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Atlético Madrid have a passing problem

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With Thomas Partey out of the equation, Diego Simeone has to act fast and get his team moving — literally.

Atletico de Madrid v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

It’s like watching Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United and complaining because it’s too hard to keep up with the pace of play. You know what you’re getting when you sit down to watch a Diego Simeone side play the “beautiful game.”

Atlético Madrid drew their second game in a row on Saturday against Villarreal and have accumulated four shots on target in those two games (just one against Villarreal). Both games ended scoreless and a trend is already emerging for Atlético this season.

Simeone’s side is at a fork in the road and has been for a while. They have two options: take risks or don’t take risks. The latter is the path Simeone would prefer, but he knows they have a mountain of draws in their future if they do. The former goes against Simeone’s understanding of football, but it is the only path toward results and satisfied fans. At the moment, they are trying to take both paths, and it’s leading to a tangled mess.

No team in Europe’s top 50 drew more games last season (16) than Atlético. Villarreal on Saturday afternoon might have been the worst opposition to play against. They had been embarrassed by Barcelona just a week earlier, and Unai Emery accepted responsibility for their naive approach in the first half of that game.

“We wanted to have the ball but we were imprecise with it and too hurried,” he said after the Camp Nou debacle. “They did damage to us on the counter, which is something we wanted to avoid.”

The Yellow Submarine arrived at the Wanda intent on making a game of it for at least the first half. They ceded possession to Atlético and there was no way through.

Atletico de Madrid v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Alejandro Rios/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Simeone said after the game that his side, more than anyone else, should be able to figure out this kind of low-block defence because they are so used to playing it themselves. For the last decade, when everyone else zigged, Simeone zagged. As Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp made counter-pressing part of mainstream football culture, Simeone started his own counter-culture. It worked for a while...until it didn’t.

There was a time when a point against Atlético was disappointing. Now, it’s positive. They have been forced to evolve and can’t. This is where the problem starts and ends. A team cannot encourage risky, creative passing while simultaneously fearing mistakes.

The passing predicament

Atlético had 66 percent possession in the first half of the Villarreal game, and 63 percent possession total against Huesca. Against Eibar last season, they had over 60 percent and lost. Against Espanyol and Granada too, they had 60 percent or more and drew. In an ideal world, Atlético would have 29 percent possession as in the game against Liverpool at the Wanda: a 1-0 win.

Atlético players aren’t accustomed to using the ball quickly, which isn’t to say they can’t move the ball quickly. Thomas Partey, the new Arsenal player, took time to earn his place under Simeone in part because he refused to be indoctrinated. Saúl and Koke relinquished their own creative sides, but Thomas was different, a maverick intent on finding teammates between lines and launching attacks with diagonal balls. He’s gone now, and Atlético are in serious trouble unless Saúl and Koke are given more license to take risks.

The only sign of life Atlético showed Saturday was when Thomas had the ball at his feet. It was two very specific passes, too. One, the pass over the top for Kieran Trippier, as seen below. On another day, the Englishman would have controlled and delivered quickly into a penalty box full of teammates.

The second pass is zipped between the lines. More than anything, this is Partey’s trademark pass. This pass can be hard to control given the pace the Ghanaian puts on it, but when it works, it’s impossible to defend.

But ultimately, Atlético had no solution, and Jan Oblak admitted after the game that a lethargic start hurt them once again. It is almost the opposite of the problem Barcelona have in Europe. When they are asked to muck in and defend deep, they can’t. It’s a mentality, a way of thinking, almost a way of life for Simeone and this Atlético side. You can’t flip a switch and suddenly become adventurous, thrill-seeking risk-takers on the field.

Luis Suárez, against Granada, was in his element. The game flowed freely, and he came away with two goals and an assist. Against Huesca, he started and moved around the box in search of chances. None came before he was removed in the second half, and the same happened against Villarreal. When he finally went off the field, the game opened up slightly and there were some chances. The Uruguayan was criticised for his display at the weekend — two ambitious efforts outside the box and one blocked shot being all he had to show for himself. But looking back at the game, he showed for Partey to find him as the former Barça striker tried to unlock the Yellow Submarine’s yellow wall.

Villarreal show Atlético how to move

The visitors were coming off the back of a hiding from Barcelona and were never going to ship early goals. Defensively, they killed any hope of an Atlético breakthrough and they were not exactly ambitious when they were on the ball.

Though when they did have it, Villarreal’s movement caused problems for Atlético. The home side also made it easy for Emery’s men with massive, vacant spaces. Below, we see Pérvis Estupíñan versus Koke (there’s only ever one winner of that race) on the left with Trippier closing down the man on the ball and Dani Parejo standing on his own waiting. The right-back spot is vacant and Villarreal nearly make Atlético pay.

In the photo below, Ángel Correa is ball-watching while Villarreal’s free man makes the off-ball run into what can only be described as an ocean of space. It seems movement is so foreign to Atlético players that they can’t even understand when the opposition do it. Estupíñan again pops the ball to Parejo, and Villarreal find themselves behind the midfield line looking to cause trouble.

Atlético’s workrate, press and tactics are all brought into question in the final and most damning evidence. João Félix doesn’t bother chasing Mario Gaspar. Saúl’s press is awkward and ultimately useless. The space between Atlético’s midfield and back four is suspect when there is no functioning press and no desire to chase attacking full-backs.

The start to this campaign has been strange for every team and Simeone’s absence through coronavirus might explain some of the poor movement and misunderstandings. Players are struggling for fitness and managers waited for the transfer window to close to see what their squads would look like.

Real Madrid or Barcelona will not win the league with 100 points this year, so there are chances for Atlético to push a little longer in the title race even if they never really get there. But if they can’t change their mentality and the way they play, they’ll be drawing their way into another third or fourth place finish and be out of the title race by Christmas.