Atlético Madrid performed the sneakiest of smash-and-grab displays in some time as they emerged from Villarreal’s Estadio de la Cerámica with a point, despite being bossed all over the pitch from start to finish.
A wonder goal from Ángel Correa and a rare strike from Geoffrey Kondogbia were enough, with goals from Pau Torres and Alberto Moreno in between the two giving Villarreal a commanding position.
Here are three things learned from Sunday night’s encounter on the east coast:
Jan Oblak just isn’t at his best...
For Atlético, and Jan Oblak specifically, to have the worst performance compared to expected goals conceded is utterly astounding.
If you said that even six months ago, nobody would believe you. But it’s true. With a 17.48 xG against and 24 goals conceded, only bottom-placed Levante have a larger difference of goals allowed relative to xG against.
For years, Atlético have relied on Oblak to save them time and time again, to defy the odds and prevent almost-certain goals. Now, he’s becoming a liability, making repeated mistakes that haven’t been seen between the sticks at Atleti for years.
After he denied Gerard Moreno from the penalty spot, Oblak fumbled a Dani Parejo free kick in front of him inside the six-yard box, allowing Villarreal to level the scores. The second goal didn’t cover him in glory either, as Alberto Moreno’s shot snuck under his outstretched leg and bounced into the net.
The Slovenian looks shaky for the first time in a long time, and with only four saves made in his last five appearances (conceding eight goals), it’s clear that he’s far from his best.
The decision to give Oblak the nod in the Copa del Rey, keeping Benjamin Lecomte on the bench, has made it clear that he is not under great pressure for the number one jersey. Whether Simeone decides to mix things up in cup competitions, with the Supercopa and more Copa del Rey action in the next few weeks, will show if he feels Oblak needs a real challenge.
...and it’s clear to see why
Atlético reek of insecurity and uncertainty, with no player looking comfortable or assured in their position. This side is searching continually for an identity, as Simeone made more changes Sunday after returning to the 4-4-2 shape to begin 2022.
There is no better example than in central defence. It’s clear neither Felipe nor Mario Hermoso would be first-choice, and both combined to produce the kind of disasterclass Atleti fans feared when looking at the team-sheet. Both defenders have been dramatically out of form this season, and again appeared to be almost complete strangers on the pitch.
A clear lack of communication combined with ageing Felipe’s lack of pace and poor positioning made it easy for Villarreal’s players to roam around the final third. Alberto Moreno was able to tear apart the Atleti defence with a simple run, as the former Liverpool man did for his go-ahead goal.
Atlético insist that they will not pursue a central defender in this transfer window, which is truly baffling. Josema Giménez was suspended for this one, but has been injury-prone all season, much like Stefan Savić. Kieran Trippier’s departure only adds to the feeling of uncertainty in the defensive third.
What is difficult for Atlético is this sense of uncertainty is one that has festered for months — really, since October, when Atleti were first struggling by dropping points with a lack of fluidity in attack. Now, the focus has shifted to defensive issues, but Simeone seems unsure how to fix it.
Until the squad issues are addressed, he may not be able to.
A point robbed
Atlético’s two goals against Villarreal came from an xG of 0.04. For both those chances to have ended up with goals is, quite frankly, a miracle.
Much like the reverse fixture in August, when Gerónimo Rulli and Aïssa Mandi were on completely different wavelengths in the final minute, Atlético took a 2-2 draw and a point from Villarreal despite not deserving it.
Scoring with such chances is remarkable, and Ángel Correa again deserves plaudits. He is playing with the kind of confidence the rest of the forward options are lacking, and that can be the only explanation behind attempting a 45-yard shot on goal over Rulli.
Kondogbia was doing much of the midfield work with Rodrigo De Paul, Thomas Lemar and Yannick Carrasco all off the pace. The midfield battle was well and truly lost, but much of the good work came from the France-born pivot. He won eight duels, compared to just two from De Paul and none from his substitute replacement, Koke.
Unai Emery’s side dominated in every respect, with 60 percent possession, 1.93 xG more than Atlético accrued, and complete territorial domination for much of the game. It was no surprise Atlético dropped more points from a winning position, taking that statistic to 12 points lost from a leading position this season (compared to six from all of 2020/21). Much like Oblak’s stats, only bottom-placed Levante have worse figures.
Atleti can take a positive from this tie, which is when everything suggests they should have embarked on a bus back to Madrid empty-handed, they left Vila-real with a point. But that is far from what fans were hoping for and dreaming about when the campaign started with talk of a title defence.