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La Liga: Atletico Madrid 1-2 FC Barcelona: Statistical Analysis

Leo was left isolated for large periods of the match, all thanks to Barcelona's hesitance in attack
Leo was left isolated for large periods of the match, all thanks to Barcelona's hesitance in attack

Pep Guardiola was his usual humble self in the post-match press conference, stating that it was a very complicated match against a very strong opponent, although some of the stats beg to differ. Sure, this is the first time I have really delved deep into a given match’s statistics, but from what I see, there were a few inherent flaws in the way that FC Barcelona played last night. Whether that was down to the opposition’s game plan or merely error on the part of the players or the manager is unclear, but this match had the ingredients for a typical Barcelona master-class.

Take the possession stats as an example: the Blaugrana ended the first half with upwards of 75% of the ball, and the end figure only dropped by a few points to 72%. To put this in context, Barcelona’s average possession stat in the league this season is around 68%, while Atletico Madrid’s is roughly 51%, and in the corresponding fixture at the Camp Nou, the possession stats were 67%-33%. If possession really is nine tenths of the law in football, this should have been a walk in the park. Just why was the match so difficult then?

Well, for starters, possession stats – like all statistics – can be misleading. What truly matters is where the team has that possession, and how they attack when in possession. Typically, teams have found out that Barcelona struggle to create chances from the wings thanks to the slight stature of their attack, while they thrive when attacking through the middle with fast pace one-twos. So, naturally, Diego Simeone sent his team out in a narrow 4-3-3 formation, which one could argue employed a Trivote in midfield. Atletico sat back, conceded the wings and let Barcelona attack.

That’s exactly what Barcelona did, but it had to be in their own unmistakable way. The emphasis was still on short passing and movement off the ball, and possession came naturally as a result, but most of the passes were without purpose, merely possession for possession’s sake.

For example, Barcelona made 740 passes last night according to WhoScored, but of those 740, a staggering 401 were made by the defense or Sergio Busquets. In fact, Victor Valdes made as many passes as Alexis Sanchez did in his 85 minutes on the pitch. For further comparison, the defense (and Sergio Busquets) completed 111 more passes in the match than the entire Atletico Madrid team, yet the team actually created less shots. In my opinion this simply is unacceptable.

Furthermore, while it is clear that Atleti stayed narrow in order to stifle the Barca philosophy, I find it difficult to ascertain why this matters. After all, this very tactic is employed week in, week out at the Camp Nou by various sides of differing quality, and the outcome remains the same: total domination. In the 5-0 win earlier in the season, Barcelona dispersed their attacks down each flank and through the middle in a near equal manner with the majority of attacks (39%) coming straight through the middle. Clearly, this worked an absolute treat.

Inexplicably, the team took the "easy way out" in their attacks last night, attacking through the middle a mere 24% of the time, with an emphasis on the right-hand side, and Dani Alves in particular as the right side accounted for 41% of the direction of attacks. This is why the match was so difficult, and in truth, this larger inequality in the areas Barcelona attack from has been evident in the worse performances. At El Madrigal, Barcelona attacked mostly through the right wing (44%) and only attacked via the middle 25% of the time. Unsurprisingly, they slumped to a draw.

Similarly in the 3-2 defeat against Osasuna, the right side was favoured again, this time accounting for 46% of the Blaugrana attacks, while in the 1-1 draw at Espanyol, the team switched sides to attack down the left 43% of the time. Lastly, in the infamous Javi Varas show at the Camp Nou, the team again favoured that right hand side (39%). I don’t know about you, but I see a trend here...

Then we take a glimpse at the same figures for some of the better Barcelona performances of the season. Typically, when Barcelona either favour the middle (such as in the Manita drubbings handed to Villarreal and Atletico Madrid) or diversify their attacks in a near equal manner (the quintessential example being the 3-1 Clasico win, but also the 5-1 win against Valencia), they perform far better, or even at their highest level. This dependency on any given area of the pitch to create attacks is clearly what stifles Barcelona’s play far more than any opposition tactics; a solution needs to be found.

After all, when opposition managers instruct their team to play narrow, it is a clear nod to the superiority Barcelona hold. When they concede the flanks, it is clear that they want the Blaugrana to attack down each wing; they fear attacks in the middle of the field. Actually, they cannot deal with direct attacks through the middle. So why on earth does the team give into this hopeful strategy, especially when it is in direct conflict with their ethos?

La Masia teaches the players to be true to themselves and their principles, and to never lose faith in those principles, no matter the situation. When this team follows those guidelines, they score last-minute goals to progress to finals, they win in Clasicos. When this team adheres to the rules first enforced by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, they win trophies.

No team has found a way to defend Barcelona’s attacks through the middle. The only solutions that opposition managers have found are psychological, with off-the ball fouls and a narrow set-up the order of the day. Atletico and Simeone did just that, conceding the wings and 22 fouls en route to their 2-1 defeat, but I just think that if Barcelona continue to attack through the middle away from home, despite these supposed "solutions", then they will discover that no team have really found a way to stop them.

On a more positive note, Lionel Messi’s goal was his first direct from a free-kick this season, and his fifth overall for FC Barcelona. Curiously enough, one of his other five also came against Atletico Madrid, and it too came as a result of being taken quickly. That free-kick ensures that the Argentine has now scored more league free-kicks this season than supposed dead ball master Cristiano Ronaldo. Something tells me though that it still won’t stop Ronaldo fans from claiming the Portuguese winger is still a better free-kick taker, but it will at least grant us a few weeks of peace and quiet!

In summary, Barcelona may have won, and it was a tough match, but the statistics show that while Atletico played a part, the real enemy remains Barcelona.

All stats are courtesy of WhoScored, and cross-referenced for accuracy where possible.

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