Barcelona came from behind on two separate occasions in the first half to defeat Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon.
Diego Simeone was without Koke and the suspended Diego Godin, forcing the Atletico manager to make a few alterations as Raul Garcia and Jose Gimenez slotted into the starting XI.
Luis Enrique made no changes to the side that defeated Atletico in the first leg encounter at the Camp Nou.
In search of a result, Atletico strayed away from the approach that was successful in the past against Barcelona – pressing higher up the pitch, and pushing their fullbacks forward, which proved successful, but equally costly.
From the opening minute it was evident that Atletico were adopting a more proactive approach at the Vicente Calderon. Simeone’s side required two goals to secure progression in normal time, and it was unsurprising to see Atletico press higher up the pitch for large portions of the first half.
The two strikers pressed the centre-backs, while the wide players quickly closed down the attack-minded Barcelona fullbacks. But where Fernando Torres’ goal may have encouraged Simeone’s men to revert back to a low block, the home side continued to push forward in search of more goals.
While we’re accustomed to Atletico maintaining a low block in their half while Barcelona monopolizes possession, here, the hosts pushed forward at every opportunity, thus leading to an open first half.
The main theme of the match, however, was the activity in wide areas. Atletico’s improved first leg performance – in comparison to the league encounter at the Camp Nou – witnessed a winger and either Koke or Mario Suarez drifting wide in aid of the fullback to create 1v3 situations against Messi and Neymar. The attempt to replicate this successful approach without the ball proved futile, as Messi constantly evaded Mario Suarez’s attempt to provide additional cover.
However, Atletico’s proactivity was key factors in both goals. Guilherme Siqueira moved ahead of Messi to intercept Javier Mascherano’s cross-field pass, which led to Torres’ opener. Then, Juanfran powered past Neymar and Jordi Alba before colliding with Javier Mascherano to earn a fortuitous penalty.
Ultimately, Atleti’s best chances were also created in wide areas, with Siqueira and Turan combining on two separate occasions, with the former finding Griezmann unmarked in the box – the Frenchman’s tame effort was saved, and he theatrically appealed for a suspected Jordi Alba hand ball.
The downfall to Atletico’s proactivity, though, was the lack of protection in transition. While the full backs surged into space behind Neymar and Messi, they equally left ample space vacant to arguably the best attacking trio in world football.
With Messi and Suarez upfront out of possession, and Neymar occasionally tracking back – Barcelona often dropped into two banks of four with Rakitic, and Iniesta at times moving into wide areas – Enrique’s approach to bypass Atletico’s pressing by quickly facilitating the ball to the attacking trio was effective.
Barca simply exposed the space behind Atletico’s fullbacks on several occasions through methodical direct moves. Neymar’s equalizer stemmed from a Gerard Pique headed clearance, and the Brazilian sprinting past Juanfran into vacant space. Subsequently, a simple punt from Marc-Andre ter Stegen nearly led to another Neymar goal, but the Brazilian was rightly ruled offside. The issue in that move was that Atletico’s Siqueira and Gabi were left in a 2v2 situation against Messi and Neymar.
It was evident that Atletico’s intent to go toe-to-toe was a gamble, and it was odd seeing the reigning La Liga champions continuously picked off by simple, direct attacks. Neymar’s winner also highlighted Atletico’s defensive naivety, with Messi storming into acres of space down the right, and Jordi Alba – who was accused of handling the ball – quickly sprinting to the home side’s box to direct the Argentine’s cross into Neymar’s path.
Enrique’s decision to encourage his men to quickly play passes to the attackers has tormented Simeone’s side this month, but here, Barca’s talented trio benefitted from the space Juanfran and Siqueira left available.
One key aspect throughout the first half was Rakitic’s movement in midfield. Not only does the Croatian offer Barcelona’s side a different element in central areas, but his verticality epitomizes the Catalan club’s philosophy under Enrique.
While Barcelona is likely to dominate possession in most matches, the emphasis on long spells of ball retention has been replaced with quick, vertical passes to the forwards, which could explain the attacking trios increased dribbling and fouls suffered. With Busquets at the base, and the combination of Iniesta and Rakitic shuttling, the midfield equally suits the system. Iniesta is a dribbler that isn’t renowned for dictating the tempo of matches, while Rakitic was free to make intelligent, powerful runs into space.
Likewise, Barcelona did enjoy a 3v2 overload in midfield, so with Gabi and Mario Suarez pressing Busquets and Iniesta, Rakitic often operated as the spare man in central areas. In the 18th minute, Rakitic’s forward run into the right channel nearly set the Croatian free, but Messi’s pass was over hit. Although the away side was likely to encounter difficulties maintaining control of the match, Rakitic’s forward runs posed issues. The Croatian earned a corner when he latched onto Neymar’s lay off, and a Dani Alves pass that found Rakitic unmarked at the edge of the box led to the corner that resulted in Miranda’s own goal.
Under Enrique, Barcelona have identified a rejuvenated sense of direct play: from Rakitic’s untracked vertical runs into space, to the initial ball that ignited the break to Neymar’s winner, there’s no surprise that a stable XI and shift in play has increased the Croatian’s significance in the squad.
Sadly, the match reached its peak in the first half. Gabi’s dismissal at half time forced Simeone to replace Griezmann with Saul. Atletico dropped into a 4-4-1 without the ball, and retreated deeper into their half, offering minimal threats on the break.
The home side’s best chance came with 20 minutes remaining, when Torres flew past Busquets thus leading to Cani firing a devastating shot on goal, but ter Stegen punched the substitute’s effort over the net. Messi dropped deeper into midfield to ensure Barca retained possession to kill the game, and despite Atletico ending the match with nine men, the away side was unable to build on their lead.
Barca effectively got the job done in the first half.
In the span of 17 days, Enrique has rectified his disappointing results against tougher opposition by defeating Simeone’s Atletico on three separate occasions.
Despite two early scares, Enrique’s reluctance to alter his approach proved decisive: Barcelona’s front three were devastating in transition when they broke into space behind the fullbacks, quickly placing their attacking trident in positions to isolate defenders with their dribbling.
Nonetheless, while Simeone’s reactive low block has tormented Real and Barca in recent years, it appears the latter has found an ideal solution to their shortcomings, while the reigning champions were exposed in their attempt to outplay Enrique’s side.
Perhaps Enrique’s Barcelona possess a few flaws throughout the squad, but the focus on quick vertical passes to the strikers is a shift from the days of patient, meticulous ball retention – more importantly, it’s working.