Atletico Madrid hosted Barcelona in the 25th game-week of 2011/12 La Liga season. The season saw the arrival of Diego Simeone as head coach of Atletico Madrid, who were fighting to stay afloat in the top-4 race. Barcelona, on the other hand, were chasing Real Madrid for the top position in the title race. In the end, Barcelona were able to clinch an important three points to put pressure on Real Madrid. This tactical analysis will provide us with key insights on both the team’s approach and tactics using data. Please enjoy the analysis.
Atletico Madrid lined up in a 4-4-2 formation that they have been famous for in the Diego Simeone era. Barcelona, on the other hand, lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation with Lionel Messi playing in the false-9 role.
Analysing the possession statistics of Barcelona
Barcelona had a lion’s share of 72% possession. This was never gonna be an issue for Diego Simeone, who is always happy to give away possession and play on the break. But did Barcelona dominate the match as the possession stats suggest? Let’s see.
Barcelona attempted a total of 760 passes as opposed to Atletico Madrid’s 295 passes. But when we look at the total number of shots attempted it tells a different story with Atletico Madrid attempting 13 shots (five on target) and Barcelona attempting eight (three on target).
Barcelona’s passing network in the first half suggests that they build in an asymmetrical 3-4-3 shape. Sergio Busquets dropped as the 3rd center back with the full-backs pushing further forward. Iniesta was acting as an auxiliary winger and Messi was playing as False-9. He also drifted down the right-wing to form triangles with Dani Alves and Xavi. Barcelona mostly attacked down the right flank, as shown in the image below. This was done to utilize the attacking prowess of Dani Alves.
Barcelona players had an average passing distance of 20.68 during the match, which goes down to 19.96 in the first half. Let’s look at their forward passes. The figure below shows the forward passes attempted by Barcelona (blue color denotes completed passes and red ones denote incomplete passes). Although most of their passes seem to move the ball forward, still they are predominantly sideways with a lack of central penetration, and very few successful passes forward into the final third.
ATM’s sturdy and compact defensive approach forced Barcelona to go sideways and attack the wings. Barcelona attempted a lot of unsuccessful through balls into the D-box. But inside the box, they had a 100% pass success rate.
Analysing the possession statistics of Atletico
Atletico’s passing network below tells us that unlike Barcelona they never tried to build from the back as we can see there is no passing between Diego Godin, the centre back, and Courtois, the goalkeeper. Courtois launched most of his passes towards Adrian Lopez, suggesting their direct style of play approached in the match.
The pass map of Atletico Madrid below speaks for itself, showing that most of their forward passes are long balls into the channels for their forwards to exploit one-one situations with defenders. Their average pass length in the match was 24.69 meters while it was 22.33 in the first half alone and attempted 113 long balls totally in the match (40% of total passes). But, Atletico Madrid had a very low rate in completing passes inside the D-box.
Another interesting thing that describes both team’s approach was Barcelona never tried to attempt crosses directly into the D-box as they were willing to work their way into the box using short passes and short crosses, whereas Atletico attempted a lot of crosses (19) into the box when they had possession with most of them being unsuccessful.
Atletico’s conservative approach – low block
Atletico Madrid, unlike Barcelona, went into the game with a more safety-first approach. It meant they were happy to relinquish their possession to Barcelona to defend deep in a low block. In the image below we can see that most of their possession regaining is in their first third. Juanfran lead with 12 ball recoveries, followed by Tiago with six.
Another interesting thing about Atletico’s tactics after analysis is that they targeted Barcelona during set-pieces. six out of their 13 shots came within a few moments after a set-piece (freekicks and corners). This can be due to the lack of a physically strong figure for Barcelona, apart from Puyol and Abidal. The likes of Miranda, Godin and Lopez’s physicality proved very difficult for Barcelona to deal with. Eventually, their goal from Falcao that day came following a corner kick.
Analysing the shots of both teams
Atletico, despite failing to produce successful crosses, were able to play balls in behind the defence and create high-quality chances. This was down to their counter-attacking tactics and Barcelona’s high defensive line. For all of Barcelona’s dominance on the ball, they were mostly forced to play sideways or taking shots from distance. Their combined xG stat for the match was 1.1 and for Atletico it was 1.2, clearly mentioning the fact that Atletico failed to grab their chances.
Atletico managed to create good chances inside the D-box. Whereas Barcelona comparatively struggled to do so, as it is evident from the above plots. Atletico Madrid’s goal (Falcao) had an xG value of 0.31. Dani Alves’ first-half opener had an xG of 0.7 (highest in the match). Ironically, Barcelona scored the winner through Lionel Messi’s freekick, which yielded xG of just 0.03 (lowest in the match).
Dani Alves’ Goal – Example of Barca’s playing style
Dani Alves’ goal was an example of Barcelona’s positional play with neat passes, some intelligent movements and individual brilliance.
In the above image, we can see that Messi’s dribbling draws around 3-4 defenders towards him. This leaves a huge space for Fabregas to exploit without any marker. Also in the far right side, we can see that no one’s keeping an eye on Dani Alves, who makes a brilliant run to score from Fabregas’ cross. According to the VAEP framework (which gives the value of an offensive action contributed), Fabregas’ pass to Alves added a match-high value of 0.31.
Barcelona’s substitutions prove vital
Barcelona brought on Isaac Cuenca and Pedro and shifted into an attacking 3-3-4 to push for a late winner. During this interval, Atletico was able to attempt only eight passes as opposed to Barcelona’s 45. Eventually, Barcelona took the lead. Atletico Madrid tried to counter them by bringing on Salvio for Koke in the midfield to shift to a 4-1-4-1. This was done to ensure that they establish stability in midfield by giving them an extra man.
Eric Abidal ensured that Atletico Madrid’s substitutions had less impact. He defended the left flank astutely by completing two Interceptions and three clearances until the full-time. Barcelona eventually shifted to a defensive 4-4-2 to defend their lead by bringing on Pique for Alexis Sanchez. Pique did a job similar to Abidal in the right flank by winning 100% of his aerial duels along with four clearances. He also brought the imposing figure that Barcelona lacked before his arrival.
Barcelona came out on top despite Atletico Madrid’s resilient defending. Messi’s shrewd free-kick took them to the top of La Liga for the time being. The data analysis suggested Atletico Madrid’s wastefulness in front of the goal (under-performing their xG stats). Barcelona’s quality ensured they outperformed their’s to clinch a vital win.
Dani Alves was deservedly awarded the player of the match for his all-round performance both in the attack and defence. His stats include one goal, two key passes, six tackles, two successful dribbles, and two interceptions.