It felt like Atlético Madrid had finally figured things out. The ilusión they so often speak about in Spain had returned, and there was an unfamiliar feeling around the Wanda Metropolitano: hope. Atlético have scored 17 goals and conceded two this season after seven LaLiga games, and the case for them as Spain’s best team has a growing body of evidence.
However, Luis Suárez tested positive for coronavirus during the week, thus ruling him out of the game against Barcelona at the weekend. The 33-year-old was seen as Atlético’s game-changer, the man who gave them an edge and a competitive spirit that had been sorely lacking in recent years.
Suárez recently announced that Atlético were in “win-now” mode. This game was meant to prove Atlético’s bonafides as title challengers, but with the Uruguayan out, Simeone will have to look for inspiration elsewhere at the spearhead of his attack. How can he still hurt Barcelona?
Simeone goes strikerless
João Félix is in the form of his life. The youngster has started to carve out his own place in this side, running things from the number 10 position. Simeone is not known to tinker too much with his formations, but that has changed this year.
It would be interesting to see Félix playing as a false nine in a 4-3-3. It would mean Atlético could still play a robust and hard-working three in midfield — Koke, Saúl and maybe Geoffrey Kondogbia for the injured Héctor Herrera — but also allow for Yannick Carrasco, Ángel Correa or Marcos Llorente on either side of him. Simeone will likely want another body in midfield, where Llorente can operate as a defensive but attacking wide midfielder.
Likelihood of playing this way? Don’t count on it.
Start Diego Costa (if healthy)
Costa has not played a game in a month. The 32-year-old was last seen limping off the field against Celta Vigo after Simeone surprised everyone by starting Costa and Suárez together in Galicia.
The only time Felix and Costa started up front together was against Granada with Correa, Koke, Saúl and Carrasco behind them. That was a 6-1 mauling, and things have changed since then with Llorente a definite starter. Simeone will need more defensive solidity in the middle and won’t be as attacking on the wings. A modified midfield and a Felix-Costa partnership is not out of the question.
Barcelona are porous at the back. Samuel Umtiti no longer challenges for minutes and Clément Lenglet has suffered from the lack of competition. Gerard Piqué is holding things together, but with Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong struggling to stop midfield runners, they have been exposed often on the break.
Costa might cause more problems than Suárez, in one sense. That’s one thing Simeone said about Costa when asked about whether his two main strikers could play together. The Uruguayan lurks in the box and Costa runs the channels, dragging defenders all over the place.
We know he can still do that for 60 minutes but it’s a question of whether he is fit enough to start a game of such magnitude, or if he is better coming off the bench.
Likelihood of playing this way? Unlikely.
Revert to type
Does Simeone see this a win-at-all-costs game? And if he does, what does he think is the best way to achieve that result? Does he see Barcelona as being vulnerable, or does he want to turn this into a war of attrition like in the past?
In some ways, a draw against Barcelona would be a good result for Atlético. It would leave Barcelona with just one win in their last six games and would also see Atlético extend their 23-game unbeaten record in LaLiga.
Barcelona are not as good as they once were, but they are still capable of tearing you to shreds and Simeone, despite his recent flirting with an attacking style, might use Suárez’s absence as a reason to pack midfield. Lionel Messi can still dominate even if his start to the season has not been up to his usual high standards. We could see something like a 4-5-1 with Koke, Kondogbia, Torreira, Saúl and Llorente across the middle. Llorente would push forward to join Félix in attack.
Likelihood of playing this way? Possible.
Correa and Félix up top
Félix and Correa started up front in a 4-4-2 against Osasuna. Behind them were Llorente, Herrera, Koke and Vitolo. Atlético won that match 3-1 and deserved the victory. Simeone might want a more defensively-minded midfield against Barcelona and Saúl’s return will likely see him start in place of Vitolo if they are to opt for this formation.
If we assume Koke, Llorente and Félix are going to start, we are left with three of the six in midfield and attack that we are unsure about. The options are Kondogbia or Torreira, Saúl or Carrasco, Correa or Costa.
Likelihood of playing this way? Most likely.