Considering that the last analysis on this blog was the reverse fixture at the Calderon, it is only fitting that this match reboots this space ahead of the business end of the season.
Barcelona completed a hard fought 2-1 victory over nine man Atletico Madrid. While this match had large spells similar to what we’ve become accustomed to, there are many subtle takeaways that can be made about both teams, where they stand, and challenges facing them.
Simeone sprung a surprise by leaving all 3 of his misfiring strikers on the bench or outside the matchday squad itself; as Yannick Ferrara Carrasco played up front. Augusto Fernandez was given a surprise start as well despite his average recent form, and Saul Niguez was picked ahead of Oliver Torres. Miguel Angel Correa was not in the matchday squad, despite his dangerous recent form.
Barcelona played their expected 4-3-3, as Neymar had recovered sufficiently from his foot injury to start.
The match was played at times as expected, as Atletico Madrid held their 4-4-2 and looked to spring counters, while Barcelona dominated possession with their 4-3-3. However, there were many marked differences from previous meetings.
The game had 4 key “phases” of sorts; Atletico dominated the first till around the 25th minute, following which Barcelona took control till the end of the half. The third phase after half time saw 10 man Atletico surprisingly dominate proceedings till approximately the 64th minute, when Godin was sent off. After that, it was a largely balanced game despite the numerical advantage possessed by the home side. Only phase 2, and perhaps parts of 4 were played as described above, due to a veriety of reasons.
A half of 2 quarters, if you will. Atletico started brightly and managed to take a 1-0 lead, pressuring Barcelona into multiple errors. It’s worth noting that Atletico played a more open game than they are typically accustomed to, there were many instances where they chose to press higher up the pitch rather than drop back into their typical 4-4-2. Barcelona are known to be slow starters in big games as well, and after 2 straight matches in which Bilbao and Malaga managed to press them into trouble, Atletico more or less replicated the same.
Initially Simeone’s approach paid off, Koke scored and Saul came close to scoring as Claudio Bravo was forced into intervening multiple times. This was arguably what Atletico had attempted to do at times during the reverse fixture at the Calderon, and they employed pressing to perfection. Arguably the best phase for Simeone’s men.
Barcelona, as expected grew into the game with a sustained spell of pressure starting around the 25th minute, stopping Atletico’s clearances and this culminated in Messi’s goal, following which chaos let loose. Luis Suarez scored after latching on to Alves’ long ball. Filipe Luis’ sending off seemed to end the game as a contest.
In the wider scheme of things, this was the only period of the game Barcelona dominated, despite being up against 11 men. This was not an anomaly. Barcelona’s ability to turn games on their heads has also been a key feature of their game for the last 18 months, as demonstrated by their victory over Juventus in the Champions League final, or the reverse fixture itself.
However, the bigger question remains as to how Atletico let in Luis Suarez’s goal- one nearly identical to his goal against Real Madrid last year, at the same stadium.
With Gabi taken off for Jesus Gamez, Atletico had a tall task to surmount. But once again, they came out of their shell and pressed Barcelona, effectively controlling the game till the 63rd minute. Antoine Griezmann’s volley was saved by Bravo’s feet, despite him diving the wrong way. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco’s mazy run was stopped by a last ditch tackle from Gerard Pique.
Pique and Bravo have been the cornerstones of Barcelona’s defense in the Luis Enrique era, and their awareness proved to be crucial during Atletico Madrid’s dominant spells this time around. Barcelona on the whole looked sluggish after the break, but the team has these 2 individuals to thank for the result.
Football matches at the top level are decided by small margins, and this match, and the start of this phase of the match, prove this. One misplaced pass in the opposition half was all it took to end Atletico’s unexpected dominance; Barcelona began a rapid counter-attack which ended in Diego Godin’s red card.
Suarez’s exaggeration after being tackled did sway the decision in his favor, but Barcelona was unable to end the game as a contest. Augusto’s injury changed nothing; Barcelona was unable to pick out a winning goal.
Barcelona still capable, but Atletico far more fit
It only took a solid 15 minutes in one half for Barcelona to win the game. Barcelona’s players could only impose themselves for approximately 15 minutes of the entire game. Consider those statements. Both hold true to a large extent. Phase 2 in the first half brought all of Barca’s goals and good play, following which they were stagnant. In fact, they only managed 4 shots on target in the entire match. The same as 9 man Atletico.
This points to an underlying issue, fitness. Luis Enrique is the latest manager to feel the impact of playing a strong XI during the first half of the season. Carlo Ancelotti felt it, and paid for it, So did Diego Simeone. Enrique’s inability to rotate as he did during his first season due to the lack of new signings has left his squad extremely fatigued. A rough game against a physical Atletico only exacerbated that feeling.
For a case in point, look no further than the statistics for ground covered during this match. 9 man Atletico covered 4 more kilometers, approximately, than the entire Barcelona XI. Despite having 2 players sent off, which would have cut down their total distance covered by the final whistle by a few miles at least. Being outrun so heavily, and pressed by an opponent with a numerical disadvantage shows that Enrique was right; Turan and Vidal are not enough by a long shot to reinvigorate this squad.
On the other hand, Barcelona’s rivals have the edge in this area. Atletico Madrid, who played very valiantly with less players, have the deepest squad in Spain. Simeone has chopped and changed his XI this season, and his players are extremely fresh, barring Koke and perhaps Godin and Griezmann.
Similarly, Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid are undergoing what some describe as a preseason, with intense training usually reserved for August. Rafa Benitez had also rotated prior to his departure, so few players are fatigued like they were an year ago.
Like Ancelotti last year, the question for Enrique is how he will manage to keep his squad fresh without compromising results. Otherwise, he could be faced with the possibility of burnout heading into the final third of the season, just like Real Madrid in 2014-15.
As for Simeone, his issue lies with integrating his strikers and Oliver into his side. The fact that Carrasco started over Torres, Vietto, Martinez and Correa speaks volumes. Oliver could also lower the creative burden on Koke and the strikers, he needs to be played effectively. A little bit of discipline wouldn’t hurt.
Of course, it could just be a matter of stumbling upon the magic XI.