“We didn’t start the match like we should have. There’s a need to go for it from the first minute so that what happened today doesn’t happen. This has happened to us in several matches and we have to look at it.”
That was the viewpoint of Saúl Ñíguez in the aftermath of Sunday’s disappointing 0-0 draw away at Real Valladolid, the fourth LaLiga match of the past five in which Atlético Madrid failed to score a goal. And the Spanish midfielder is 100 percent right.
What was especially disappointing about that game was the way in which Los Rojiblancos seemed willing to give up the first half. By this I mean they navigated the opening 45 minutes at half-speed before upping the urgency in the second half. Atleti mustered just two shots total in the first half of that match, but then attempted seven in the second half, including two in the first 10 minutes after the restart.
It’s difficult to understand the reasons for the lack of urgency in the first half. Did it come from the players or was it an instruction from the coaching staff?
Perhaps, after an intense midweek trip to play Champions League football in Moscow, Diego Simeone and Profe Ortega made a premeditated decision to reduce the physical load on their players by going at half-speed in the first half before using the energy left in the tank in the second period.
But Atlético should have a squad deep enough to avoid such a situation. Plus, the upcoming international break should have made it possible for players to leave it all out there on the Estadio José Zorrilla pitch and recover over the following fortnight.
Whatever the reasoning behind this approach, there’s no denying it was the wrong one. Atlético are hard to beat, but that’s not enough to ensure a successful league season. The difference between one point and three points is huge, and there’s a need to win and to win and to win. This means breaking down stubborn defences, and this often requires 90 minutes of bombardment. It would have been hard to imagine an Atlético loss in the trip to Valladolid, but all too easy to imagine a scenario where they dominate but run out of time to score the goal they need. That’s exactly what happened.
It wasn’t just an issue in this match. This phenomenon has happened in other games too, where Atleti start too passively, thinking that they have plenty of time to get the goal, only to end up frantically rushing around in search of late magic. Los Colchoneros haven’t scored a single goal in the opening 20 minutes of a match this season, something only four other teams in LaLiga — Alavés, Espanyol, Leganés and Valencia — have failed to do.
These matches aren’t knockout ties where a winner will be decided no matter what. It’s not a sprint around the velodrome in cycling, where the first laps are spent conserving energy and merely jostling for position ahead of the race proper. No, these are league matches where the first 20 minutes matter as much as the final 20 minutes. Where draws are permitted, draws which are essentially small losses for title challengers. So Atlético, as Saúl said, must go for it from the very beginning of these matches.