Atlético Madrid (4-5-1): Courtois – Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Insúa – Adrián, Gabi, Thiago, Koke, Arda – Falcao
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto – Alves, Piqué, Adriano, Alba – Fàbregas, Song, Iniesta – Sánchez, Messi, Tello

Diego Simeone set up to defend deep, with a flat-midfield-five strung across the pitch. As Barcelona approached, the midfielder with responsibility for the zone was to challenge the player in possession, forcing the ball to be played horizontally. The midfield line itself didn’t budge, but Atlético’s men within it checked the threat sequentially, harassing the ball-carrier from flank to flank – once the ball was played the man returned to the midfield-five as a colleague would burst forward from the line to challenge Barcelona in another zone. Falcao’s role was to look for space and to be an outlet when Atlético regained possession, rarely taking part in any defensive work besides positioning himself between Barcelona’s centre-backs.

The images below are of a 15-second spell early in the first half:

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Barcelona tried some chipped balls over the midfield wall for the forward players (and runners from deep), but it was all rather pedestrian, more joy was had down by switching the play from flank to flank, dragging the midfield-five across the pitch and slowly pushing them back to almost the penalty area. Barca were occasionally able to set-up camp 35-yards from goal, but created very little, with the game at times being played at a walking pace.

Atlético are a very direct side, Simeone doesn’t place a great value on possession for possession’s sake, instead preferring to get the ball into the final third with quick passing and excellent movement on the flanks. The full-backs, Insúa and Juanfran, were pushing up and combining with Adrián and Arda, taking advantage of Barcelona’s weakness of being susceptible to quick play in wide areas when Alves and Alba have gone forward.

To prevent Falcao from being isolated, when possession was regained three or four short passes were made in midfield to hold onto the ball, escaping the Barcelona press, and give the wide players time to move forward to support the Atlético number nine.

Second half

Atlético’s goal came early in the second half from a lazy cross-field ball, intercepted, giving the home side a three-v-three with Falcao finishing the move with his usual unfussy brilliance.

Dani Alves had picked up a slight injury towards the end of the first half, meaning Marc Bartra entered the fray at centre-back with Adriano going to the right of defence. Chasing the game in the 60th minute, Barcelona made their remaining two substitutions, switching from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 in the process: the rested Sergio Busquets and David Villa on for Alex Song and Adriano.

Barcelona’s second-half 3-4-3:
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diagram via footballtactics.net

Busquets/Song is an obvious one, admittedly the ex-Arsenal man hasn’t enjoyed the best of form since joining Barcelona, but when Busquets is missing from the midfield it’s easy to see what’s lacking (and what Song can’t provide): Busquets gives Barcelona a tempo, his metronomic passing dictating the rhythm of Barcelona’s play, in addition to his phenomenal positioning and tactical intelligence. A few years past Sid Lowe claimed Dani Alves as the second-best player in the world (a polemic I still find highly amusing), but a similar claim made about Busquets wouldn’t be so far off the mark.

Barca’s diamond outnumbered the central midfield trio of Gabi-Thiago-Koke, and with four highly technical players (Messi, Iniesta, Fàbregas and Busquets) in such close proximity (plus three forwards Sanchez-Villa-Tello just ahead) Barcelona started to play their way through the Atlético midfield wall. In possession, Barcelona often left Piqué with a one-v-one at the back, Busquets using judgement as to when to join the midfield or drop back slightly and support the central defender.

The diamond midfield (yellow) and fullbacks (red) gives Barca six players versus Atlético's five-man midfield wall (pink)

The diamond midfield (yellow) and fullbacks (red) gives Barca six players versus Atlético’s five-man midfield wall (pink)

Then, in the 68th minute as Barcelona were starting to get a real grip on the game, very quietly (the TV cameras almost missed it) Messi left the pitch with a re-occurrence of his hamstring trouble.

1-0, and with one eye on the Copa del Rey the following weekend, Simeone took off Falcao. It looked all the world a foregone conclusion: a goal up, Messi injured, Barcelona out of substitutions and down to ten men.

Instead, Barca organised themselves into a loose 4-4-1*, and went and scored almost immediately. From a throw-in, a one-two between Fàbregas and Sánchez in the Atlético penalty box, and it was 1-1.

Although down to ten Barcelona continued to aim at retaining possession, whilst Atlético still strung five across midfield (however it was now a definite 4-3-3 in attack). Able to keep the ball better, and with the game much more stretched, Simeone’s men went in search of a winner and in the final 15 minutes it felt more like an even contest (i.e. Barca 10 v Atlético 11), but then the second goal came; a quick break with the unfortunate Gabi diverting Villa’s scuffed shot beyond Courtois.

* Pinto – Bartra, Busquets, Piqué, Alba – Sánchez, Fàbregas, Iniesta, Tello – Villa

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