FC Barcelona has a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Atletico Madrid, one defined by both emphatic home wins for the Blaugrana (6-1 in 2008, 5-2 in 2009, 3-0 in 2011, and, of course, the 5-0 drubbing earlier this season) and dramatic away losses (4-3 in 2009, 2-1 in 2010) with narrow victories in between. The manita from earlier this season looks particularly illusory not just because of this up-and-down history between the two clubs but if simply for the fact that that was a much different Atletico team.
The 2011-12 campaign had actually begun well for the other Madrid club. They started started the season with consecutive 4-0 wins and the buzz around Madrid was the Spanish capital would have two darling clubs, not to mention two shining stars: Cristiano Ronaldo and Falcao. However, the excitement was short-lived, as the club displayed putrid defending against an in-form Barcelona squad, which was sporting an attractive 3-4-3 formation that swallowed Atletico's midfield width and attacking front line. This was the beginning of a long, hard fall: the club scored just once in their next four games and they won only three of the following twelve matches. Atletico's coach, Gregorio Manzano, was a sitting duck for months until being sacked in January and further investigations into the club's finances revealed shady accounting practices and substantial debt. Hell had frozen over in Madrid.
Yet this is an encounter of patterns, remember? It should come as little surprise to those who believe in these sorts of things that los Colchoneros have suddenly found inspiration in their football. The new manager Vicente Simeone, "El Cholo," has not lost a league game since taking over the helm (W3 D4) and has the club playing energetic, attacking football. Falcao, while not having scored in four consecutive matches, has continued to be a revelation, while Koke and Diego have injected power and creativity in the squad that seemed to be missing for long stretches in the earlier part of the season. Simeone seems to favor an attacking 4-5-1/4-4-2 hybrid, something not all too unfamiliar historically to Atletico Madrid but there has been an increased focus on both wing play (Salvio and Juanfran have been extraordinary) and defensive pressing--both of which are recipes for beating Barcelona. Even goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who early on had struggled between the posts (and was twice beaten fairly easily by Messi earlier in this season), has been enthused by Simeone.
Simeone summed up his approach rather nicely in an interview with the club's website recently:
When one holds oneself back to debate whether we’re being offensive or defensive it’s a very divisive topic. I can be offensive with a single forward or I can be defensive with three forwards. Adrián is a very important player for us, as well as Arda and Koke, who is at a very good level of growth and we have high expectations of him. Diego is a player of weight on the team and Salvio did well the other day. We have players to continue to grow and improve on what took place in Málaga.
In short, Atletico Madrid's style under Simeone is that of reflexivity: the team can play a variety of "similar" formations but play them differently in order to suit the game. Against Villareal in one of Simeone's first games, the team played a counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 formation and won the game comfortably at 3-0. It didn't matter that Villareal had nearly 20% more possession, as Simeone instructed his players to break quickly on the flanks and cross the ball to Falcao (who essentially can play two different roles -- a classic number 9 and a more mobile forward who enjoys running onto through-balls from the team's creative central midfielders). Atletico Madrid finished the game with twenty shots on goal to Villareal's paltry three. It's clearly a blueprint for how the team will line-up against Barcelona, in spite of the absence of Diego.