There’s few bigger matches in La Liga for Atlético than a trip north to take on Barcelona. A win would see Atleti leapfrog Barca into second place, and ensure they remain as close as possible to leaders Real Madrid. We sat down with Enrique Schoch, the content manager over at totalBarca, to get an idea of what is actually going on at the Camp Nou, and how this might affect tonight’s match.
Q – What do you make of the off-the-pitch headlines that have dominated the headlines this week? How do you move forward from here?
All that is part and parcel of FC Barcelona. It cannot exist without what Johan Cruyff dubbed the entorno, the ceaseless squall of politics and agendas. The last week has felt a long time coming and finally the much-maligned administration did the right thing by calling elections this summer, a year earlier than mandated. Of course it’s impossible to know exactly where the truth ends and conjecture begins, but with the summer vote coupled with the near certainty this board will never win re-election, come August all of this will be like words in the wind.
So Barça will quite literally be moving forward in a very real sense in half a year’s time. If the rumours are true, including most recently a meeting between club president Josep Maria Bartomeu and Lionel Messi, where the president assured the Argentine of his allegiance, then Luis Enrique’s days are numbered. He’s losing a “me or him” situation against Messi every time. Regardless, if Joan Laporta stands for the presidency as it’s suspected and in all likelihood wins, he will expunge everything from the previous administration, Luis Enrique likely included. Laporta is also very close with the Messi family and he will do whatever is required to keep Lionel content.
Q – Barca are still competing seriously in three competitions, but Luis Enrique doesn’t seem to be overly popular amongst the majority of fans. What have you made of him so far?
The last week has been especially impactful for Luis Enrique. Many within the totalBarça team were patient and hopeful but that changed starkly following the loss against Real Sociedad. Personally, I never felt too strongly one way or the other, though I certainly never had high hopes and recently I made my views on Luis Enrique clear enough here. More than anything, nobody has a good feel of what Luis Enrique is really about and even less of an idea of what his vision for the team is. His unpredictability seems to not only catch observers cold but worryingly so the players too. His back is up against the wall, and baring an unbelievable (and unlikely) improvement of the team play and reversal of public opinion, it would take a brave presidential candidate to run with Luis Enrique on his ticket.
Q – Do you see Barca realistically winning major trophies this season?
Major trophies for Barça are the league and the Champions League. The latter would require a hefty slice of good fortune and the star players transcending the overall systematic issues. Right now Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Real Madrid are certainly better teams and the more likely winners. I wouldn’t feel much confidence coming up against either of them. The league is more possible, though Real Madrid would have to be favourites, and again Barça would need to find a winning identity quickly. The Copa de Rey is certainly winnable. Cup competitions are a different animal and much more can happen on any given evening. The cup will essentially be won in the next stage against one of the Madrid sides.
Q – Obviously it didn’t stop you against Elche, but the pressure will be on against Atleti. How do you see the team coping given the mood around the club at the moment?
Elche is irrelevant – there is nothing of consequence to take from that game. You are correct regarding the pressure being on against Atleti. Some suggest a defeat could even be the end for Luis Enrique, though there would be practical reasons not to sack him. It’s very difficult to say how these external events affect the actual team. If there is genuine bad blood between the manager and certain players, it could show on the field. But if that’s mostly tabloid talk, players at Barça have often said in the past they don’t pay too much attention to the politics. Guys like Neymar and Luis Suárez won’t particularly care. Plus at the end of the day, once the whistle blows, football players play football. They don’t philosophise about why this or that person is no longer at the club.
Q – Much has been made of the contrasting styles between the two sides. Do you see Atleti as a violent or one-dimensional team?
I hold Atlético Madrid in extremely high regard, as do most at totalBarça and really any proper football person I know. Personally I believe what Diego Simeone has done is up there with the most impressive football achievements ever. Atleti play like warriors and are clearly an immaculately drilled and practiced team. I wouldn’t call them one-dimensional – they know what they’re good at and strive to be the very best at it. I wouldn’t label Atleti violent either. This team is built in Simeone’s image. He was certainly sneaky and crafty, but he was a clever player who while always flirting with the edge, kept his game rough but rarely dirty. I’d describe Atlético in similar terms. Their commitment and effort is insane and they won’t shy from getting physical, but in my opinion they’ve never been violent and dirty like José Mourinho’s Real Madrid side.
Q – On the contrary, is Barca’s style becoming outdated and predictable as some have suggested – in particular against teams such as ourselves?
For better or worse, and I certainly believe it’s for the better, Barça play the Barça way. If the football is played the right way and to its potential, it wins far more than it loses, and in sports that’s pretty much as good as it gets. There is no perfect or secret magic formula for guaranteed success. The reality is Barça’s style of play is very difficult to execute and requires many variables to fall into place for it to succeed. If Pep Guardiola would return, I can guarantee there won’t be any talk of an archaic or predictable system. And another truth is that the “agony of creation” (a Jonathan Wilson line) is far more arduous than destruction, attacking is a more demanding art than defending.
Barça undoubtedly struggles more with teams that defend deep and with numbers, but so does any side against that tactic. It’s logical. But I don’t understand what people expect. If both teams sit back and do nothing, how entertaining is that going to be? Somebody has to be proactive, and I’d venture to say that takes courage and conviction. Right now Barça has the best forward line ever assembled and that’s the one solution against a parked bus. Now marking Lionel Messi won’t really do with Neymar and Luis Suárez around. Getting past a wall of defenders often enough requires a moment of magic and there’s certainly enough of that in that threesome. Never discount the power of randomness either. Though none of that changes the fact Barça will have a very tough day in the office Sunday evening.
Q – Last season’s meetings were very even with 5 draws out of 6. Is there anything you think could make the difference this time around?
Neymar and Luis Suárez could be that difference. The Brazilian is playing at a very high level and the Uruguayan is one of the best in the world. The ability for them to beat defenders and make plays on their own is huge. Sometimes talent does make the difference. Right now culés just can’t rely on the manager delivering some master game plan. The team however has improved defensively, particularly with set-pieces, Atlético’s ace in the hole. The instruction should be to avoid giving away free kicks and corner kicks at all costs and really make Atleti work for a goal.
I’d also point to Guillherme Siqueira as a new weak point. Filipe Luís was absurdly good last season and his replacement is nowhere near that level, particularly defensively. Barça should target him mercilessly.
Q – Who do you see as the biggest threats from Simeone’s team?
The team is the threat. Atlético are the whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts incarnate. Set-pieces are obviously the primary concern, then getting caught on the break. If I were Luis Enrique I’d also tell my players to watch out for Raúl García ghosting into the box. The team has very talented individuals in the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Koke and Arda Turan, but if the game was a talent competition, Barça wins. Atlético’s threat is that they are a team in the real sense of the word that knows exactly what they’re trying to do and will leave everything out on the pitch doing so.
Q – How do you expect Barca to line-up on Sunday?
26 or so games and an equal amount of unique lineups. Luis Enrique has additionally shown he isn’t afraid to change up the system, and he’s done that in the big matches. So really, it’s no simple feat predicting how the team will set up.
The last two matches moreover sent out mixed signals. Luis Enrique fielded a far stronger lineup at home to Elche, only three days before this Atlético clash, than he did over the weekend against Real Sociedad. Jordi Alba started both the games but came off early against Elche (as did Gerard Piqué), which indicates he will start.
The conundrum essentially centers on Javier Mascherano. He’s been so good that Luis Enrique has always found a way to get him on the team sheet, whether in defense or midfield, even though that often came to the detriment of others, Sergio Busquets in particular. Xavi Hernández is out for sure, which is a big blow given the rotten form (possibly incorrect utilization) of Ivan Rakitić. Jérémy Mathieu’s form is also questionable and given he had an injury niggle this week, that could make the selection permutations a bit clearer. It was possible the Frenchman would go out wide, though he hasn’t shined on the left at Barça, but given Alba’s top performances recently I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start. The zippy left-back could prove useful on the attacking end, an area he is taking the mantel from Dani Alves.
So my best guess would be: Claudio Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Neymar, Suárez
Q – Finally, care to give us a prediction ahead of the match?
I never do on totalBarça and will continue in that tradition. It’s going to be a tight affair, there won’t be more than three goals and things will prove a lot tougher for Barça if they go down a goal. It’s a draw or narrow victory for one of the two.
You can see for yourself how Atleti get on against Barcelona – kick-off is at 21:00 CET tonight. You can also read our responses to totalBarca’s questions over at their website.