It was meant to be a day of new beginnings at Espanyol’s RCDE Stadium.
Antoine Griezmann was back in an Atlético Madrid shirt more than 500 days after the last time. João Félix was in contention after undergoing ankle surgery to fix a problem he had been dealing with since the end of last year. Matheus Cunha was in the squad as another new signing and speculation abounded about Diego Simeone’s tactics before the match.
Griezmann started along with Luis Suárez and Ángel Correa as Simeone opted for an attacking line-up against an opponent who were yet to score this season. It was Espanyol who looked far more convincing in attack, though, helped by Atlético’s mistakes.
Atlético’s attack and midfield lack cohesion, with Simeone changing to a back four midway through the first half when he saw that Kieran Trippier was getting caught up the field by the dangerous Adrián Embarba on the wing.
Meanwhile, Atlético’s central defenders were struggling to deal with slick-moving eventual goalscorer Raúl de Tomás. Óscar Melendo was finding space behind Koke at the base of Atlético’s midfield.
Simeone’s changes went even further at half-time, as he removed Correa, Trippier, Mario Hermoso with Renan Lodi, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Thomas Lemar tasked with turning the tide. Marcos Llorente was also sent to right-back as part of the sweeping changes.
Lemar changed the game, but Kondogbia freed Koke up roam, create and influence the game.
Simeone looks to Koke as the solution when he doesn’t want to play an outright defensive midfielder, but it also burdens the captain with defensive duties and can lead to stifled build-up and no inventiveness further up the field. Playing the ball out from the back in the first half, Atlético were languid and lacked creativity.
So Simeone took a lead out of Luis Enrique’s book by playing Llorente at right-back and instructing Koke to drop into a back three to launch attacks.
João Félix came on after an hour to replace an anonymous Griezmann, and Matheus Cunha replaced Suárez shortly afterward as Simeone threw his cards on the table. Félix added even more final third dynamism and impetus.
And in the end, it wasn’t a new signing, or a player returning from long-term injury, who earned Atlético the point and eventually the win.
It was one of Cholo’s best performers last season, Yannick Carrasco, winning the ball back after losing it in the penalty area and firing low and beyond Diego López in Espanyol’s goal. Then it was Thomas Lemar, slicing through the final third, taking up a Carrasco backheel 20 minutes later and lashing in the winner with his right foot.
Atlético’s mini-Galactico era has potential, but a better plan is needed. Resting your hopes on the brilliance of mercurial talent is not a route to sustainable success.
Much has been made of Atlético’s squad, but the tyranny of choice seems to be affecting Simeone so far this season. Formations might be fluid, but ideas need clarity. What was once a foregone conclusion — a traditional 4-4-2 — is now anything but, and can now even change a number of times during a game.
In the past, Atlético and Cholo were accused of being one-dimensional and lacked the ability to change games when they weren’t going as planned. But Atlético might have too many dimensions now, too many options, too many avenues to success.
Atlético have not looked convincing in any of their first four games this season, but remain title favorites with one of the league’s best squads. With the influx of new players in attack and Atlético’s need to keep evolving, growing pains were expected. But mistakes and a general uncertainty about the team’s plan were not.
Many tended towards the optimistic when looking at Cholo’s squad this season and it would be silly to bet against him finding a solution. Maybe it is to start with a gameplan and change it when necessary — he has the team now to do that.