Atleti 1, Barça 2, aka “Role reversal and conversion”

One year in Paris my wife and I got lost, hopelessly so, while on the way to somewhere else. It was that kind of pre-GPS lost where you see couples hunched over a map, squabbling like henhouse roosters.

In that process of getting lost, we found the magnificent gustatory paradise of Rue Mouffetard, had a fantastic meal, homemade gelato and a ton of joy. The lesson here is, when you arrive somewhere really good, does the journey matter?

It’s a pertinent question in the wake of Barça’s 1-2 win over Atleti, a boon that includes a pair of precious away goals. If the result is everything, then there is not much more to be said. But as we all know, that isn’t the case, and wasn’t the case for this tale of two halves, of coaches making adjustments and tweaks, of one coach getting it right and one getting it wrong.

Luis Enrique got it right initially, coming at Atleti with a “gird your loins, savages” lineup of Cillessen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Mascherano, Rakitic, Gomes, Suarez, Neymar and Messi.

After Atleti came at Barça with an early burst, it seemed apparent that the Barça tactic was to out-Atleti Atleti, to play tight and wait to kill them on the break. Even the most wildly optimistic culer could not have expected what happened in the seventh minute when Mascherano made like Busquets and hijacked the ball from an Atleti victim. Once the ball fell to Luis Suarez, stuff went off the rails for Atleti.

What was weird about this goal was that Barça became Atleti and Atleti Barça. Suarez took the ball and ran past defenders, bulling his way into open space for a lustrous side-footed finish. It was 0-1 and and everything was crazy.

In the past Atleti would have just put Suarez on his ass first chance they got, then waved and gesticulated as the ref brandished the deserved yellow. For whatever reason they made like Barça, who we watch time and again and scream, “Just foul him!” They never do, letting an attacker dash along as they pursue all manner of fair means to stop him, before said attacker makes something good happen for his team. Maybe Atleti took role reversal too seriously? Either way it was a wonderful goal, but one that wouldn’t have been scored against proper Cholismo.

From that moment on Barça grabbed control of the match through effort, industry and pace. Everything was fast, and Atleti had no real answers. When they had the ball, Mascherano, Rakitic or Umtiti took care of matters. When Barça had the ball, either Neymar was speeding up the wing or Messi was prancing and dancing, thus presenting the first Barça quandary for the Devoted.

Where’s the midfield?

In Barça tradition of perfect football, capering sprites keep the ball as if dancing around the Maypole as hulking, thuggish brutes try to crash the party. This is what is usually meant by “no midfield,” as past standards of play and glory are applied to current times. Against Atleti the midfield was mostly, as Simeone uses it, an extended defense. The creativity was meant to come from Gomes, who mostly made like that inflatable thing at the goal end at Camp Nou. He had some moments, but the invisible industry of Rakitic and yeoman work of Mascherano combined with a busy front line to raise hell.

Atleti had no answer. Messi was moving like he was electrified and when that happens, there is no way for an opponent to cope. Barça, again from midfield effort, created another great chance that was thwarted when Suarez received the ball on the left side of goal with an open lane and decided to pass to a covered teammate. The attack fizzled, and the question of the moment on Barça social media was, “Why in the hell did he pass there?”

His idea was clear, and an example of his brilliance in many ways. As he, Neymar and Messi darted at Atleti, Suarez had the ball, Neymar was central and Messi was, unfathomably, running free on the right. Suarez was almost certainly thinking that Neymar would take the ball, do some Brazilian magic thing and give it to Messi, who would seal the deal. Instead an Atleti defender just got a foot in and the great chance went begging. A striker less capable of seeing the sweep of play probably would have scored there. That’s football.

The second goal was stupefying. It was a simple 1-2 with Rakitic. Even as Messi fed him the ball his head was swiveling. The return ball found him at the top of and just outside the box. Atleti, again wearing their Barça hats, just kinda traipsed over, thinking, as we have seen Barça do time and again, “No way he’s going to … crap … ”

Messi found space and unleashed a rocket of a shot that slashed across goal for the improbable, unfathomable 0-2. It was an absurd goal that was a perfect shot, glancing off the far post just a smidge to land inside the Atleti net. The margins were so fine that if the shot hadn’t been hit so hard, cut with such a fine knife, it’s a spectacular save by Moya (who made one off a Messi free kick that was destined for the roof of the net). That goal in the 33rd minute was the capper to a half of wonderful football.

Look at first half stats. Barça was 7 to 4 advantage in corners, 36 interceptions to Atleti’s 27 with 8 shots, 4 on goal, to Atleti’s 4 shots, none on goal. Barça also enjoyed 61 percent possession. Stats can often lie, but here they were a clear sign of how well Barça played that first half of football.

What happened in the second? Is it as simple as Luis Enrique subbed Denis Suarez on for a tired Rakitic? Should the sub have been made? Yes, given how rapidly Rakitic tails off when he’s tired. Why was Rakitic tired? Just look at one sequence starting from 8:23. Rakitic is tracking Messi while keeping tabs on Sergi Roberto, glancing back to track the Atleti players around him, always alert and tracking play. He forces a ball loose. Mascherano heads out. Atleti play it in. Rakitic wins another header, chases the ball, wins yet another header, chases some more, tracks play, affects an Atleti cross effort on the right side, then heads the ball away on an ensuing Atleti set piece. This is just about 90 seconds of action for the Croatian dynamo.

"Aw, man! I shouldn't have subbed that kid on!"
“Aw, man! I shouldn’t have subbed that kid on!”

In that same period watch Gomes, always trailing play, trotting along like someone waiting for scraps. The one time he gets the ball in any pressure he loses it, and becomes a Maypole for Atleti players. Give Gomes the ball in space and he does the right things, even if a beat off the rhythm. But the difference between when a Barça player takes the ball under pressure and Gomes is night and day. It’s too often the differeence betweeen a dribble and pass to an open man and turned possession.

When Gomes plays with alacrity, he is fully up to his incumbent teammates. It’s just that he so rarely does.

Given how Raktic flags when he’s fatigued, it’s hard to argue against the sub even as you wonder if Denis Suarez was the right player. On paper it made sense to bring on Miniesta for some midfield control, that kind of pass-and-dance that everybody wants to see. Atleti showed why Guardiola and subsequent coaches were trying to adapt that system. Suarez Minor might be man enough for this match next season when his testicles drop, but not now. He doesn’t have a fraction of the industry or spine of Rakitic, and Atleti made hay in that absence.

Rakitic went off at 57:30. Less than a minute later Atleti was back in the match because there were two players lagging behind play, Suarez and Gomes, leaving Mascherano with too much space to cover. The foul that led to the set piece from which Atleti scored? In the first half Rakitic is in position to head that ball away. In the second, it’s already over Gomes’ head and Suarez is standing there watching. No movement or industry. The difference was significant.

Mascherano erred again on the goal by chasing the ball instead of marking a man, so Griezmann was easily able to get to the header to nod home. If you watch the sequence, the entire time Mascherano is fixated on the ball as Griezmann tracks into the space behind him. It isn’t until far too late that Mascherano sees the danger.

There will be squabbling about the Atleti goal and how Suarez was grabbed in the box and went down. Many felt that the goal should have been disallowed for that contact, which struck me as minor. If Suarez has the ball in their box on the attack, he plays through that little grab. Black art? Sure, but no less so than when late into injury time, Mascherano had almost the same contact on an Atleti attacker, who went to ground in the box. No call. So the ref was consistent in that aspect.

Things got even messier after their goal. In just one segment of play Mascherano is chasing the ball while D. Suarez lags behind play. On the amazing Cillessen save that he didn’t know much about, when Sergi Roberto moves, Rakitic darts over to cover his space. But D. Suarez lost his man, Felipe Luis, who ran into the zone vacated to feed the teammate who, thankfully, shot directly at Cillessen. To the credit of Luis Enrique he noted the error and subbed on Rafinha for Gomes, adding some industry to the Barça midfield and stabilizing the rocking ship somewhat.

Rafinha’s movement earned the foul that led to the Messi free kick off the bar. He was also part of a sequence leading to an excellent chance that an exhausted Neymar put over the bar. It was a sub as astute as the D. Suarez was clunky.

Atleti was on the front foot because Simeone realized the same thing that we all did, and his demons attacked the Barça right like an all you can eat buffet as Barça made error after error. Cillessen threw the ball directly to an Atleti attacker. A napping Mascherano got dispossessed at the top of the box. It really is something of a wonder that this match ended 1-2 instead of 4-2. Griezmann missed, twice. Torres missed, twice. Gameiro missed, twice, all excellent chances that on another day Atleti put away — again like Barça in squandering excellent chances.

The Rafinha sub stabilized things and the two teams fought to a hard-won Barça win. There was quite a lot to be learned from that match, including the value of Ivan Rakitic. Slate him all anyone likes for not being Iniesta or Xavi, but what he does for Barça should never be more clear than it is right now.

Umtiti was also exceptional, second place in my MOTM balloting. The only reasonable explanation that can be offered for the way Umtiti wins headers is that his dome is magnitized. He was breaking the Atleti lines more capably than Gomes. During one sequence he plays a perfect pass to Neymar’s head, then during the ensuing turn of possession tracks the ball, then darts forward to intercept and play it right back into the attack. During play, he moves with Pique as if on a tether, so that his back line mate always has a backstop, and notice how quickly he moves to give Cillessen a left-side passing option. It isn’t that difficult to see why Barça has such success with him in the XI.

Messi was astonishing at both ends of the pitch, defending with as much zeal as he attacked, finding teammates, challenging play and creating chances galore. He was clear MOTM in a Barça performance that was weird but easily explained. Players matter, even one player in a position as crucial as midfield.

Who wouldn’t have taken a 2-2 draw with a pair of precious away goals in an elimination tie? 1-2 win? Fantastic, even as it was fraught. The picky could say that had the team brought even a fraction of the energy and drive they did against Atleti against Betis, that would have been a different story. But that’s football. Against Atleti, Barça got there. And even if the road was bumpy, the destination was fantastic.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

28 Comments

  1. Davour
    February 2, 2017

    Nice break-down, thanks! I also noted, in a comment on the previous post, that LE was probably looking for control with Denis – though that still is a weird decision, since Barca’s tactic obviously was not geared toward control (Gomes of today ain’t gonna give you that calm). Also, the industry of Rakitic was obvious, and that was reminiscent of previous seasons. I don’t think many question his defensive contributions, which are precious to that wing-less right side. But this year it feel like he has been giving away more balls than he has recovered; he fits rather well into a Barca with control where he can circulate the ball without too much risk, but this has not been the case this season. Is it because he has been forced to assume more responsibility and has tried to act as more of a playmaker in Iniesta’s absence? Hard to say. But hopefully this was the day he re-discovered his Barca identity. If this game is anything to go by, Rakitic and Rafinha should be the given selection in Andrés’ absence (Masche or SR for Busi, Arda for Neymar).

    Also, Messi obviously can’t keep up this work rate, playing every game. A few lung-bursting runs made it obvious why he walks around so much – his deeper position is adds quite a few steps to him getting into the box. At several occasions you could tell his disappointment in not receiving the ball after an extensive run (e.g. after a Neymar shot, when he should have passed, too eager to score). With more defensive contribution, you won’t get as many arrivals in the box…

  2. Davour
    February 2, 2017

    Sorry for the double – tried stop it to change something… (please remove the first comment!)

  3. georgjorge
    February 2, 2017

    Great article about a great match! Gird your loins? Gomes as a Maypole, and Umtiti’s magnetized dome? Great stuff, not to mention the insightful explanations.

    I think Suarez Minor will be great for Barca in the years to come, and he does many things right on offense, but it’s true he needs to work on his defensive contribution. But besides the great work of Rakitic, the first half also went so well because of something we rarely ever see anymore, all forwards tracking back like devils to keep Atleti at bay. Neymar made a great intervention inside our own box, Suarez – when not harassing defenders – went to the wings, and Messi also shored up defensive weaknesses.

    First half, I can’t really point someone out who didn’t play very well, except maybe for Sergi Roberto who once again didn’t defend well. Gomes, as you said, was bad in tight corners but did very well in space. The Piqué-Umtiti partnership keeps getting better and better, they snuff out attacks from all angles.

    On a replay, I also counted one last-ditch foul from Savic on Gomes, one cycnical foul from Koke on Neymar, and two brutal fouls from Gabi on Messi that together didn’t produce as much as a single yellow card in the first half, which I hope will change in the second match.

    I hope we will win the match against Bilbao on the weekend, but I am sure that the team won’t be capable of another match with the same amount of energy and focus in the space of three days, given how much the forwards tracked back and how much grit the midfield had to show yesterday.

  4. February 2, 2017

    Ah. Looking back over the posts that were moved to moderation, and can offer this useful tip: Any time a post has two links or more, the filter will mark it as spam and move it to moderation.

  5. ciaran
    February 2, 2017

    I strongly disagree with you Kxevin. Gomes was our brightest midfielder in the first half. Yes he lost possession a couple of times but mainly under immense pressure and at one stage he was given the ball surrounded by FOUR Atletico players, not exactly surprising that he lost possession as only Xavi and Iniesta would have had a chance in that situation.
    He pushed us forward and went beyond the front line once or twice.
    Mascherano was good in the first half but yet again was disgraceful in the second. He made a silly foul for the goal, but it was still 40 yards from goal. He then got beaten incredibly easily in the air without even putting Griezmann under pressure. Simply not good enough.

    • February 2, 2017

      Never said Gomes was entirely bad. But for too much of the time he plays a beat behind the action. There were times in the match where he picked up the pace of his play and did quite well. Again, as noted above. But like Turan during his adaptation phase, for too much of the time he isn’t playing fast enough, offensively or defensively.

      We agree on Mascherano. More vexing than his not paying any attention to Griezmann for me was the way he went to sleep and got dispossessed right at the top of the box, and how unnecessary the foul was that led to the Atleti goal. Defend the header, sure. But Umtiti gives a clinic on how to win headers without fouling. A ref is never going to call the foul when you go vertically into space with an attacker. When Mascherano gets tired, he leans in too much.

      Which, as with Gomes, isn’t to say his match was entirely bad. But Rakitic helps him avoid a lot of those “here I come to save the day” situations that seem to get him and the team into trouble.

  6. Hamid
    February 2, 2017

    The journey matters more than the inadvertently happy outcome because we, long-time culers, worry about tomorrow when luck turns its back on us. We like it when barça controls its game and its fate. 1 – 2 is a fantastic result. But we could and should have done better. Athleti is no longer the bully it used to be and they approach every game against us with fear and trembling. This is a team that is closing a very short cycle with little glory. The first half could have easily ended 0 – 4. The contest would have been over and we would have shown more confidence in the second half. Instead we gave them hope and they started to believe. And here lies the problem with today’s Barça. Our opponents now BELIEVE. They believe they can beat us and even outclass us. What we seem to have lost lately is that ability to kill games and to instill fear in the opponent.
    This said, this is a win that we should celebrate because it is the start of our march towards another treble. Because we can!

    • February 2, 2017

      I rarely believe in hypotheticals such as it could have been 0-4 at the end of the first half, because if that kind of form and finishing logic holds, when the team got messy in the second half as noted above, Atleti could have bagged a hatful of goals themselves. I would have happily signed on for a 2-2 before the match. The result is even better than I could have hoped, even if the journey was hair-raising.

  7. Mishti
    February 2, 2017

    One point about our defending on set pieces (Jim and I had been discussing this on the previous thread)- we seem to be following some messy and complicated mixture of zonal and man-to-man marking systems. I don’t know what their instructions are, but players seem to do things that are not easily explained by either. My understanding of zonal marking on aerial balls is that players have to go and proactively attack the ball if it’s headed into their zones, and clear it out of danger, since they are not tracking opposition player’s positions/movements that closely, and they don’t know who might be behind them. On the other hand, on man-to-man marking, you mark your man with your life and obstruct as much as possible. I cannot explain Masche’s actions either way. If he was thinking zonal, then he had to actually ATTACK the ball. He didn’t. He was clearly not marking his man, because he wasn’t even aware that the guy was there. Cannot explain, as I said.

    On Mascherano, who I personally think has been great in so many ways, my observation of his defending traits are the following: he is by instinct a defensive midfielder. Great when the attacker is in front of his line of vision, at tackling, at sweeping after CBs etc. His Achilles’ Heel seems to be his spatial and peripheral awareness of opposition players around/behind him. He is not really a natural CB. Time and again, Masche gets caught out with opposition players running behind him or sneaking up onto him. His focus tends to be much more on the ball and winning it back. I think this is one reason why we see Masche doing great goal saving things and completely stupid goal conceding things in the same game. You probably don’t want him on marking duties zonal or whatever, on aerial balls in particular.

    • georgjorge
      February 3, 2017

      Great stuff. Calm, always in the right position…and he’s not even 25 yet!

    • Messiah10
      February 4, 2017

      Yeah. That video shows why he is the best partner for Pique. Have you ever seen Masch win that many headers? No. It’s not for lack of effort. Love Masch, but his height is huge disadvantage at CB. We all know the issues he’s had with long balls in the air. Umtiti is cool, calm, & collected. I’m really excited about him. He’s soooo good already. Imagine how much better he can get? Unlimited potential.

  8. luisthebeast
    February 2, 2017

    Gomes is a box to box player.Here he must learn to play as a pivot,as a RM,as a LM e.t.c.Who was the last player that came to Barca after 2008 and became a starter in midfield?Rakitic.Is Andre a better player than Ivan?For me yes.Is he better than Rafhinia or Denis?By far.Not even close.I dont know who would be the coach next season but i bet that Andre next season will be a starter.I dont see to Denis or Rafhinia the quality to be starters.Lucho is not an idiot.

  9. realdox
    February 3, 2017

    Hmm what a great game one that made me stand on toes.for me umtiti is real deal have never been happy with any barca defenders since puyol departure while I silently admire bone crush tackle of Ramos ,sharp jefecito tends to does that often which make me overlooked his other weakness as a defender because of what he bring to the defense line I think it instills fear into opponent striker because you can outmuscle him like pique.has anyone wonder why batra never work @barca ? For me it’s down to his partnership with pique whom as a defender are very much alike (too soft) though I doubt if he’s performing well where he is now Cox I haven’t be chanced to watch Dortmund of late,umtiti got all it only took me an Olympic final to see this is kind of defender have been dreaming 4 pique compare to John stone with too much hype…as for Gomez, he look promising but I doubt he will cut it @ barca with his wayward pass which only land at the back of intending player but let’s hope this is training session for him…i really can’t wait to see how we will cope with atleti pressing and manage to be up against atletico on Tuesday .it seems our wish for messi rest won’t come for time been.

  10. luisthebeast
    February 3, 2017

    It s good when i find in twitter the great gestures that Luis Suarez is doing time to time.Offcourse big media dont give a shit because they created the image of a racist guy with psychological problems.And many Barca fans too.A family guy,no parties,no bunch of girls,no tax cases,no blackmails,no drugs e.t.c.But he is the bad guy of world football.It would be great if most players were like Luis in their lifes.

    • Jim
      February 3, 2017

      Yeah, was that his meeting with the young lad, Luis? I loved that. As I’ve said before we need to be grateful for the sort of players who come to our club. Succeed or fail they seem to be decent human beings. And the club needs to take some credit for that, both for the qualities instilled at La Masia and the scouting system which obviously takes this into account – well, after Zlatan anyway 🙂

    • February 3, 2017

      Uh. “Big media” didn’t create that image. Him being found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra created that image. His gesture with the child was lovely, and he has done similar things before. They are utterly charming, and his big heart is clear. But he also wears his heart on his sleeve, and plays close to the edge. The fire inside him is what makes him the player that he is. Sometimes that fire burns brighter than it should.

  11. February 3, 2017

    Iniesta, Busquets and Digne all trained with the group today. Team is waiting for the verdict of the physios.

  12. TITO
    February 4, 2017

    There was a story about Ozil for the summer. Any truth in that?

    • February 4, 2017

      Ha ha, I was going to check about Isco though.
      Its interesting both these players wanted to join us but the club didnt want, and now seeing we dont have the right players, now the club ‘seems’ to show interest in them.
      If I have to pick, I will go for Isco..

      • Messiah10
        February 4, 2017

        Isco all the way. Never been impressed with Ozil. I know his numbers are gaudy, but Isco is complete package for me. I was bummed when he went to EE. We really didn’t need him then and he wouldn’t have played for us either. i can’t see EE selling him to us. Just don’t see it happening. Money talks though

  13. Jim
    February 4, 2017

    Personally, I’d be shocked if it were true, Tito. It’s more likely to be Ozil’s crew trying to put pressure on Arsenal and whip up interest in others as he is due for renewal although his comfort on the ball and creativity would be tailor made for us, if not his physical limitations. For me, we do have some big decisions to make about our midfield this summer and not all our mids will be with us come August I reckon.

    Kxevin is right in that Luis didn’t have a great record behaviour wise before he came to us and that’s not the media’s fault. We do, however, have to separate behaviour on the pitch from the person. I’ve often in my past on the pitch hauled down a speedy forward deliberately, used pretty foul language and wildly argued the toss with refs and that’s not who I am ( well, maybe apart from the last one . . .) At school I used to tell the kids I dealt with their behaviour not them as a person and so it should be with Luis. As time goes on, for me, it becomes less valid to keep bringing that bad behaviour up.

    Since he joined us he has been a role model in so many ways and I appreciate how hard he must have worked on this as well as his game. Last word on that btw:
    “Luis Suárez has had a hand in at least one goal in six of his last seven league games (eight goals, two assists)” #fcblive [opta]

    In other news, this wasn’t widely known, at least by me. Knocks popular narrative on the head a little :
    From Barcastuff : Guardiola (coach City): “When I met Ronaldinho for the 1st time, we discussed possibility of him staying (at Barca) but he wanted to leave.”

    For today, it’s a shame Ini and Busi aren’t ready but I’m not sure I’d have given them more than 20 minutes anyway. We need to watch carefully with both as neither has anything close to a decent replacement. I’m curious to see who will get the nod in midfield. In the last game, for me, we saw the difference between what players can do when allowed to play and how that changes with a press. First half they were a yard slow in closing us down and we looked great. We moved the ball well and the team looked confident.

    Second half they got it together and we looked a different side. I thought Masche had a great first half and showed us his strengths at DM. He was everywhere. Second he was pretty poor. He didn’t change, it just showed once the level went up as did the mids performance. Will he get the nod at DM today or will it be Rakitic ? I’d like Rafinha to get a full game today. I’m not convinced by him but I’d like a better look at a fit Rafinha to see if he can carry the ball and still keep his passing top notch. Still wishing for a temporary switch for Neymar to 10 to give him a blank canvas and a chance to regain some confidence in running things with Messi sitting a first half but that’s not happening for this match. I’m guessing we’ll see both the others looking to set him up today. It’s the way they work.

    Delayed transmission from Sky today so need to stay off the old Interwebbie thing till then.

  14. georgjorge
    February 4, 2017

    Hmm, about that line-up…I’m not sure I fancy a left side of Mathieu – Arda – Neymar, the players on their own are good but I haven’t seen much understanding between them so far. Rafinha and Gomes once again need to show what they can do.

  15. georgjorge
    February 4, 2017

    How are we 2-0 up at halftime with so many terrible blunders when playing out the back? I’ll take it, and hope for better in the second half.

    • Messiah10
      February 4, 2017

      I think we deserved 2 goals. Atleti did too but they didn’t take their chances. Ray & Phil kept saying we could be 0-2 down but it could’ve easily been 2-2. Ney decides to shoot instead of squaring wide open Arda was clearest of our early chances. But yes. Pretty shambolic defending in first half and we rode our luck. Messi’s free kick was brilliant.

  16. Messiah10
    February 4, 2017

    There’s a saying I’m found of repeating when I hear, “but if” or “should’ve”. It goes, if “if’s” and “buts” were candy and nuts, then everyday would be Christmas.

    • Messiah10
      February 4, 2017

      Fond. I hate spellchecker! Lol

  17. TITO
    February 4, 2017

    Our defense was ok-ish, the problem was again our midfield. The defenders had no one to pass the ball in the first half.
    So yes, the result was flattering. But anyway, that’s a team of champions, to win a game even when you are not playing well.

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