Atlético Madrid were gifted the chance to pile pressure on the teams around them at the top of LaLiga on Saturday when they played Celta Vigo — before Real Madrid and Sevilla met on Sunday, and before Barcelona kicked off against Granada on Saturday night.
Atlético needed to stop the rot first, though — they had conceded two goals in each of their last three games. Diego Simeone was asked about this sudden leakiness at the back from a side accustomed to not just preventing goals, but preventing shots, nullifying attackers and suffocating even a sniff of hope for the opposition. He said, of course, they are worried because every goal conceded lessens their chances to win.
Simeone’s men didn’t concede against Celta Vigo, but they struggled in attack themselves as the coach struggles to find a happy medium between being an exciting, creative attacking team and being a surly, gritty defensive one. You can’t, it seems, be both in equal measure.
There would have to be rotations first. After the energy extolled in the Juventus game, and with another game coming this week against Mallorca (followed by a Madrid derby next weekend), Simeone needed to keep one eye on three points against a lively Celta side and one eye on the coming fixtures.
Felipe replaced Stefan Savić, Héctor Herrera got his first start after a profitable cameo on Wednesday night and Ángel Correa also started in place of Thomas Partey. It was a sluggish and at times sloppy display though, with the later midweek game and the early evening Saturday game.
Kieran Trippier, who has Atlético fans drooling over his delivery from the right, sent a free into the box that was custom-made for Felipe. He headed toward goal but Ruben Blanco made a good reflex save to deny him. He had another free from a similar area a minute later but Celta managed to scramble it away for a corner. That, also very good, delivery resulted in a Diego Costa chilena that was blown for a foul.
For the remainder of the half, Celta had Atlético on the back foot and the home side only occasionally ventured forward on the counter.
Atlético nearly had the opener to start the second half through a Koke toe poke from distance — Blanco saved it. But they continued to look dangerous even if Correa, in his first start after a summer of uncertainty, wasn’t helping with some of his decision making.
It was his substitution which led to a more clear and consistent threat from Atlético with Saúl pushed into his right attacking role. He linked well with Trippier from there and the hosts got hold of the game. Thomas Partey broke lines and offered more than Herrera, but the harder the rojiblancos tried, the worse it seemed to get.
Atlético’s finishing and general precision let them down. Costa felt he was pushed in the back from a Renan Lodi cross that he couldn’t reach, while Álvaro Morata had no excuse for missing the ball on another cross from the left.
One of the best chances came after 79 minutes from a breakdown in a Celta attack. The ball made its way to Morata in the middle and he again worked it out to Lodi. The resulting cross was way off target though, and Atlético were sent back to the drawing board.
Morata had another one nicked off his head too before Lodi blazed wide after Costa found him in the penalty area as he strode forward for the umpteenth time.
Atletico just could not create clear enough chances to take the lead as Celta’s challenge evaporated. It turned into a beautiful crossing competition with little creativity in the middle and nobody on the end of any of the whipped deliveries. Trippier tried as did Lodi from both corners and open play, but space in the box was at a premium.
In the end, Simeone and company lacked inventiveness and will certainly look at this like two points lost. There are lots of games wedged together in the coming week, and working off the premise that some of the teams around them will drop points, it wasn’t an end of days performance or result.
Atlético continue to feel around in the dark for who they are and who they are trying to become. Either the mattress makers leave the back door unlocked and concede in the hope of scoring more than their opponents, or they bolt it shut and suffer themselves in attack. There seems to be no middle ground, which is something Simeone has to fix.
Mallorca are next in the middle of the week at Son Moix and rotations should be plentiful. The Argentine can try a new combination of midfielders and potentially a two-man attack from the start. But this stalemate makes it all the more pertinent that Atlético fly home from Palma with three points ahead of next week’s decisive derby.