On Wednesday night, Atlético Madrid received a much-needed boost to their European campaign with a convincing 4-0 decision against Kazakh side FC Astana. The victory, coupled with Galatasaray's surprise 2-1 win over Benfica, puts Atleti back atop Group C on goal difference halfway through this year's group stage.
The win over Astana was marked by several outstanding individual performances, most notably from Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, who put in a virtuoso shift in his best outing as a colchonero. Jackson Martínez also scored his first goal at the Calderón as Atlético managed two-thirds possession in an overwhelming performance.
Tactically, Atleti showed off a new-found depth and flexibility in the squad. In Diego Simeone's 215th game in charge, his men cut through a defensive and razor-thin Astana squad with the precision of a Swiss Army knife. The result also gave key players the opportunity for rest up for Valencia on Sunday: José Giménez, Filipe Luís and Koke did not play, while Tiago and Antoine Griezmann were both removed before the hour mark.
Atleti return to the 4-4-2
Simeone went with his more-conventional 4-4-2 formation against Astana. He chose to rest the recovered Koke and recent standout Ángel Correa (who did come on just before the hour) and hand starts to Carrasco and Saúl.
During his time at Monaco, Carrasco played best when in a flat, four-man midfield - an opportunity he was afforded on Wednesday thanks to Cholo's rotation policy. One-hundred touches, eight dribbles, four key passes and an assist later, he may have played himself into a starting role against Valencia at the weekend. A coalition of Astana players - mostly Abzal Beysebekov, Aleksey Shchetkin and Georgy Zhukov - couldn't stop YFC on Wednesday. Linking up well with Guilherme Siqueira on the left-hand side, the Belgian used his torrid pace to slice play open and looked well and truly the part of an Arda Turan replacement.
Carrasco's assist Wednesday went to Saúl, whose cheeky, slow-rolling backheel opened the scoring 23 minutes in. The canterano recorded a whopping 115 touches and took over Tiago's role well after the Portuguese went off at halftime (which is good, because he's not a winger); the duo ended up occupying much of the same ground. While YFC ventured forward endlessly, Saúl provided cover from just behind the center circle and even attacked on a few occasions, assisting on Jackson's goal just before the 30-minute mark while, of course, scoring one of his own. Saúl also allowed Gabi to flourish, first on the right of the 4-4-2, then in a more central role when Óliver was introduced.
Speaking of Jackson, looks like the big Colombian is starting to settle. His first Calderón goal was a bit lucky - it took a deflection past Astana keeper Nenad Erić - but it was the result of hard work and proper positioning.
Jackson's touches are becoming more and more concentrated within 12 yards - which, as Robbie pointed out almost a month ago, is exactly where he needs to get the ball to bang in goals. Perhaps his strike against Astana is the signal we needed to see with regards to Atlético bringing Jackson up to speed.
An Astana without answers
Astana named only four subs for this game. That was warning sign #1. Stanimir Stoilov tried to play things very defensive, but his five-man backline ended up very disorganized all over the place. Two Astana center backs, Denys Dedechko and Yevgeni Postnikov, seemed to want to play a higher line, as both headed upfield on several occasions, only to get burned repeatedly, and the former conceded an own goal in the final minute. Former Real Betis man Branko Ilić tried to stay at home and provide cover for the usually-overwhelmed Beysebekov. Astana's central midfield seemed at least somewhat organized, but the wingers were unable to provide any protection against Carrasco or Gabi or Griezmann. As for going forward, the Kazakh champions did manage 10 shots and forced Jan Oblak into one fantastic save, but otherwise, Stoilov's men barely threatened.
Overall, a fine, fine performance from Atlético - the best of the season to this point, and good preparation for a more difficult challenge on Sunday night.