Michael Cox looks ahead to the La Liga title showdown between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid...
In an era where even meaningless midtable clashes are hyped up extravagantly and presented as life-or-death, must-win matches, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge the precise importance of individual league matches.
There’s no messing around with this one, however. Barcelona against Atletico Madrid is, quite simply, the single most important league match Europe has seen this century. The situation is quite extraordinary, and perfectly balanced – it’s come down to the 38th game of a 38-game season, and the two remaining title contenders are going head-to-head on the final day.
If Atletico win, they are crowned champions – considering La Liga is traditionally a two-horse town, this would be an absolutely remarkable triumph. If Barcelona win, they retain their title. The Catalans may have home advantage, but a draw favours Atletico, and if there’s one side in Europe capable of grinding out a draw away at Barcelona, it’s Atletico.
After all, Atletico and Barcelona have already faced one another five times this season – twice in the Supercup, twice in the Champions League, once in La Liga – and the omens look good for Diego Simeone’s side. There have been four draws, and one Atletico victory. Barcelona have scored just two goals those five matches – they’ll need at least one more to win the league.
Upsetting the odds
It will be a tough task. While Barca are the bookmakers’ favourites for the title, Atletico are a brilliantly organised defensive unit. They’ve conceded by far the fewest goals of the 20 La Liga clubs, and while they concede slightly more shots per match than Barcelona (9.1 compared to 8.8), the shots are taken from less dangerous positions; 52% of shots Atletico concede are taken from outside the box, compared to 43% for Barcelona. Atletico, of course, also boast the finest goalkeeper in Europe this season, on-loan Chelsea star Thibaut Courtois.
Atletico’s brilliant defensive play starts from the forwards, however, and the major reason there’s such a good chance of Atletico getting a draw is that their attackers and midfielders are so useful defensively. Although Simeone has generally favoured a 4-4-2 formation, that explanation of their system doesn’t quite do justice to the defensive contribution of their forwards. It’s really a 4-4-2-0 system without the ball, which explains why Simeone has recently been happy to drop David Villa and instead play Adrian Lopez, Diego Ribas or Raul Garcia, who contribute more without the ball.
The two forwards drop back goalside of the opposition’s holding midfielder and cut off easy forward passes. Often, one occupies one side of the pitch while the other presses the man in possession, showing them to one particular flank. When the ball is out wide, Atletico are happy, but they’re also capable of pressing intensely in those zones.
The work rate of Koke and Arda Turan, the two wide midfielders, is extremely impressive – they both harry opponents relentlessly, pouncing on poor first touches and getting tackles in, before sprinting forward quickly with the ball. They epitomise Atletico’s universality – they recover the ball frequently…
…and they’re happy to stick a foot in and disrupt opposition attacks with fouls, too.
The central midfielders get through an amazing amount of running, despite being primarily defensive midfielders charged with protecting their back four. It’s usually Gabi and Tiago in the centre, and they cover for each other brilliantly – one presses, the other sweeps behind. It doesn’t matter whether one is drawn forward to press, or shuttles out to the flank, the other is always behind, and the wide midfielders always tuck inside to compensate.
The only downside is the space out on the flanks, which Daniel Alves has regularly charged into in Barca v Atleti meetings this season – he could be the game’s key player.
The back four, meanwhile, are excellently drilled and work perfectly as a unit. Juanfran and Filipe Luis love to attack, but they get back into position quickly to defend the wide areas – although in truth, they often appear more like third and fourth centre-backs, especially against Barca. They’re determined to minimise the space in the channels between centre-backs and full-backs, particularly in light of how Neymar breached their backline in the European Cup first leg – receiving the ball in that inside-left channel, the ‘Thierry Henry position’, and bending the ball in, depicted above.
In all, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Atletico are as compact and organised as any side in the history of the game, filling space brilliantly, pressuring opponents relentlessly and pouncing on mistakes ruthlessly.
Few expected Atleti would be able to sustain this throughout the course of a league campaign, but they’re just two matches away from an unthinkable double. A clean sheet this weekend, and Simeone’s side will lift the La Liga trophy at the home of the previous champions – which, considering their financial disadvantage, would be one of the most remarkable achievements in modern football.