Coming off a defeat to AC Milan on Wednesday night, Atlético Madrid needed a big result in Cádiz.
And they got it.
A 4-1 win was more flattering than the first 45 minutes deserved, but the game turned dramatically in Atlético’s favor during the second half.
Where Diego Simeone got it wrong in Europe, he got it right domestically. Despite sticking to an unchanged line-up, the substitutes who came on made a substantial impact.
Here are three things we can take away from Atlético Madrid’s 4-1 win over Cádiz:
Thomas Lemar was the key to unlocking the tie
Lemar opened the scoring, and the Atlético Madrid orchestra was his to conduct on Sunday.
The 26-year-old created four chances in addition to his headed goal, and he was instrumental to the end result. His vision, movement and energy were second to none. He brought some urgency to the team’s play at a time when Koke and Rodrigo De Paul were operating at a lower pace, struggling to break down a solid Cádiz defence.
His goal was everything you ordinarily would not expect from Lemar. A powerful far post header was not the kind of goal that Lemar typically scores. This was only his second headed goal in his career, his first for Atlético, and also equals his best goal contribution for a season with three. It was a big moment, which broke the deadlock and forced Cádiz to open up as they chased an equalizer, affording the midfielder more space to operate in.
Lemar’s involvement was equally crucial in Atlético’s second goal. Marcos Llorente, playing at right-wing-back, has missed linking up with Kieran Trippier. Lemar provided that missing ingredient, lofting a ball that allowed Llorente to overlap and burst through the Cádiz defence before he put a cross in to Antoine Griezmann. It was Llorente’s first assist this season, and the first time Lemar had been able to present such support.
Luis Suárez needs a rest, and there’s no shortage of alternatives
Injuries to João Félix have meant that Simeone has been reluctant to rotate. Suárez has featured in every Atlético game this season, alongside international duty for Uruguay. It’s no surprise the 34-year-old is running on fumes.
But the fact that he is means that Atlético are now playing worse with him on the field than when he’s not out there.
Ángel Correa came on as a substitute and, while it must be pointed out Atleti were already leading 2-0, Cádiz became much more open at the back. His energy and movement pulled Cádiz’s defenders all over the place, opening up spaces like that from which he coolly converted only three minutes after being introduced.
It was the kind of run Suárez hadn’t created, and Cádiz reacted by bringing on reinforcements in holding midfield and at left-back to counter the threat he brought. But Correa continued to cause problems even after scoring his fourth goal in LaLiga. Far more of a problem than Suárez had posed.
Matheus Cunha did himself plenty of justice too, with a very similar approach, as his pace and movement caused issues. But this goes beyond individuals. Griezmann had far more freedom without Suárez, dropping deeper and acting like a playmaker where he performs best. He disrupted the Cádiz defence and played passes through easily and with superb vision as movement around him increased. This movement was essential to getting these substitutes on the ball.
Where Suárez had 27 touches in 73 minutes, Correa had 18 in just 17 minutes. Atlético looked far more dynamic, and better, with no Suárez on the pitch.
The defence needs a reboot
José María Giménez’s substitution flagged up an age-old issue this season, that there is a distinct lack of depth across the Atlético backline.
Felipe, who replaced Giménez, is only just returning from an absence himself. Should the two suffer coinciding injuries or suspensions, Simeone would be left no choice but to turn to an out-of-position Geoffrey Kondogbia or change formation. It’s an unsustainable issue.
Even beyond the simple depth problem, the back four looked devoid of confidence. Mario Hermoso and Stefan Savić were not at their best and Giménez was sloppy. Where this backline has desperately needed a leader to step up, each option seemed to be looking to someone else to take charge. Savić was more commanding defensively, winning six of his seven duels, but looked shabby in possession.
The issue is so bad that even Jan Oblak showed he is human, with a calamitous error granting Cádiz a late consolation. It’s not Oblak’s first mistake this season, for a goalkeeper who rarely makes one at all in a full campaign, but it reflects a lack of confidence and insecurity about what is going on at the back. There is work to be done at both ends for Cholo Simeone’s side.