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Three things learned from Atlético’s defeat to Real Madrid: Failed experiments, missteps made

Diego Simeone’s set-up was the wrong one.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid knew what was at stake as they travelled across the city to Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Sunday night in a desperate attempt to keep title defence hopes alive. But the performance was one which failed to live up to the hopes of Atleti fans.

Real Madrid looked comfortable from start to finish in the 2-0 defeat, with Atlético having a handful of chances but failing to muster a real threat at any point.

From a mistaken tactical set-up to poor in-game management and disappointing individual displays, it was a perfect storm of failures that led to Atlético’s result at their rivals’ home.

Here are three things we learned from the game:

Cholo got the game plan all wrong with a failed press

Atlético’s pressing this season has been almost painful to watch at times, and it was worse than ever against Real Madrid.

Too often, Madrid would press high but only on one flank, leaving an easy escape route with a switched horizontal pass. It was a poorly-executed strategy, which relied too much on the front three and lacked an organised midfield press behind.

Madrid can be pressed effectively if it’s deployed well, but there is risk involved. A high press means Atlético are pushing further up the pitch, consequently leaving spaces in behind.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

That was just what the home team wanted. It opened up spaces in the Rojiblanco defence that Carlo Ancelotti’s team had a field day exploiting, particularly given the lack of pace in central areas with Felipe, Geoffrey Kondogbia, and Mario Hermoso.

“They let you have the ball and sit deep, then when they get it back they come out very quickly,” Koke said after the game.

A clinical Madrid gave Atlético a taste of their own medicine, cutting through their city rivals like a hot knife through butter on both goals.

The mistakes didn’t end there. In recent weeks, much has been made of Diego Simeone’s reluctance to change, rest and rotate. If anything, at the Bernabéu, he went too far in doing just that.

Simeone had used all five substitutes within 68 minutes, changing system and moving players around. With each change came a lull as the team reset and readjusted, but eventually it just meant that Madrid’s fresh legs in the game’s final stages stretched Atlético even more than before.

The Ángel Correa experiment didn’t work

Ángel Correa came into the team at Thomas Lemar’s expense on Sunday, but it was a switch that didn’t quite work out.

Correa operated in a more advanced position, moving between a third midfielder and a third forward. He sat deeper behind Matheus Cunha and Antoine Griezmann, but more advanced than Koke and Rodrigo De Paul. This position, neither in attack nor in midfield, ultimately failed to find spaces in the organised Real Madrid system while leaving gaps in Atlético’s own shape.

Both goals came from wide areas, and that in part was down to Correa’s positioning. Particularly as he floated toward the left, where Lemar would usually play, it was evident his defensive discipline and understanding with Yannick Carrasco was not the same as Lemar’s. Where Lemar will drop deep as Carrasco bursts forward, Correa failed to do so.

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

On the right, the Argentine’s link-up play with Marcos Llorente left much to be desired. Correa would drift into a more central role, looking to support Griezmann and Cunha, but effectively left Llorente on his own on the right flank. That may well have been by design, but it left the Spaniard exposed when trying to get forward, and all the while he was responsible for stopping Vinícius Júnior on the counter.

It was no surprise this strategy lasted only 45 minutes. Lemar came on at half-time and immediately the team looked a more fluid and coherent unit. De Paul and Koke looked less exposed, as did the wide areas. João Félix enjoyed greater freedom to drift wide than Griezmann had in the first half and looked a threat, particularly when running at the Real Madrid defence and taking them on. Correa stayed on, but looked very much like a square peg in a round hole.

The game plan Cholo had prepared on the training ground simply didn’t work out.

The Koke problem is real

Unfortunately, Atlético’s captain was once again off the pace at the Bernabéu.

It was Koke’s misplaced pass which lost possession in the first half, leading to Real Madrid playing themselves through for Karim Benzema to score. It was one of only four misplaced passes, but in this case it shows the importance of context in statistics. Too often, Koke’s passing was slow and lethargic, looking to play sideways or backward passes rather than looking to find a way through the los blancos’ defence. He is lacking confidence, much like he was at a similar time in the 2019/20 season.

Spaces between midfield and defence opened up throughout the derby, as touched upon earlier. While it’s an accumulation of Correa’s presence, a poorly-executed press and much more, Koke’s role is ultimately to cover that area. Something he failed to do. The gap between midfield and defence was often far too exposed, with Felipe, Hermoso and Kondogbia frequently stepping up to fill it in Koke’s absence. They would often track their runners, but Real Madrid were alert to it and would send their own runner in behind to capitalise.

It was exactly this kind of manoeuvre which led to Benzema’s opening goal.

So what can Simeone do about the Koke problem? Atlético have few alternatives who can replace the captain adequately in the current system. Neither Kondogbia nor Héctor Herrera are the same profile of midfielder and lack the quality an in-form Koke brings, but Herrera in particular must be afforded more game time to allow him to recover his best form.

The additional defensive duties demanded of Koke in this system have taken their toll — and as he is set to celebrate his 30th birthday in January, it’s no surprise he could do with a rest.