Saturday’s clash between La Liga table-topping duo Barcelona and Atlético Madrid was something of a tactical mismatch; arguably the best attacking team in the division against the most regimented collective defensive unit.
Atlético’s rise to prominence this season has been nothing short of meteoric under Diego Simeone, with the Vicente Calderón outfit putting forward a real title challenge against the traditional powers of El Clásico.
Saturday’s clash ended in a 0-0 stalemate between the pacesetters and threw up a number of interesting subplots. It showed how both approaches, despite being completely different, have been wholeheartedly effective this season.
Barcelona’s possession football has been reflected in the all-conquering Spanish national team, with their brand of tiki-taka already writing itself in the history books.
Again, against Atlético, Gerardo Martino’s men dominated the ball and ended up with 59 per cent of possession and long periods with the hosts pinned back. However, unusually, Barcelona struggled to create guilt-edged chances.
Lionel Messi and Neymar both started from the bench and were introduced in the second 45, but apart from one occasion when the Ballon d’Or holder got space to run at the Atlético defence, the superstar-laden visitors rarely troubled Thibaut Courtois in the home goal.
Barcelona’s usual style of devastating possession-based attacking football, which had heralded 53 goals in 18 La Liga games before this clash, drew a blank here. But why?
Simeone set his side up in their usual 4-4-2 formation, had his team working hard, kept them organised and ensured that his midfielders were aggressive in the tackle – something rarely seen in the Spanish domestic game. The capital city side have put in the highest number of successful tackles this season in the division; an ode to their no-nonsense coach’s style on the pitch.
Atlético knew that they would have to endure long periods of Barca possession; the same as everyone who comes up against the Blaugrana. However, this is nothing new for Simeone’s charges, who have only the 10th highest amount of possession percentage-wise this season in the Spanish top flight.
It is what Atlético do when they do not have the ball that makes them a spectacular side, and it goes completely against the usual Spanish mantra of dominating possession and keeping the ball.
Simeone implores strikers Diego Costa and David Villa to work hard to close down opposition defenders and deep-lying playmakers, which prevents the opposition from playing through the centre of the park. This was on show against Barca, with the usual orchestrators nullified as a result. Xavi had little influence on the game and Andrés Iniesta was crowded out and was replaced at half-time.
With the four across midfield also working equally as hard as their strikers, winning the ball back high up the pitch is a beneficial consequence, and allows Atlético to strike swiftly against disjointed opposition defences.
Against Barcelona, Arda Turan in particular found the team’s pressing style to his benefit, as the Turkish midfielder won the ball back in the opposition half and had chances to unleash deadly striker Costa. On another day one of Atlético’s sprightly attacks following the winning back of possession would have resulted in the winning goal.
This style of play mirrors the way that Atlético’s manager played the game himself and is unique in La Liga at the moment. With Los Colchoneros equal on points at the table’s summit with their stylistic polar opposites Barcelona, it appears that the overarching possession style is not the only way to success in Spain.