The hosts kept a sturdy backline without leaving any loop holes for the league leaders to exploit.
The top two sides in La Liga squared off at the incredible Wanda Metropolitano, late on Saturday. FC Barcelona missed key figures in Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic who were replaced by Arturo Vidal and Sergi Roberto instead.
Atleti started with the same lineup with a struggling Costa upfront who ended his goal drought when he headed from a corner routine to give his side the lead, after 75 minutes of cautious play from both sides.
Watch: Atletico Madrid 1-1 Barcelona
The match became topsy-turvy after this as Valverde subbed on both Malcom and Ousmane Dembele in search of an equaliser. The French youngster responded to his recent criticisms with a sublime goal that brought Barcelona level in the very last minute.
Lineups and formation
Atlético de Madrid started with their usual lineup that emphasises on Cholo Simeone’s defence-first footballing philosophy. Griezmann and Diego Costa were tasked with carrying out the brunt of attacking duties. Lemar, Saúl Ñíguez, Rodri and Koke maintained the shape in midfield with Lucas Hernandez and Stefan Savić leading the backline. Atletico played in their usual 4-4-2 which sometimes transitioned to a 4-3-1-2 with Thomas Lemar progressing to the wings during a buildup.
Ernesto Valverde reverted back to the 4-4-2 system that he used for the majority of last season with Arturo Vidal in the hole behind Messi and Suarez, a role that Paulinho played that season. Arturo Vidal was very impressive in the game often transitioning from the hole player, to a wide midfielder and even to a pivot as and when the situation required. The Chilean is much more adept technically than Paulinho ever was and his aggression and tenacity are equally matched by his passing and possession retention abilities. Roberto and Jordi Alba were tasked with stretching the pitch and Samuel Umtiti returned from injury to replace Lenglet which brought defensive stability to the side.
The midfield battle
The midfield battle at the Wanda Metropolitano shaped up to be a battle of chess between Ernesto Valverde and Diego Simeone. Barcelona deployed a 4-3-1-2 when they were without possession. Luis Suárez and Messi were charged with pressing the Atleti centre-halves and blocking passing lanes and Arturo Vidal was responsible for nullifying Rodri from the game. Their press wasn’t exactly incessant and triggered by single man approach but more as a collective unit. Therefore, everytime Atleti broke the first line of pressure, Arthur and Busquets would swoop in and retrieve possession close to the midfield line. Atleti’s buildup from midfield was hindered and therefore, they had to resort to wing-play which further took out the sting from their offense.
When in possession, Barcelona looked like a 4-2-2-2 with Sergi Roberto drifting wide to provide width on the right flank and Vidal shifting to the left, despite having the freedom to roam in the attacking third as and when he saw fit. Atleti were conservative in their pressing of Barcelona and did not take risks to attack the backline and this allowed Barca to take control of the game and dictate possession.
Lack of penetration from Barcelona when in possession
Valverde started with Sergi Roberto in wide midfield instead of either of Malcom or Dembele which reflected his decision of not allowing Atletico the chance to break on the counter. But it also cost them the ability to stretch the pitch and pull the Atleti defence out of its rigid shape. Buildups often found an end on the wide right at the feet of Roberto and Nelson Semedo .
The situation on the left flank wasn’t any better. Jordi Alba who is primarily responsible for making the runs on the left wing was taken care of by Diego Simeone. Cholo deployed Saul to track back everytime Jordi Alba surged forward and helped Arias at the back. This constant pitting of 1v2 situations nullified Alba’s threat and Barcelona had to look for options centrally instead, which goes without saying was pretty crowded. Sergio Busquets, who started for in his 500th appearance for the club dropped a masterclass in midfield and was too hot for Koke and Saul to handle. Messi often dropped deep to take out Lemar and Rodri from the equation with his magnificent dribbling abilities. Arthur, while being extremely composed on the ball was conservative in possession and neither side could carve out meaningful chances. In fact, the first half ended with zero shots at goal from both sides, the first time in La Liga this season.
Second half tweaks
Sergi Roberto sustained a hamstring injury in the closing minutes of the first half. Valverde brought on Rafinha to replace him and support Alba on the wide left and Arturo Vidal moved to the spot that Roberto had previously occupied. However, it did not change much with respect to the match and it continued to remain a cagey affair with Atleti sitting deep.
A case can be made here that since Barcelona were in control of the game and were winning the midfield battles while keeping Costa and Griezmann in check, Ousmane Dembele could have been brought on instead to attack the Atleti defence and pile pressure on goal.
A completely different game after Diego Costa scored
Diego Costa rose high in the 77th minute to head home a corner. This was his first goal since February and the Brazilian born Spanish forward had a very typical Costa performance. Barcelona’s defence fell asleep during the corner with Gerard Pique stuck in the middle of nowehere and Diego Costa free at the far post with the only player close to him being Rafinha.
However, as soon as Costa scored, Valverde took off Vidal and Arthur and brought on wingers in Malcom and Dembele effectively changing to a 4-2-4 upfront. The game opened up soon and became a completely different affair than what it was preceded by. Barcelona kept mounting attacks at the Atleti defence and were rewarded in the 90th minute when Jordi Alba found the supernatural left foot of Lionel Messi at the edge of the box who teed up a cushioned pass to an unmarked Dembele on the right flank. The youngster displayed nerves of steel to dummy the ball and take out Filipe Luís with his first touch and then finish sublimely past a diving Jan Oblak.
Takeaways from the game
Fingers can be pointed at Diego Simeone who has the best Atletico squad in history and is still obsessed with nullifying opponents instead of proactively harassing them. Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann were effectively isolated upfront. Atletico would feel hard done by to concede the goal in the very last minute when they could have caught a desperate Barcelona on the counter instead. Atleti’s poor record of never winning against Barcelona in the league under Simeone continues. However, Cholo Simeone can take comfort in the fact that Diego Costa ended his weird scoring drought tonight.
Barcelona will also feel disillusioned by Valverde’s decision of being too cautious and respectful of Atletico and had he brought on Dembele earlier in the game, it could have swung their way instead. The biggest takeaway that Barca can take away from this game apart from Dembele’s fantastic cameo is that the return of Umtiti has brought defensive stability to the side that has conceded a lot of goals recently. However, with that being said Barcelona still look groggy and slow in transition despite being dominant in possession. They can expect that to change when Coutinho returns to the side who is ideal to unlock such deadlock situations from the midfield and is underutilised on the wings.