Rarely are 0-0 draws considered intriguing—especially when one side seemingly dominates possession and goal-scoring chances are few and far between.
Yet intriguing is the right word to describe Atletico Madrid versus Barcelona.
Diego Simeone's men were technically sound and tactically aware for their Catalan opponents on Saturday evening as they looked to take top spot on the La Liga table, and they proved their title credentials in full by shutting down Barcelona's attack with relative ease.
La Blaugrana showed that they aren't ready to hand over the title, either.
Goals (and chances, to be honest) might not have been readily forthcoming in this showdown of Spanish heavyweights but there was still much to love about the content and plenty to take away. Let's break down the film and pick out a couple of key facts that will be pertinent for the rest of the year to come.
Atletico Defend Without Parking the Bus
What was most noticeable throughout the entire match was the effective manner in which Diego Simeone's side matched La Blaugrana in attack.
Atletico have been arguably the strongest defensive team in Spain this year and have done so with effective pressing and dominance inside their own half, and they did the same against Barcelona here—shutting down the middle of the field and not allowing them any space to work.
The shot below provides a great snapshot of the way Atletico set up on the night.
Their back four are tight; their centre four too; their forwards defending deep.
However, it's important to note here that Atletico didn't simply drop everyone back and "park the bus" like many teams have done against Barcelona recently.
This was a tactful and masterful approach by Simeone that they have used to much success this season, and while it seems so simple, it's actually very difficult to master. Atletico—thanks to their exceptionally hard-working forwards in Diego Costa and David Villa—have essentially six midfielders back when they defend, and this allows them such pressure throughout the middle of the field.
As we can see in the image above, Barcelona are simply unable to break through the middle like they would most teams, and this forces the likes of Andres Iniesta, Pedro and Xavi to look for the ball in wider areas. It also means that Sergio Busquets drops much deeper than usual, and in this match, featured a lot less on the ball as Barcelona couldn't build their attacks through him like usual.
The effects of this shape can have both positive and negative effects.
Both were shown clearly in a manner of seconds inside the first half.
Due to their very compact shape, Barcelona soon realised that they would be able to forgo a deep-lying Busquets and simply use one of their centre-backs as the main distributor given that both Villa and Costa had dropped so deep. Pique, as he has done before for La Blaugrana, filled this role well, and Barcelona started to take on a shape not dissimilar to that of Bayern Munich at times this year.
What this did was allow Barcelona's wide men to shift on to Atletico's midfielders, and start to move them around a little. Obviously they were never going to find great movement and space, such is the discipline of Simeone's side, but they were able to just drag their wide men in a touch as we can see above.
In this instance, both Iniesta and Jordi Alba were in a great deal of space on the wings, and had Pique not tried to play through the middle, he would have surely found one of their wide men in a great spot.
But Barcelona didn't get the ball out wide enough in advanced areas, and as we see here, the positives of the close formation come to fruition. Pique tries to force a pass through to Pedro that simply isn't there and the plethora of Atletico midfielders in the vicinity spring an interception.
Due to how high Pique and Alba are up the field, Costa is suddenly free to attack.
A similar thing happened earlier on in the match when Arda Turan almost scored in the opening minutes; Barcelona tried to play through the middle, Atletico turned it over and were able to attack quickly. The same happened for Turan when he played through Costa (whose shot ran wide to the right) in the second half, but both instances showed the effectiveness of a compact defense against Barcelona.
Only one man, it seems, would be capable to break it open.
Lionel Messi Almost Breaks Open the Centre Press
As good as Atletico's pressing in the middle of the field was against Barcelona—close to the best it's been all season—one moment almost ruined it for the hosts.
And it was Lionel Messi, of course, who nearly sprung them open.
Perhaps on his reputation alone, Messi was able to force a rare moment of rash judgment from Atletico's defense and spring about a series of events that exposed the home team's tight system that sought to shut down the ball by sending multiple defenders to any given attack.
Xavi receives the pass here between the attack and midfield lines of Atletico, and with Messi sitting off his shoulder, Tiago opts to try and rush the Spaniard—hoping that he can get there in time for the pass and cut out the quick interplay that La Blaugrana are so effective at.
Only problem is that he doesn't get there quick enough.
Diego Costa doesn't track Messi (which isn't really his fault given that his job is to press the DCMs not a forward like Messi) and the space is suddenly available.
Tiago's departure then isolates Atletico in the middle of the field, which allows Messi to play a number of options. It's worth noting that this chance is perhaps the first real time that Barcelona have got through the middle and have a chance to play to their wide men inside the box (which is exactly how they are so dynamic in attack), and it's that threat that forces about another desperate call.
Seeing that the middle of the field is now isolated in a two-against-one for Barcelona, Miranda pushes up from centre-back to try and shut down Messi's pass.
But he too is late getting there.
The pass shifts wide to Alba and Barca are suddenly at their dangerous best.
It's here that Atletico's plan to rush multiple defenders to a wide area looks like the wrong tactic. Simeone's side used it very well 30-40 yards from goal—pressing with the defender and the winger at the same time to force Barcelona into a back-pass, but it's nowhere near as effective inside the box.
Instead, all it does is create space in behind a ring of defenders for both Messi and Xavi (who started the entire move) to run on to and play the ball on goal.
Atletico were fortunate that this time, Messi wasn't at his lethal best.
Conclusion: Did We Actually Learn Anything New?
It might sound a little harsh, but in reality, not much new was learned about either side in this one. We came into it knowing how dominant Atletico's 4-4-2 is in defense (thanks to two of the hardest-working forwards in football) and we also knew how potent Barcelona's attack can be out wide.
Atletico's system has reached close to perfection in defense under Simeone, and it will take a strong performance indeed to break them down this year at all.
They've only conceded 11 goals through 19 La Liga games this season, and one of those was an own goal from Thibaut Courtois against Espanyol in October.
There's a reason why Atletico are being heralded as one of the best teams in football this year, but the same must also be said for Barcelona who, despite not starting both Messi and Neymar, managed to very nearly walk away with all three points from Madrid this week.
And with the return game still to be played at the Nou Camp later on in the season, it's hard to say that the defending champions aren't title favourites once more.
Whatever the case, it promises to be an enthralling few months indeed!
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