As the Pep Guardiola era came to a close, Atletico Madrid, like every other team, were looking for a way to counter Barca’s three league titles in a row heading into the 2011-2012 campaign.
In December of that season, Diego Simeone was hired and he immediately led the team to a Europa League championship, ushering in a new era of consistent results. Over the past eight seasons, that’s included finishing in the top three of La Liga every year, and two appearances in the Champions League final.
Like Barca, however, August of 2020 raised questions about the future of the club and Diego Simeone as the leader.
After emphatically beating Liverpool in the round of 16, RB Leipzig shocked the Colchoneros in a pandemic modified one game knockout in the quarterfinals. Critics around the world were baffled by Simeon’s tactics. Why was he so conservative against an inferior team?
Atletico wondered whether they had reached the limits of what Diego Simeone could provide. Should they have higher expectations and find someone who could take them from good to great? In the end, they stuck by their man. But everyone agreed a new approach was needed, and Simeone needed to show he could evolve and move the team in a progressive direction.
So far this season, it’s worked, and Barcelona should be aware that on Saturday they will not be facing off against the Atleti of yesteryear.
Here are the main things to look out for.
The big storyline going into the match was supposed to be Luis Suarez going up against his old club. Now he’s been ruled out for the game after testing positive for Covid-19, but there are plenty of other players to look out for.
Suarez has been a top performer scoring five goals so far, but so has the red hot João Félix.
When Félix signed from Benfica in 2019 it was a massive signing for Atletico. For most of his first season, in spite of moments where you could see the talent shine, Simeone struggled to integrate him into his system. Most of the year Felix oscillated between different positions in the midfield and as a striker, with modest results.
This year he’s taken off as a forward alongside Suarez who’s praised him as a “match-winner.” With El Pistolero sidelined, Felix will be the first player that can hurt Barcelona, so he’ll need to be contained.
Another player who is having a breakthrough in his second season with the team is Marcos Llorente, who could be the one replacing Suarez up top alongside Félix. Llorente has been one of the most dynamic attacking options, and has shown his versatility by playing in the midfield as well.
With Thomas Partey leaving for Arsenal, many wondered how Simeone would replace one of his most productive players. The mixture of veterans Koke and Hector Herrera, alongside new signing Lucas Torreira, have done well to not only replace Partey, but instill a new intention in the midfield to possess and be aggressive with penetrating passes that jump start the attack.
In addition to that, Barcelona fans will recognize many familiar faces. Jan Oblak is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and mainstays Angel Correa, Yannick Carrasco, and Saul Niguez are providing the same quality they have for years.
What’s changed is the style of play, which is a direct response to the criticism they took going into the year.
A change in tactics has made Atleti more offensive
Atletico plays with a 4-4-2, and has been experimenting with a rotation of players in a variety of positions within there.
One of the biggest shifts that Simeone has made is allowing João Félix the liberty to play freely. In the past he could rely on someone like Antoine Griezmann to score goals, but also to contribute defensively without the ball. Now Felix is playing higher up the field, and has been a creative playmaking presence in the attack. He isn’t being punished for his lack of defensive effort, which may have cost him minutes last season.
As always Atletico Madrid has a deep team of players who understand the system. The philosophy of emphasizing muscular football isn’t lost. But Simeone is having his team do more than sit back and counter attack. They are possessing the ball now at 55% for the season, which is a significant increase for a team who previously were content with allowing opponents to have the ball the majority of the time.
Players like Marcos Llorente and Thomas Lemar have increased roles this year, and are making an impact. Lucas Torreira has been a capable replacement for Partey, and veteran players Koke, Hector Torrera, Saúl Ñíguez, and Angel Correa are adapting their game to fit the new system.
The question on Saturday will be whether the new Atletico matches up better against a Barcelona team that has had trouble breaking down low sitting defenses, or whether a more open game favors the Blaugrane.
One thing to expect is a game not reminiscent of what we’ve seen recently. If Simeone’s side plays like they have all season it should be an entertaining back and forth duel. In such a scenario, Ousmane Dembele could be a key player.
Most important, the outcome of this game will be a signal for where the La Liga race is headed. Are Atletico pretenders or contenders? Winning would be the league on notice, but they’ve built a cushion and may be content to play for a tie.
Barca on the other hand have more on the line. Losing another big game would push the possibility of a title further out of reach.
This is Ronald Koeman’s opportunity to be aggressive, play for the win, and humble a confident and hungry Atletico team with something to prove.