Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona: Which Dominant Defense Will Prevail?

Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona: Which Dominant Defense Will Prevail? article feature image

By any realistic measure Barcelona are having a great season. They’re 28 games in and haven’t lost yet. They’re on top of the league and on pace for 96 points. They’re also 15 points clear of hated rivals Real Madrid. The problem, if it’s even reasonable to call it that, is that Atletico Madrid is also having a strong season. They’re in second place, only five points behind, and on pace for 89 points.

Barcelona (-139) host Atletico (+375) on Sunday (10:15 a.m. ET), in a match that has the potential to either launch a title race if Atleti can upset the hosts, or effectively end it all together should Barcelona prevail.

What makes this top-of-the-table matchup so interesting is that it doesn’t play to either team’s strengths. While Barcelona are clearly the top team in La Liga, their attack isn’t quite as potent as their goal-scoring record might suggest. They’ve scored 69 goals this season, slightly better than their 64.55 expected goals, but they’ve struggled somewhat to break down good, committed defenses. In their 1-1 draw at Chelsea in their last Champions League match, they didn’t score until Chelsea made an unforced error in the 75th minute, gifting them the ball on the edge of their own box. It was the only big chance they created all match. And even when they’re not playing teams of Chelsea’s caliber, Barcelona have managed to score more than one goal in only two out of five league matches since the beginning of February, including disappointing draws against Espanyol, Getafe and Las Palmas.

Atletico Madrid are not the team you want to see if your attack isn’t ticking as Los Colchoneros have one of the most formidable defenses in Europe. They’ve only conceded 11 goals in the league this season, the stingiest record in the Spanish top-flight (and two fewer than Barcelona). Atleti have also won six games on the spin, five of which were shutouts and the sixth was a 5-2 win away to Sevilla where they didn’t concede until they were already up five in the 85th minute. That Sevilla match was the first time they’ve allowed more than one goal since the opening game of the season. This Atletico defense is just  about the worst opponent imaginable for a Barcelona attack that’s struggled to get out of second gear recently.

Atletico’s attack on the other hand is entirely uninspiring. They’ve scored 45 goals, which ranks fifth in La Liga, but even that probably oversells them. It’s significantly ahead of their 36.52 expected goals, which ranks only seventh. Not to mention that those totals were comparatively much worse until back-to-back loud wins against Sevilla and then 4-0 against Leganes on Wednesday. By and large Atletico specialize in winning 1-0, maybe 2-1 on an especially daring afternoon.

The problem for Atletico is that Barcelona will still be overwhelming favorites to coast to a league title if the two teams draw this weekend. To really give themselves a fighting chance down the stretch, Diego Simeone’s club needs to hand Ernesto Valverde the first loss of his Barcelona managerial career. While Atletico’s defense and Barcelona’s sputtering attack might garner the headlines, it’s actually Atletico’s attack and Barcelona’s defense that are the more important matchup. And that matchup decidedly favors Barcelona.

Barcelona’s defense has been nearly as dominant as Atletico’s. They’ve only conceded 13 goals on the season, two more than Atletico, but from an expected goals standpoint they’re actually the better side, conceding 20.45 vs Atletico’s 23.26. Barcelona are as prepared for a low-scoring slugfest as they’ve ever been, and it’s Atletico who will need to try and open the game up, something they’ve never proven adept at.

Barcelona and Atletico are likely to square up in a conservative low scoring affair. That’s good for Barcelona because while an unexciting 0-0 or 1-1 draw (+280) might not feel great in the moment, it’s more than enough to leave them on the path to a league title. Atletico, on the other hand need to both bring their usual defensive dominance and also find a way to break down a great Barcelona defense. A task they seem unlikely to accomplish.

All odds current as of 3/2/18.