Atlético Madrid ended a run of four consecutive defeats in LaLiga by overcoming the league’s surprise package, Rayo Vallecano, on Sunday.
Rayo have struggled on the road and were depleted by injuries and COVID-19 (which also kept Koke and Antoine Griezmann out for Atlético). But even so, the 2-0 win at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano was an impressive one. Diminutive forward Ángel Correa scored both goals to seal the three points for Atlético and put them back into the top four, squarely in the race for Champions League qualification.
Here are three things we learned from the tie:
Ángel Correa showed his moxie
For the first time since the comeback win over Getafe on September 21, Correa played all 90 minutes in a league fixture. And he deserved the opportunity.
Operating in a more-liberated forward position as he had against Real Betis and Valencia earlier in the season, Correa got his name on the scoresheet with an impressive brace. These were two finishes where it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
With Griezmann out due to a positive COVID test and Luis Suárez off the pace (more on that later), Correa was the man to step up. Leading in a central role in attack, his two goals came from intelligent movement and positioning, exploiting weaknesses in a tall and physical Rayo defence.
The first, on 28 minutes, came from magnificent link-up play with Rodrigo De Paul and Yannick Carrasco on the right flank. Correa was the most-alert to pounce on a loose ball as it pinballed around the box. For the second, he timed his run perfectly to get between Santi Comesaña, Nikola Maras and Fran García with a sprint, coolly slotting past Luca Zidane on 53 minutes.
Correa is outperforming his xG in LaLiga by 2.52 goals, making him one of only five players to have scored more goals than would be expected of him (the next highest figure is defender Felipe, who is outperforming xG by 0.66). Everything about Correa’s stats and performances suggest he deserves more game time and opportunities to shine. By getting his name back on the scoresheet, he will put himself in real contention at the perfect time, with Suárez suspended for the trip to Villarreal.
Luis Suárez’s new role?
It’s clear for all to see that the Suárez of 2021/22 is not quite the Suárez of 2020/21. The killer instinct is still there, but that extra burst of pace and even the clinical finishing has been lacking.
There is no better example than his early chance at 0-0, when he chipped the ball over goalkeeper Zidane and wide. It was the kind of chance that would have been impossible for him to miss 12 months ago.
But a new kind of role worked well for Suárez against Rayo, given their vulnerabilities on the counter and a tendency to defend quite high up the pitch.
The Uruguayan played in a slightly deeper position, with Carrasco attacking freely on the right without defensive duties. Suárez and Thomas Lemar on the left could push further up to form a sort of 4-2-4 alignment, with Correa operating as the fox in the box. That allowed Suárez to drop behind Correa, as seen in the heatmap below, to provide the connection between De Paul and Geoffrey Kondogbia as well as the offensive players who could attack the Rayo back four with pace.
Against other opposition, Suárez’s typical battling on the shoulder of the last man could be more threatening. But on this occasion, Suárez showed he is capable of adapting his game within Atlético’s attack, even if it’s not quite what we are used to, and even if his goalscoring drought continues.
Clean sheets are possible
After a seven-game run without one, Atlético kept a clean sheet again, their first since November 20!
Sunday was also the first time a rival team was unable to register a shot on target since September 18, when Athletic Club left the Metropolitano with a 0-0 draw. Rayo’s xG of 0.1 was the lowest figure registered against the Colchoneros all season, with the most recent figure lower coming from Eibar in the 5-0 thrashing last April.
That was particularly pleasing on this occasion given the defensive changes forced upon Diego Simeone. Switching from the preferred back five, Simeone reverted to a back four with Kondogbia stepping up into midfield alongside De Paul in the two central positions. With natural full-backs Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier on the pitch, the defence looked far more balanced. Mario Hermoso also looked more comfortable with Josema Giménez covering him behind.
Rayo could not once threaten Atlético, who shut them down early on in midfield and were comfortable defensively. Part of that is down to Rayo’s poor fluidity and the absences of influential playmaker Óscar Trejo and dangerous winger Álvaro García, while Atleti fan favourite Radamel Falcao was only fit enough for the bench. But credit must also go to the Rojiblancos for their solid defensive performance.