The last three matches against Atlético Madrid have brought almost no fruit. A 2-1 win in the first leg of the UEFA Champions Quarter Final in Camp Nou (against a 10 man Atlético), a 0-2 loss at the Vicente Calderón in the second leg, and now a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou. There are few sides, if any, that are capable of nullifying our team the way Atlético are. Then again, there are few sides, if any, that are capable of the defensive discipline Diego Simeone’s men are. When these two sides clash, it is a battle of Attack vs Defense. A true battle of opposites. So then, does this mean that Atlético indeed has figured us out, and if so, should we be concerned?
Although we are all culés, we have to admit that there is something to be admired by this Atlético side. Any La Liga side (that isn’t Real Madrid) that can come to Camp Nou and play without a hint of fear deserves the utmost respect. We are all custodians of the Spanish game, and this means we should view competition as something healthy. It keeps us on out toes, and at least gives us a point to make when the “which is the best league in the world” debate comes up with friends. The truth is we need any side that isn’t Real Madrid to motivate us. Your enemies make you stronger, and in Atlético Madrid, we are finding quite the enemy. Which leads to my overall disappointment in the latest Barça vs Atlético instalment.
In our last encounter against Atlético, the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final away, many made the point of fatigue being the sole reason we lost. And while it is true that fatigue did play a role, not enough credit by blaugrana fans was paid to Atlético Madrid’s performance in completely nullifying everything we threw at them.
Let’s put this into perspective. Barça boasts arguably the best attack in all of Europe, and possibly, all time, and they were only capable of scoring only one goal in two games against this side (If we take last season’s UCL Quarter Final second leg into consideration). And this, from a set-piece. I know, Messi came off in the second half of Wednesday’s game. But that still leaves two monsters up front, surely capable of finding their way through against any side. But why did this happen?
From this summer’s past transfer window, it’s quite clear that Lucho identified squad depth as a key area to be fixed. Lucho’s only blemish last season was being eliminated from the UEFA Champions League. The fallout from this loss was that there had been too many players who had clocked up too many minutes by the time we had to face Atlético. Whilst this was true, could it be possible that Lucho ignored that tactics could have had something to do with the elimination?
This season has seen Lucho experiment with many a formation, leaning towards different variations of the 3-4-3. This gave early signs that Lucho, to some extent, felt our religious use of the 4-3-3 could prove less effective in certain games. These were encouraging signs that Lucho had deeply considered that he needed a plan B. That there were situations in which great defensive sides could nullify the MSN trio. But what use is a plan B if it is not used when it is needed. Once again, like at the Calderón, Diego SImeone’s men had found a way of doing the unthinkable in stopping the MSN trio- only this time, at home. At no point did Lucho try any of these new experiments against Atlético. There were situation’s in which one of our two fullbacks would rush forward, but this was more in waves of attack, rather than consistent pressure further up the field. Lucho stuck with the tried and tested.
On a deeper level, what is concerning has been the general arrogance by cules in truly believing that the three men we have up front really are unstoppable, at all times. Are they great players? The best. In fact, one could argue that the top three in the Ballon d’Or award could be the three of them. But these men are fallible. It is foolish, as blaugrana‘s, to expect scoring sprees every week, and not that one day we will arrive at a point where teams “figure us out”. It is only natural. Eventually, every side is “figured out”. That is why it is important to have variations in how to approach games- to keep our opponents guessing. Every opponent deserves adequate respect, especially an opponent coached by Diego Simeone, who has proved himself to be a true defensive mastermind. For Luis Enrique not to introduce anything different in Wednesday’s clash shows that up until this point, he was convinced that he tactically still held the upper hand over Simeone. That last season’s second leg loss really was down to fatigue, and thus, he ignored the need for a different tactical approach.
Does this call for concern? In the immediate future, no. It is too early in the season to be concerned with anything. For all we know, Lucho could have used Wednesday’s clash as a way to feel Simeone out. He could be plotting something for later during the season when we face the possible prospect of playing Atlético in more serious games. But what this does reinforce is that Atlético Madrid should be the last side we want to face in knock-out competition. Simeone’s side is built for two-legged ties, and had this been a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou, with a second leg to follow at the boisterous and intimidating Vicente Calderón, this result would have sent alarm bells ringing. Of all sides in Europe, Atlético should be the one we truly are worried about. There is no side in football that is truly capable completely nullifying Messi, Neymar and Suárez, almost to no effect, the way Atlético are. To give even more evidence to this, it’s important to state that MSN had been on a scoring spree of late against sides such as Celtic and Deportivo Alavés. Neither of these sides should ever be mentioned in the same sentence as Atlético, but for our front three to go from scoring at will to barely registering shots on target, at home, is worrying. This is why it is important for Lucho to find a plan B. To simply stick with one plan and assume it will always work, regardless of the opponent, really is not paying enough respect to the strengths of our opponents.
Based on recent results, it would not be accurate to say that Atlético Madrid has figured us out. It was not so long ago that Lucho boasted a six-match winning streak over Simeone- no other manager had even boasted three consecutive matches over him. It would, however, be fair to say that Cholo is getting closer. At the moment, Simeone holds the upper hand over Luis Enrique. This emphasises the importance of Lucho bringing something different to the table the next time these two sides clash.