Too many times we have seen false dawn encompass the Vicente Calderón, but for once, a dawn arrives bringing with it a truth.
Sunday evening saw Atlético Madrid present their strongest evidence since Diego Simeone’s arrival, that they have finally gathered themselves an identity. Few times in their recent history, Atleti have grasped such a thing. The players regularly speak of aggression, intensity and desire at the club. These, three things that Simeone has instilled making up that identity, motivating his players to come into training on a morning desperate to prove their worth. Compared to under Gregorio Manzano, where an inferiority complex had taken hold of even the most headstrong of players. Tiago is a prime example, he now looks bullish in his midfield role, with a renewed sense of purpose, after losing his way under the ex-Sevilla man.
The opponents’ stance when at home with Barça visiting is one that usually determines the forthcoming pattern of the game. It’s then up to Guardiola and his team to react. At the Camp Nou, this rule is different; Barça remain alligned to their methods, only breaking style to suit the conditions of the game at the time – they later did so here upon responding to Simeone’s second half switch. El Cholo sat his team deep, and contained Barça, who managed just the four shots on goal. One of which was a goal, and when Atleti switched off for that one moment, they were duly punished by a side that prey on those who skew their focus.
Atleti did remain disciplined for the most part however, and often, their two lines of midfield and defence were incredibly straight. Each time a Barça pass was made, a red and white shirt pushed and then retreated, always forcing the issue. Of course, Barça returned the favour, and on numerous occasions Koke particularly, was guilty of dwelling on the ball. For this strategy to be executed perfectly, Atleti’s direct breaks will need to be more decisive, and of a higher quality. Diego’s involvement could’ve been significant here, in terms of moving the ball from midfield into wide areas, or even to Falcao, who dropped off at times but was smothered. Alexis’ role was significant in both the first and second half, and further proved his worth to Barça – he continued to show the movement and intelligence application that are required in Guardiola’s system.
A key feature in the first half, though, was that often teams look to block Xavi, in terms of releasing the ball. The interesting thing Atleti did, was to actually block his outlets. Xavi was allowed time on the ball, and he was given a reasonable amount of space, but his angles and spaces were cut off. Gabi, particularly, shut off several avenues. Levante operated in a similar manner against Málaga earlier in the season, with Juan Ignacio Martínez shutting down Santi Cazorla through similar means. The holes were plugged, despite someone still throwing balls. Atleti possibly conceded too many fouls, whether or not Simeone regards that as a serious concern, is another issue. It is more admirable however, when the aggression from a team is positional, and not necessarily physical. Still, you can be certain the Argentinean is aware of Atleti’s personnel issues.
The second half saw Atleti push up their line considerably, and instead of sitting deep they would look dictate. Notably, Espanyol approached their game at Cornellà against Barça in a similar manner, and Guardiola’s side were made to feel uncomfortable. A mixture of pressing high, plus remaining compact saw the game become fraught. This doesn’t suit Barça, who like to control games at all costs. Atleti proceeded to rattle them, and forced several clear opportunities through Simeone’s decision to take the aggression and intensity, some 20 yards higher. Adrián, was feverish as ever. A figure of fun in Galicia, he is now a benchmark figure in this team mixing grit, and guile. His running takes away attention from Falcao, but also serves himself in that he lins off the midfield with the Colombian, and the full-backs. On that subject, Filipe Luis deserves a mention too, as he made several crucial tackles to halt Barça’s stride, thus not allowing them to get comfortable once again. I felt if he could find someone to work in tandem with, he would prosper at the club, and that could now be the case.
Simeone can be pleased with the level of performance from his players once again, and their continuing understanding of his methods. For one, they reduced Barça to their fewest amount of shots in the league this season so far. Of course, that’s only a fraction of the battle. In games like this previously, Atleti have been reliant upon their advanced players to produce, lacking a clear plan defensively, and being overawed in midfield. Even the attack, often praised over time, suffered from being out of sync with the rest of the system. This has all changed, and now they can function as a complete unit – something that can’t be overstated at a club whom for years have relied upon individuals.