When the La Liga 2013-14 season calendar was released, there was no doubt that the Week 19 game between Atlético Madrid and FC Barcelona to be played at the Vicente Calderon was going to be the game of the week in not only Spain, but all of Europe given that we were sure both teams were going to be very good to great. Little did anyone know or expect — with the possible exception of Atlético coach Diego Simeone — this will be a game between the co-league leaders at the moment.
Both Barcelona and Atlético head into their showdown on Saturday night tied on 49 points through 18 league games with Barca ahead on goal difference. With such a big game to be played there are many different points of interest and analysis which can be made about how one expects the game to unfold. Luckily for us, we already have two games which we can look at that give us an idea of what we can expect from this game in terms of tactics.
When these two faced off in the Spanish Super Cup at the beginning of the season on a 1-1 aggregate scoreline, Barca won the trophy thanks to its lone goal being scored as the away team in the first leg. In these two early season games, we saw a Barca team that was still adjusting to the ways of new coach Gerardo Martino while also working its way into match sharpness as a team. On Atlético’s side, we saw a team who continued to play without fear against Spain’s two giants while having a clear tactical idea of how it was going to play against Barca and Real Madrid later on in the season.
Looking at the game then from a tactical standpoint, we can expect to see Barca lined up in its usual 4-3-3 formation with a healthy Lionel Messi back from his long-term injury absence playing upfront flanked by Neymar to his left and very likely Alexis Sanchez to his right. While Barca’s formation and starting eleven is one which we know by memory, what will be interesting to see is how they attack Atlético. Specifically, it will be interesting to see if Barca tries to play through its midfield or if they are willing to try and jump lines given the tactical setup Atlético will implement on Saturday night.
How will Atlético come out and play for this big game? Expect to see a team that comes out either in a 4-5-1 formation or a 4-4-2 formation depending on how many individuals ‘Cholo’ Simeone wants to deploy in the midfield in order to clog and muck it up for Barca. Independent of the formation, expect Atlético to do what it did in its two earlier games against Barca and the win against Real Madrid which is to squeeze Barca and force them to be narrow when attacking while at the same time pressing them defensively on a constant basis.
Going back to the Super Cup games, Barca had trouble being able to unlock and break through regularly against Atlético’s defensive pressure. If it were not for Neymar doing well to get on the other end of a Dani Alves crossing pass, Barca would have found itself not scoring a goal over the course of those two games. As far as Atlético is concerned, being able to convert scoring chances while not going overboard with their defensive aggressiveness will be key for them to be able to pull off a desired home win and continue to prove it can break the duopoly atop the La Liga standings this season.