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Saúl’s Head: How FCB lost the round against ATM

por el 16 abril, 2016 • 12:43

FC Barcelona lost because they didn’t adjust quickly enough to Atlético de Madrid’s main attacking tactical move.

How it happened?

What follows is my interpretation of the sequence of events which lead to Atlético de Madrid win over FC Barcelona. I focus on the single detail, which made the difference in the game.

The strategy (from the point of view of ATM): On the field is 11 v 11. Which personnel match-up can we exploit? What’s the match-up from where to create an advantage that will eventually lead to the one goal I need to qualify?

Answer: Saúl v Alba, in aerial battles. * Precedents: ATM utilized this tactical move in the past with Raúl García v Alba and Marcelo (FCB, RMD) Thus; theoretically one would think that FCB would be ready for this move. Instead…


11 seconds: First long ball by Oblak towards the area defended by Alba. The pass is a little short and the ball is won by Mascherano. We can see how not only Saúl but also Carrasco is already in the area, looking for the second ball. Carrasco is the one waiting to run onto Saúl’s header when there are open spaces. For tight spaces, it is Koke. Right from the start you can clearly see ATM’s intentions to exploit the matchup between Saul and Alba. ATM is going to send long balls to Saul over and over again.


6’40: Long ball by Godín to the same area. We can see again how Carrasco is in the vicinity of Saúl. Mascherano is asking for an off side call but the play was correct. It is a 3 v 3 in an area with lots of open space, which favors the attacking team.


7’25”: Saúl delivering the ball for Carrasco.


19’02: Long ball by Godín to the same area. Now, Koke has gravitated from the other side of the pitch to that area. Around the minute 20 ATM is starting to accumulate players on this area.


20’: ATM building from back, passes the ball from Godín to Lucas to Filipe. It seems as it’s trying to mess around with FCB formation. But ultimately decides to go to the planned move, that is, a long ball by Godín to Saúl who wins the header over Alba. The recipient is Koke who is (probably as planned) now staying in this area of the pitch.


35’05”: Origin of the goal: A throw-in in ATM half. FCB has numerical superiority. However, it’s not a qualitative one because of what follows: the ball goes to Saúl –as it has been the pattern until now– who is only marked by Alba. In aerial battles, Saúl has 100 % advantage. Because of that, FCB 2 CD’s have gravitated all the way to the left with Mascherano ready to go for the ball, in case Saúl wins it. At this point, since Saúl had won all the 1 v 1 aerial duels, FCB should have come up with a solution to solve this reoccurring problem. For example, shifting to Busquets battling with Saúl. Instead, in this crucial play, their defensive line was way out of the box allowing too much space for the ATM attacking players. We can see also how Carrasco is wide on the other side keeping Alves occupied.


35’21: Saúl won the duel, Koke got the ball but Alba ultimately recovered and cleared the ball. However, Gabi won it again for ATM. Easy, because all FCB defenders and midfielders were seated very deep in or near the box. But the MSN did not accompany the rest of the team. Therefore it created a huge space, which was dominated by Gabi to win the ball and create a cross and a header without any opposition (goal).


39’44”: A few minutes after the goal, there is a situation that resembles the one originating the goal.  Now, finally FCB has implemented the right change to solve the issue: putting Busquets to fight Saúl in aerial battles. Alba is the one free to go for lose balls. Mascherano is attentive behind Busquets as well.


During the second half, in every similar situation (Juanfran’s throw-in and Oblak’s or Godin’s long balls looking for Saúl’s head), FCB will defend with Busquets and a man behind him. Often Busquets will win the battle. FCB lost the game because it took too long to react accordingly to a simple but effective ATM tactical move and it paid a high price for it.

To sum up: ATM planned, and was able to execute to perfection, a qualitative superiority in FCB final third; that is, using aerial balls for Saúl v Alba and utilize them with Carrasco –in open spaces– and with Koke –who gravitated a lot to this area, in tight spaces.

There was another instance in which FCB reacted late to ATM strategy: during first half, FCB had trouble to overcome ATM medium press. FCB tried to create numerical advantage through Ter Stegen but it rarely made it. Also it did not circulate the ball enough from one side to another and their passing wasn’t quick enough. However, in the second half, FCB made an adjustment that worked: it implemented the so called Salida Lavolpiana generating numerical advantage with Busquets and it was consistently able to pass the ATM press line.

Therefore, it can be argued, that FCB lost the game and the round because of its inattentiveness to details, its lack of decision to adjust on the fly and its style too casual, at times. On the contrary, ATM won because it imposed its game plan and capitalized on its main attacking tactical move until the opposite team reacted. By then, ATM had already scored and then it was a matter of closing down the game… and no other team does that better than Simeone’s ATM.

 * Iñaki Gonzalo.

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