Atletico Madrid were going to be in for a tactical dogfight when the game kicked off at El Madrigal.
The first half belonged to the hosts. Marcelino had got his starting eleven spot on. The midfield two of the evergreen Bruno and youthful Manu Trigueros asserted their dominance over the centre of the park and didn’t relinquish it to Gabi or Tiago for one second. Trigueros worked his socks off, not allowing Gabi or Tiago any space or time to get their head up when they managed to get possession.
He was first to every loose ball and also found the time and energy to support the front two of Soldado and Leo Baptistao when required. With all of this frantic pressing from Trigueros – supplemented nicely from the front two and wide players – and Bruno dictating the play from deep Atleti could not get near the football.
Fourteen minutes into the game the Yellow Submarine manged to get a well-deserved breakthrough thanks to Leo Baptistao, yes the one that’s on loan from Atletico. A player regarded as a "failed project" by El Cholo. Two loan spells at Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano were not enough to convince Simeone of his credentials, now right in front of him he rattles the back of the net to give Villarreal the lead in what is currently a top of the table clash.
The goal came in the pattern of the first half, some loose passing – caused by Trigueros pressure – from Atletico resulted in Leo Baptistao picking the ball up from deep, playing a neat one-two with Soldado and calmly slotting it past Oblak. I imagine that goal pleased Baptistao more than most that he’s scored in his career.
The rest of the half went in the same vain. Villarreal having all of the play and keeping Atletico boxed into their own third of the pitch. The only real chance of note for Los Rojoblancos came in injury time when Griezmann latched onto a loose ball resulting from a long hopeful punt up field which Victor Ruiz horribly misjudged and put the Frenchman through one-on-one with Areola. Griezmann struck the dropping ball with plenty of power but only managed to hit the middle of the young keeper. Half time came at the right time for Atleti.
Los Colchoneros resumed having made two changes at the break. Torres and Vietto on for the disappointing duo of Jackson and Gabi. This resulted in Saul moving central to partner Tiago in midfield to give a much needed bit of extra bite. Griezmann moved out wide left with Vietto taking up his position as a second striker behind Torres. Leo Baptistao was also brought off for the home side and Nahuel came on to partner Soldado.
The second half began with a little bit more bite from Atleti but the bark was still decidedly absent. It was noticeable for the first fifteen minutes of the second half that the Madrid natives were making more inroads in terms of territory in the game, but chances were still at a premium. Vietto and Torres did stretch the back four of Villarreal more, but real chances were well dealt with in a disciplined performance from the Yellow Submarine.
The final fifteen minutes is when the youth and inexperience in the Villarreal ranks began to show. Los Rojoblanco’s began to pile on the pressure. With every passing second Areola’s clean sheet began to look less and less likely. Chances came flooding in, first a wayward header from Angel Correra after a delectable Felipe Luis cross. Then came chances for Vietto, Torres, Griezmann and Saul. All of which were frustratingly off target. The goal never came and El Cholo’s men had to settle for defeat off the back of just the third league goal they’ve conceded all season.
As defeats go this is the most positive one possible one from an Atletico point of view. Unlike in the Barcelona game earlier this month you could not accuse Simeone for going negative from the outset. He went out to win this game and picked a very strong eleven. Sometimes you just have to admit that you were second best and deserved to be so. Marcelino got his tactics spot on, El Cholo didn’t do much wrong. Villarreal were just excellent.