Atlético Madrid – FC Barcelona: An injury-time Dembélé goal settles stalemate between two conservative teams (1-1)
Ernesto Valverde revisited last season’s 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond with four central midfielders, but it was not enough to create good chances against a solid Atlético wall. Diego Costa ended his goal scoring drought amidst a (yet again) dysfunctional Atlético offense, but Dembélé saved the day for Barcelona in the last minute.
Tactical analysis by José Perez.
Atlético’s 2018/19 status quo continues: Diego Simeone’s men practically defend from muscle memory, yet their pressing system is less effective than before. Meanwhile, their offensive system has not stepped up to compensate for these defensive issues. Atlético use a very direct attack that depends heavily on Diego Costa, but the striker suffers from one of the worst scoring droughts of his career, unable to score a league goal since February. Regardless, Simeone continues to use this system, hoping that Costa will get back to his best self.
As such, Atlético’s lineup against Barcelona did not show any surprises. Simeone chose the usual 4-4-2 lineup, as Stefan Savić and Lucas Hernández took over the injured Diego Godín and José Giménez at the center back positions. Koke and Rodri Hernández played in the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. , with Thomas Lemar on the left and Saúl on the right, and of course, Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa up front.
The Barcelona of Ernesto Valverde might not generate much euphoria among their fans, but they are still—and deservedly so—the most consistent team in LaLiga. For this game, however, Valverde faced a big challenge in replacing key players Ivan Rakitić and Philippe Coutinho.
During the 2017/18 season, Valverde often used a 4-3-1-2 lineup with four central midfielders, where Paulinho played at the tip of the diamond. Against Atlético, Valverde revisited this scheme with a fluid midfield quartet of Arthur, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Arturo Vidal. The exact shape of this midfield would change depending on whether Barcelona was pressing high, defending in a 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. or in possession. At right back, Nelson Semedo replaced Sergi Roberto.
The fluidity of Barcelona’s midfield quartet
When pressing, Barcelona’s shape would look like a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Suárez and Messi pressing Atlético’s center backs and most importantly, Vidal pressing Rodri. The Atlético midfielder is quite press resistant, but Vidal and Barcelona’s midfield in general always made sure to limit his forward passing options. Therefore, Atlético could not progress through the middle like they did in prior matches, and had to depend, even more than usual, on their wing play to move forward.
If Atlético could overcome this initial press, Barcelona would shift to an orderly, flat 4-4-2 shape. Vidal moved back to form a double pivot alongside Busquets, while Arthur and Roberto moved to the left and right flanks, respectively.
Barcelona’s formation in possession (4-2-2-2 / 4-3-2-1) against Atlético’s 4-4-2 low block
Finally, when Barcelona had the ball (which was roughly 70% of the time), their structure looked more like a 4-2-2-2. Roberto hugged the right flank while Vidal gravitated towards the left, but with a lot of freedom to move throughout the entire attacking front.
Barcelona managed to easily progress into the attacking half thanks to Atlético’s passive pressing, as Simeone clearly made a choice to give up pressing and mostly let Atlético defend deep on their own half. When the Argentinean manager makes that choice, you know it is going to be a rough task for any opponent to break through.
As a result, the ball flowed seamlessly through from one Barcelona player to the next, but they could barely put a dent in Atlético’s focused low block. Once the ball got to Messi, he would often succeed at beating his marker – nine completed dribbles in this game – but there would always be a second Atlético defender ready to take the ball away from him.
Nullify Alba, nullify Barcelona?
Perhaps the biggest anti-Barcelona adjustment made by Simeone and Atlético was their constant work on left back Jordi Alba. On Atlético’s right flank, Saúl constantly tracked Alba’s movement and helped right back Santiago Arias, to put Alba in a permanent one-versus-two disadvantage. The move succeeded in neutralizing Alba’s threat. The Barcelona left back was barely able to stretch Atlético’s defense, connect with Messi and create chances, finishing the game with a grand total of zero key passes.
However, this adjustment also came with trade-offs. With Saúl and right back Arias always taking deeper positions to take care of the Alba, and they were poorly positioned for pressing and offensive tasks. Atlético effectively lost Saúl for pressing tasks, and Barcelona could progress easily through that flank since Saúl was not harassing Barcelona defenders and midfielders. This deeper position also meant that Saúl could not perform his usual role of providing an outlet for Atlético’s long balls, which requires him to take a more advanced position.
All in all, watching the first half of the game was more like watching a chess match between Valverde and Simeone, with Barcelona and Atlético effectively nullifying their opponents’ attacking prowess. This is why the first half lead to a measly total of only three shots by both teams.
New names, same game
For the second half, Valverde decided that Barcelona needed more midfield aggression as well as some support for Alba on the left. Therefore, he replaced Sergi Roberto for Rafinha Alcántara. With this change, Rafinha would occupy the left wing while Vidal now occupied Roberto’s place on the right. In possession, Barcelona’s shape still looked like a 4-2-2-2, this time with Rafinha and Vidal taking the advanced midfield roles.
However, the results were mostly the same. Alba had a bit more support on his side and gained some time and space to produce his usual sharp crosses and cutbacks into the box. However, the attentive Atlético defense was always ready to cut out those passes and prevent them from reaching their intended target: Messi.
On the other hand, Atlético substituted Lemar for Vitolo at the 64th minute without much of an impact. Atlético gained some directness and verticality at the expense of possession, with Vitolo always ready to lead on the counter with a risky dribble or two. It therefore seemed even harder than before for Atlético to retain the ball, and they still struggled to create chances.
Costa scores, and a new game starts
Diego Costa was once again having a quiet game, but he appeared in the most important moment. In the 77th minute, Costa bullied his marker, Rafinha, to head a corner kick into his opponent’s goal. This finally put an end to Costa’s bizarre scoring drought, and turned a somewhat dull and conservative match on its head.
With Costa showing some physical issues after the goal, Simeone replaced him for Correa. Meanwhile, Valverde used his bench strength in search of a comeback, with Dembélé replacing Arthur in the 80th minute and Malcom replacing Vidal in the 85th minute, effectively turning the shape into a 4-2-4 with two wingers and two strikers up front. The impact of the substitutes was immediately felt, with both Dembélé and Correa running against tired defenses and generating free kick opportunities.
Barcelona kept insisting against a stubborn Atlético defense until they finally broke the red-and-white wall. Jordi Alba managed to find Messi in front of the box, who with the very tip of his gifted left foot passed the ball in between Koke and Vitolo to find Dembélé, inside the box but more importantly: unmarked. After a small, brilliant pause to trick Filipe Luis and Jan Oblak, Dembélé coolly slotted the ball into Atlético’s goal to tie the game. A surprising, exciting finish for a rather conservative game.
Atlético is a team who are often more worried about nullifying their opponent. This mentality is reflected heavily in their attack, which often leaves Costa and Griezmann alone against the world. If Atlético want to score more goals with this approach, they better hope that Costa can return to his former self, the one who single-handedly unsettles defenses. The best news for Atlético would be if this vital goal against Barcelona can finally get Costa back on track. His contribution could take Atlético to the top of LaLiga.
On the other hand, one could accuse Barcelona and Valverde of being somewhat conservative and too respectful of Atlético, but it is undeniable that Barcelona are looking confident on the ball and mostly solid at the back. However, they still can not pass the ball quickly enough to disorder a top defense like Atlético’s. With Alba nullified, it was very difficult for even Messi to find an opening in the Atlético defense. The stark reality is that Barcelona simply cannot forego the contributions of Ousmane Dembélé. Despite his disciplinary issues, Dembélé once again helped decide a game and his one-versus-one capability is by far the best in the squad after Messi. Barcelona needs him to remain at the top of LaLiga.