So much for getting off to a fast start.
Atlético Madrid kicked off their 2017/18 Liga Santander season against a freshly promoted Girona side taking in their first game in the top flight. On paper, it was supposed to be an easy three points for Atletico - but Girona decided to make the most of their debut and show that they are a team to be taken seriously this season.
Let’s take a tactical look at what happened in Catalonia.
Atlético returned to their 4-4-2 formation, but the absence of Diego Godín, as he finished his suspension from the end of last season, had a massive impact on the match. Atleti were missing an enforcer in the air and someone to organize the back line; they paid the price by allowing two aerial goals in the 22nd and 25th minutes.
Girona looked like Atlético in more ways than just their red and white striped home kits; they played with discipline and held their shape — something the Rojiblancos are known to execute well. Girona also took advantage of space on the wings thanks to an out-of-form Juanfran and an out-of-position Saúl. Overall, they were able to put in 33 crosses compared to Atleti’s eight and 45% of their attack down Atleti’s right side.
While Juanfran is a Rojiblanco legend, he showed us that his days as Atletico’s unquestioned right back are nearing an end. The Spaniard completed only 68% of his passes and offered next to nothing in attack. Gabi had to help cover for Juanfran on the right, and as Saúl did not drop back to defend, Girona found considerable space to play in.
Yannick Carrasco did his best to give Atlético some teeth, but was visibly furstrated throughout the match. He showed some skill to create space, but was often dispossessed by a swarming Girona defense. Several times, Atlético were not on the same page, sending a pass straight out of bounds or to a waiting Girona defender.
Atlético looked remarkably out of sorts for a team playing in a familiar system and a line up almost unchanged from the season before. Players could be seen regularly waving at each other to get into position. Notably, Saúl and Koke seemed unable to figure out how to organize themselves throughout the first half, something you shouldn't see from teammates who have been playing together under the same manager for more than three years.
Saúl looked to be playing more as a forward instead of a midfielder, and Antoine Griezmann dropped deeper and ran all over the pitch. Griezmann was everywhere in the first half but had no impact, and he ended the game with only 15 touches, 13 passes, one shot on goal and zero completed take-ons.
I think we expected Diego Simeone to make some changes at the half, but he decided to keep his starting XI on the field. In the 58th minute, Simeone made his first sub, taking off the struggling Juanfran, replacing him with Ángel Correa and switching the 4-4-2 formation to a 3-4-1-2.
In the 70th minute, Simeone was forced to make another tactical change as a very controversial yellow was given to Griezmann for diving. This immediately became a straight red after he called the referee a coward. Simeone finally subbed off Gabi and Fernando Torres and replaced them with Argentines Nicolas Gaitán and Luciano Vietto. Gabi was ineffective when attacking and spent most of the game covering holes left in the midfield, and for large swathes of the game Torres was nowhere to be seen.
Correa took advantage of the gap left by Griezmann’s expulsion and scored a belter from outside the 18-yard box in the 78th minute, which brought Atlético back into the game with a little under 12 minutes remaining. Correa looked to be the only Atlético player with any confidence or ability to run at defenders. He ended up with 16 touches (one more than Griezmann), completed 10 passes and attempted one shot (his goal). He was also the one who won the free kick that led to Giménez’s goal in the 85th minute.
After the equalizer, Girona pushed forward and came close to a last-minute game winner, and probably would have won if not for Jan Oblak’s lightning-quick reflexes.
Unable to bring in new, younger players to compete with his older core, Simeone is going to have to use creativity and flexibility to keep Atlético competitive until help arrives in January. As players get healthy he’ll have more options, but if they continue to rely regularly on Torres, Gabi and Juanfran, it may be a long season for the mattress makers.
Overall, it was a fun and interesting match for the casual observer. Girona probably deserved the full three points after their first half display, but Atlético battled back and earned the draw. Atlético fans must be wondering what kind of season this is going to be with the club unable to bring in new players until the ban ends in January, and there were a few troubling signs from the season’s first game. They will travel to Las Palmas next weekend without Griezmann, and hopefully that will not be a repeat of Saturday.