Atlético Madrid fans faced yet more disappointment and frustration as Athletic Club dashed their hopes of a Supercopa final appearance.
Athletic fought back after Unai Simón turned João Félix’s 62nd-minute header into his own net and won 2-1 to advance to Sunday’s final against Real Madrid. The manner of Atlético’s collapse was all too familiar for the players and fans.
Yet again, Atleti’s saw their silverware hopes dashed through poor defensive mistakes that are not usually associated with a Diego Simeone side. But this defeat was concerning for that reason and so many more.
Here are three things we learned from the fixture.
Set pieces. Again.
This point is one that had to be considered. Can you learn something when you’ve already learned it several times before? Neutral readers may think such a concept would be nonsensical. Atlético fans can assure you that their players still cannot learn the much-needed lesson.
On Thursday, Athletic scored two goals from two set pieces. Almost unsurprisingly, the first serious chance came from a needless Mario Hermoso foul, conceded deep in his own half, again showing a lack of discipline. Jan Oblak had to be at his best to deny Iñigo Martínez from the ensuing free kick, taken moments after Atleti had gone ahead.
It only went downhill from there.
The equalizer came from a corner, with Iker Muniain’s delivery perfectly-weighted cross for Yeray Álvarez. Yeray lost his marker, Koke, with a smart routine, which caught Atleti out. José Giménez did not recover in time to prevent the free header eight yards out.
The second goal, yet another Muniain corner, saw three Athletic players touch the ball in the box before an Atleti player did — that man being Oblak, picking the ball out of his own net. Nico Williams applied the finishing touch, unmarked and waiting for the ball to drop, after Yeray and Iñigo Martínez were both left free to head and deflect the ball.
Atlético’s current defensive system isn’t working. Man-to-man marking isn’t suited to players with such little discipline or positional awareness. A change to a more zonal approach could help, but only if executed correctly, and there can be little faith the current squad can do that.
Simeone placating his stars
The decision to bring on Luis Suárez at 1-0 up on 70 minutes was quite simply inexplicable.
The veteran’s entry could have made sense had Atlético been looking for a goal, but the combination of a team sitting deeper to defend their lead while introducing him was baffling.
But in terms of learning from it, what went on? It’s hard to imagine Simeone saw Suárez helping Atlético with their counter-attacking play. His pace is not what it once was, nor what other players could offer, and Athletic were able to contain him easily. Suárez’s movement is still impressive, but he had little support. The Uruguayan was making runs alone, with no real option to pass once on the ball.
It could be argued Suárez offers more of a focal point as a centre-forward, allowing a more direct approach from the Atlético side. This is the kind of number nine that Atlético have not replaced since Diego Costa’s departure over a year ago. Atlético lack a player who will sit in between the opposition’s central defenders, win aerial battles, and generally look to hold the ball up through being a nuisance.
Is that where Simeone sees Suárez’ future this season? Possibly.
Alternatively, it’s just as possible Simeone knew that leaving Suárez as an unused substitute would enrage the player. There has already been talk of his possible departure, either in the summer or even as soon as this winter, and Suárez’s importance to the squad is evident. Having left him on the bench with Antoine Griezmann already ruled out was perhaps a surprising call from Simeone, but it was one he should have stuck with. If Cholo’s selection choices are based on meritocracy, as they always have been, Suárez did not deserve a shot in Riyadh.
(Matheus Cunha, left on the bench for another 15 minutes, could have done a better job — not only in suiting the counter-attacking style, but also with his work rate to support the team defensively.)
Would Luis Suárez have been the substitute had his name not been Luis Suárez? It’s a difficult question to answer, and one that few would ever expect to ask a coach as courageous as Simeone.
A real lack of leadership
Josema Giménez’s injury time sending-off was the moment that encapsulated all that was going wrong with Atlético. Giménez had to apologize on social media Friday morning for his headless chicken act, going into a challenge with his studs up at head height. Coming from the team’s third captain, this is a clear indication of the experience and maturity lacking in this squad.
Imagine Gabi or Diego Godín making a challenge like that. Those are the figures Atleti are so desperately missing.
Atlético looked fragile. Even after conceding the first goal, the Colchoneros were visibly nervous at the next set piece and struggling. Players looked devoid of confidence and unclear in the set-up.
And unfortunately, the chaos didn’t end on the pitch.
“If, after the goal, we go for more, rather than sitting back and waiting, things like today can happen,” vice-captain Jan Oblak said after the final whistle.
For the changing room’s second-in-command to come out and seemingly criticise his coach so publicly is unheard of in the Simeone era.
Yet so to was Cholo’s post-match reaction.
“Lodi could have found João on the right and he sent it wide, we could have finished better. Carrasco had people ahead of him to shoot and he didn’t see them,” he raged in his press conference. This, coming from a coach who has almost never singled out individuals to the media.
It is evident that all is not well in the Atlético camp. Far beyond tactical set-ups, who can play at right-back, or an imbalance between attack or defence, Atlético fans should be concerned by the clear lack of unity. Last season, Simeone had the team operating as a unit, getting more out of them than the value of their individual parts. This season, each individual part is underperforming, and there is clear friction between them.
Such a situation is not sustainable, and Simeone may well be the man to end up paying for it.