Once freed from defensive responsibilities, João Félix took over.
“The important thing [about the trident] is their defensive work,” Diego Simeone said after his side polished off Lokomotiv Moscow. “We always have to have a structured team.”
Atlético Madrid’s youngest Champions League goalscorer felt the effects of increased defensive work in a physical first half, one in which Diego Costa missed a huge chance that would have put the visitors a goal to the good. João Félix started next to Costa and Álvaro Morata, lining up to their right and putting in a lot of hard yards to provide cover for Santiago Arias.
Almost immediately after play resumed, Félix began to pick out the existing space in Lokomotiv’s midfield and ran with it. He started the counterattack which concluded with his goal — a sliding, sweeping finish from a rebound. He started the counterattack which concluded with Thomas Partey’s goal — he nabbed the pre-assist with a dazzling cross to Costa in the box.
Como la conduce João, que jugadón. pic.twitter.com/VX5d8FkiBi— Gerardo Tamarit (@GerardoTamarit_) October 1, 2019
Overall, Félix took 35 of his 44 touches in Lokomotiv’s half with seven touches in the 18-yard box. The 19-year-old announced himself in the Champions League as one of Atlético’s two drivers to victory in Moscow. As for the other one...
Thomas Partey is Atlético’s most complete — and best — midfielder.
Thomas has had an eventful week — two Mattress Maker of the Match displays with a burglary sandwiched in between. Though he was away at the time, there is regardless trauma associated with an event like that, and he overcame said trauma with another outstanding performance in Russia.
Thomas attempted a team-high four shots, completed a team-high three key passes and recorded a game-high 99 touches. His high-level pressing helped Atlético win back possession on multiple occasions and shielded his strengthening back four. Finally, his goal was ample reward for the past 180 minutes he’s played (not to mention his season at large).
The Ghana international had a breakout season in 2017/18 but was in and out of the team in 2018/19. Now, Thomas has made himself indispensable, perhaps inspired by the challenge from quality competition — Marcos Llorente did not make the bench Tuesday night, and Héctor Herrera once more failed to appear from it. There’s no argument the 26-year-old has been Simeone’s best midfielder this season, and it seems the perfect Rodri replacement was in-house all along.
If Simeone insists on playing three forwards, that could spell trouble for Thomas Lemar.
Lemar entered as a second half substitute twice this week, and it’s hard to see a substantial role for him when Simeone rolls out his two number nines. He offers hard work and accurate passing, but still lacks aggression and incisiveness. The former Monaco star is not preferred on dead ball deliveries and neither possesses Vitolo’s drive nor Ángel Correa’s trickery.
Lemar hasn’t always looked comfortable in Atlético’s 4-4-2. Feasibly, he can play centrally behind the Costa-Morata duo or function on the left of a 4-3-3. But there hasn’t been really any indication that Simeone is leaning toward making that change even if the player may benefit from it.
For better or worse, Lemar’s one-time club-record price tag came with certain expectations. He did not meet them in a so-so 2018/19 and hasn’t shown much substantive improvement in 2019/20. It remains to be seen how often Cholo will turn toward his tridente — but if it’s his idea to do so when the trio is fit, Lemar will have to adjust his game and become more assertive to give his coach some pause.
One last thing: