After a tense opening few minutes, Pedri broke through the midfield, fed the ball to Gavi and then onto Ousmane Dembélé, who converted with a pinpoint finish into the bottom corner beyond Jan Oblak.
Atlético fought back, but could not find an equaliser. Despite dominating for almost all of the remaining 70 minutes of action, there was no breakthrough, and Atleti were forced to settle for yet another home defeat in LaLiga.
The result leaves the Rojiblancos out of the top four after 16 games, while Barcelona expanded their lead over Real Madrid at the top to three points.
Here, we take a look as three things learned from the frustrating game as Atleti were beaten to make it only one win from their last six league games.
A broken defensive unit
Atlético Madrid is like a house. The problem is that while they’ve taken care to decorate the living room, tool up the kitchen and even put in a nice guest room, the foundations are built on ice cream. When the heat turns up, those foundations melt and the rest of it comes crumbling down.
That’s exactly what the Atleti defence did on this occasion, as it has so many times already this season and last.
Diego Simeone opted for the back three, and the system seemed to be the right match for Barcelona. The Catalans’ left side was completely nullified, and they were forced to go through the middle and occasionally reach out to Dembélé on the right, but in the end the goal relied upon Pedri creating a moment of individual magic through the middle.
The issue was that while the system worked, individual errors repeatedly nearly cost the team. Ansu Fati could have had two goals himself before the opener after possession was woefully lost. Nobody could save themselves.
José María Giménez was arguably the pick of the bunch, but was all over the place early on and, unsurprisingly, lost his cool as refereeing decisions started to go against Atlético. Rather than tying together and organising the back three, he was the first to lose his position and allow spaces to open up.
Even Reinildo, who has been defended in this column as if our lives depended on it, had probably his worst match in an Atleti shirt. Having been dropped in recent weeks, the Mozambican looked rusty, and Dembélé tore him apart with his pace.
In particular, Reinildo was caught out and claimed a foul as Gavi turned him inside out to assist Dembélé, who scored from the yards of space he found at the far post. The figures from Atlético Stats prove the defender’s ineffectiveness, with possession lost in one of every four touches he had.
♂️— Atlético Stats (@atletico_stats_) January 8, 2023
El regreso de Reinildo al once inicial deja más dudas que certezas sobre su continuidad.
⏺ Superado por Ousmane Dembélé
⏺ Una pérdida tras cada 4 acciones de balón
⏺ 0/1 en entradas pic.twitter.com/E332oXlp03
Stefan Savić then did what Stefan Savić does and got himself needlessly sent off in injury time. The official refereeing report said that he was sent off for “holding an opponent by the neck with his arm with excessive force in a continuous manner, while the ball is in play but not within playing distance of each other.”
Yes, a 32-year-old leader was sent off for that in the 92nd minute. Just imagine Gabi Fernández or Diego Godín doing that.
The World Cup has boosted Nahuel Molina
If there was someone to be salvaged from the back line, it was Nahuel Molina. Looking for positives from this display is not the easiest of tasks, but the Argentine right-back was one of them.
One of the biggest issues within the Atlético defence was that there was little to no salida — no one to bring the ball out. The distribution of Savić, Giménez and Reinildo is average at best, and that was the reason Mario Hermoso has recently returned to the team.
But as Hermoso was suspended on Sunday, much of the distribution had to go through Koke in the middle. In the opening stages, that invited more Barcelona pressure. Koke did not progress the play enough, and Atlético could not break out of their own half. There was no way out. Atleti were trapped, with Barcelona capitalising.
That was until the Colchoneros started to shift more of the play into wide areas, relying more heavily upon Nahuel Molina and Yannick Carrasco, with Marcos Llorente supporting the right-back. This was far more effective at getting Barcelona onto the back foot.
Molina looked a more confident player than the one who left Spain to go to Qatar. He was more willing to take players on and bomb forward. With Llorente’s protection in behind, the Argentine had more freedom to roam forward and become involved in the attacking phase.
Molina’s final ball does continue to disappoint, with only two crosses finding their target from eight attempts, but this was an improvement. He found himself in the right positions, looking to do the right thing.
Defensively, Molina was strong too. Llorente did provide him with a lot of protection and cover, but he was effective. Llorente tracked Alejandro Baldé’s runs from deep, so Molina was responsible for drifting over to cover, such as when he cut off Ansu Fati to deny an almost certain goal in the first half. It was one of two shots blocked, in addition to two successful tackles.
It still feels as though there is a diamond in the rough with Molina. Reportedly a request from Simeone himself, the 24-year-old has all the characteristics to be what Atleti need. He lacks the world-class delivery of Kieran Trippier, and patience is still required with him, but this performance was one of Molina’s best yet.
Griezmann in attack
We could go on about João Félix’s (lack of) contribution, but it would be to play a broken record. Instead, we’ll look at where else Atlético went wrong in this meeting, where Simeone reverted to the same system that he used against Real Madrid for the derby at the Metropolitano in September.
This time though, we’ll focus on where Antoine Griezmann went wrong. The Frenchman was one of Atleti’s most involved players in the final third, but perhaps not as Atleti would have liked for him to be.
Having played in a midfield role for some time, here Griezmann was back in a more offensive role in the front line. However, he found himself drifting deep into his usual midfield role, while Félix also drifted from the central position.
This left Atleti without a focal point as they looked to break out from Barcelona’s intense pressure in the early stages. While Griezmann dropped to recover the ball and the press intensified, Atlético had no direct route out.
But this also impacted the chances Griezmann had. His seven shots were a season-high in any game for an Atlético player, yet only two were on target and they were almost all low-quality chances.
If we exclude the injury-time flick that Ronald Araújo cleared off the line, Griezmann’s shots came in at 0.076 xG per shot, though that was slightly higher than the average of 0.071 for the team across the whole game. For comparison, Atleti’s average this season is 0.111, while Barcelona’s is the highest in LaLiga at 0.155.
Griezmann almost seemed to have “forgotten” what it was like to play as a number nine. His decisions were rash, as he took attempts at goal when the angles and distances were not idea, meaning his efforts were less likely to go in than his average for the season — coincidentally, exactly the same as Atleti’s, at 0.111 xG per shot.
Álvaro Morata’s introduction changed Griezmann’s game for the better, as the Spaniard was called upon to do much of the hard work and hold-up play. It was such a move, with Griezmann dropping off the shoulder, that led to that last-minute chance that was so close to going in.
If Simeone is to persist with this system, it may be that to continue to get the best out of Griezmann, he needs a traditional number nine alongside him.