COLUMN: Atletico Madrid’s secret weapon arrives just in time for Champions League clash with Inter

Before Pablo Barrios this season, the last under-21 player to log 1,000+ minutes in a single campaign for Atletico Madrid was Joao Felix in 2019-20. As you’ll no doubt recall, that was season one for Felix in Madrid following his €126m move, and the dawn of what many thought would be a new superstar of the game.

In other words, it usually requires pretty unique circumstances for Diego Simeone to give prominence to young footballers. Given the lack of examples in recent times, when a player like Barrios does emerge it’s a pretty good clue that he’s been marked as an exceptional case, and that your interest should be piqued.

Perhaps the most important caveat of Barrios’ rise this season is that it’s come against the backdrop of disruption. He missed a month through injury between September and October, while a meniscus tear suffered against Feyenoord in November then kept him out for just short of two months.

In a campaign where it seems like Simeone hasn’t been entirely sure what to do with the third central midfield spot (accompanying Koke and Rodrigo De Paul), a healthy Barrios would have been in line for more prominence than he’s already had. And with over 1,000 minutes to his name in such circumstances, there’s every chance he would have been a fixture in midfield by now, minus those injury setbacks.

That Barrios tends to be involved whenever possible isn’t merely down to ability. Of course, it helps, but the growing matter of compatibility between player and team is a big factor too. As his talent comes to the fore, there’s now (conveniently) a greater need for it than at any other time in the Simeone era.

Take their recent 1-1 draw against Real Madrid, for example. Though Atletico clearly intended to approach the game with relative caution and prioritise their defensive shape early on, the home side’s 62% possession in the opening half hour quickly became suffocating.

Where once the idea might have been to simply accept the pattern of territory, heighten the aggression from a deeper defensive shape, and look to claw their way back into the game through counter-attacks, Atletico’s reaction was channelled in a much different way. To observe Diego Simeone in the opening half hour was to see a man pleading for only one thing: the ball. His repeated message of ‘tranquilo‘ through words and gestures was a request for calm, but more specifically, the calmness to be able to find their football.

More than ever under the Argentine there is an onus on his team to be the protagonists, and that requires specific attributes in specific areas of the pitch. Firstly, to be able to construct the type of football they want and have control of the game. And secondly, to be able to move the game forward and be effective once the conditions are there.

Atletico are averaging 13.3 sequences of 10+ passes per game in LaLiga this season; a considerable jump from the 2019-20 campaign when Joao Felix first arrived (7.7), and the point at which the team’s impending evolution really started to become a topic. Koke, meanwhile, is averaging 87 passes per 90 and completing 92% of those in LaLiga this season – by far his two highest marks in a single campaign as it stands.

Viewed within what has happened in recent seasons, the fast-tracking of Barrios in this brave new world for Atletico becomes pretty clear.

It’s not that the 20-year-old is a generational passer, who’s just so happened to land at the point in which Atletico are well on the way to diversifying their possession play. What Barrios’ natural game brings, however, is a blend of dynamism and technical ability that makes him a problem solver within the team’s current intention.

Even at this early stage of his career, Atletico have a need for his capacity of association. Whether it’s through passing, carrying, or movements off the ball, the youngster already figures as someone who can knit play together across every third of the pitch. The cherry on top of that is his ability to take off on the dribble, which he’s learning to do with increasing efficiency.
Barrios is averaging 2.8 successful take-ons per 90 in LaLiga this season; the most of any Atletico player. At the same time he not only has the best take-on success rate in his side, but across La Liga as a whole (78%), having completed 28 of his 36 attempts in the competition this term.

While dribbling is a characteristic most associated with wingers in today’s game, and the preferred tool for creating individual advantages in many of the elite teams, for Barrios it speaks more to his comfort in navigating midfield traffic. Indeed, in the age of needing solutions to opposition pressure, the youngster is as much an escape artist as he is advantage creator.

Though he retains the latter – especially when playing as an interior and not filling in for Koke – moulding his way of playing into an all-round midfield presence is the task that he’ll need to continue to refine. The prize for both Simeone and Barrios, should that reach a point of completion, will be to add the characteristics of a no. 10 in the silhouette of an all-terrain midfielder.

“He’s a boy that’s grown up as a ‘llegador’ from midfield and he has that impulse to carry the ball towards the penalty area to shoot or assist,” said Spain U21 coach Santi Denia, speaking back in September.

“I don’t like to curb the players because you take away their natural characteristics. What [Barrios] has to do is learn to pick his moments when to let himself go.”

It’s worth remembering that Barrios has only started 15 games in La Liga to date, while he’s only played the full match on five occasions. For all the promise he’s shown in his first eight months in the senior setup, his biggest improvements will only be achieved by playing and competing on a weekly basis across multiple years.

But having already worked his way into Simeone’s plans at 20 years of age, one might say the biggest barrier has already been surpassed.


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Tags Atletico Madrid Champions League Inter Pablo Barrios
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