Atlético Madrid got a lightning jolt to the heart against Girona on LaLiga’s opening weekend, and in response, Diego Simeone made changes both forced and unforced for the trip to Las Palmas. Antoine Griezmann was suspended and Gabi, Juanfran, Stefan Savić and Fernando Torres dropped to the bench. Perhaps not coincidentally, los rojiblancos annihilated their opponents 5-1 to kickstart their season. It also gave Simeone and Atlético a glimpse of what they can be when they accept the favourites tag now often thrust upon them.
The beneficiaries of Simeone’s changes were Ángel Correa, Thomas Partey, Luciano Vietto and Sime Vrsaljko along with Diego Godin, who was returning from suspension. Correa repaid Simeone’s faith within three minutes of kick-off with a goal and Vietto worked hard for a player low on confidence. Vrsaljko showed encouraging signs upon his return from injury and Thomas Partey was everywhere.
Thomas Partey starts and stars
The Ghanaian has been knocking on the door now for quite some time with Father Time keeping a close eye on Gabi, ready to tap him in the shoulder at any moment. Thomas started and starred against Las Palmas in a typical energetic performance and he capped it with a well-taken goal — all of which means he will most likely get the nod against Valencia after the international break.
In what was a proper all-round central midfield performance, Thomas was both defensively sound and caused Las Palmas problems with his willingness to be adventurous with his passes. He added the kind of balance Simeone requires from his midfielders.
He completed around 90 percent of his passes and while the unsuccessful passes are typically frowned upon, it’s what kept Las Palmas honest and forced them to consider Thomas and Atlético more of a threat than they ever were against Girona. Thomas’ balance in central midfield gave Koke license to move forward and be more creative without worrying about Atlético being caught out for pace when the midfield is breached. Koke needs this kind of player beside him and if Thomas was good, Koke was the man of the match with two goals — his first ever double for the club — and a commanding performance.
Atlético get a whole lot younger
Just one of the players dropped for the Las Palmas game was under 30 (Savić) and not one of the players that came in was over 25. This gave Atlético more energy to defend as fervently as Simeone likes and also to move forward in attack safe in the knowledge that they can get back and defend if the opposition counters.
Against the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Gabi’s guile and Torres’ experience will be needed but in giving the younger players a chance, Simeone allows them to feel more comfortable when they do play and gives the older players a chance to rest. This strategy also ensures that they are not stunned by the more energetic, less fearful sides. It gives them something to think about.
Interesting that Atletico Madrid had, by quite a bit, the youngest team in LaLiga this weekend. Also won by the biggest margin. pic.twitter.com/PT5Ue7zEBW— Robbie Dunne (@robbiejdunne) August 28, 2017
Where does Simeone go from here?
The decision as to how Atlético play does not need to be binary. Against an up-and-coming Valencia side at Mestalla, few will question Simeone if he plays with a more defensive line-up. It doesn’t have to be a rotation or nothing policy that Cholo uses, but the younger players both need and deserve time in the starting XI on occasion.
Few would doubt Gabi’s dedication to the cause and his excellence over the years, but with Thomas in midfield and with a younger attack against the weaker teams, Atlético could become the force they once were after a season of stagnation last year.
Simeone’s biggest fear is becoming complacent, and the reality is that he will be questioned more if Atlético draw or lose to these teams playing in a defensive and negative way, and at any rate, Atleti have a better chance of winning if they do change their style and attack these teams.
Don’t expect El Cholo to change overnight, but putting trust in the younger players and accepting the favourites tag when it is on offer is a good thing.