Atlético Madrid’s 2021/22 season all but came to an end on Wednesday night.
Only six days after crashing out of the Supercopa de España to Basque opposition in humiliating circumstances, Atleti were beaten in the Copa del Rey by Basque opposition in humiliating circumstances.
Real Sociedad were worthy and justified 2-0 winners on the night at Reale Arena, with goals from Adnan Januzaj and Alexander Sørloth either side of half-time giving them the three points. Atlético had few chances of their own, the best falling to Yannick Carrasco as he hit the woodwork, but they looked like a side not at the races.
Here are three things learned from this Copa del Rey defeat:
Cramming the midfield made it disappear
You know when you blow up a balloon? How if you blow too much air into it, it explodes and you’re left with a shock and a bit of limp plastic in your hand?
It seems it’s the same when you put too many central midfielders into an Atletico Madrid midfield.
Atlético’s starting midfield four created just two chances on Wednesday, and many of the team’s best chances came from elsewhere. Rodrigo De Paul set up Carrasco to hit the post in the first half, but Ángel Correa’s best chance came from a Renan Lodi pass. The game passed the midfield by completely.
Héctor Herrera was the best of a poor bunch in the middle of the park, registering 49 passes. That number was more than double what Koke and De Paul made combined, yet even he only had an 84 percent completion rate, only marginally above the season average of 81.6 percent.
Koke and De Paul were both below that average, reflecting a lack of connection between the lines.
The midfield was just as absent when further defensive cover was needed. No protection was offered to the back four. Teenager Javi Serrano came on with 12 minutes left on the clock, and made the same number of tackles as Koke did in 55 and De Paul did in 78. That kind of work rate and commitment, putting a foot in to disrupt the opposition game plan, was absent yet again. It’s a role that has been missing all season long, with Geoffrey Kondogbia occasionally filling in, but options clearly lacking beyond him.
Atlético’s midfield issues sadly can’t be fixed by overloading the middle of the pitch in numbers. Koke and De Paul are both in poor form, while Herrera is not a player of good enough quality to be a regular starter.
Playing Felipe helps no one
It’s been clear for some time that Felipe is on a rather steep, downward trend in his career. To say he is a shadow of his former self would be to put it politely.
Time and time again this season, the Brazilian’s unnecessary and unforced errors have cost his team, but on Wednesday came his most catastrophic slip-up yet.
On the first goal, Felipe’s marking is all over the place. Correa was tracking back alongside Šime Vrsaljko to follow Adnan Januzaj, but Felipe should have been commanding the right-hand side of the box. Instead, he ended up at the bottom of a three-man heap which Januzaj climbed over to head in the opening goal. Felipe showed a lack of experience and intelligence to position himself so poorly.
The second goal was simply farcical. Dilly-dallying in possession, he gifted the ball to Alexander Sørloth and allowed him through on goal. What was somehow worse than that mere fact was that he then lunged in with his studs up from behind, late. It was pure desperation. Even in spite of the goal, Felipe could consider himself fortunate not to see a second yellow, or even a straight red, for such a tackle. Had Sørloth gone down, he most certainly would have.
This is a massive issue, because Felipe’s role in the Atlético defence is supposedly to act as the “older statesman” who can bring composure to the unit. Instead, he ends matches with teammates running to him to put an arm around him.
Two clean sheets from 16 appearances this campaign only proves that Felipe is a walking and talking liability. He’s a risk Diego Simeone no longer can afford to take.
Atleti aren’t reflecting Atleti’s values
Perhaps what will upset Atlético fans more than anything else is what happened off the pitch in San Sebastián.
Before kick-off, the Atleti team bus was assaulted with missiles thrown by Real Sociedad fans. Simeone was visibly furious with the police as they arrived on the scene. And that rage spilled over.
Simeone refused to shake the hand of La Real’s affable coach, Imanol Aguacil, on the touchline pre-match and cut a more frustrated figure than usual. His reaction to the second goal, throwing his arms up as he grimaced, was an unusually public demonstration of fury with one of his own players.
But that wasn’t all. Post-match, Mario Hermoso spoke to television cameras.
“On the left in midfield, I think there’s a possible foul, but we know what this is like. There have been several situations where it’s happened to us. I don’t understand absolutely anything. I don’t understand how the referee controls the time, all the balls that went out, controlling people, 10 substitutions, and he adds three minutes... I don’t understand any of it.”
For many years, Atletico have taken pride from being fair losers. For a club and a community so used to being second-best, Atleti fans know better than most how to congratulate a winner when they’ve been beaten. In San Sebastián, they were beaten fair and square. Hermoso failed to reflect that.
There’s also an element of self-criticism, of reflection on Atlético’s own performance. Hermoso himself was far from blameless, and is having a thoroughly-disappointing campaign. Atleti fans have many complaints of late, but very few relate to refereeing. Hermoso’s post-match rant only served to demonstrate a growing divide between the club’s players and its fans.
For this to happen while wearing the old club crest, which meant so much that fans queued up outside club stores to buy the new shirt on Tuesday, spilled salt into the wounds.