Saturday sees La Liga’s top two go head-to-head, as Barcelona travel to Atletico Madrid. Barcelona currently sit top of the pack on goal difference alone, but they will have to become the first side to emerge from Estadio Vicente Calderon without a defeat this season if they are to maintain their lead.
The game sees a clash of two contrasting styles of play. Whilst the Barcelona passing machine may not be the juggernaut that it once was under Pep Guardiola, they sit top of the La Liga pass chart with 10,156 successful passes this season—almost 2,000 more passes than their nearest contenders Real Madrid.
The Catalan side have managed a pass accuracy of 88 percent this season and have averaged a 57 percent share of possession in each La Liga game that they have played.
This comes in stark contrast to Atletico, which favour a higher tempo, pressing game compared to their visitor’s possession-based style. Atletico have managed to complete just 55 percent of the number of passes that Barcelona have this season, a surprising figure given that the pair remain level on points at the top of the table.
Whilst some fixtures have seen them dominate the ball, Atletico have won numerous fixtures this season with less of the ball than their opponents. Twelve of their 16 victories this season have come with 50 percent or less of the ball, and the matchup between Atletico’s resilient play off of the ball and Barca’s ability on it is sure to prove an intriguing element of where the game is won and lost.
As well as the league’s top two, the game also sees two of Europe’s meanest defences go head-to-head. Atletico have recorded the joint most clean sheets in La Liga this season, alongside Barcelona, and boast the league’s tightest defence with just 11 goals conceded. Their visitors are only a goal behind them, with their 12 goals conceded giving them Spain’s second stingiest defence.
Atletico’s enviable defensive record has come as a result of the pressing game installed upon them by manager Diego Simeone. Atletico have attempted more tackles than any other side in Europe’s top five leagues, with 371 of their 541 attempts proving successful.
This amounts to an average of 21 successful challenges per game, four more than Barca’s average. They also occur across the pitch, with Atletico pressing their opponents high up the pitch. Evidence of this comes in this season’s Champions League, where Atletico have made more tackles in their opponents' half than any other side in the competition (27).
Even when playing weaker opponents, Atletico rely upon their relentless pursuit of the ball rather than upon outright domination. On the opening day of the season, the capital club registered just 46 percent possession and made 26 tackles, despite easing to a 5-0 win over Vallecano.
Such closing down saw both Barca and Real Madrid comfortably snuffed out by German opposition in last season’s Champions League semi-finals, and if Barca are to breach Spain’s best defence and go clear at the top, then they will have to find a way to play against such dogged defending.
Costa v Messi
Another subplot of the game is likely to be the matchup between two of La Liga’s most feared attackers. Lionel Messi returned from injury during the week to notch two from the bench as Barcelona defeated Getafe 4-0 in the Copa del Ray, and they will go head-to-head with Atletico’s 19-goal Diego Costa.
Such is the strength in depth at Barcelona that they have shown little sign of missing their talismanic Argentine. Cesc Fabregas filled in admirably as the team averaged three goals a game over their last five La Liga games.
However, Messi remains the man to watch in the Barcelona team, having contributed eight goals and four assists during the La Liga campaign so far. A constant goal threat, the diminutive forward has either created a chance or taken a shot once every 13 minutes. Of his shots, 70 percent have been on target, whilst he has also successfully taken on his marker 46 times over the course of the season so far.
In spite of this, the division’s current deadliest marksman lines up in red and white on Saturday.
Costa has scored 19 goals this season, amounting to one every 79 minutes, and he has been responsible for a staggering 40 percent of his side’s tallies.
Whilst Cristiano Ronaldo leads the division’s goal standings by one goal, Costa has a remarkable conversion rate that outstrips his rival. Of his shots on goal, 39 percent have found the back of the net, compared to 20 percent from both Ronaldo and Messi.
In a matchup between the division’s tightest defences, chances may be few and far between, meaning that such a deadly strike rate could be the game’s deciding factor.
Costa’s importance to Atletico may be magnified by the fact that he could be leading the line alone. Atletico have favoured a 4-4-2 formation in the league this season, but they have switched to a five-man midfield behind Costa for Champions League clashes.
It is likely that they may employ their European formation domestically Saturday in order to shore up their midfield. When playing a four-man midfield, both wide players tuck in to form a very narrow midfield setup, as shown by the heat map of right midfielder Arda Turan from their last league fixture.
Simeone may be tempted to ditch this formation Saturday, in order to counter the rampaging runs of Barca left back Jordi Alba. In his last game, the Spaniard’s most populated single area on the pitch was the area by their opponent’s byline, and should he come up against Atletico’s narrow four-man midfield, then the home side run the risk of letting him run riot.
Should they revert to a five-man midfield, then it would likely see a return to the starting line-up for Raul Garcia. Largely a substitute, he has flourished as an advanced midfielder in Europe, creating a chance every 54 minutes in the Champions League but just once per 143 domestically.