Tactics : FC Barcelona 1-1 Atletico Madrid
After a rough first hour, Blaugranas had to push their level up to get dangerous and come out from Vincente Calderon with a draw. It took both Fabregas to sub in and for Colcheneros to hit the wall, before the Barca players managed to come closer from Courtois´ goal.
No surprise in choices of the coaches when this match started. Despite an interesting sub in the match against Levante, Fabregas started as a sub again, leaving the midfielder position to Iniesta. The back and offense lines were designed by Martino strictly as it was in the previous seasons (Valdes – Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba – Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta – Sanchez, Messi, Pedro). On the Atletico´s side, Diego Simeone was also keeping his main eleven except for his stricker, with Villa replacing Falcao (Courtois – Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis – Diego Costa, Gabi, Mario Suarez, Koke, Arda Turan – Villa).
Atletico in their opponent half:
One minute was enough to clearly see the tactical choices of both teams. On Barcelona´s side, the positioning was classical: once Barca got the ball possession, the team would spread out like it used to do last season. In the back, Busquets positioned himself in between Piqué and Mascherano, and climbed a line up to reduce the space when Xavi or Iniesta were moving backwards. The four men were forming their casual diamond with Messi on the upper position, a quatuor flanked by two pairs on their sides: Alba-Pedro on the left, Alves-Sanchez on the right. For Atletico, Diego Costa who was foreseen as a second free forward player, in fact started in a pure wing position, therefore forming a line of 5 players covering the whole width of the pitch.
After a few more seconds, one of Diego Simeone´s key tactical decisions became obvious: whereas the Barca found back its pressing skills against Levante last Saturday, Atletico´s coach set a small-scale circuit to break it. As soon as the ball was taken by his keeper, he was pushing his block to go up to support Diego Costa on the right wing. The Brazilian offensive player was the preferential target for long passes from defence. He would then face Jordi Alba, but whether or not he could secure the ball, Madrilenes would occupy the area, using physical skills to try and win the second ball.
Besides this tactic based on long passes from Courtois or his defence, Madrilenes would also go and work on the first 30 meters of Barca to slow it down, or even prevent the classical exit-circuit of the Blaugranas. If Barca was starting from Valdes, Villa, in the axis to oppose to Busquets, would be joined by two or even three partners. Diego Costa and Arda Turan would go out in the corridors to block Piqué and Mascherano trying to spread out. Axially, Koke could as well leave his position and follow Xavi movements toward the back. The main goal here was to force Barca to use long passes, hoping to catch back the ball when it was falling down. As soon as Barca was leaving its first 30 meters, mostly by using lateral players, all the Atletico players were going lower to reform the aforementioned 4-5-1.
Atletico blocking the axis:
Despite their few tricks to try to impede on the setting up of Barca, the Colchoneros of course spent most of the time defending in their own half. Their 4-5-1 was organized so as to shortcut the various circuits used by the Catalans. Alone in front, Villa was supposed to stay in the axis, to intercept passes in the center of the pitch (Piqué-Iniesta or Mascherano-Xavi, for instance), but staying close enough from Busquets to prevent him from playing forward. His position forced Xavi or Iniesta to go down quite low, all the way till their partners in the midfield. When they did so, Koke and Gabi followed them, leaving their initial alignment of 5 players.
Protecting the axis, Mario Suarez, assisted by one midfielder staying in a defensive position, had for his main mission to cover his central defenders, and to intercept passes intended to Messi or at worse, to prevent the Argentinian to speed up once he got the ball. The Spanish defensive midfielder was also following Messi when the latter was going down to increase the players density in Barca midfield. If he was staying behind with Gabi and Koke, Ardan Turan or Diego Costa will get closer to them, to limit free spaces around the two axial players (the third one pressing directly Xavi or Iniesta)
Along the same lines, if Piqué was trying to substitute to Xavi by coming at Busquets´ side, Koke will leave his position to oppose him. Behind him, the remaining 4 players would get closer from each other to block Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all at once. The latter, suffering from a thigh injury, couldn’t do much during the first half, with Madrid midfielders on his back. He was positioning himself in between the lines, but was getting marked most of the time by three players (a center back, behind him, assisted by the two midfielders the closest from the area where he was asking for the ball). It´s him who loses the ball in between Godin, Arda Turan and Koke on Atletico´s movement leading to the first goal.
Atletico close marking in the last 30 meters was also applied by Atletico on the wings. As Arda Turan and Diego Costa were focusing their work on the axis, Jordi Alba and Daniel Alves were more available on the wings, but were also missing solutions once they received the ball from their midfielders. Atletico´s lateral players leave very few space to Sanchez and Pedro, who besides were cut off from the rest of the team by the positioning of Madrid midfielders: by occupying the center, Arda and Diego Costa prevented the direct game from the axis to the wings (ex : Xavi => Sanchez ou Iniesta => Pedro). A situation who was preventing lateral to take the space in the corridors.
On top of disconnecting Barca wing players from their midfielders, Atletico midfielders were trapping the wings once the ball reached them. As soon as Jordi Alba or Daniel Alves got the ball, the 5 midfielders line was shifting toward them, and engaged into close marking. Not only were Arda and Diego Costa blocking the lateral players, but Koke and Gabi were again going out to pressure Xavi or Iniesta, who are usually offering low solutions. And as a complement to the midfielders work, Villa was going down to defend on Busquets area. That resulted into almost no space available for Barca to launch offensives in the last 20 meters.
How Fabregas unlocked the game:
Messi, injured, was substituted at half-time by Fabregas, who occupied his exact same position. Initially, Fabregas could not impact the game as Atletico, rid of Messi, tried to defend higher on the pitch and put pressure on the first Barca pass. But, as time was passing, making efforts became tougher for the Madrid players, and Barca started to increase its movements pace. Instead of staying on Busquets´ left and right side, Xavi and Iniesta sometimes occupied the same side, one going low enough to initiate the movement while the other one was going in the center of the pitch, where the pressing was the highest.
On top of combining their movements, Xavi and Iniesta got the help of Fabregas, whose movements inbetween the Madrid lines improved a lot Barca flow. Taking over Messi´s role, Fabregas managed to be much more mobile than the injured Argentinian: working as much on the left side as on the right side, he was relaying the ball in between the opponent midfielders and was fastening the rythm of the passes, allowing Barca to switch quickly from one wing to the other. Whereas Barca had been until then trapped on a half pitch by the midfielders pressing (Koke, Gabi, Mario Suarez) and Villa´s marking on Busquets in the back, Fabregas allowed a quicker lateral play, which in turns drained the Madrid players after an hour of game.
After drawing (66e), Barca controlled the match without creating much danger. Simeone couldn’t compensate by substitutions the tiredness of his players, who maybe got drained by the high pressing they applied on the beginning of second half. Oliver Torres, Leo Baptistao and Cristian Rodriguez, who subbed in at 73rd and 79th minutes, couldn’t do better than the players they replaced (Koke, Arda Turan, Diego Costa). This exhaustion also impacted Madrid offensive play: the long passes toward Diego Costa lost their efficiency, and the Colchoneros suffered a lot more from their opponent pressing, especially once Fabregas joined Pedros and Sanchez efforts.
All in all, Barca comes out of this first match with an advantage that should be enough to control the back match next week. However Atletico was really impressive for an hour. Despite Falcao´s departure, the team seems to have kept its strenght from last year, and David Villa showed in 90 minutes that his 5 millions transfer might be this summer good bargain.