FC Barcelona – Atlético Madrid: Suárez And Messi Seal League Title Against Handicapped But Confident Atlético (2-0)
In the key game to decide LaLiga’s title race, Barcelona ultimately defeated Atlético. In the first half hour, this was an even match, with a surprisingly proactive Atlético, until Diego Costa was sent off. After the 30th minute, Atlético retreated into a deep block and focused on counterattacks. Only the ever-decisive Suárez and Messi were able to crack Atlético’s defense.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez.
Barcelona is on the verge of winning another league title. Many Barcelona fans dislike the pragmatism of manager Ernesto Valverde and to be fair, underlying numbers show that this season, Barcelona haven’t been as strong as in previous years. However, Barcelona’s results are hard to question. They have not lost a league game since November and are still in the race for a treble. Led by the inhuman consistency of Lionel Messi, Barcelona have perfected the ability to get league results even when they do not play at their very best. Barcelona are also rock solid when defending their box. Marc-André Ter Stegen has become one of top shot stoppers in Europe, while Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet have formed a world-class defensive duo.
Against Atlético, Valverde wielded his strongest possible eleven (minus the injured Samuel Umtiti and Ousmane Dembélé), in the usual 4-3-3 shape. The goal of Ter Stegen was guarded by central defenders Lenglet and Piqué, aided by fullbacks Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba. Midfield featured the usual trio of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Arthur Melo. Up front, Philippe Coutinho accompanied Messi and Luis Suárez.
The season is practically over for Atlético Madrid. After Juventus crushed the dream of a Champions League final at the Wanda Metropolitano, all that was left for Simeone’s men was an increasingly uphill league battle against Messi and Barcelona. Unfortunately, while Atlético has the best defense in the league, their offensive numbers have struggled, even when compared to the usual Atlético standards. The newfound partnership of Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata is a great fit for Simeone’s very direct attacking system, but it’s hard for Simeone to start both, along with star forward Antoine Griezmann.
Against Barcelona, Simeone lined his team up in their eternal 4-4-2 shape. Oblak’s goal was defended by central defenders Jose María Giménez and Diego Godín and fullbacks Filipe Luis and Santiago Arias. Midfield featured Thomas Partey and Rodri Hernández in the double pivot, with Koke and Saúl as wide midfielders. Up front, naturally, Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa.
A confident Atlético clashes against Barcelona’s defensive wall
Atlético has had a rough season when it comes to offense, but over time, Simeone has managed to find an offensive system—in particular, a midfield structure—that works for him. Central midfielders Rodri and Thomas Partey provide Atlético with workrate and creativity in the middle, allowing Saúl more freedom to join the attack and Koke to focus more on his brilliant passing.
Since Lenglet and Piqué are so dominant in the air, Simeone and Atléti surprisingly decided to avoid the constant use of long balls and aerial duels to move forward. Instead, Atlético’s central defenders and midfielders would try to send tense ground passes to Griezmann and Costa, who would be positioned in between Barcelona’s midfield and defense. If they managed to hold off the aggressive Piqué and Lenglet, they would quickly receive the ball and lay it off to one of the wide players. With the combination of fullback and winger, Atlético hoped to get into the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. and into good crossing positions.
Atlético’s 4-4-2 structure in possession against Barcelona’s 4-4-2 block. Notice how Arias and Saúl take more aggressive positions on the wings while Luis and Koke stay back.
However, Barcelona prevented Atlético from getting good crosses into the box (they only made two crosses in the first half hour of the game). Coutinho would constantly track back, turning Barcelona’s 4-3-3 shape into a 4-4-2 formation in defense. This way, Valverde made sure that Atlético would not outnumber his team on the wings. Meanwhile, Piqué and Lenglet were attentive and effective at chasing Griezmann and Costa, preventing them from receiving the ball to comfortably.
Barcelona struggled to connect midfield and forward lines
Attempting to ensure numerical superiority against Atlético strikers, Busquets would often drop in between his central defenders when playing out from the back. It was an understandable decision, but one that made the entire team take a step back. Arthur and Rakitić would try to provide a passing outlet behind Atlético’s strikers, while Suárez, Messi and Coutinho would stay behind the backs of Atlético midfielders.
Atlético often succeeded at cutting off the connection between Barcelona’s midfield and forward lines, with their midfield quickly collapsing on Rakitić and Arthur when they received the ball. Suárez, Messi and Coutinho would try to come short and provide another passing outlet, but Atlético’s defenders and midfielders would often follow aggressively and outnumber them.
Barcelona’s 4-3-3 structure in possession against Atlético’s 4-4-2 defensive block. Notice the deep position of Busquets.
With Busquets staying back, Barcelona often had six or seven players behind the ball and in front of Atlético’s midfield line. This made Barcelona’s plays in possession predictable, with their players rarely stretching Atlético’s defensive lines by breaking into spaces or moving wide. These tasks often fell on the overworked Jordi Alba and Rakitić, who had to make long forwards runs and track back to defend. Barcelona’s biggest chance of the first half hour came thanks to Alba’s efforts in breaking into spaces to take advantage of a brilliant Messi lobbed pass. His shot ended on the post.
Atlético switches to a deeper block and counterattacks after Costa’s sending off
The match reached a major turning point, however, with the sending off of Diego Costa in the 28th minute, who got sent off for insulting the referee’s mother. With only ten men, Atlético shifted to a lower defensive block, hoping to pick off Barcelona on the counterattack. Simeone quickly realized that his counterattacks would require a faster attacker, so he subbed out Santiago Arias for Ángel Correa in the 35th minute and shifted the entire team.
Thomas Partey was fielded as right back, Rodri and Saúl became the double pivot, while Koke moved to the right wing to track Jordi Alba. This allowed Correa and Griezmann to move freely throughout the attacking front. The duo had the freedom to move to the zones where they could cause the most damage on the counter.
From minutes thirty to sixty, Barcelona had some trouble adjusting to this. Even with Atlético down to ten men, Barcelona still had six to seven men outside of Atlético’s defensive organization. With Thomas and Koke tracking Alba, Barcelona’s only way to disorder Atlético was Messi’s dribbling and counterattacks. It was on fast breaks that Barcelona created their best chances, only to be stopped by a titanic Oblak, who finished the game with eight saves, including two big chances saved.
Fortunately for Barcelona, Atlético failed to finish any counterattacks due to the great defensive work of Lenglet and Piqué. They could not produce any shots from open play. Knowing it was now or never to remain in the title race, Simeone made another offensive substitution by replacing Filipe Luis for Álvaro Morata in the 58th minute, hoping to improve at counterattacking. Saúl became the left back while Koke moved to the double pivot.
Valverde trades midfield control to stretch Atlético’s defense
For Valverde, it became evident that Barcelona would not be able to control the game and that he needed another attacker to really stretch Atlético’s defense. So, as a reaction, in the 63rd minute, Valverde replaced Arthur for Malcom, who would play on the right wing. Now with Alba and Malcom on both wings, it was more difficult for Atlético to cover the full width of the pitch. However, this also meant Atlético could generate more dangerous counters and more dangerous set pieces too.
In the end, the match – just like LaLiga as a whole, this season – was put to rest by the stunning individual quality of Suárez and Messi, who took down Atlético with a switch one-two punch. In the 85th minute, Suárez took advantage of the stretched Atlético defense and the more open spaces in the middle to let loose a low, curved shot from outside the box that not even Oblak could stop. The next minute, Messi would deliver the finishing blow. He got into Atlético’s box through sheer skill and determination and then finished with an inhuman flick of his left foot, fooling both Godín and Oblak.
With an eleven-point lead and only seven matches remaining, Barcelona have practically sealed their La Liga title. However, tactical issues remain. Barcelona often seem more dangerous on the counterattack than in possession, and they struggled to control the game and disorder a rival with ten men. Fortunately, Piqué and Lenglet are in such outstanding forms that they nullify any potential counterattacks caused by the team’s lack of midfield control. Given Barcelona’s results this season, it almost feels petty to talk about their defects, but these are things that could genuinely penalize the team in Champions League, or with a genuinely rivaling LaLiga contender next season.
As for Atlético, their season is now over, barring a jostle for second place with Real Madrid. It is a shame that it took over half a season for the team to find the right midfield and offensive structure, because it happened a little too late. Before Costa’s sending off, Atlético looked confident playing out from the back without the need for long balls. However, even if their buildup mechanisms have improved, Atlético still have issues in the final third. When Correa is not playing, Atlético seem to lack the speed and dribbling to disorder opponents in the final third. If Costa and Morata don’t play together, they also seem to lack enough men in the opponent’s box.
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