Atlético Madrid fell to defeat in a must-win fixture against AC Milan on Wednesday night, as the Colchoneros conceded an 87th-minute winner to Junior Messias. The header that struck Atleti fans’ hearts was the fatal blow ensuring Atleti did not take any points from a game best described as a “catalogue of errors.”
There can be no denying it: this was Atlético Madrid’s worst performance yet this season. Defeat to Liverpool at Anfield comes a close second, with a more humiliating scoreline, but was more expected than this defeat at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano.
Here, we’ll pick out three things that we can take away from the tie.
A lack of trust in Atlético’s offensive options
With João Félix out injured, Atlético’s attacking options are more limited than previously, and Diego Simeone’s rotation options have been cut back. But even so, he persists with Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann while leaving Ángel Correa and Matheus Cunha on the bench.
Correa hasn’t played a full 90 minutes since September 28 (in the return fixture against AC Milan), while Cunha has only played more than 30 minutes in a single game once, against Alavés on September 25.
Again on Wednesday evening, Correa was given 26 minutes and Cunha 13 to make an impact. Such limited time to perform reflects Simeone’s lack of belief in the alternatives.
Rather than setting them up to come in earlier, Simeone opts to change systems to bring Yannick Carrasco further forward, rather than introduce Cunha earlier into his more-natural left-sided role.
The man who ends up paying for that more than any other is Suárez. With only two touches in Milan’s penalty area, contributing to a team total of 14 (the second-lowest figure this season behind defeat at Anfield), Suárez endured another disappointing evening on Wednesday. Milan goalkeeper Ciprian Tătăruşanu made more passes than Suárez (the shotstopper’s 20 compared to Suárez’s 18) and the Uruguayan’s passing accuracy was the lowest of any Atlético player on the night at just 65 percent.
Suárez has played 70 percent of minutes this season and has played a part in every game, while also making five appearances for Uruguay. For a 34-year-old, that’s a pretty demanding schedule which is only made more baffling when you consider the alternatives being ignored.
In the summer, it was much-discussed that Atlético failed to bring in an additional number nine. Now, they are paying the consequences.
Diego Simeone got this one wrong
Even after Atlético began to implement more changes and substitutions came into play from the 55th minute onward, Milan remained the more-threatening team for much of the final 39 minutes (including injury time). That is a horrific figure for any coach, and even less so for one as experienced as Simeone.
The plan went wrong from the start, with Marcos Llorente’s selection at wing-back. Recently back from injury, and up against Milan’s dangerous left flank, this wasn’t the kind of task Llorente would have been hoping for as he stepped up his recovery. Theo Hernández, hated among Atlético fans over how he left to join rivals Real Madrid in 2017, provided overlapping options that continually pegged Llorente back. Where his game revolves around pace and dynamism, he was too disciplined in this position to be able to capitalise.
The more changes Cholo made in the second half, the more it seemed Atlético’s game plan was improvised. In the space of just 17 minutes, Atlético changed shape and formation three times. It was no surprise that there was a lack of fluidity as a result. With 165 unsuccessful passes and 45 possession losses in their own half, the highest figures for both stats this season, Atleti simply couldn’t maintain any rhythm and were committing basic mistakes. As the pressure built, the worse they performed as the game wore on.
“We need to be strong and take the game to where we can do them damage,” Simeone had said before the match. Yet, his selection and changes made that task more difficult.
Koke is far from his best
Atlético missed their captain while he was injured in September, and the side’s continued troubles come from the fact that Atlético are still waiting to recover Koke at his best. His display against Milan was his worst yet this season — 17 incomplete passes and 22 possession losses, eight in his own half, were his three worst figures for the season to date. And all of them left Atlético vulnerable up against Milan.
The Italians bossed the midfield. Franck Kessié and Sandro Tonali brought an energy and physicality that left Koke, and often Rodrigo De Paul, sprawling. Their connection with Rade Krunić, Brahim Díaz and Alexis Saelemaekers kept the ball moving quickly and freely. They completely bypassed the Atleti midfield duo.
Simeone sought to rejig the midfield continually. Šime Vrsaljko came on to allow Marcos Llorente to step up alongside him following De Paul’s withdrawal. Then Geoffrey Kondogbia came on for Antoine Griezmann. It was evident that Simeone wasn’t expecting this problem to be quite so crucial to deciding the tie, and he was clearly expecting more from his captain on such a crucial night for the club.
With such midfield disruption, it helps to understand the defensive calamities that led to Junior Messias’s late winner. It was the fifth consecutive goal Atleti have conceded from a cross, and the positioning of the central defenders, in particular José María Giménez, allowed him in. With Koke and Llorente dragged to the right to try to shut down the counter and Kondogbia off the pace, there was no one tracking the runner. Messias slipped between the defenders easily.