While it was a typically hard-fought contest, this match between Diego Simeone and Luis Enrique’s sides will surely stand out from those played over the last 2 years. Small changes in formations. A revamped Atletico. No Messi for an hour. Almost. The core of the contest remained the same, with some unpredictable features giving us something new to think about.
Both sides started with relatively cautious lineups. Being matchday 3 (fresh off an international break that too), it was surely on the cards.
Atletico Madrid were a 4-4-2 on paper. This was the starting lineup of matches past, no surprises here. Apart from Torres’ inclusion ahead of Martinez. If that can be considered a surprise.
The only anomaly was that Antoine Griezmann often dropped back into midfield off the ball. Moving to the right of midfield, the Frenchman shuttled into his forward role only when his team had the ball. Which was not often. This effectively meant that Atletico played a 4-5-1, not 4-4-2.
Barcelona lined up in a 4-3-3. Once more, this was only on paper. Thomas Vermaelen and Sergi Roberto replaced Gerard Pique and Dani Alves. Luis Enrique also preferred to leave Lionel Messi on the bench after the birth of his son. Rafinha started in his place.
Once more, this was never a strict 4-3-3 during the match. Rafinha’s role was like that of Griezmann- he played as a deep midfielder.
Both Sides Stack Midfields
As stated earlier, matchday 3 was too early for either side to take risks. Result? The nature of the match, particularly in the first half, favored a draw. A dull 45 minutes at the Caldero. Both managers opted to play an extra man in midfield and sacrifice a forward. Ultimately, these decisions had many knock-on effects to make the first half what it was.
Rafinha, Rakitic and Roberto
Let’s start with Barcelona. Rafinha was penned down as a right forward, but was clearly instructed to slot into midfield with the occasional shimmy up front. He slotted near Rakitic, and attempted to play ‘The Messi Role’ in terms of distribution. Partially. Rafinha looked to switch play continuously to the other side of the pitch, spraying passes to the likes of Iniesta and Busquets.
Rafinha’s slotting in left Ivan Rakitic with less to do, and ultimately these 2 were crowding the midfield and switching play at best. Rakitic was struggling to get involved, which eventually saw him (not Rafinha) hauled off for Lionel Messi.
Of course, despite the seeming lack of true creativity, the fact is that Barcelona’s transitions were seamless for the most part, particularly in attack.
With no major attacking threat lining up on the right side to pin Filipe Luis back, it was left to Sergi Roberto to provide any type of spark from the right side.
This didn’t happen. Roberto held the ball up well through his calm distribution, and it boiled down to him feeding Rafinha. Who fed Iniesta. And so on. Creativity on Barcelona’s right was a problem once again, although they compensated by feeding the left sided attackers.
Resorting to thumping the ball to Iniesta and Neymar won’t work forever (Like at Malaga last weekend.) If anything, this match proved that Alves and Messi’s partnership is key for the Catalan’s.
Griezmann Moves Into Midfield
It’s not entirely clear as to whether Diego Simeone expected Messi to be on the bench in the starting lineup.
However, after watching last week’s match against Malaga, he would surely have anticipated Barcelona’s left side (Alba-Iniesta-Neymar) to be a thorn in his team’s defense. And that Barcelona would rely on it. Heavily.
A major feature of an Alves-less Barcelona was their tendency to switch play towards the left wing. With Messi out, Rafinha, Rakitic and Roberto did the same. Griezmann’s move helped clog the midfield.
With Iniesta already double-marked, Simeone turned to Antoine Griezmann to help disrupt play. The French international helped hack down Jordi Alba, press Iniesta and anyone else who ventured into the right side of Atleti’s midfield.
Crowded Midfield Defines 1st Half
It can’t be a coincidence that the first half was as dull as it ended up. Both managers decided to overpopulate the midfield, and the game was simply a by-product of that.
Barcelona still kept up the pressure- the sheer amount possession they were able to work with meant it was unavoidable. Atletico’s main escape from this pressure in the first half was through their full backs. They were key in any attempt to press. Particularly Filipe Luis.
In fact, Luis was Atletico’s most influential player on the ball.
Furthermore, this is where Atletico looked partly like their 2014-15 selves. Solid in defense, blunted in attack. Oliver Torres was unable to exert his creative influence going forward, and generally Atletico seemed a bit scrappy and experimental.
Simeone might have used this match to experiment as there were times when Atletico played neat passing triangles and looked to press with their full-backs. A work in progress, nonetheless.
That’s not too relevant of course. Messi wasn’t even on the pitch yet. The game couldn’t be measured properly.
A few chances aside, neither team really posed a clean attacking threat going into the second half. Barcelona had caused Atletico more problems however, as Simeone’s side strangely struggled in certain defensive situations. But these problems didn’t result in more than 2 clear chances.
Second Half Before Substitutions
2 goals were this period of play although the rhythm was nearly the same as the first half. Both teams looked slightly more vulnerable in terms of concentration, which culminated in a well-worked goall for Atleti and a stuning free kick from Neymar (which he usually would not have taken).
Up till then the game was mundane- lots of passing, some counter-attacking, and chances but not enough initiative. It might be bias on my part, but Barcelona looked at their best during the match in a period in the 1st half, not at any point in the second.
Second Half After Substitutions
In a short spell in the second half after Neymar’s goal, the 3 substitutes that were brought on changed the game. A more interesting contest ensued.
Messi as a Number 10?
The first of these substitutions was Lionel Messi for Ivan Rakitic. Enrique’s surprise? Not so much. Rakitic’s off day coupled with Rafinha’s calm distribution meant that this substitution was a smart one.
Now we already saw that Sergi Roberto and Rafinha were retaining possession well on their side. Shifting Messi to the right wing could have risked upsetting this rhythm. Like matchday 2 against Malaga. Messi was told to clearly play as a central number 10, a classic attacking midfield role. Messi had plenty of influence in his new role, but Atletico’s changes meant that he only managed to create a couple chances.
Martinez, Carrasco Give Atletico New Dimension
Simeone’s side played better football after these substitutions, despite the introduction of Lionel Messi.
Defensively it was down to coping with a direct threat. Atletico enjoy absorbing pressure, and Messi’s direct dribbling and forward forays were arguably easier to deal with than intricate interplay. 2 moments aside, Atletico were better at breaking up play.
Offensively it was down to the presence of Martinez and Carrasco. Martinez was better at holding up play than Torres, creating shots and chances with few touches. Carrasco’s speed allowed him to run at a tiring Barcelona defense. Atletico were able to cope with the pressure with these new outlets.
An exquisite free kick and some brilliant interplay characterised Barcelona’s goal. But the key really was their ability to press Atletico and prevent clearances. The second goal especially was a product of pressing Gabi out of a clearance, which well planned, not lucky.
Atletico showed patches of their potential play in the future, with some interesting pass combinations. When will it be on show? As soon as Simeone gets his new recruits integrated. Overall, Atletico still looked a more direct side capable of scoring with some tweaks. They created more chances from open play than the Catalans.
Despite missing a host of personnel, Barcelona played with remarkable chemistry in the middle of the park. Enrique’s small tweaks brought the best out of his team, barring Ivan Rakitic. Despite looking less than incisive up front, Barcelona’s execution worked in their favor. They dominated the ball with ease.
Atletico and Simeone took time to experiment a bit. They tried pressing, played some tiki-taka and tried a 5 man midfield as well. Some quickfire Barca goals limited them. Once the summer signings are ready, expect an improved attack and more commanding midfield to take the game to the opposition.
Both managers drew a lot from Barcelona’s performance against Malaga, with many tactical decisions clearly centered around a similar match unfolding.
Simeone accepted that Barcelona was the better team- his side was unable to sustain possession. But for a team in transition this match showed promise.