“The team showed today it’s alive. That might bother some, but it’s still alive.”
Diego Simeone said those words, but not on Sunday. He said them after a draw against Real Madrid more than seven years ago. Yet, the sentiment is uncannily valid for this Atlético Madrid side, which soldiers on in first place for another week following a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Real Betis.
Let’s begin with...
The state of the race
Atlético are top, having accrued 67 points from 30 games. Real Madrid, winners against Barcelona on Saturday, are second with 66 points. Barcelona, on 65 points, dropped to third after its loss in the Clásico — the first league game Ronald Koeman’s team has lost in 2021. All three have racked up 20 wins, while Atleti have the most draws of the bunch with seven.
“I go game-by-game, and I’m not going to change,” Simeone said after his men grabbed a point at the Benito Villamarín. “I love this moment.”
Madman. The rest of us want to tear out our hair.
Despite suspensions, injuries, and a coronavirus outbreak that disrupted the team’s form, this moment sees the rojiblancos remain in first place — where they’ve been for more than four months. Sunday was a missed opportunity for Atlético to re-establish a cushion atop LaLiga — but after unexpectedly losing Thomas Lemar before kickoff and seeing two more influential players walk off injured in the second half, a draw away at Europa League-chasing Betis isn’t a bad result.
Atleti host Eibar next Sunday, and the Basque side is hurtling toward relegation, having won just one league game since December. Real Madrid will make the short trip to Getafe — another side trying to stave off Segunda — after a Wednesday visit to Liverpool in the Champions League. Meanwhile, Barcelona will play the Copa del Rey final against a hungry Athletic Club on Saturday.
How the team played relative to injuries and shape
Watching a severely-weakened Atlético try to score in the second half Sunday was akin to trying to untie a balloon with only a bar of soap — frustratingly impossible. (Or is that “impossibly frustrating?”) Simeone was already without Marcos Llorente and Luis Suárez before he saw João Félix roll his ankle trying to stick the landing on a shot attempt. Félix limped off minutes after the second half kicked off.
But Atlético began the match well, adding to this frustration. This period without Suárez requires Atleti to switch attacking points and become more unpredictable. In that vein, Félix and Ángel Correa involved themselves in the opening goal, which Yannick Carrasco scored. Correa grabbed an assist with a quick tap over to Carrasco inside the six-yard box, and the wingback rounded off the move with a simple finish — his first goal in 2021.
Betis found an equalizer in relatively short order, though. Ageless wonder Joaquín and left back Álex Moreno — a thorn in Atlético’s side throughout the match — combined to set Cristian Tello’s 20th minute equalizer. Like Carrasco, Tello had not scored a league goal since November before he blasted this volley home. José Giménez looked in a decent position to cut out Moreno’s cross, but missed the ball entirely.
Sans Lemar, Simeone simply stuck Saúl into midfield, but the second half injuries to Félix and Kieran Trippier required extensive changes. Cholo eventually swapped the 3-5-2 for the more-traditional 4-4-2, turning to Correa and Vitolo as a makeshift forward pair after the hour — incredibly, that duo nearly combined for the winning goal in stoppage time. Saúl moved to the right side of midfield with Koke and the returning Lucas Torreira manning the middle. Renan Lodi, who has struggled massively as a wingback, entered for Mario Hermoso to facilitate that switch to four at the back. The move allowed Carrasco more freedom as a pure winger, the role he occupied in his first Atlético stint. Finally, Šime Vrsaljko replaced Trippier in a like-for-like swap.
Atlético attacked toothlessly in the second half and didn’t even generate a shot until Saúl had an 87th-minute effort blocked. Héctor Herrera’s removal left Koke without a security blanket — Torreira isn’t as reliably accurate or creative as Herrera, and with so much talent missing anyway, the captain could link precious few moves together despite a high percentage of completed passes. Still, Betis did not place Atleti under huge pressure considering the circumstances — Jan Oblak needed to make one big save on Diego Lainez about 15 minutes from time — and the visitors even found themselves with a chance to win late on.
The Correa quandary
Levante. Sevilla. Betis. In each of these away games, Ángel Correa missed a chance worth 0.3 expected goals or higher. These are misses that could come to define Atlético’s season should it end without a league title, but scapegoating Correa alone for those results — two draws and a loss — is laughable.
Claudio Bravo made two very late saves to deny Correa a winner on Sunday night, and Simeone embraced his distressed forward in an image that made Marca’s front page. It was another tough break for the 26-year-old, who has enjoyed another solid campaign but is on a cold streak in front of goal — he’s gone 629 minutes without scoring in LaLiga. The timing...not good.
Correa has never been a great finisher, and he underperformed his xG tally last season as well as this one. That flaw to his game has glared ever so brightly over the past couple months, but Simeone keeps giving Correa all these minutes — a fourth straight year with 20-plus starts — because the little Argentine does a lot of other things really well:
Correa has in fact over-performed his expected assists total for the second year running. He’s never lacked creativity — though he has occasionally lacked sound decision-making — and his seven assists are one behind Llorente for the team lead. His dribbling and passing quite often progress the play, but it’s his ability to press aggressively and successfully from the front that is most important to Cholo — and to Cholismo.
The metrics reveal Correa is a standout defensive forward, but he draws ire anyway because of his recent misfires. Surely, he will continue to display the exemplary work rate that makes him a model Simeone attacker, and he will hope for a smidge more luck when he takes the field against Eibar at the Wanda Metropolitano next week.