Atleti, man. To date this season, only two teams have scored against them — one goal each — Alaves and Barça, who was defeated by that same Alaves.
Atletico de Madrid sit atop the league table with 15 points, 1 point above second, 2 points about places 3-4.
Barça has conceded 11 goals so far this season, and sit fourth place with 13 points, looking up at the stingy Atleti. When Barça shipped four goals against Celta de Vigo on the weekend, culers screamed in the pain, as though each goal was a knife to the heart, but here’s an interesting question:
Would you rather be Barça, or Atleti? Defense wins championships, goeth the adage, right?
Barca has scored 31 goals already this season, Atleti 16. If the adage is that defense wins championships, Atleti is well set for Liga glory, right? Not so fast. Last season, during which Barça retained its Liga championship. Atleti let in only 16 goals for the entire Liga season, scored 63 and finished third.
Barça let in 29 goals but scored 112, and won. Second place was Real Madrid, who scored and conceded more than Atleti, but not as many in both categories than Barça.
In looking at the four goals scored by Celta on the weekend, it’s safe to say how many of them would have been conceded by Atleti: zero. The first goal would have drawn a tactical foul at some point, the second would never have happened because Oblak hoofs it instead of passing to Busquets, the third would never have happened because no way in hell the man gets into the box and even if he does, nobody is stretching for a desperate clearance. Think about how rare own goals for Atleti. Their defenders are never that stretched.
That fourth goal? Oblak would just lay on the ball until the defenders went away, then boot it as far as he could. So that final would have been … well, no idea how many goals Atleti would score, but it’s a safe bet the opponent would be left with zero. An enviable defense, until you look at the price in the Barça context.
Atleti play off the front foot, but with control. It’s effective football that could in no way be considered attractive, even as it is at times, particularly with Griezmann and Gameiro working magic with Carrasco. They don’t mind ceding possession to an opponent (imagine!). But Atleti starts with not conceding, even this season when they are more offensive-minded. The layers of defense are redundant, they rush to get back on the rare opponent break and aren’t shy about taking the tactical foul. Their four men in the box can easily become six or eight as the mids sag back, leaving any attacking side with a tough, tough nut to crack. They never fully commit to the attack, because of that cognizance of the danger of conceding a goal.
That cognizance of danger isn’t only because they’re defensive-minded, but because they just don’t score that much. If Atleti goes down 3-0 to someone in the first half, that match is over. Barça got to 4-3, with equalizers in three excellent chances late in the second half.
Barça is all in. There are 3 or 4 players in the back line unless the FBs are also pressed up into the attack. It’s a dynamic, aggressive, shape-shifting beast that relies upon possession for defensive solidity. It’s why Luis Enrique’s comments after the match were rooted in losing the ball. The way that Barça attacks means that there will always be exploitable space for a counterattacking opponent. This explains more than why the team always seems to see low blocks, of course. Playing for the counter isn’t just the best way to defend against Barça. It’s also the best way to score against Barça. Press, but not so much that you leave yourself vulnerable at the back, and take advantage of the few slivers you will be allowed.
The Celta Vigo match was an anomaly, but an opponent can always count on getting one or two good cracks at the Barça defense. Increasingly, opponents are finding that pressing Busquets is the way to work the ball loose in an advantageous position. Borussia did it, so did Celta, and both got goals from it.
Reality is that Barça is going to leak goals as a consequence of its attacking style. The question will always be whether the team can score enough to win matches. It did last season, and the season before as well. Clean sheets are rarer for Barça than Atleti, of course, but not unheard of. That clean sheet, however, will be very different than Atleti, who shut out Bayern Munich despite the opponent having more than 60 percent possession. For Barça, its clean sheet likelihood is directly related to possession. More than 60 percent and a clean sheet is more likely than not for the team.
Many culers want a vault-like defense like Atleti, somehow thinking that the attack can play like Barça and defend like Atleti. No. Sorry. Breakdowns will always bring the threat of goals. The larger problem for Barça comes via struggling players. A fully firing Luis Suarez will be running at an opponent’s defense, pressing the keeper and that first line trying to play the ball out. The Suarez we have right now is sulking around in the opponent box, attempting dribbles, losing the ball and gesticulating at the nearest official rather than working to close down or help stop an attack. Attacking and defending with eleven is real unlike most teams, which will attack with four or five as mids and forwards press up, numbers that will increase as fullbacks get involved but will always be shuttered at the back, just to be sure.
Barça attacks are all in, its best CB running around in the opponent box, and not just on set pieces. What’s different about the way the current team attacks and the subsequent vulnerability is the spaces. The Barça that so many love and still pine for used compressed spaces, a series of tight rondos that made working possession loose extremely difficult. You could usually throw a net over Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. The way Luis Enrique seems to be striving to play is to continue having the ball do the work, but with wider spaces to facilitate moving around the pitch more quickly. From box to box in two or three passes, rather than 10. Those spaces increase danger because if someone is slack in possession or control, there isn’t anyone close enough by to shut it down with an almost instant press. An opponent gets the ball, and we all know what happens next.
The other problem is the potential for isolation by a pressing opponent if the ball doesn’t move quickly enough, as we saw against Celta. Neymar dribbled into trouble, Suarez dribbled into trouble, time and again. Every lost ball, because of how the team attacks, is danger because those spaces make it more difficult to defend. All or nothing, in many ways.
In this aspect Barça mirrors its current No. 1 keeper, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. Yes, he could play safer, yes he could hoof it at times, yes, he could choose less-risky options. But if he did that, how Barça would it be?