João Félix suffered his first real setback at Atlético Madrid on Saturday, when he turned his ankle against Valencia at the Wanda Metropolitano. As a result, he will miss up to six games and Diego Simeone will have to ignite his blundering attack in the absence of their most creative player.
Atlético play Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday night, followed by Athletic Bilbao, Alavés, Sevilla, Leverkusen again and Espanyol. It’s not the worst run imaginable. After the Espanyol game at the Wanda, the final international break of 2019 arrives — and then things get very serious. Atlético will travel to Juventus and welcome Barcelona in LaLiga.
But back to these next six games. They could turn disastrous if Atlético can’t figure out a way to score goals. Félix “only” has three goals and one assist this season — but for a team that seems allergic to hitting the back of the net, that’s significant.
Simeone needs someone to help Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata when they can’t help themselves. And with Koke, Saúl and Thomas providing little by way of goals or assists from midfield, Félix’s replacement needs to be able to link midfield to attack and probably get on the scoresheet himself.
Option one: Thomas Lemar
This could be a blessing for Lemar, who started the season well, but slowly lost the confidence of the coach after too many mediocre performances. He plays like someone who knows he will be the first man substituted, and playing with one eye on the sideline hampers his flow. When the France international comes off the bench, it’s often too late for him to influence things.
But as far as replacing Félix, Lemar is the most obvious choice and he is comfortable playing as an inside wide attacker. That said, it all depends on whether Simeone is willing to give him the keys to his attack.
Option two: Vitolo
Vitolo did what no footballer ever wants to do: he performed so well off the bench that he played himself into a “super-sub” role. Injuries have scuppered his chance to be an important player for Simeone — but when he does play, he is confident, quick, elusive and creative enough to cause problems.
The former Sevilla winger is more comfortable playing on the left and doesn’t instinctively drift into the middle to get more involved, which is something not only asked of Félix but required with no true no.10 in this team. If Vitolo is the man, a change of formation might make more sense — which I’ll cover below.
Option three: Ángel Correa
The clock is ticking for Correa to turn his potential into something more tangible. He hasn’t realised it yet and it feels like the flashes he showed in the past are getting briefer, the time between his moments of inspiration longer.
It’s all duck or no dinner with Correa. When he does have a good game, he is really good. But he’s another player who has suffered due to inconsistent minutes. He can’t really play as the third attacker in a 4-3-3 because he lacks the nous to create and gives the ball away too frequently — he would be a liability in that formation. With a narrow midfield and nobody to protect him when he does cough it up, Simeone might see that as a recipe for disaster.
He is another player who, if picked, will require a change of formation.
Option four: A change in formation
Simeone may opt for more of a flat 4-4-2 and play with midfielders as far as the eye can see, just like the old days. It would mean more solidity and it would also mean Saúl could start to venture further forward without having to cover as much ground behind him.
Thomas and Marcos Llorente (or Héctor Herrera) would man the middle, while Koke and Saúl would operate as the two “wide” midfielders. Along with overlapping runs from Kieran Trippier and Renán Lodi, this actually might spur Atlético to attack more centrally. That’s something they have lacked this season.
What’s more, Marca report that Simeone could opt for this team Wednesday: Oblak; Trippier, Felipe, Giménez, Hermoso; Herrera, Thomas, Saúl; Koke; Correa and Costa. If that works, it might give the Argentine a different formation to try when Félix returns, and the Portuguese might be better closer to goal and with less defensive duties.
Simeone has a number of games to tinker now in order to find goals. If he doesn’t, there is a chance the season is lost before Félix returns.