Talking Tactics Part 2: Atlético vs. Barcelona

In the wake of a major Catalan independence referendum, Barcelona take their nine match winning streak into Madrid this Saturday for what is sure to be one of the best matches of the young La Liga season.

This is part two of a two-part international break series talking Atlético tactics. Check out part one here.

In part one, we explored what went wrong vs. Chelsea and at Leganés. This part will be more positive, exploring what has gone right for Atlético and how they should prepare for the huge upcoming match vs. Barcelona.

To preview this match up, it is important to look at the opponent. Ernesto Valverde moved from Athletic to take Luis Enrique’s vacated spot at the Camp Nou last May and has not looked back. Barcelona have won all nine of their games going back to August 20, outscoring opponents 27-2 in the process. To say they have dominated the start of the season is an understatement. Lionel Messi has scored 13 goals in all competitions with seven other players contributing at least one goal.

Atlético, on the other hand, have had a decent season, but their statistics are dwarfed in comparison. They are 4-3-0 in the league, and 0-1-1 in the Champions league. Atlético has outscored opponents 13-6, meaning they have averaged 1.44 goals in their nine games. This includes three 0-0 contests and as stated in part one, if you remove the 5-1 win over Las Palmas it’s eight goals in eight games, just one per contest. The red and whites must increase their attack to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona, possibly one of the few teams that has a better defense.

We will start with formations, continue to team and player matchups, and finish with early predictions for this key match.

Formations

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Atlético

Diego Simeone’s base formation is a 4-4-2. However, the team has also employed a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-3 in the past. Let’s look at the two more unlikely formations first.

3-5-2

Simeone had limited options at Leganés with no true left backs in the squad and chose a 3-5-2 formation. In this system, the three center backs hold a relatively similar line with the outside players, Jose Giménez and Diego Godín, having the ability to go forward on counter attack and in set pieces. Stefan Savic played the center and was the last line of defense.

Saúl Ñiguez and Angel Correa played wingback roles meaning they could both sit back on defense and go forward in attack. Both players looked great at their positions and Saúl may have put out the best performance of any Atlético player. Koke, Thomas Partey, and Gabi were the central midfielders and looked good going forward, but could not get many balls through a defense that has only allowed three goals this season.

The two strikers in this formation are expected to go forward together with Luciano Vietto perhaps a bit ahead of Antoine Griezmann. Both forwards looked poor on Saturday despite playing similar roles to the 4-4-2. The team only totaled two shots on goal which is one of their lowest totals this season.

4-3-3

Cholo’s other two formations feature the same four man back line. Diego Godín and Stefan Savic are favored in the middle with Filipe Luis on the left and either Juanfran or Sime Vrsjalko on the right. All four players have the ability to go forward with Juanfran and Godín the most lethal.

The three midfielders, usually Koke, Saúl, and Gabi, all have both defensive and forward responsibilities. Gabi plays as more of a CDM and helps the defense while Koke and Saúl are allowed to go forward and join the attack.

The 4-3-3 formation was a favorite of Simeone’s last season and pushes an extra forward up to join Griezmann and Ángel Correa in the front. This formation is a possibility if Atleti want to attack with Yannick Carrasco joining the strikers. If Kevin Gameiro is fit, there is a small possibility that Correa could play the wing with Gameiro in the middle and Griezmann shading to the left.

4-4-2

The team almost always plays 4-4-2 and are likely to go back to it vs. Barcelona after a failed 3-4-3 at Leganés. The four man back line plays the same as in the 4-3-3, but the difference is in the midfield.

The two central midfielders, usually Gabi, and Saúl, with Augusto having the ability to join now that he is fit, sit back and help the defense. The wingers, usually Koke and Carassco, have the ability to provide fast attacking runs. The forwards play off these runs with Griezmann likely sitting slightly behind Correa to help the defense as needed. Again, this is Simeone’s favorite and most-used formation because of its defensive base through the middle, complemented with attacking strength on the wings.

Barcelona

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4-3-3

After playing a 4-1-4-1 formation and resting Luis Suárez in the first match of the season, Ernesto Valverde employed a 4-3-3 for the next match at Alavés. He went back to the formation for wins over Juventus, Getafe, and Eibar before switching back to the 4-4-2.

In this formation, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, and Jordi Alba cover the back line. The full backs have more freedom to go up and join the attack, while the center backs provide the last line of defense in front of the goal keeper.

Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, and Andres Iniesta man the midfield in a 1-2 format. Busquets is the defensive midfielder, while Rakitic and Iniesta provide the forward attacking balls as number 10 or 8 players. Paulinho has also seen time as one of the attacking midfielders.

This formation has seen multiple trios in attack. Arturo Vidal, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez have all seen time on the left wing while Gerard Deulofeu and the now injured Ousmane Dembele have appeared on the right. Messi and Suárez have both appeared as the lone striker, putting the majority of balls into the net.

4-4-2

Valverde first employed a 4-4-2 in the 5-0 victory over Barcelona and has gone back to the formation in Barca’s last three matches. The back line is similar with Nelson Semedo also seeing time at right back. Again, the full backs have more freedom to join the attack with the center backs providing the last line of defense.

Busquets is again the CDM, but the other midfielder, Rakitic or Paulinho, provides a box to box role helping the team in both midfield and defense. Iniesta and Deulofeu or Vidal resume their attacking roles on the wings, but Suárez joins Messi in a lethal two striker tandem. Iniesta suffered a minor hamstring injury in the win over Las Palmas and may miss the match.

With its recent use and lethal two-striker tandem, the 4-4-2 formation is the most likely for Saturday. Expect Valverde to use a veteran lineup with Denis Suárez and Vidal on the wings and Busquets and Rakitic up the middle.

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Barcelona attack vs. Atlético defense

Despite several coaching changes since the tiki-taka styles of Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff, Barcelona still employs an attack-minded version of the old style. Evidenced by their 61.4 percent average possession statistic, Barca will control the ball for the majority of the match.

As stated earlier, they are likely to employ a 4-4-2 formation. This plays to Atlético’s strength up the middle as they will call upon two of their better defenders, Diego Godín and Stefan Savic, to defend Messi and Suárez. These will definitely be match ups to watch as the two best strikers in the world face one of the better defensive tandems.

Vidal and Denis Suárez may not be young Iniesta and Neymar, but they are still quality wingers and will challenge Atlético’s fullbacks.  They will need to improve on their poor form against Chelsea, especially at the right back position where Sime Vrsjalko could relieve Juanfran. The red and whites will hope to have one or both of Filipe and Lucas returning from hamstring injuries. If not, Vrsjalko will likely play out of position on the left.

Rakitic and Busquets will also be important up the middle. Gabi, Saul, Godín and Savic will have their hands full defending some of La Liga’s best veteran midfielders. They must put pressure on these players to stop the attack early before it gets to Messi and Suárez.

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Atlético attack vs. Barcelona defense

Atlético possess the ball 49.7 percent of the time and will focus on their counterattacking skills for much of the match.

Yannick Carassco and Koke will need to provide quality runs on the wings to set up Griezmann and Correa in the middle. If the Barcelona defense has a weak point, it is on the wings with Gerard Pique and either Javier Mascherano or Umtiti providing solid central defense.

Atletico is unlikely to dominate possession or outshoot Barcelona, so they must win on quality of shots and passes. Barca holds the pass accuracy statistic, completing 88.3 percent of their passes to 81 for Atletico. If Atletico can improve their passing to around 85 percent and put at least five shots on goal, they should be right in the match.

Prediction

It is hard to predict the outcome of the match on Monday, with several players still on international duty and injuries and fitness still to be decided. However, Barcelona’s stellar form and Atletico’s recent dip mean it will be a tough one for the red and whites. Barca are currently peaking as one of the top teams in the world while even some of Atlético’s most veteran players such as Diego Godín and Koke are yet to hit their stride. As hard as it is to predict an Atlético loss, Barcelona will likely win this match by a score of 2-0.

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