Atlético Madrid fans made their way to the Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday night for the first time this season. They were half-wondering if what they had witnessed in the preseason was a vivid cheese dream — 17 goals in six games, with some awesome attacking play — as the team went from Burgos to Texas, exciting crowds everywhere. They were also half-wondering if they were about to bear witness to the second coming after João Felix’s electric start to life under Diego Simeone.
“The best thing about him is his willingness to learn,” Simeone said, in part declaring the record signing a work in progress, even if the club’s announcement declared him a work of art. He signed with Madrid to become the player everyone thinks he can, and he wanted to work under Simeone because of what he did with the man he replaced in the hole behind the striker — Antoine Griezmann.
Ironically, Atlético 2.0 took on a Getafe side that mirrors the very earliest iterations of Simeone’s side. A strict 4-4-2. Defensive, diligent, determined. But on Sunday, they beat that earlier version of themselves in a fitting start to this seemingly-new era at the Wanda Metropolitano — even if it felt like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
With three new signings from the summer starting — Kieran Trippier and Renán Lodi at full-back and Felix as the second striker — Atlético didn’t always make life easy for themselves.
On 23 minutes, Trippier slung a ball into the box after a couple earlier scares for the visitors, and Álvaro Morata rose to head home despite the very close company of Djené Dakonam in the penalty area. That was when the real action started, though. Jorge Molina was given his marching orders when he stood on the back of Thomas Partey’s ankle inadvertently. The referee initially gave him a yellow card, but after a sprint to the sideline and a look at VAR, he upgraded that to red as referees take heed of a memo from the top about that specific type of foul.
A one-goal lead and home advantage made it look like Atlético couldn’t be caught, but two yellows in the space of one minute for debutant Lodi saw him join Molina in the queue for an early shower.
This is a Getafe team created to make teams uncomfortable, to stifle, to foul you just when you think you’ve broken free. But this is an Atlético side created to be able to outwit teams who sit deep against them, to play with width and expanse when necessary but also shrivel up and play compact when needed.
They, much like Félix, are a work in progress though. The Portuguese was a little subdued because of timely and tactical fouls on him any time he looked like ready to move into another gear. He zapped the crowd to life in the second half, however, as he nutmegged one Getafe player and beat two more before being hauled down inside the area after a run that originated in his own half.
Morata saw the ensuing penalty saved by David Soria, but it mattered not a jot because Félix had shown supporters the glimpses of brilliance in New Jersey and Mexico were for real. He went off injured after 65 minutes but at 19, carrying a €126 million price tag into his home debut, he showed no signs of the pressure that comes with it.
The game was ruined perhaps with those two first half reds. Pre-match tactics were binned and both managers were forced to improvise. And Getafe did a better job of that.
After Felix’s injury, Simeone reverted to type as he brought on Marcos Llorente. It didn’t suit Atlético at all as they soaked up pressure from the visitors to finish out the game, and they relied on a little bit of luck to get them out of the jam they created for themselves too.
Ángel Rodríguez rattled the crossbar late and “EuroGeta” had a couple frees in dangerous positions. Jan Oblak did not need to make a save though, and Vitolo and Morata played as the attacking outlets ahead of the increasingly-worried defense.
Los Rojiblancos had not won their three previous season openers. They drew with Valencia last season to open their campaign, drew with Girona the season before that and Alavés in 2016/17. They got this one behind them with three points but with plenty to improve on moving forward.
Barcelona, the runaway leaders last season, lost to Athletic Bilbao on Friday night and Real Madrid have their own issues to resolve despite a win over Celta Vigo on Saturday afternoon. Atlético have kept pace for now, but if they don’t improve soon it won’t be long before they are playing catch up once again.
The summer business appears done and Atlético have changed plenty. Now, the real work starts.