It was to be the match that would establish the clear favourites for the title, but at its conclusion, the two best teams in La Liga this season remain separated only by goal difference after a 0-0 draw between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon. Here, I provide my reflections on a match that despite its scoreline, was actually a riveting stalemate.
Whether it was the incessant pressing and harrying of Atletico’s midfielders, the precise positional sense of Diego Godin, the aerial prowess of Miranda, or even the diligent tracking back of Diego Costa, the Rojiblancos were defensively superb throughout the match. Even on the few instances that Lionel Messi created some opportunities in the final third, they were down to the brilliance of the Argentinean rather than any defensive deficiencies on the part of Atleti. The one time Thibaut Courtois was called into action, he made a smart stop to deny Messi, in the process ensuring comprehensive success on a great night for the home team’s defence.
Atletico however, do not get sole ownership of the plaudits in what was in essence, a defensive masterclass of a match. Coming into the game, Los Colcheneros had scored a league leading 33 goals at home, with Diego Costa scoring in every game at the Calderon. That Barcelona were able to stop such a goalscoring machine was a testament to their defensive prowess.
Sergio Busquets was his usual calm self, occupying the best positions in front of the defence, and releasing pressure with his smart short passes to Barca’s other midfielders. Even Dani Alves and Jordi Alba curbed their usual attacking instincts by holding a more defensive line to combat the threats of Arda Turan on the right and Filipe Luis on the left. That Victor Valdes didn’t have a meaningful save to make throughout the match was down to the excellence of Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique. Both being equally good with passing and distribution, Mascherano distinguished himself with his positional sense ensuring that neither Costa nor David Villa could make penetrating runs to collect passes or through balls. Meanwhile, Pique won every duel in the air, negating any dangerous set piece the home team had, while he was rarely outmuscled by Costa’s physicality.
The attacking talent on both sides have won a lot of plaudits this season and will continue to do so for the rest of the campaign, but sometimes it takes such a match to appreciate the immense quality of both defences, as well as the methodical organization and tactical preparation of both, Diego Simeone and Gerardo Martino.
Perspiration over inspiration for Simeone’s midfielders
As already mentioned, Atletico’s midfield played a crucial role in ensuring the team kept their shape. It’s easy to get caught spellbound when Barcelona’s midfield magicians have the ball, so Simeone’s first port of call was to ensure that every time Andres Iniesta or Xavi had the ball, one of his midfield generals was snapping at their heels. Rojiblancos captain Gabi was at the forefront, consistently harrying Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas, depriving the midfield trio of time and rhythm to set the midfield tempo. Tiago was just as good in a deeper position, mirroring Busquets with his positioning and underrated tackling, while Koke and Arda Turan played a crucial role in keeping Barca’s full-backs in check with their constant pressing.
It is a credit to Simeone and his players that all the midfielders work so hard for the team. However, to truly capture the imagination of a wider football audience and crucially, to make a difference against the very best opposition Atleti will need their midfielders to express creative flair. For all the pre-match hype and expectations of being the next great Spanish midfield general, Koke barely made an attacking move of note in the ninety minutes. By the same token, other than a few mesmerizing runs, Turan seemed to be preoccupied with his defensive responsibilities rather than giving either Alves or Alba a nightmare on the wings. This is the by-product of the incredible team ethos that Simeone has instilled where every player works selflessly for the team. That being said, I wait for the big game in which Atleti’s midfielders use a little more inspiration than perspiration, so that we can make something close to a definitive judgement on their quality.
Pressing is back in vogue for Tata’s Barca
During last season’s annus horribilis against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the Champions League, the 7-0 aggregate drubbing highlighted many deficiencies in Barcelona’s play, none more so than the disappearance of their famed pressing game under Pep Guardiola.
Tata Martino has had to deal with a fair amount of criticism — a lot of if it unjustified in my opinion — for trying to vary Barca’s famed tiki-taka style of play. However, the one area where even Martino’s biggest detractors have to give him credit is the improved pressing of the team. There may be some credence to the argument that Barcelona aren’t necessarily as fluent in attack this season, but the forwards have been clearly instructed to press further up the pitch. Whether it be the star duo of Messi and Neymar, or Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and Fabregas, the Blaugrana have been winning more balls in the opposing half than they were last season. This has resulted in a more direct route to goal in addition to a greater amount of goalscoring opportunities being presented when opponents make mistakes due to the lack of decision-making time while defending against Barcelona.
The match against Atletico was an excellent demonstration of Barca’s renewed vigour when it comes to pressing. They ostensibly out-pressed the pressing masters of Li Liga. Barcelona’s variant of pressing is distinguished compared to Atletico because it isn’t overtly based on consistent high octane running. In the second half, Barcelona started to claim superiority, and even created some great chances mainly due to the fact that unlike the hosts, they chose the right zones and the perfect opportunities to press rather than incessantly running for the full duration of the match.
Those Barcelona fans nostalgic for football of the Guardiola era will never be able to make piece with Martino. Nonetheless, what can’t be denied is that the new manager is putting his own stamp on a team that is by most footballing definitions still attractive to watch, and most importantly incredibly difficult to beat due to the renewed emphasis on pressing. Tata can hold his head high as Barcelona maintained their lead at the top of La Liga after an impressive point gained away at the fortress of their rivals, and there is a growing belief that the Blaugrana are only going to get better heading into the home stretch of the campaign.