from their quick, direct play in favor of sustained possession that would be better to see the game out. Xavi also brought on Raphinha in the seventy-eighth minutes for Gavi, reverting his side to the 4-3-3 shape that they have utilized most often under his management. 

Once Atlético Madrid began to throw all caution to the wind in search of an equalizer, the match fell to chaos. The Barcelona players began to resort to fouling to put an end to the home side’s counterattacks, and the Atlético Madrid players began to retaliate with some physicality of their own. The match became an end-to-end affair as both teams tried to take advantage of each others’ vulnerable defenses, and Atlético Madrid nearly found their way back on multiple occasions. In the second minute of stoppage time the teams’ anger and frustration boiled over as substitute Ferran Torres and Stefan Savić got into a wrestling match during an Atlético Madrid attack, with both players choking and pulling the hair of the other. Both players were sent off, and the final minutes were played with ten men each. 

Just minutes later, Antione Griezmann had the best chance of the match, an acrobatic tap-in attempt from a Llorente cross that was brilliantly cleared off of the goal line by Araújo. The failed attempt summed up the day for Atlético Madrid: no matter how hard they tried, they just could not find their way back into the game. 


One could argue that Atlético Madrid were the better team overall, and the statistics certainly back that up. Atlético Madrid doubled Barcelona’s shot quantity as well as their expected goals, and it has to be said that the hosts were unlucky not to take at least a point from the match. Though they were overrun early on, their (belated) response was as good as Diego Simeone could have hoped for. This side continues to show bounds of grit and fight in the face of hardship, and they will need to continue to do so if they want to make it into a Champions League spot by the end of the season.

It is always talked about how the best teams in Spanish football must “suffer” if they want to win LaLiga. In recent years Barcelona have always been second best on this front, but this performance indicates a massive improvement there. Their ability to maintain their one goal lead over a desperate Atlético Madrid, especially whilst playing a unique system that was not ideal for a great portion of the game, speaks volumes on the growth of their mentality as a side. Though it is still very early on in the campaign, Barcelona will need to put up more performances like this if they want to return to their title-winning ways.

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Charlie Tuley is a junior studying sport management at the University of Michigan. He currently works as a data analyst for the San Jose Earthquakes, and does freelance football analytics on Twitter under the name @analyticslaliga. [ View all posts ]


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