FC Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Atlético Madrid was typical of Ernesto Valverde’s reign. While lacking a certain cutting edge, Barcelona went ahead thanks to a superhuman Lionel Messi freekick. After that, the draw suited Barcelona all right - they’d deny Atléti one of their biggest cards to play in terms of catching up in the league - and the win, of course, even more. It was the Colchoneros who had to attack, and Barcelona could afford to sit off a little. The result was that though Diego Simeone brought on many attackers, Atléti did not have a shot on target in the second half, and Valverde’s only major scare was when Kevin Gameiro put the ball in the net after receiving a pass from Diego Costa, in an offside position.
This has just become par for the course for Barça this season. True, their display against Las Palmas was pretty toothless, but were it not for a very odd penalty call, it would probably have been another clean sheet and another win.
In fact, Barcelona’s opponents’ xG now has been - for a while - less than one per game. That is to say, the defense has not given up quality chances very often. The goals they have conceded have come from either improbable angles (long-range shots) or a situation like that penalty in many cases. In fact, Atlético’s xG against Barcelona was a pathetic 0.2.
xG map for Barcelona - Atletico Madrid. Atleti defended well but got Messi'd and didn't ever seem that close to getting the goal back. pic.twitter.com/k0vbv8jbIh— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) March 4, 2018
Barcelona haven’t given up two goals or more this season in all but two matches post-Supercup - the 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo and the 4-2 win over Real Sociedad. For all that’s been made about Atlético’s stinginess (and it’s deserved), Barcelona have only conceded one more goal in La Liga this term.
André Gomes misplaced a lot of passes, but Valverde subbed him against Atlético primarily because he knows where to go to defend and is able to help the team aerially. Atlético are known for their ability in the air, with the likes of Costa, Diego Godín, José María Giménez, Thomas Partey, Saúl Ñíguez, Lucas Hernández, Koke, Gabi, and Šime Vrsaljko all around 6’0’’. Yet it was Barcelona, who became famous for playing “little guys,” who dominated the air. Barcelona won 17 aerial duels to Atléti’s 8, and Gerard Piqué won 7 of them. Gomes won’t win any awards with his decision making that match, but he did win 4 aerial duels, second most for either team.
With Coutinho ineligible and Iniesta injured, who will partner Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić in midfield in the UEFA Champions League match against Chelsea? This is a big question that we’ll be getting the answer to very soon.
I suspect Paulinho will get one of the two spots, though he was not exactly the best in the first leg. The other could be one of Gomes, Aleix Vidal, Ousmane Dembélé or even Paco Alcácer. The reason Denis Suárez has dropped out of the pecking order is because Valverde wants his midfield to be extremely solid and not concede many chances. He doesn’t trust Denis Suárez to defend to the level he expects.
Barcelona will likely continue this model of keeping opponents at bay and relying on their star front pairing to get them the goals to win. Will it be enough? It might be for this season, though one wonders whether next season, with Coutinho and Dembélé situated and adapted, whether he’ll aim for a more expansive brand of football.