Of Hatchet Men and Bad Matches: Atleti-Barça

It strikes me as perfect–absolutely perfect–that Barça will play Atleti on Sunday night. Yes, it’s a top-of-the-table match, with 2 top-4 teams facing off, but it’s something else too: Barça are coming off their most exciting match in a while, having actually found themselves entertaining fans against Dortmund, while Atleti…okay, I haven’t watched Atleti in a while. Simeone teams are effective and tough and a danger to society, at least historically, and given their 9 league goals allowed through 14 matches, I have no reason to think they’re anything else this year even with the addition of attacking lights such as Joao Felix.

But, again, I haven’t watched them because I find their hatchet-man-in-a-boxing-ring approach boring. Simeone is obviously a masterful manager, but also I’d rather do housework or fight a rabid woodchuck than watch his teams play. Increasingly, that’s how I feel about Barça too, but they’re not nearly the same teams and they don’t approach matches remotely the same way. So, why do I feel this? Or perhaps a better question is what am I feeling?

Prior to the Barça-Dortmund match, I watched the frenetic, thrilling Valencia-Chelsea match and it made me realize a couple of things:

  1. Anyone who says that Valencia-Chelsea was a well-played match is wrong. It was terrible. And it was terrible because no one had any control. It was just mistakes, moments of madness, and non-stop transitions.
  2. Anyone who says that Valencia-Chelsea wasn’t absolutely fun has missed the boat on what entertainment is.
  3. If Barça ever play like either Valencia or Chelsea, they’ll lose. And will deserve it.

Valverde clearly understands this and has tried to set his teams up to control matches, but instead of dominating the midfield or the tempo, he has ceded possession and failed to find a consistent connection between his forward line and anything resembling coherence. Against Dortmund, before his injury, Dembele was giving us a look at why Barça struggles sometimes: he was clearly tasked with being a wing threat in a team that wasn’t quite sure how to get him the ball in dangerous positions because they were moving at more of a walking pace.

Still, it looked okay, but the control appeared suddenly in the form of Frenkie de Jong and Ivan Rakitic: they took several steps forward and were far better for it. When Dembele got injured, Valverde put in Griezmann out of necessity, and both FDJ and Rakitic  changed where and how they were playing. They became more aggressive and it paid off immediately in space, possession, and opportunities. Griezmann did some of the dirty work that Dembele wasn’t tasked with (either because of his defensive frailties or otherwise, I’m not sure) and Rakitic was settled into the role he played so well under Luis Enrique.

Of course it’s easier to make these types of changes when Messi is playing out of his mind, but Valverde had started him swimming upstream by both having to manufacture the attack and finish it. After Dembele’s injury, Messi was given the support that put him on the ball closer to goal, with 1 or 2 fewer defenders around him. That led to panic in the yellow and black lines, which makes sense and was the modus operandi of much of the Guardiola and Lucho eras.

What Valverde struggles with, Simeone typically does not: roles and verve. Simeone instills strict structural discipline that allows for precisely no creativity. That has shown signs of changing a little as Atleti have expanded their global footprint, but even so, it’s about aggression more than finesse. Valverde appears to be more about choking the life from games in a different way: dourness. It’s fundamentally different, but the end result is nearly the same. Boring.

I doubt many Atleti fans would agree with me about their team’s entertainment value, but it’s completely true that no Atleti match is going to look like that Valencia-Chelsea match because Simeone would murder literally every player on his roster for the openness on display. And Valverde can’t have too much interesting football happen, simply because that wouldn’t be on-brand enough, so we’ll get the dourest of matches. Probably 1-0, but who knows to whom! That’s the exciting part.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.