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Refereeing decisions aside — Atlético were at their best despite loss to Liverpool

Daniel Siebert’s questionable decisions threaten to cloud just how well Atlético played on Tuesday.

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool FC: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, Atlético Madrid bucked the simulations. Despite dominating roughly half their match against Liverpool, the Spanish champions fell to a 3-2 home defeat and into a tie for second place in Champions League Group B. It was the first time Atlético conceded three goals in a Champions League home game under Diego Simeone — an eight-year, 39-game run, snapped.

“We didn’t start the game like we wanted, and from the second goal we started to find the game we had been looking to play,” Simeone said afterward. “We had chances to put ourselves ahead. We had the clearest play in the second half, the goalkeeper made another great save. The team responded well with one less player.”

Simeone, of course, was referring to Antoine Griezmann’s 52nd-minute red card for a high boot on Roberto Firmino — an incident rarely deemed a straight red card offense. (In fact, it wasn’t red card-worthy at Porto’s Estádio do Dragão on Tuesday.)

It’s alright to feel aggrieved with Daniel Siebert’s refereeing — particularly with the late penalty area collision between José Giménez and Diogo Jota, a spot kick opportunity inexplicably taken away from Atlético with the match still in the balance. And you should definitely ignore English pundit-brain’s predictable, ham-fisted “handshake snub” narrative, a boring contrivance manufactured simultaneously to demonize Simeone and elevate noble Liverpool as humble sporting saviors.

Because although the scoreboard didn’t reflect it this time, Cholo’s men outfoxed Klopp’s side again — and in a different manner than two seasons ago.

Before the red card, Griezmann, João Félix, and Thomas Lemar led a high-quality counterattack that tore right through Liverpool’s midfield trio and into the heart of the Reds’ defense. Atlético generated 1.5 expected goals and scored twice before halftime against a side that has conceded only six times in eight Premier League contests this season. And even after Griezmann’s sending-off, Atleti continued to probe and go forward rather than revert to a 5-4-1 and prepare for a shelling.

(Not bad for a bunch of bus-parkers, eh, Alisson?)

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool FC: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Liverpool started fast, it’s true. And Felipe should have done better on the clearance that landed at Naby Keïta’s feet and eventually behind Jan Oblak. But Atlético’s response — a Thomas Lemar carry past Keïta, a Koke shot that Griezmann touched home (from an onside position) — set up the furious half hour that followed.

Griezmann’s second goal came in the middle of this torrent, a few minutes after he blew a 1v1 you’d expect him to bury.

This goal begins similarly to Lemar’s opener against Barcelona two and a half weeks ago — with Mario Hermoso delivering a progressive pass to Félix in the middle third. Liverpool’s initial structure is better than Barcelona’s (and the overall talent level is higher), but Félix’s determination and sensational individual skill will again prove decisive in this action.

Look at Yannick Carrasco, hugging the touchline next to Klopp. The Belgian’s extreme width is designed to remove Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold from the play, in order to create a central lane through which to pierce the opposing defense. Kieran Trippier could be seen trying the same tactic on the right side during the match, occupying left-back Andy Robertson’s attention.

In the above clip, Griezmann is already drifting toward center-backs Joël Matip and Virgil Van Dijk as Atleti work to reduce the number of bodies in the way. The next clip shows how crucial Carrasco’s positioning is. It forces Alexander-Arnold into a decision he ultimately doesn’t make — mark Carrasco in the event he receives the ball, or help out Keïta, whom Félix is about to overpower.

Once Félix controls the ball, he dips toward the boundary before cutting back toward the center. He’s gained a step on Keïta, and he has created space between the midfield and defensive lines after decisively winning that individual battle.

Simeone now has seen enough from Félix to turn him loose in these one-on-one situations. It appears the 21-year-old’s ankle surgery couldn’t have gone better. He is playing with great confidence — and with the license to drop deeper beneath the forward line, as Griezmann once did, to influence and orchestrate the rojiblancos’ attack.

Once into space, Félix picks out new false nine Griezmann, and the Frenchman does the rest with two killer touches — one to spin Van Dijk around, the other to slot the ball past Alisson Becker.

Simeone has insisted for weeks that Félix and Griezmann are compatible and can play together. Early evidence suggests the coach is right. If he is, that pairing is a solution to the Luis Suárez-dependencia problem Atlético fell into last season. It creates the possibility of finding a new role for Suárez, who only played 10 minutes on Tuesday and nearly got himself sent off for arguing with Siebert.

Even after May’s title triumph, El Cholo knows Atleti have to change once more and continue to evolve offensively. Suárez, Marcos Llorente, and Ángel Correa — the three top scorers on the 2020/21 team — are still key squad members, and they are expected to prove that over the long season.

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool FC: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

But Félix and Lemar are taking their games to another level, while Griezmann is reawakening six weeks after rejoining Atlético. This trio provides alternatives, other ways for Atleti to create danger — as Liverpool discovered while barely escaping with a win on Tuesday.

That’s the impression Simeone wanted to leave, and one he’ll take into Atlético’s clash with LaLiga leaders Real Sociedad on Sunday.