By Stevie Grieve
In the recent Champions League Quarter Final clash, Barcelona drew 1-1 at home to Atletico de Madrid, and went into the 2nd game at the Vicente Calderon needing to score to have a chance at qualification for the Semi-Final.
Atletico have caused problems for every team they have faced in the last 18 months, and in particular Barcelona, who have had three 0-0 draws with Atletico previous to this game, and this would be another scoreless game for Barcelona, who lost 1-0. Barcelona have struggled to score for various reasons, so I will look at some key features of Atletico’s defensive play.
Atletico Narrow Low Block
As Barcelona like to attack through the centre, via Iniesta and Messi predominantly on the inside left and right channels and looking for diagonal combination opportunities. Here we see within the central zone, Atletico have all 11 players back in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 block where they drop a central midfielder between the lines if they can’t press to win possession and a forward drops into central midfield to cover the space left.
With 9 outfield players inside the same zone, this compacts the space that Barcelona want to attack so much that Messi is forced to dribble into trouble and shoot form distance which is fired well over the bar from 25m. The only player outside of the zone is Felipe Luis, who drifts wide to close down the space for the wide pass and possible forward run from Messi, discouraging him from the pass.
Atletico press high in the low block and force Barca away from penetrating opportunities
Here we can see that although Iniesta is in his favoured zone of the inside left channel, he has no way through due to the compactness of the midfield shape, and also how close Atletico’s midfield gets to the ball, in numbers.
Interestingly, the midfield shape is not the traditional way of “Press, Cover, Support, Balance”, but is in an arc, a very Spanish way of defending and closing the space of the midfield, with the far side midfielder the deepest of the 5, with the central midfielder (the number 10 of a 4-4-1-1) at the top, in an inverted triangle, allowing for speed of pressure when the ball is switched to the far side.
This shape leaves space behind the midfield, but the defence are prepared for this, while being so close to the ball makes a forward pass difficult as it can be blocked and counter attacked.
Dealing with the switch of play and stopping forward passes from wide-centre
As the ball is switched from the 4-4-1 block, Alves receives and has Xavi in support, but nobody in the ‘half space’ between Atletico’s wide midfielder and central midfielder to penetrate the line quickly from Alves’ position.
Atletico’s shape here is with 3 players pressing, discouraging a pass forward and with a 3-3-2-2 block from wide to inside, It is very difficult to play through as most passing lanes are blocked, most passing options are marked and the only real option here is to cross, which Alves does and Messi misses a good chance to score.
Atletico changing shape as the ball is moved
Atletico don’t always play deep, they move with the ball and try to keep the space s between the lines as small as possible, so here when they have pressed high, they have altered the shape in accordance to the line depth, and Barcelona’s positioning with 2 between the lines.
When the ball was on the left, Atletico pressed as a 4-3-3, then as the ball has been transferred from left to right (Xavi now has possession), Villa tucks in to make a 3 behind the front pressure, as Thiago moves forward to close down the space and reduce the passing angle as Koke is ready to press the next pass.
You can see from the body shape of the Atletico players, that they are trying to contain play on one side of the field (blue line) and make play predictable to allow them a greater chance of success to win back possession.
Atletico press high from the goal kick
As Atletico press with 3 at the edge of the box, and with Busquets marked, the way Barcelona want to play from GK is stopped, and with Pinto’s lack of accuracy in distribution, Atletico leave Alba free so that Garcia can attack the high ball as Pinto plays it to the left side, where Garcia will likely win the high ball against Alba.