Atlético Madrid’s first half display against FC Barcelona on Saturday was among the team’s finest periods of play this season. Much has been said about Barcelona’s defensive deficiencies — which are glaring, certainly — but comparatively less credit has been given to Diego Simeone’s attacking trident.
João Félix, Thomas Lemar, and Luis Suárez combined to produce both Atlético goals in the eventual 2-0 win. The counterattacking performance was so comprehensive that Atleti sat back and breezed through the second half, ringing up only 30 percent possession at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Lemar scored Atlético’s first goal in the 23rd minute. The goal’s significance as the eventual match-winner is only one angle — from a wider lens, it also symbolizes Lemar’s astonishing Neo-like resurrection, Félix’s post-surgery emergence, and the champions trying to introduce more variety into the Suárez-heavy approach we saw in the second half of last season.
Let’s dive a little deeper into Lemar’s strike, and how (among other things) it encapsulates the present separation in class between Atlético and Barcelona.
In the first GIF, pay attention not only to Mario Hermoso’s vision and laser pass, but how Yannick Carrasco hugs the touchline in front of Simeone. Carrasco’s extreme width draws in Barcelona right-back Óscar Mingueza, leaving João Félix space to get Ronald Araújo in a one-on-one matchup.
Araújo is Barcelona’s best center-back, but Félix puts him in a blender with a sharp turn that immediately starts a break toward the visitors’ final third. The Portuguese’s agility almost-singlehandedly destabilizes Barça’s already-fragile defensive structure.
In addition to Araújo furiously trying to re-enter the play, Gerard Piqué is scrambling, leaving Suárez on his own. And Suárez, who has lost athleticism but not his intelligence, recognizes he is now in a better position to contribute to Atlético’s buildup.
Young midfielder Nico González is tracking Lemar, but he begins backpedaling once Félix takes off. The 19-year-old’s lapse in concentration eventually draws Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman’s ire in his postgame media availability (like most things these days). Lemar duly accelerates, Suárez spots the run, and the Uruguayan hits a one-touch pass directly into his path.
Araújo nearly catches up to Lemar, but the damage to Barça’s defense is done. The Frenchman holds off Araújo and pops the ball into the top of the net for his second goal this season, leaving Marc-André Ter Stegen no chance to save it.
In a 10-second span, Hermoso, Félix, Suárez, and Lemar had linked up to fire Atlético into a lead that would not be relinquished.
Lemar finished the match with a goal and a 44th-minute assist for Suárez — the first time he’s scored and set up another in the same game for Atlético. Félix’s two hockey assists only tell a portion of his highly-encouraging night — in 71 minutes, the 21-year-old racked up a team-high 144 yards of progressive distance in addition to seven progressive carries (with four into the final third). His responsibilities in Atlético’s attack continue to grow, corresponding with his return to fitness.
As in many meetings during the Lionel Messi era, Barcelona had 70 percent possession and completed nearly three times as many passes as Atlético. But this time, there was no Messi to answer the questions from Simeone’s well-drilled low block. Philippe Coutinho — the poster child for the Bartomeu board’s excesses — had his side’s best chances, but he drew Jan Oblak into just one save. Frenkie De Jong was isolated, while José Giménez and Stefan Savić dealt comfortably with Dutch international Memphis.
Despite scoring 11 goals across eight weeks, Atleti enter the international break in a three-way tie for first place in LaLiga after Real Sociedad drew with Getafe and Real Madrid were stunned at Espanyol on Sunday. Even in Barça’s weakened state, a victory over the blaugrana still ranks as an important one for the rojiblancos — and more crucially, Saturday’s win showed signs that Cholo Simeone is rounding his men into form as October begins.