5 things from Atletico 2-0 Barcelona: How Simeone got his tactics spot on
If Diego Simeone had hoped for a perfect night, the 2-0 victory over Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón on Wednesday cannot have strayed far away from the script.
Atlético Madrid embodied everything they have come to represent under the fiery Argentine: disciplined defending, clever counter-attacks, herculean duelling and gamesmanship.
Going into the game, they had lost their last seven against Barça, with their last triumph coming in a 1-0 win that sealed passage to the Champions League semi-finals in 2014. Two years on, this was another Calderón quarter-final classic.
1. Simeone’s pressing plan pays off
The 4-4-2 system was spearheaded by Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, who closed down aggressively as deafening whistles rang out whenever Barça had the ball
That Barça had not failed to score in the competition since that match in 2014 speaks volumes of Atleti’s defensive abilities; it is not by luck that los Colchoneros have kept 11 clean sheets in their last 12 Champions League games at home. Yet this was never meant to be a cautious display. Like in their last three games against Real Madrid and Barça, Simeone deployed a high pressure, which was sustained for the first hour and led to the opening goal.
The 4-4-2 system was spearheaded by Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, who closed down aggressively as deafening whistles rang out whenever Barça had the ball. The formation is supposed to leave Atleti outnumbered in midfield against Barça’s 4-3-3, but their pressing plan had a solution: central midfielders Gabi and Augusto Fernández marked two members of the midfield trio, while one of the wingers, Koke or Saúl, tucked inside to mark the third, leaving a full-back free. Whenever that full-back got the ball, Atleti shuffled across to recover their balance.
As in earlier performances, this led Gabi and Augusto high up the pitch. Inside five minutes, Gabi could be seen sprinting forward to confront the Barça defenders while waving his team-mates on to follow his lead. The fans played their part and when Atleti boxed Barça into a corner and cut off a pass, the Calderón went off the hinges. So it went for the first hour, during which Barça created nothing and hardly managed to enter the Atleti box.
2. Atleti attack down the flanks
Atleti also had success in their focus on wide play. The strategy made sense given they had a numerical disadvantage in the centre, and the clock hadn't even passed three minutes when a Juanfran cross was cleared to Gabi who struck over from good position. Four minutes later, Filipe Luís swung in a ball that Griezmann headed at Marc-André ter Stegen.
When the first goal arrived in the 36th minute, it came after Atleti had recovered possession high up the pitch on the right – a combination of the two tactical elements – before Saúl delivered a sumptuous cross for Griezmann to nod home.
Some wide moves also involved the strikers in the build-up play. Griezmann and Carrasco combined several times in deeper positions to provide an outlet once the ball had been won.
On 10 minutes, Griezmann dropped down to receive a pass from Augusto, while Carrasco sprinted down the right into a gap vacated by Jordi Alba. Griezmann released him perfectly, and though Carrasco’s cross eventually came to nothing, the attack was a fine example of the pair's understanding. On 22 minutes, something similar materialised: Griezmann found Carrasco who sprinted past Gerard Piqué down the left, only for Lionel Messi to intervene.
3. Messi switches position – to no effect
Incidentally, that challenge was one of the most productive things Messi did on the night, which denotes the extent to which Barça struggled to break down Atleti. The 4-3-3 was expected, but one of its features was somewhat surprising: early on, Messi stayed wide right instead of drifting inside between the lines.
Perhaps Luis Enrique wanted him to avoid the constricted central area that Atleti patrol with such authority, but Barça didn't channel too many attacks down his side, and it took 30 minutes before he abandoned the flank in favour of his customary central role.
Augusto played deeper than Gabi and stuck close to Messi even as Atleti attacked, so that the playmaker would not run directly at a backtracking defensive line
Not that it helped. Whenever a pass reached him in a promising position, Atleti players swarmed around him like wasps. Simeone also dispatched Augusto as a man-marker once Messi had moved inside permanently. Particularly early in the second half, Augusto played deeper than Gabi and stuck close to Messi even as Atleti attacked, so that the playmaker would not run directly at a backtracking defensive line. It made sense and it worked well.
Meanwhile, as the half progressed, several Barça players moved down the right in a bid to compensate for some of the lost width. However, neither Luis Suárez nor substitute Arda Turan, who received a hostile reception at his former home, did so with much luck. The same went for Messi, who was largely limited to sideway passes outside the box. Of the three efforts he had, one was blocked and two were free-kicks that sailed over the top. His dip in form might have played a part: the Argentine has now gone 452 minutes without scoring or assisting, his worst run in six years.
4. Defensive strikers solidify Atleti
Another factor that kept Messi quiet was Atleti’s dense defensive shape. Their high pressure was never going to keep Barça away completely, and so Simeone kept the structure compact and dropped the two strikers outside the penalty box.
Both put in formidable shifts and, as late as in the 81st minute, Griezmann still had the legs to rob Andrés Iniesta inside his own half. That symbolised an industrious team performance in which Atleti ran 12 kilometres more than Barça.
5. Barça repelled in final third
Simeone saw that the pressing had taken its toll and switched to 4-5-1, but El Cholo would also hint that the deep defending late on was not part of the plan
Yet if Barça ever looked like scoring, it was in those final 30 minutes, by which time Saúl had hit the crossbar and Griezmann had shot low at Ter Stegen on the break. Simeone saw that the pressing had taken its toll and switched to a 4-5-1, but El Cholo would also hint that the deep defending late on was not part of the plan. “In the first half, the game was more like what we wanted,” he said. “In the second, it was closer to what they wanted.”
Still, Barça had few opportunities. Many passes went through the full-backs, while Neymar and Messi were positioned more centrally and surrounded by Atleti players. Suárez shot straight at Jan Oblak twice, but otherwise Atleti got their heads, feet and toes at everything thrown at them. Few teams have a similar ability to withstand pressure inside their own third without giving away more clear-cut chances.
Just minutes from full-time, a surging Filipe Luis run triggered a penalty that Griezmann converted, and though Barça should have had a penalty as well, the victory was deserved. “We had control but without much of a threat,” said Luis Enrique, who also conceded that Barça had not been at their best.
This was only the second time in the last nine seasons that the Catalans have failed to reach the semi-finals. On both occasions, their victors have been Atleti.