After the worst week at Camp Nou in recent memory, it was a welcome surprise to see Barcelona produce their best display of the season. Champions Atlético may be playing derbies against Real Madrid either side of this game, but manager Diego Simeone has turned them into a fiercely competitive side that almost never suffers a dip in performance or results, and consequently this was expected to be one of the most difficult matches of the campaign. As it was, it was a huge victory for Luis Enrique. His desired style of play became not just discernible but decisive.
Lucho named what is generally recognised to be his strongest eleven, the only eyebrow-raiser being the appearance of both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba on the teamsheet. Barça’s vulnerability at set-pieces usually leads fans to expect either Marc Bartra or Jérémy Mathieu to play instead and add height to the back four, but Lucho came out all guns blazing.
Similarly, Atlético were more-or-less as expected. The only surprise was the selection of Jesús Gámez at left-back ahead of Guilherme Siqueira – presumably Simeone thought it made sense to play a right-footer against Messi, or perhaps he just wants Siqueira rested for their game at the Bernabéu on Thursday. The system was the familiar deep 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, with the focus being on breaking in behind quickly with co-ordinated bursts of physical power.
Before the match, it was quite clear that the result would be decided by how well Barça handled Atlético’s defence-to-attack transitions. The tactical starting point was always going to be Barça playing with the ball and Atlético assembling behind it, but everyone knew that when it turned over Atlético’s breaks would be swift and co-ordinated and that Barça would probably be vulnerable.
If Barça could stifle Atlético at these transitions and counter their counter-attacks, they could not only prevent Simeone’s men getting forward and threatening their goal – either directly or by winning set pieces, from which they’re famously deadly – they could also supply Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez early and avoid playing against a set defence like the one they would usually face, as below.
While it was obvious that this would be where the match was won and lost, few people expected Barça to overpower Atlético so completely. After a tentative start in which Barça’s play went mostly into unthreatening wide areas and Atlético concentrated on maintaining their shape, Luis Enrique’s team stepped up the tempo and the aggression, strangling each Atléti break and quickly counter-punching.
When the visitors managed to set themselves, Barça didn’t try to force it and patiently circulated the ball, but as soon as they came forward Barça forced a turnover and played a quick, vertical pass into one of the forwards. This aggression and directness seemed to catch Diego Simeone totally by surprise and he spent much of the first half deliberating with his assistants, trying to work out how to reconfigure his team and stem the tide.
For all the focus on physicality and verticality, the opening goal was classic Barça – the result of a fifteen-pass move that lasted 39 seconds and involved every player except Andrés Iniesta. The aim of the move was to overload Atlético’s left flank and play the ball back inside, and Ivan Rakitić’s run into the channel, which drew Gámez out, shifted the back four over and created central space for Messi, was massively important.
As we can see in the two shots below, Gámez went tight to the ball, Diego Godín went out to the left to support him and when the pass came back inside the two kept their eyes on it and stopped communicating. This meant they ended up in bad positions with no awareness of Messi’s location and no simple or pre-organised response to the ball coming into his feet.
Thanks to this destabilisation of Atlético’s left flank, when Alves played a low forward ball to Messi – the first pass Barça had successfully played into the box in the game – the Argentine was one-against-one with Godín. Inevitably, Messi did the rest, beating his man and squaring for Suárez, who miscontrolled to Neymar, who turned the ball into the net.
Opening the scoring put more wind in Barça’s sails and they kept the pressure on, forcing turnovers at will and pouring forward in search of a second goal. Jordi Alba forced a smart save from Miguel Ángel Moyà and for a period it seemed like the floodgates would open. The combination of aggression and directness, as well as an early goal, had Atlético reeling.
That Barça scored within the first fifteen minutes was also very significant. The contrast between this game and last week’s defeat away to Real Sociedad could barely be starker: it’s hard to imagine a pair of matches that show the importance of Barça scoring the first goal more clearly.
Having gone behind, Atlético had to come out and play. Instead of being bullied and crumbling as many observers would have expected, Luis Enrique’s side stepped up a gear and remained in complete control. From roughly halfway through the first half until half-time, we saw plenty of examples of Barça’s counter-counter into space that they have almost never been afforded this season.
The clearest chance to score was probably when (the offside) Suárez broke into the opposition half with only two Atlético defenders back and with Neymar stood in acres of space at the back post. It seemed like a certain goal, but when Suárez clipped a cross into the Brazilian, he somehow headed wide. It bears repeating that the amount of space the forwards had to attack into was incredible.
Barça’s superiority was clear: no matter what question Atlético posed, the home side had an answer. Their dominance was rewarded by a second goal, scored in the 35th minute, which came as the result of another fast break and from another move that started with the ball at Claudio Bravo’s feet. Messi’s devastating run and pass will take most of the plaudits, but equally as responsible was Barça's positional play when Bravo was in possession.
Barça spread themselves over such a wide area that Atlético could neither mark everyone, nor cover all the passing angles. Rakitić was in acres of space in a central zone and when Bravo chipped forward to him, Busquets had read the pass and was free to receive the knock-down. He found Messi in space on the right flank, and Messi controlled past Gámez, stormed toward the box and set up Suárez – the Uruguayan pretty much couldn’t miss.
Barça’s first half superiority shone through in the numbers: they had enjoyed 67.7% of possession and had played more than three times as many successful passes as Atlético; despite having the ball much more than their opponents, they had made 11 successful tackles to Atlético’s 8; perhaps most surprisingly, they had dominated the aerial battle, winning 69% of the duels contested. Their total control meant that Atlético hadn’t produced a shot on Bravo’s goal or won a single corner. A two-goal lead was the least Barça deserved.
Having to save the game, it was no surprise to see Atlético play with greater force in the second half. Instead of fighting fire with fire, Barça dug in for a few minutes, weathered the storm and tried to pick Atlético off on the counter. It was a strategy that made sense in theory: while inviting Atlético to come forward and put balls into the box was always going to be risky, having Messi, Neymar and Suárez running into an empty half with Iniesta and Rakitić backing them up was arguably worth it.
As it happened, allowing Atlético to get men forward backfired. Ten minutes into the second half, right-back Juanfran crossed into the packed Barça box and the ball ricocheted clear. Second striker Antoine Griezmann picked it up on the edge of the area and spotted left-back Gáméz bursting into the box on the blind side of a ball-watching Messi. Messi’s desperate attempt to recover led him to clip Gámez standing leg and the full-back made the most of the contact to ensure that the referee pointed to the spot. Mario Mandžukić did the sensible thing and smashed the penalty straight down the middle for 2-1.
In an instant, the match went from being dead to being a keenly fought contest. As soon as Mandžukić scored, tactics became less important than physical and mental toughness. While it was exhilarating to see two sides of this quality fighting tooth and nail for the victory, the hostility of the game came too close to becoming outright violence on more than a few occasions. The referee arguably lost control and an already tense game came close to boiling over.
Barça did extremely well throughout the second half to turn Atlético’s aggression, usually their biggest strength, into their biggest weakness. In much the same way that opposition teams sucker Barça into passing aimlessly and wasting their own attacking time, Barça sapped Atléti’s energy by making them cover a lot of ground and contest a lot of duels and ultimately teasing them into committing lots of fouls. Almost every time an Atlético player thought they had forced a turnover and could break forward to equalise, the referee’s whistle went and they were back to defending again.
What’s more, the physical battle brought out the best in players who have been criticised for their lack of dynamism and spirit this season. Alves was productive in possession and never out of position. Busquets, Rakitić and Iniesta were all excellent, besting more imposing opponents while starting moves and carrying the ball forward at will. Most importantly, Piqué was a rock at the heart of the defence, clearing everything that came into Barça’s penalty area and winning every one of his tackles.
For their part, Messi and Neymar did an unbelievable job of turning defence into attack with dribbles forward, while Suárez’s lateral movement kept Godín and Giménez occupied and unable to intervene. By the end of the game Messi had dribbled past an opponent 12 times and Neymar 6, truly remarkable figures which show just how outclassed Atlético’s defence was.
The end product was an unexpectedly dynamic team display in which every player ran his socks off and gave everything for his teammates. While few people saw it coming, it was no coincidence that a side like Atlético, who savour the physical element of the game and who no longer see themselves as underdogs and play for a 0-0 at Camp Nou, brought the best out of Barça. After so long playing against parked buses, the team was clearly motivated by the rare prospect of a proper football match against an evenly matched team.
With 20 minutes left on the clock, Simeone made two changes in quick succession to salvage something from the game. First he replaced Gabi with Fernando Torres, moving Griezmann back into midfield to keep his side 4-4-2. Then he introduced Raúl García in place of Griezmann, to make it a more natural fit in midfield. The changes were logical: Torres and Raúl García have each scored several big goals for Atlético and Simeone wanted their clutch quality on the pitch.
However, his switches didn’t change his team’s system, so the general pattern of the game didn’t change. Just as before, Barça’s superior intensity, technical quality and willingness to draw fouls ensured that they had control – and it was intensity and quality that led to Messi’s goal in the 87th minute, which settled the tie as a contest.
First, the omnipresent Iniesta chased down Torres as he carried the ball down Atlético’s right side and poked it to Alba. Alba quickly moved it to Busquets, who returned it to Iniesta. Iniesta fed Neymar in the centre of the pitch, close to the halfway line. The Brazilian knocked a short pass back to Rakitić, who side-footed a long ball into space on the left for Suárez. The Uruguayan sent a long lateral pass to Messi, who somewhat fortuitously exchanged passes with Rakitić on the right of the area – the Croat having sprinted half the length of the pitch to join the attack in the 87th minute – and finished with ease.
It was a fitting way to end the night and the margin of victory did justice to Barça's clear superiority. Hopefully this victory will mark the start of a run which consigns dreary displays like those away to Getafe and Real Sociedad to the dustbin of history. However, that remains a very long shot - if anything, this game proved that hoping to nick a goal and then park the bus really is the best way to play this Barça team.