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Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Atlético Madrid: Three things that have to happen now

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Red flags abounded in Germany for the rebooted, frustrated Atlético.

Bayer Leverkusen v Atletico Madrid: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Jörg Schüler/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid need to get healthy in defense — and fast.

As in Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen were by far the better side in the first half. This time, the Germans got a goal to show for their efforts. Thomas Partey inexplicably headed the ball into his own net after Jan Oblak just about clawed away a Kai Havertz corner, which Santiago Arias had a chance to clear but did not. It was the third set piece goal the colchoneros have conceded since Oct. 19.

Havertz’s corner was one of seven that Leverkusen won in the first half. The hosts had a clear gameplan to generate set piece opportunities against a team that has really struggled to defend in those situations over the past few weeks. Take a look at the chart below and see if you can figure out Peter Bosz’s plan.

Leverkusen’s right-flank overload.

Karim Bellarabi and Mitchell Weiser took a combined 95 touches in the first 45 minutes. They were unrelenting in their (successful) efforts to destabilize Renán Lodi — the 21-year-old left back was lost defensively, and Mario Hermoso had to cover repeatedly for him, leading to scrambles which produced corners.

Hermoso’s frantic runs to his left made life uncomfortable for his partner Felipe Monteiro, who missed a tackle leading to a Kevin Volland chance and smashed a header off his own crossbar from — you guessed it — a set piece. Then Hermoso screwed up himself — on 55 minutes, he slipped trying to cut out a Bellarabi through ball and Volland scored.

Diego Simeone’s backup central defense pairing has been overworked and is getting roasted. But the Argentine has no other feasible options at the moment. He needs José Giménez and/or Stefan Savić back before this gets worse. Neither player has recovered yet from muscular injuries.

Bury the Diego Costa-Álvaro Morata pairing.

It doesn’t work. It’s not going to work. It lasted an hour on Wednesday and the results were again disastrous. Simeone even tried playing Ángel Correa behind them to make their lives easier, but he could not create a chance for the Spain (and ex-Spain) forwards.

Costa took nine touches in an hour. Morata took 20, but had zero shots and only three touches in the box — two of which were passes. Gross. It is absolutely no coincidence that the academy graduate kept his goalscoring streak alive in the 93rd minute (his fifth goal in five games) when he was the only #9 on the pitch.

Bayer Leverkusen v Atletico Madrid: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

Atlético have won one, drawn two, lost one and scored three when Costa and Morata start. Costa’s penalty against Valencia on Oct. 19 is all the duo has to show for their time together. Correa has assisted three Morata goals in the same span. The coach’s system simply does not rely on the volume crossing those two need to put chances on goal, and Atleti haven’t had enough of the ball to do that anyway. It is immensely dispiriting to see a striker of Morata’s caliber come out of the box to receive and pass the ball. Hopefully, João Félix’s return in a couple weeks will put this nonsense to bed.

Vitolo must regain the coach’s trust.

A hamstring injury knocked the winger out of contention for a month, but he returned to play 13 minutes against Athletic Club on Oct. 26. He did not appear in the draws against Alavés and Sevilla despite his availability, and Simeone only threw him on for the final half hour on Wednesday with the game basically already lost.

Vitolo is a fragile player. He also needs to be Simeone’s first option off the bench. He has the aplomb that Thomas Lemar’s game lacks and infinitely more explosion than this version of Costa. In his half hour at BayArena, he completed a team-high three dribbles and made things happen all across the final third.

It’s unclear why Simeone has seen fit to hand his €37 million attacker just 42 minutes over the past four games. That’s yet another question that has to be answered in this “new” Atlético, a project stuck in first gear and facing justifiable criticism for its showings over the past month-plus.

The Rojiblancos are on seven points in Champions League Group D, three points behind Juventus but four clear of Lokomotiv Moscow with two games to go.