Barcelona controls La Liga, but still has issues

Barcelona gained a much needed three points through their 2-1 win on Saturday against the previous Liga leaders Atletico Madrid. Barca now have a game in hand against Atleti, and are 7 points ahead of Real Madrid before they play Espanyol on Sunday. Although the season is far from over, Barcelona now have a solid lead at the head of the table resulting from what could be a crucial game of the season.

The game was defined by the two red cards that Atletico received in the 44th and 65th minute. Barcelona’s 79% possession doesn’t tell the true story of the match – Atletico did extremely well and put heavy pressure on Barca for long portions of the game, even when they were limited to 10 and 9 men.

Early on, Atletico controlled the game in Barcelona’s third of the pitch. Their strategy seemed to be to outrun and outlast Barcelona with relentless pressure offensively on the break and closing down quickly on defense. After the cards, Atletico turned to a more possession based offensive strategy because of their clearly depleting energy levels.

Bad marking by Barcelona left Koke open in the center of the box on an Atletico counterattack in the 10th minute to make it 1-0. Atletico continued to create chances for the first 20 minutes of the game, but failed to put in another goal.

Some astounding, albeit typical, passing play by Barcelona gave Messi a clear shot on goal into the bottom left corner off of a great Jordi Alba ball into the center of the box in the 30th minute.

Barcelona once again felt the pressure of Atletico’s fast paced offense, but an amazing ball by Dani Alves over the Atletico defense onto the foot of Suarez, followed by a phenomenal Suarez shot through Oblak’s legs, put Barcelona up 2-1 in the 38th minute.

Interestingly, Alves’s assist and Suarez’s goal was similar to their combination against Real Madrid last season. To see a video comparison, click here.

Atletico’s left back Felipe Luis was then sent off in the 44th minute for a shocking challenge on Lionel Messi, which could have resulted in a broken leg and a very serious injury. Many are saying that Luis could be punished further for the challenge and be banned from future Liga games.

Messi down after Felipe Luis's challenge

Messi down after Felipe Luis’s challenge

Diego Godin’s second yellow card against his Uruguayan international teammate Luis Suarez just outside of Atletico’s box put Atletico down to 9 men in the 65th minute. Both red cards were clearly deserved, but it was and unfortunate series of events for an Atletico team that posed a real threat to Barcelona’s title chances.

Griezmann should have equalized on what appeared to be an open-goal header, but Bravo’s outstretched foot saved the three points for Barcelona.

Atletico was able to control the tempo of the game in Barcelona’s third of the pitch even with 10 men, and even with 9 men they had some chances on the counter attack that forced Barcelona to sit back in defense for long periods and make Barca’s their centerbacks Mascherano and Pique wary of a fast-paced Atletico counter. They exploited many errors by Barcelona in their own half that led to quick chances.

Although Barcelona had 79% possession, they only had 3 more shots than Atletico and had the same number of shots on goal (4). The attacking prowess that Barcelona is known for was severely restricted by Atletico’s defensive capability and the strategy of Atletico’s manager Diego Simeone.

Part of that strategy consisted of fouling the opposition – since Barcelona only barely beat Espanyol in La Liga after an outrageous number of fouls by Espanyol, many of them clearly dangerous to Barcelona players, teams have been fouling Barcelona to slow down their attacks. However, it seemed to hurt Atletico rather than help them in this instance; Atletico’s 18 fouls compared to Barcelona’s 7 might not have been such an issue if it were not for the three yellow cards and two red cards that critically limited their attack and made them take off their attacking players.

Barcelona didn’t seem worried when they went 1-0 down. They kept essentially the same play style, passing at the back and slowly working the ball forward, looking to exploit Atletico’s defense which was forced to grow more and more careful after numerous yellow cards.

Messi frequently tracked back in defense on the right wing to take away the ball and start a quick counter or slow down Atletico’s attack long enough for Barcelona’s defense to set up, which the fans loved. It was good to see Messi motivated by the importance of the game, having an uncharacteristically high defensive work rate and filling in for the defensive gaps of Barcelona.

Nine-man Atletico Madrid was able to create chances down the left flank after Ivan Rakitic, known for his defensive tendency and his hustle from box-to-box, was replaced by Arda Turan, a former Atletico Madrid player. Turan created some chances going forward but didn’t come back as much on defense (perhaps because he was recovering from illness), allowing Atletico to counterattack down the left and center of the pitch.

Atletico Madrid has been a strong team all season, and will surely be the team to challenge Barcelona for the title. Many underestimate Atletico and their squad depth and defensive rigidness, bolstered by the tactical genius of Diego Simeone.

Simeone has been linked with a number of Premier League clubs including Chelsea and Manchester United, but is currently leading his team to a strong finish in La Liga and the Copa del Rey through his renowned defensive, counterattacking, adaptable approach.

Barcelona looked somewhat tired throughout the game, which is surprising considering their significant two man advantage. They have recently struggled against what are more defensive teams such as Malaga and Atletico, although Barcelona ultimately prevailed against both sides 2-1 despite going a goal down. This was, perhaps, because of the lack of squad rotation this season compared to Luis Enrique’s heavy rotation early last season, as well as a tiring finish to last season in their pursuits to win the treble. We are now seeing the effects of a tired squad, with wins by lower margins than usual and less prolific and errorless play that they were known for last season.

If Barcelona can’t put up a definitive, solid performance against 9 men, they clearly have some issues to sort out.

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