How Atletico Madrid Can Conquer Barcelona Tactically

Paul WilkesFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2014

VALENCIA, SPAIN - JANUARY 07:  Head coach of Atletico de Madrid Diego Pablo Simeone looks on prior to the start the Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg match between Valencia CF and Atletico de Madrid at Estadio Mestalla on January 07, 2014 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

It wasn't long ago that Atletico Madrid were a club to be ridiculed. There was an inevitability that any brief success would quickly falter.

That's changed in recent times.

They may still be treading water off the pitch financially, but the arrival of manager Diego Simeone has the team fighting for every ball, for every minute of the match.

He has literally constructed his side in the image of himself as a player and person, both physically and mentally. They are tenacious, hard-working and competitive, with a winning attitude that refuses to accept they are beaten. Being level on points with Barcelona after 18 matches is a fantastic achievement, though no one is willing to rest on their laurels.


How to use Diego Costa?

When the two sides met in the Supercopa earlier in the season, Simeone placed star striker Diego Costa on the right wing in order to stop Jordi Alba getting forward and joining the attack.

At the Vicente Calderon it was in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but at the Camp Nou it was a 4-1-4-1. This certainly had a positive impact, but this was back in August, before the Brazilian-born forward had been able to score an amazing 23 goals in 20 starts leading the line.

The Argentine manager now has a big decision to make, though it's quite possible he could do a combination of the two.


Which formation to select?

In the league, Atleti has set-up as a 4-4-2 in every match, except against Getafe, which incidentally was their highest scoring game of the season. However, it's not your normal English interpretation of the system, as both wide midfielders tend to move inside to deny teams space in the middle and allow them room out on the flanks.

Atletico are comfortable that they are much better than the rest of the teams in La Liga, other than Real Madrid and Barcelona, whilst few are particularly dangerous at whipping in balls from wide areas.

Simeone could use his 4-4-2 here with Costa and David Villa chasing down both the centre-backs and their individual full-back when without the ball. With Lionel Messi dropping into the centre from his "false nine" role, Atletico's narrow midfield would be able to match Barca man-for-man in terms of numbers.

In Champions League games, they are yet to play this way, so it seems Simeone prefers to be more reactive against better opposition.

Playing in a 4-4-2 at the Bernabeu earlier in the campaign was the one anomaly, though that could be attributed to Madrid's use of inverted wingers and the two teams' form at that moment in time.

So the likelihood is that they will start 4-2-3-1 with Costa on the right, moving to a 4-4-2 depending on the how the game progresses.


How to maximise their potential?

Luckily for Atletico, the strategy they need to apply is in their make-up and fits perfectly for a team with their characteristics. The home side naturally press the opposing side when they first lose the ball, before dropping back into their defensive shape if this is unsuccessful.

Barcelona's ability to control possession means that it's crucial to stop them building from the back, whilst denying them space between the lines further up the pitch simultaneously.

Gerardo Martino's more direct style will assist Barcelona's ability to beat the first press. An open game would suit Atletico, now that they are one of the best counter-attacking teams in world football.


Getting the win

It was Valentine's Day 2010 when Atletico last beat Barcelona, after the Catalans had been on an unbeaten run of 22 league games. Sitting deep and stopping Barcelona play is the primary concern, then hitting them quickly on the break.

As a more physical and imposing team, free-kicks and corners will be crucial. Using their speed and directness in the attack, though, will be their best chance of recording another victory.