Yesterday’s Champions League featured a nuevo-classico between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. As expected Barcelona dominated possession with an astonishing 77-23%. In passing terms, Barcelona completed 594-122 passes. But we should ask what Barcelona created with all that possession? 13 shots, while Atleti created 9. And if we look at shot quality Atleti got 6 on target, to Barcelona’s 4 and Barcelona only got two shots on target inside the 18 yard box compared to Atletico’s 4. It wasn’t just possession and shot quality or finishing and organization but from top to bottom this was two radically different teams pitted against one another for a chance to move on in the Champions League. And on the night, it was the most efficient team, and not the most expensive, nor the most vaunted, team that won.
Atleti scored both goals in a fashion that should be familiar to any Arsenal fan who grew up watching Arsenal in the Cesc era: the opposition capitalized on a mistake for the first, then doggedly defended, and hit them on the counter for the second.
For the first, Barcelona failed to clear properly, Gabi collected, and passed a poor ball to Saúl. Saúl took the pass and on the half-volley, with the outside of his left boot, played an outswinging cross to Griezmann. Griezmann was completely unmarked, the defense had fallen asleep, and headed in an unsaveable goal.
It was a goal that was a long time coming. Atletico’s game plan in that first half was to set to and harass the Barcelona players. B
arcelona, for their part, were flustered and managed just three shots total and one shot on target in the entire first half. Atletico did this by limiting Barcelona’s penetration. And so despite the 72% possession advantage, both teams went in to half time with 60-67 passes in the opposition final third and thus explains the problems Barcelona had creating shots.
The second half started much better for Barcelona as Atletico conceded the midfield and set up the wall for Barcelona to try to pummel. But this was also part of Simeone’s game plan: knowing that he had Griezmann in the team, and the crucial away goal at the Nou Camp from the first leg, the Atletico manager sent his team out with one command “hold what we have”.
It wasn’t easy. At one point Gabi was forced to clear a shot off the line that literally could have gone anywhere and Barcelona were unusually profligate with crosses, seeing the ball dribble harmlessly in front of goal, rather than Messi or Suarez latching on for a tap in.
But the second goal was coming for Atletico and they had struck a few warnings earlier that called on Mascherano to nip in on the lively Griezmann. But eventually, Atleti hit Barcelona on a rapier like counter in which Iniesta was left guarding two Atletico attackers. When the ball was crossed to Griezmann, who would have been through on goal, Iniesta stopped the play with a handball. It was a denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity and by the letter of the law Iniesta should have been sent off. Any foul that would result in a free kick or penalty kick that denies an obvious goal scoring opportunity is a red card. But the referee showed just yellow as he pointed to the spot.
Griezmann stepped up and by my account looked nervous. He seemed to mis-hit the penalty and it took an age to dribble past Ter Stegen who had guessed the correct way but still couldn’t get to the shot. Two-nil and there was no way back for Barcelona.
Well, there would have been a way back. One minute after Griezmann’s penalty, Gabi handled the ball inside the Atletico box and the referee instead awarded the spot kick outside the box. Barcelona players swarmed the referee and in their yellow strips looked like a flight of angry bees but the referee wouldn’t be swayed. Barcelona will no doubt point to that decision as the one which cost them the match but Atletico could point to the Iniesta handball and to the red card shown to Torres in the first leg as evidence that they too suffered from poor referee decisions.
As the match wore down, Diego Simeone cut a fiery figure on the sideline as he visibly encouraged the home fans to support their team. While Simeone was whipping the crowd and his players into a hot lather, Luis Enrique’s quiescent Sad Keanu on the other bench was a stark contrast. Two vastly different managers, two vastly different teams, two vastly different playing styles.
This is where I would normally end this article but I was curious how Arsenal and Atletico stacked up against Barcelona in this season’s Champions League. The contrast is interesting and we can see what Arsenal did well and what Atletico did well against the reigning Champions League champions.
First, Atletico’s numbers are going to be skewed because they played most of the first leg down a player owing to Torres’ red card. Second, Atletico’s numbers are going to be skewed because they played defensively for roughly 135 minutes over the two legs. So, I expect to see more shots against Atletico, more passes for Barcelona, and more tackles and fouls by Atletico. All of those are true.
What’s interesting, though, is that while Arsenal were clearly the better attacking team between Atletico and Arsenal, it was Simeone’s side who were better at controlling the Big Chances. As we all remember from watching Arsenal v. Barcelona and the reverse fixture, Arsenal made some huge errors on both legs leading to a lot of great shots for the Catalan team. This is how Barcelona created 12 big chances against Arsenal over the series but only three against Atletico. Many pundits will say that Arsenal’s attacking philosophy is exactly what gets them into this situation with teams like Barcelona and it’s hard to disagree.
Meanwhile, it’s also a problem that Arsenal created almost as many chances as Barcelona but did not have nearly enough quality to score more than the one goal. It’s encouraging that Arsenal have spent the entire season creating great chances but also frustrating that Arsenal don’t have the quality to finish them. Perhaps if they did, the season would have turned out different.