Where to start after a performance like Saturday’s?
Well, perhaps Atlético Madrid’s attacking struggles were best summed up at the counter attack in the 57th minute.
As Antoine Griezmann galloped over the halfway line, he had just two Athletic Bilbao defenders ahead of him, as well as Diego Costa on his right and Álvaro Morata on his left in a V-shaped attack. It was a mismatch, especially as soon as Unai Núñez raced out towards the Frenchman, leaving Yeray Álvarez marking Costa and leaving Morata open on the No.7’s left.
Yet Griezmann tried to be too clever. He nudged the ball out towards the closely-marked Costa, who tried to first-time deliver it over to Morata but who was put off enough by Yeray’s presence to make his pass inaccurate. The chance disappeared, and so did Atlético’s hopes of winning an 11th LaLiga title in 2018/19.
Perhaps this is reading too much into a five-second passage of play, but the complete lack of flow between los colchoneros’ front three in that moment was surely the story of the whole game.
Even though Griezmann, Morata and Costa earn a combined €44 million per year, they weren’t able to manage a single shot on target against an Athletic side that was without suspended central defensive starter Iñigo Martínez. It took the whole team 69 minutes to register a shot on target, Atlético’s first in 188 minutes of action.
Rather than convert mediocre attacks into dangerous ones, the presence of these three attacking stars up front actually made Atlético more toothless than usual. Griezmann was too far away from the danger areas by playing on the right and isn’t Lionel Messi-esque enough to be a decisive influence from that wide position. Morata was similarly wide on the left and ended up playing a role that doesn’t suit his skills as a centre-forward.
Costa did play in the middle, but was only given a few scraps from which to feed himself. It would have been logical for Atleti to play cross after cross into the box for the Spanish-Brazilian, especially with Martínez out suspended, yet that didn’t happen and only seven aerial balls were sent into the box from non-corner-kick situations, four of which came after Athletic had taken the lead. There was not a single cross into the box for los rojiblancos in the opening half hour.
It was never going to be easy to find a tactical system capable of extracting the best out of all three star attacking talents that Atlético now have in their squad, but it’s clear from Saturday’s outing in Bilbao that this version of a 4-3-3 is not it. All three players want to be in the penalty area, which is natural as that has been their habitat for most of their careers. However, when they each drifted towards those white lines at the same time, all they managed to do was to isolate themselves from teammates unable or unwilling to cross the ball — and to get in each other’s way.