Oy vey. Watching Atlético Madrid in the first half at Estadio José Zorrilla was about as entertaining as watching rotting fruit. It was at times downright colorless, tepid as tofu water.
(Today is a day for food references, I guess.)
Onto the “action.” Possession went slightly in Valladolid’s favor and the shot attempts were even at two apiece. For the 10th time in as many games this season Atlético failed to score inside the opening 20 minutes — which is somewhat comforting, as from that standpoint this new Atleti resembles older versions. Koke covered for Kieran Trippier on the right and João Félix helped out Renán Lodi on the left, in part creating an attack that didn’t take many if any risks.
Álvaro Morata provoked three yellow cards and picked up one of his own for a stray elbow. Valladolid’s Toni Villa could have been sent off for a very cynical swipe at Morata’s ankle, and the physicality exhibited by both teams slowed down play immensely. The only real bit of drama came around the half hour mark, when referee Sánchez Martínez awarded the hosts a penalty after a lengthy review.
Here’s what happened: Thomas Partey tried to poke the ball free and clear it out of the box, but caught a little ankle in doing so. The ankle he inadvertently hit belonged to Sandro Ramírez, and it may have caused him to trip over his teammate Villa. Despite the initial call of no penalty, VAR overruled that decision and awarded Valladolid a golden opportunity against one of Spain’s big three.
However, Sandro — who has not scored a league goal in two years — missed everything on the spot kick. He tried to tuck it underneath the crossbar, but a slight bounce as he prepared to strike the ball altered its path and sent it into orbit.
A more aggressive — though not necessarily more attacking — Atlético emerged from the dressing room and quickly set their sights on long-range shooting attempts. Morata had an unexpected yet good chance fall to him on 54 minutes, when Koke flicked a pass his way and he cannoned a shot off Jordi Masip’s head. The Valladolid keeper was down for a moment but stayed on.
Simeone made his three changes in a span of 12 minutes. He first removed Félix for Ángel Correa — the teenager took only 20 touches in an hour and questions will continue regarding the player’s fit and Cholo’s ideas about how to use him. Thomas Lemar replaced Koke shortly thereafter, but Héctor Herrera restored the balance as the new third central midfielder (he replaced Morata, who was miles better than Costa on the afternoon and had just hit side netting from a good chance).
The rojiblancos’ best opportunity came with 10 minutes to go. Correa took a great first touch to settle down the ball and smacked a shot clean off the post with Masip caught looking. That was the chance and it felt like everyone knew it.
Two yellow cards later — there were 12 total between the two teams, including one for Valladolid manager Sergio — the match mercifully came to an end.
Atlético have had a string of performances over the past month indicative of an overhauled team trying to rejuvenate itself. In a vacuum, that is fine. But the results are similar to — if not worse than — those produced by the stagnant sides of the past two seasons, sides that Atleti spent €250 million this summer to leave behind for good.
There’s no mistaking that this was a dreadful display, and Atleti have enough talent to beat Valladolid away. To thank your lucky stars that Sandro skied his penalty is not emblematic of a team that looked last month as if they were ready to challenge on multiple fronts sooner than expected.
Costa looks very much past it. He is struggling to receive service, but he hasn’t helped himself with a leaden first touch and even an inability to just stay on his feet. Without Vitolo, the mattress makers lack a game-changer from the bench — and another solid defensive performance aside, there are no positives to take from this match.
The rebuild was traveling 80 miles an hour on an empty stretch of freeway. Now, it’s been ticketed for speeding since more vehicles have shown up. Real Madrid have made up seven points on Atlético in five weeks, and at the time of this writing Simeone’s men have lost three points to Barcelona in the same time span. Once again, playing catchup.