Atlético Madrid’s charge to the league title is wobbling just a tad, after another defensive mistake on Wednesday night produced Levante’s opening goal in an eventual 1-1 draw. The rojiblancos are still in LaLiga’s driving seat, with a six-point edge and a game in hand over Real Madrid. These two teams will meet again at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday afternoon before Atlético fly into Bucharest for what UEFA audaciously calls a Champions League home game.
Anyway, here are three talking points from meeting one of two with the Valencian side.
Atlético are really suffering without a reliable right back.
We’ll get to Ángel Correa’s astonishing miss momentarily, but this match made it clear that Kieran Trippier’s return — which is still nearly two weeks away — will be most welcome and incredibly important if the team is to reach its objectives.
For a month-plus, Diego Simeone has had to mix and match as Trippier finishes serving his outrageous FIFA-sponsored ban for “betting violations.” Trippier’s direct replacement, Šime Vrsaljko, has not convinced — the former World Cup finalist has played 90 minutes just twice and was hauled off at halftime on Wednesday. Simeone wanted to play Yannick Carrasco on the right, but the Belgian missed time due to COVID-19 and is more comfortable as the left wingback. So instead, Cholo has turned most often to Marcos Llorente — a player with the obvious physical capacity to play the role, but a player who best serves the team elsewhere.
Atlético are in a no-win situation with Llorente at wingback. If he pushes too far forward, a giant hole opens up on the right flank. Levante exploited this hole throughout the second half Wednesday. If he drops too deep, Atleti lose one of its biggest weapons and become more predictable on the ball. Given he scored again at the Ciutat de València and has contributed 15 goals overall in 22 league games, Llorente should look to run and push forward at every opportunity.
Either Simeone should roll with Vrsaljko for the next 10 days, no questions asked, or he should revert temporarily to the 4-4-2. Neither option is preferable, but sticking Llorente at right wingback wastes everything else he offers.
Atlético are falling victim to variance, but a concerning defensive trend has emerged.
Los rojiblancos have conceded in six straight league games for the first time in Simeone’s entire tenure as coach. The opener on Wednesday — the fourth game in the past six where Atlético have fallen behind — came off Enis Bardhi’s boot, as he took up a Jorge de Frutos pass to polish off a quick counterattack. José Giménez had stepped up to make a challenge in midfield and lost out, creating the opportunity.
Atlético are massively underperforming its defensive expected goals mark in recent games. How massively? Glad you asked. The eight goals Atleti have conceded over the past six games have come from shots totaling just 2.88 xG (according to Understat’s data). In all, Atleti’s opponents have rung up 5.57 xG over this six-game stretch. Perhaps not coincidentally, the last time Simeone’s side kept a clean sheet was on Jan. 12 — Trippier’s last appearance. Cholo hasn’t had his full defensive complement since that win over Sevilla.
However, in each game where Atlético have fallen behind — at Eibar, versus Valencia, versus Celta, and at Levante — the first goal arrived within the opening 20 minutes. The team was insistent enough and fortunate enough to come away with wins from those first two games. The expected goals discrepancy should sort itself out soon, but eliminating these lackadaisical starts is a bigger concern. Atleti aren’t always going to be able to score two or three.
In the end, Correa’s incredible miss defined the game.
Speaking of variance, you don’t often see this chance blown so spectacularly.
Luis Suárez did all the work to generate the rebound, Correa timed his run so well to stay onside...but skied the shot with the goal absolutely gaping. Llorente was already celebrating.
The miss did Marcos a disservice, too, as it overshadowed his 37th minute equalizer, an outside-the-box missile that rocketed off defender Rober Pier’s head and into the net. He has scored or assisted a goal in seven of Atlético’s past eight games.
LEV XI Aitor Fernández; Miramón, Pier, Postigo, Clerc; Malsa, Radoja (Duarte 46’), de Frutos (Francisco Javier Hidalgo “Son,” 82’), Morales (Gómez 70’); Bardhi (Rochina 85’), Martí (Vezo 82’)
Goal Bardhi 17’
ATM XI Oblak; Savić, Giménez, Hermoso; Vrsaljko (Kondogbia 46’), Llorente, Koke (Torreira 81’), Saúl, Carrasco (Félix 66’); Correa (Vitolo 81’), Suárez.
Goal Llorente 37’