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article imageSimeone's Atletico stun Barcelona with varied defensive pressing

By Tyrrell Meertins     Apr 13, 2016 in Sports
Barcelona’s first leg victory over Atletico Madrid may have been scrappy and controversial, but stylistically, it presented issues for managers, Luis Enrique, and Diego Simeone ahead of kickoff.
The initial 45 minutes highlighted the aforementioned belief vividly — Barcelona were reluctant to press higher up the pitch and appeared unfazed with passing the ball in their half, while Atletico varied their pressing throughout. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann negated passing lanes into Sergio Busquets when Atletico retreated into their half, but when the away side attempted to play out the back, the hosts aggressively squeezed Barca within close proximity of their goal.
Essentially, Enrique’s men encountered difficulties playing forward, but with a scoreless draw securing progression, the away side weren’t particularly eager to push forward. Atletico’s pressing forced Barca to play long, thus leaving Enrique’s attack disjointed with the midfield and defence.
Luis Suarez was forced to drift into the right channel in search of possession, Neymar was tightly marked out of the match by Juanfran, whereas on the rare occasion when Barca bypassed Atletico’s press, Lionel Messi didn’t break quickly towards goal. Barca solely looked threatening when Andres Iniesta quickly slalomed forward, creating a Neymar curling effort, and earning a free-kick in a dangerous position.
Atletico Madrid's supporters attend the UEFA Champions League quarter final football match Club...
Atletico Madrid's supporters attend the UEFA Champions League quarter final football match Club Atletico de Madrid vs Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid on April 9, 2014
Pierre-Philippe Marcou, AFP
With that being said, while Atletico’s varied pressing and organized defending shunted the away side’s attack, Enrique’s decision to sit deeper in a 4-5-1 limited counter-attacking space.
“We never stopped believing; we worked knowing the situation, knowing what we can do,” said Simeone. “In the first half the game was more like what we wanted; in the second it was closer to what they wanted. They had individuals who could break the game open, but we stayed together and stayed strong.”
Atletico’s main source off attack involved simple lofted balls behind the advanced Jordi Alba. Carrasco and Juanfran successfully stormed beyond the Barcelona left-back to deliver quality crosses into the box, while Griezmann’s winner was also created from the right, thus illustrating Barca’s issue defending this side of the field. Both centre-backs provided Alba aid to defend a hopeful lofted ball, but the left-back’s clearance was intercepted by Gabi, and subsequently led to an unmarked Griezmann nodding Atletico ahead.
Ultimately, the goal shifted Atletico’s defensive approach, as Simeone’s men maintained a lower defensive block and welcomed Barcelona pressure into their half. Now Atletico received chances on the break with Carrasco firing a low shot at ter Stegen in the final minutes of the first half following a 2v2 break. Then, Juanfran dispossessed Neymar and located Koke behind Alba in half-space, but his pull-back pass was crucially cleared.
Barca applied substantial pressure in the final half hour, but apart from a few moments of determined, yet clever movement from Suarez, and a brief spell where Messi dropped deeper to dictate play, Atletico’s midfield trio of Koke, Augusto, and Koke admirably negated space between the lines. Messi’s role, however, has been intriguing during his five-game goal and assists drought — the Barcelona superstar’s worst run of form during his Barcelona career.
Atletico’s success during the 2013/2014 campaign was partially down to Messi’s central role, and Simeone’s decision to compress space in that area. Meanwhile, the Argentine’s resurgence over the past 12 months followed Enrique’s decision to keep the 28-year-old away from congested areas.
But since Barca’s Clasico loss to Real Madrid, Messi has been wandering within those central areas, leaving the now limited Dani Alves responsible for providing width on the right. Not only has this limited Messi’s impact, but it eased Atletico’s workload, as their midfield trio constantly swarmed the Argentine.
The hosts were resilient in the final stages of the match, and despite a few scares via Barca’s counter-pressing, an impressive Filipe Luis run from his own box — the exceptional left-back dispossessed substitute Sergi Roberto to ignite the break — forced Iniesta to concede a penalty that Griezmann coolly converted.
"At the start I expected an Atletico Madrid who attacked more," Luis Enrique said.
"We did not suffer, had the ball, controlled the game. But they took advantage of our mistake and got ahead on the scoreboard. Then they did what they did best -- defend in their own half -- and we did not create enough dangerous situations. I congratulate Atletico Madrid, they were better than us."
This offered shades of Atletico’s last triumph over Barcelona two seasons ago at the same stage, as the best defence in the world kept arguably the best attack of all-time at bay.
Over the two legs, Atletico were the superior side with 11-men by varying between aggressive pressing and deep cohesive defending to overwhelm the reigning champions. Very few teams can sustain the concentration, discipline, commitment, and energy levels to carry out an industrious team display at this level, which is one of the few reasons why Atletico will fancy their chances of claiming this year’s Champions League.
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