Barcelona – Atlético Madrid: Riqui Puig’s Dance Cannot Bring Down The Atlético Wall (2-2)
Quique Setién’s latest buildup experiment featured Riqui Puig at the tip of a midfield diamond and fullbacks used as wingers. While this helped Barcelona protect themselves against Atlético’s counterattacks, it failed to disorder Atlético’s defense and win a game with few open play chances and no major tactical changes during the second half.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez.
When Quique Setién was appointed as Barcelona manager, even the most dedicated tactical analysts had to take a step back and admit that the key factor to Setien’s success would not be his tactics but his ability to get players to listen to his instructions. The footage of Lio Messi and Luis Suárez ignoring assistant manager Eder Sarabia during last weekend’s game against Celta de Vigo revealed that such communication between players and coaching staff has broken down. With six games left and league rivals Real Madrid two points ahead, this incident painted a bleak picture for Barcelona’s title chances.
Setién must grapple with many of the same tactical problems Ernesto Valverde did. Chiefly, Barcelona’s squad lacks more offensive midfield profiles and wingers while having some high-profile player redundancies, like deep playmakers Arthur Melo and Frenkie de Jong or forwards Antoine Griezmann and Messi. Surprisingly, the controversial sale of Arthur to Juventus does not solve this problem because Barcelona replaced him with yet another redundant deep playmaker profile, Miralem Pjanić.
This poor squad construction leads to a slow, predictable possession play with little attacking width and depth, few movements ahead of the ball, and – outside of Messi – little dribbling capability. Given these issues, the dynamic 20-year-old Riqui Puig provides a much-needed breath of fresh hair to this veteran squad, just like Ansu Fati did during the beginning of the season. Both youth squad graduates possess the dribbling and dynamism their teammates lack. Puig’s second-half appearance against Athletic Club changed the game, accelerating his team’s ball circulation.
Riqui Puig dio ante el Athletic una lección de todo lo que tiene que hacer un interior en el Barça.pic.twitter.com/zDiNpHuzpl
— NACHO JP. (@jpaaace) June 24, 2020
On the other hand, Diego Simeone has infused new life to his Atlético side post-quarantine through a most unexpected move: turning defensive midfielder Marcos Llorente into a striker. In this role, Llorente’s explosive physique allows him to press opponents relentlessly and perform dangerous runs behind defenders, while his midfielder training allows him to keep the ball even under pressure.
Llorente has only contributed goals and assists in one out of six post-quarantine matches, namely the game against Osasuna, although his other attributes have re-energized Atlético’s counterattacking game. This improved Atlético might still lack some punch in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. but this tactical progress has won them five out of the last six games and put them back in Champions League spots.
Riqui Puig thrives while Messi is confined to the wing
Quique Setién places great importance in the buildup phases, and in Barcelona he has experimented with several buildup structures in order to find the one that best fits his team. Against Atlético, he came up with yet another test.
While the defensive line featured the usual suspects (Jordi Alba, Clément Lenglet, Gerard Piqué, Nelson Semedo), the midfield saw a switch to a 4-4-2 diamond formation. Alongside holding midfielder Sergi Busquets, Ivan Rakitić played on the left side while Arturo Vidal played on the right. Most importantly, the young Puig operated as the number ten at the tip of the diamond, roaming in between Atlético’s defensive and midfield lines and becoming the key link between Barcelona’s midfield and forward lines.
In the words of coach Adrián Cervera, Puig had the responsibility to operate in the most dangerous space in Europe, the “square of death” formed by Atlético’s central defenders and double pivot. This quadrant has shut down many of Europe’s most talented playmakers, but last night it could not stop Puig, who played in this zone as if it were his own backyard. His graceful and smart movements in between the lines provided his midfielders with valuable outlets for ball progression, his dynamism allowed him to combine seamlessly with Rakitić and especially Busquets, and his dribbling and close ball control (six dribbles completed out of six attempts!) eliminated opponents.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Puig’s protagonist role in the center of the pitch came at the expense of Messi, who spent most of the first half playing out wide on the right as if he were a winger, which often disconnected himself from the team’s buildup play. We should point out that this is not necessarily a bad thing: by leaving the buildup to Puig and co., Messi can focus more of his energies on deciding the game in the final third and the penalty area.
However, 33-year-old Messi cannot cut inside and make diagonal runs with the same explosiveness of his younger self, so moving him to a wide area drastically reduces his opportunities to move into the box and decide the game. Throughout the first half, Messi could only touch the ball three times inside the Atlético box, and all of these touches happened on the right corner of the box, which forced Messi to shoot from less threatening locations. However, these complications did not prevent the Argentine – who laughs in the face of the concept of expected goals – from coming close to scoring. In the 21st minute, he beautifully curled a shot past Oblak, but the ball graced the wrong side of the post and failed to go in.
The curious role of Barcelona’s central midfielders in buildup
The positioning of central midfielders and fullbacks proved to be one of the most curious aspects of the buildup structure used against Atlético. Rakitić and Vidal often occupied the left and right back positions during buildup, which allowed Semedo and Alba to push forward as wingers.
Messi’s wide movements and the use of fullbacks as wingers during buildup are perhaps Setién’s tactical responses to Barcelona issues in previous games, where too many players crowded the center lane.
However, these tactical tweaks did come at a cost. With Messi and Semedo staying so high up the pitch, Vidal was often tasked with staying back and guarding against potential Atlético counterattacks from Renán Lodí and Yannick Carrasco. This prevented Vidal from moving forward and operating in the “striker-like” role that suits him so well. With Messi and Vidal staying further away from the box than usual, Barcelona struggled to create good chances. Six out of their seven shots of the first half came from outside the box. It comes as no surprise then that Barcelona’s one goal of the first half came from a set piece, a Diego Costa own goal scored from a corner.
Atlético’s counterattacking play meets the Barcelona defense
“No need to fix something that is not broken”. Given his positive impact on the team, Simeone continued using Llorente as a striker against Barcelona. The defensive line featured the usual center back duo of Felipe and Jose María Giménez, and Renán Lodí and Santiago Arias as fullbacks. The double pivot featured a familiar duo of Saúl Ñíguez and Thomas Partey, while Angel Correa and Yannick Carrasco as right and left wingers. This time, Llorente would play up front alongside a hapless Diego Costa, who scored an own goal and missed a penalty that, fortunately for Atlético, had to be repeated due to a video review call. The combative striker was still the key outlet for Atlético’s progressive passes, but age and injuries have greatly reduced his ability to cover ground, run behind defenses, and win physical duels.
The energetic Correa, Carrasco, and Llorente allowed Atlético to threaten Barcelona on the counter even if the Colchoneros recovered the ball fifty or sixty meters away from the opposition goal. However, one of the strengths of Barcelona’s curious way of building up was increased protection against such counterattacks. By staying back during buildup, Rakitić and Vidal constantly tracked the runs and trickery of Carrasco and Correa, while an outstanding Lenglet succeeded in most of his battles against the intelligent and intense runs of Llorente. However, the one time Carrasco managed to escape the marking of Vidal and Piqué, Vidal was forced to foul the Belgian winger inside the box and concede a penalty.
With Atlético defending passively, having only 27 percent of ball possession and seeing the threat of their wingers and strikers mostly nullified by Barcelona, their attacking threat during the first half was vanishingly small, and confined almost unique to the Carrasco action that led to the penalty.
Substitutions have little impact on the second half
The second half continued the same tactical trends of the first half, but started in explosive fashion. In the 48th minute, a combination among Vidal, Semedo, and Messi allowed the Portuguese fullback to move into the box, forcing center back Felipe to concede a penalty and Messi’s 700th career goal.
This advantage would not last for long. In the 61st minute, Carrasco managed to anticipate Piqué, lay off the ball to Costa, and then outrun Semedo and Piqué once again as Costa slipped a through ball to him. Carrasco tripped on Semedo and yet another penalty kick was called, once again to be scored by Saúl.
After this exchange of penalty kicks, substitutions followed. Sergi Robert replaced Rakitić at the 62nd minute, while Atlético replaced their front line, with Álvaro Morata and João Félix coming in for Costa and Llorente. All of them man-for-man and “same position” substitutions leading to no major tactical tweaks.
That being said, the final half hour did see some adjustments. Messi moved away from the wing and towards central positions, while Barcelona’s central midfielders behaved more aggressively than in the first half. Sergi Roberto charged forward and combined with Alba more frequently than Rakitić did, while Vidal finally started operating in his striker-like role and moving into the box once again. Vidal’s movements led to Barcelona’s most dangerous open play chances of the second half. In the 71st minute, he struck a cutback from Semedo which flew past the wrong side of the post, and in the 74th minute, he flew into the six-yard box and almost managed to head a precise Alba cross into Oblak’s goal.
It took Setién until the 85th minute to make more changes in search of the winning goal. Ansu Fati replaced Busquets, and Barcelona switched to a 4-3-3 shape. Sergi Roberto moved into the holding role with Puig and Vidal as left and right midfielders, while Fati operated as the left winger. However, this change happened too late to have a significant impact. Fati could only touch the ball eight times in these final minutes, while Messi and Puig tried to pass and dribble their way through the center of the Atlético defense. These final attacking attempts crashed and burned every time inside Atlético’s “square of death”, cleared by Felipe or intercepted by Sául and Partey.
This game showcased final third struggles for both teams. Thanks to Llorente and Carrasco, Atlético now have a stronger counterattacking game, but the forward line still struggles to turn these counters into shots. Playing Diego Costa past his prime and against a top opponent for 75 minutes certainly does not help. Meanwhile, Barcelona under Setién found a creative and effective buildup structure with more attacking width, but it came at the cost of Messi’s and Vidal’s impact in the final third.
After a fun first half which saw curious tactical setups and constant back-and-forth between both teams, the second half proved to be somewhat disappointing due to the lack of major tactical changes. This was understandable from Simeone’s perspective: his team is once again in the top four and they only needed a draw to secure the position.
However, Setién and his men required a victory to continue the chase for the league title, so the lack of more significant substitutions and tactical tweaks does raise more eyebrows. Yet every cloud has a silver lining: Riqui Puig’s outstanding performance against a top opponent shows that he is not only the future of Barcelona’s midfield, but also the present. It is hard to argue against the young midfielder being given a starting role in future matches.
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