La Liga has been filled with classic matches throughout the years. In 2012/13, Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona came up against Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. Barcelona then was a side that built on the Juego de Posición philosophy that Pep Guardiola utilised, while Atleti was on their way to becoming the most solid defence in Europe. This match promised to be an intriguing battle of opposites.
Barcelona in possession
In the first 10 minutes of the match, Barcelona used a 3-4-3 in the build-up. Alba pushed up to join the midfielders, while Adriano remained deep to create a 3 vs 2 against Atleti’s first line of pressing. The home side’s play was thus orientated towards the left. Xavi (on the right) and Iniesta (on the left) mostly occupied the two half-spaces but were free to roam and drop deep to help Barcelona’s play progress. They generally built up comfortably, as Atleti’s front-line didn’t put much pressure on their back three.
Atlético defended in a horizontally and vertically compact 4-4-2, with Costa gradually dropped deeper as Barcelona progressed higher up. In Barcelona’s first phase of build-up, Costa and Falcao stayed central, trying to mark or block passing lanes towards Busquets, a pivotal player in linking up La Blaugrana’s front and back lines. In the example below, Falcao marked the pivot, while Costa used his cover shadow to block Xavi’s passing lane towards him.
When a Barcelona central midfielder had the ball in the half-space, Atleti’s nearest wide midfielder would step out to close him down – as Turan was doing here. Xavi or Iniesta could play the ball wide – then the whole Atleti shape would shift towards the ball side; they could also pass the ball back – then Atleti would remain in their mid-block.
As the match went on, Adriano moved high up and the home side’s passes towards the wings gradually pushed Atleti deeper.
Atleti formed a six-man cage in the centre. Thus, Barcelona’s needle players like Iniesta and Messi couldn’t roam between the lines comfortably as there were virtually no pockets of space to exploit, and the passing lanes towards them were often well covered. Hence, they often tried to overload the wide areas. Barcelona’s heatmap below showed that they dominated possession, but were often unable to enter zone 14 (blue/green area outside Atleti’s box).
Most of the time, they tried to progress through either flank, but would not get near the touchline to cross – not a promising idea due to their forwards’ lack of aerial prowess. They would often try to quickly get the ball to the opposite flank, as Atleti’s defensive shape was dragged to the ball side. Atleti were well alert to these switches of play, and Barcelona were forced to pass in a U-shape, allowing for minimal penetration. The blue arrows in the below heatmap showed the typical directions of Barcelona’s passes.
Wing progression was also not a good solution for Barcelona. Atleti’s athleticism allowed them to instantly overload the area around the ball while still maintaining near-perfect horizontal and vertical compactness. Below, Alba tries to find Pedro in the centre, but the left-backs’ pass was instantly intercepted by Mario. Even if Pedro somehow got the ball, he was unable to escape Atleti’s closing down from all sides. Messi also tried to get past the block a few times, but couldn’t because as soon as he beat his man, two nearby Atleti players would give him no room to breathe. Atleti players were very disciplined and showed great defensive qualities.
When Barcelona had the ball out wide, Atleti’s ball-near wide midfielder would be slightly narrower than the nearby full-back, who would step out from the defence to press Barcelona’s highest wide player. In the picture below, we can see that left-midfielder Arda and left-back Luis were in close proximity, stepping out to press Messi in the wide area. This left a gap between Luis and Godín, behind Atleti’s midfield four – circled in blue.
After being rather isolated in the first 10 minutes, Messi had to move out wide to escape from the cage and Pedro would then move centrally. However, even from that position, La Pulga couldn’t play penetrative passes as there was often a lack of penetrative runs into the space behind Atleti’s midfield. Here, Xavi should have run into the blue-circled area.
With Messi on the right, Barcelona should have been more dangerous there. He then gradually moved towards the left half-space, where Iniesta and Alba tended to make more penetrative runs than Xavi and Adriano. If Dani Alves had started at right-back instead of Adriano, Barcelona would have been more dangerous on that flank.
Moreover, Pedro and Xavi also helped Barcelona overload the left side of the pitch. Barcelona tried to combine on that side – utilising their players’ ability to combine in tight space – with Messi looking to make late runs into the box from zone 14. Atleti responded by also overloading this area, with Arda often the one following Messi’s late runs, as demonstrated in the picture below.
As a result, Adriano was often left free on Barcelona’s right flank. A quick crossfield pass towards him created two chances in the first half for Barcelona. One led to Adriano’s goal, which resulted from his cutting inside and shooting from distance. The other was illustrated below, as Iniesta sent a wonderful pass towards Adriano’s run in behind Luis. Adriano’s header towards Pedro was, unfortunately, too strong for the Spaniard.
Just before half-time, Busquets scored from a chaotic corner to give Barcelona the lead.
Atleti in possession
Atleti had little ball possession, and when they did, they tried to attack directly. They could combine short, as described below, or could launch a long ball down the flank for a striker to run towards. The latter didn’t prove to be effective, as Falcao or Costa alone couldn’t beat either Puyol or Piqué.
Atleti’s counters and Barcelona’s counterpressing
In most offensive transitions, Atleti quickly counter-attacked down the left side with Costa – who held up the ball well – and Koke’s overloading movements to combine with the technically-gifted Arda and Luis. Due to their compactness in defending, Atleti could instantly overload the area around the ball and combine short when they won the ball back.
In these situations, Barcelona actively counterpressed by marking the ball carrier’s nearby passing options, forcing Atleti to play down the wing. Having men around the ball to combine short when in possession helped Barcelona counterpress effectively out of possession.
Here, Luis found Koke in the centre. Busquets, who was following Costa, quickly rushed towards Koke, forcing a pass towards Costa out wide. Busquets and Piqué then successfully closed down the striker.
In possession Atleti mainly played long balls towards their strikers. In extremely rare cases when they tried to build up from deep, we saw Barcelona press high in a 4-3-3. Below, Barcelona’s central midfielders pressed the opposite double pivot, Messi pressed the centre-back with the ball, the ball-far winger rushed at Atleti’s left-back, while the ball-near winger stayed between Atleti’s other centre-back and right-back. A pass towards Atleti’s right side would probably lead to Barcelona overloading the area and intense closing down.
Second half changes
Things got worse for Atleti as left-back Luis, who was a greater offensive threat than his right-back counterpart, was injured at the end of the first half. Centre-back Cata Díaz was subbed in and became the right-back, pushing the right-footed Juanfran to the left. Atleti needed an equaliser, but this change did not help their attacking play.
Simeone decided to take some risk by subbing striker Adrián López in for Mario, but the lack of cover in central midfield hurt them almost instantly, with Messi scoring Barcelona’s third goal. Central-midfielder Tiago then came in to replace Costa, meaning Atleti switched to a 4-5-1 with Koke in central-midfield and Adrián in right-midfield. They tried to press higher in the second half, with a central-mid joining Falcao to press. A Barcelona backwards/sideways pass – like Busquets’ pass to Piqué below – usually triggered intense pressing from Atleti.
Messi went on to score another goal. The match ended 4-1 for Barcelona.
This analysis showed that Barcelona deserved to win this match. They did not outplay Atleti tactically, unable to break down their compact block, but some moments of individual brilliance made the difference for them. For Atleti, their high level of organisation and work rate largely negated Barcelona’s great offensive threat; they had a striker who could score goals on his own in Falcao but was not fortunate enough to get them a draw.