Once known for starting a very consistent 11, Diego Simeone’s substitutions have played a huge part in Atlético Madrid’s 100 percent record after three weeks.
Thirteen players made at least 25 starts in all competitions during the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons. Oftentimes, Simeone was prone to stick with the same team unless injuries hit (which they did last season, in excess). Vitolo and Ángel Correa were the only regular substitutes, and no other player made more than a dozen appearances off the bench.
This season, however, Simeone has gone with a slightly different 11 for each match. Seven players have started all three contests, but 14 players have already made starts. Vitolo, Felipe and Rodrigo Riquelme are among those who have come on to change things up. Of those three, Vitolo is possibly the one closest to receiving a starting spot, as he has scored two goals in 93 minutes — one of which lifted Atlético to a win at Leganés.
Simeone has also been able to alter formations from his traditional 4-4-2. The Argentine chose a 4-1-2-1-2 against Getafe, prioritizing attacking through the middle. Against Leganés, he went with a 3-1-4-2 to account for Renán Lodi’s suspension — this proved a good antidote to the Cucumber Growers’ 5-3-2. And against Eibar, El Cholo went for a 4-3-1-2, again using the team’s strength through the middle and trying to link play through Koke and Thomas Lemar.
In the past, Atlético suffered from a dearth of depth. But this team’s reconfigured bench has been a strength, with the players’ quality closer to the first 11 than arguably ever before under Simeone — perhaps with the exception of his 2013/14 team.
In addition to Vitolo’s strong start, Thomas Partey scored a winning goal of his own from the bench to finish off the comeback versus Eibar, the team’s first rally from down 2-0 since Cholo took charge.
What’s more, Atlético not lead the league with nine points from nine, but the mattress makers are just an eyelash behind Sevilla in expected points based on statistical performance. Álvaro Morata (1.87) and Joao Felix (1.50) are third and 10th in LaLiga expected goals, and the team as a whole has rung up 5.66 xG over the first three games, a tie for second in the league. So the success thus far hasn’t been a fluke.
Atlético will welcome these performances once the Champions League group stage begins in two weeks. Morata and Stefan Savić should be recovered from their injuries by then and slot back into the starting lineup — and the knock-on effect will be pushing quality players to the bench, where they can come on and change a game late on if needed. Look for formations, personnel and substitutions to shift even more as Simeone juggles his restocked squad.