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Atlético Madrid battling nerves as transition to new style continues

Atlético Madrid drew with Levante on Thursday and looked disjointed and sloppy during the game.

Levante v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid drew 2-2 with Levante on Thursday night in a game that saw the refereeing grab the headlines.

Matheus Cunha had given Atlético the lead back on 76 minutes after Enis Bardhi’s penalty cancelled our Antoine Griezmann’s opener. Cunha looked like he had won it for Atlético with his first goal at the club, but a late VAR review and subsequent penalty saw Bardhi step up again and slot the second equaliser past Jan Oblak.

Atlético are not happy with recent refereeing against them according to a report Friday, but that is the sideshow. The truth is that Diego Simeone’s side are suffering from some form of collective mental malfunctioning that is costing them points and could cost them a trophy at the end of the season.

The first half of the game was tragic stuff from Atlético. After they had taken the lead, they forgot how to defend and that conditioned their attack, too.

Early bookings, rash tackling

Mario Hermoso was booked after 17 minutes for a foul on José Luís Morales. It was harsh as it was his first foul, but Hermoso was left on an island against one of the most creative and inspired players in the league. At 34, Morales still gives LaLiga defenders headaches regularly and he caused a few on Thursday night.

After 25 minutes and a poor opening from Felipe, the Brazilian nailed Dani Gomez and got himself booked. Atlético had to defend for 65+ minutes against Levante with two of their three centre-halves on thin ice.

Atlético have the most yellow cards in LaLiga this season with 38, but the second-fewest fouls. Every third foul they concede is a yellow card and that’s the worst rate in LaLiga.

Felipe had a nightmare for himself in the first half. Playing at the centre of a back three, he was often caught between squeezing up to close to José Giménez and leaving his teammate stranded. Some of his decision-making underlined a nervousness that has characterized his play in recent weeks.

The video below is after just a few minutes, when a poor Felipe touch resulted in Levante winning the ball away. The veteran defender is lucky he didn’t catch Morales with the resulting kung-fu clearance attempt, or he would have been booked a lot earlier. The second clip in the video is of Felipe’s wholly-unnecessary yellow.

On an individual level, Atlético are not sure of themselves and the need to fix that. But some of the anxiety they are feeling is because of what Simeone is asking them to do.

The video below shows how easily Levante played through Atlético after the rojiblancos scored first. There is no pressure on the defender building from the back. The space between Héctor Herrera and Koke is vast, just as it is between the defenders and the midfield.

Along with the anxiety and the players’ inability to play the system they are being asked to play, there is a lack of individual responsibility to track men. There is a lethargy, a sloppiness that has crept into Atlético’s play, and it was evident in the first half.

This is not a bug in the system. It’s a feature.

During a corner before the first penalty, Luis Suárez was marking the front post. He was beaten by a runner flashing in front of him and only for a Koke clearance, Oblak might have been scored on earlier. The goalkeeper got up screaming at Suárez and from the resulting corner, the Uruguayan conceded the first penalty.

Atlético can blame the referee and it will divert attention for a minute, but eventually they will have to come to terms with their inability to play with three at the back with the players currently available.