Atlético Madrid made light work of Rayo Majadahonda on Thursday, disposing of their Copa del Rey opponents with a 5-0 thrashing at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano.
The fixture was switched to Atlético’s ground rather than Rayo Majadahonda’s Cerro del Espino (which happens to be Atleti’s training complex), a move that will boost revenues for both clubs.
Atlético made their dominance clear from the outset. Goals from Matheus Cunha, Renan Lodi, Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann and João Félix underlined the side’s attacking potential, with some intriguing tactical shifts and changes on display too.
Here are three things we learned from Atlético’s second Copa del Rey tie win in four years:
Cholo IS going for the Copa del Rey
Earlier this week, Atlético fans installed a banner reading “dear three kings...” with a picture of the Copa del Rey trophy at Atlético’s Cerro del Espino training ground. The supporters made it clear that having gone nine years without winning the Copa, it’s a trophy they want.
Even then, few expected to see such a strong lineup from Diego Simeone against Primera RFEF side Rayo Majadahonda.
The starting lineup featured 11 players who could easily be facing top-flight opposition in a league fixture without any questions raised. Javi Serrano was the only non-first team player included in the squad, and he did not make it off the bench.
Second-choice goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte was made to wait for his debut, as Jan Oblak was selected for his first Copa del Rey appearance in seven years. With it came the team’s first clean sheet in the competition since 2018, and a strong display from a team looking to build much-needed confidence after a run of four consecutive defeats before the winter break.
But the aggression came at a cost.
Griezmann, who suffered a muscle strain in December and then tested positive for COVID-19, lasted only 19 minutes and exited after scoring Atlético’s fourth goal. The club confirmed the Frenchman’s injury relapsed only days before a tough LaLiga fixture against Villarreal and a week before the Supercopa in Saudi Arabia.
In any case, this was quite the contrast from the side that fell to Cornellá at this stage 12 months ago, with Ricard Sánchez dismissed and midfielder Mario Soriano one of the few bright sparks.
It’s time to get used to Marcos Llorente at right-back
With Kieran Trippier’s transfer to Newcastle United confirmed Friday, only hours after the final whistle at the Metropolitano, we’ve already seen a glimpse of the future.
“The club knows what we need, what we want and what we’re looking for, and if it can’t be done then we’ll carry on with what we have here,” Simeone said about Trippier’s departure.
On Thursday, he confirmed what “carrying on” looks like, starting Llorente at right-back for the fourth time this season.
Only time will tell if Atlético do recruit a successor for the Englishman this month. But it’s clear Llorente is the first-choice alternative, rather than Šime Vrsaljko or Atleti B’s Sergio Camus.
While Llorente’s best performances tend to come in a more advanced role, this was a promising performance. The highlight came late in the first half, when he linked up with Yannick Carrasco down the right before cutting the ball back to Luis Suárez, creating the kind of goal Atleti fans saw so often in the first half of the 2020/21 campaign.
That connection between Carrasco and Llorente could have great potential, and it will undoubtedly be one that Simeone considers going forward.
A glimpse of the future Atleti
Simeone took no chances even in a game against lower-tier opposition. He chose a strong lineup, as if this were a pre-season friendly or training ground run-out, to test a new system.
The result: this Atlético side looked and played very different to what we’ve seen over the past 18 months.
“The team is in the middle of a very big evolution,” Renan Lodi said after the final whistle, and he could well be right.
Atlético’s 4-4-2 shape was a shift away from the 3-5-2 which has become the usual for Simeone. It allowed Lodi to come in at left-back, with Carrasco impressing on the right wing as he did against Rayo Vallecano last weekend.
The shape saw Geoffrey Kondogbia and Rodrigo De Paul continue to build a dominant duo in central midfield. They sprayed passes out to Carrasco and Thomas Lemar in wide positions, while Lodi and Llorente provided overlapping runs. It looked more like Atleti circa 2019 than anything we’ve seen since.
This Atlético side looked to press aggressively and high up the pitch, benefitting from a disorganised Rayo Majadahonda system that made it easy to regain possession deep in the opposition half.
With João Félix’s introduction, Simeone inserted a player given more freedom to roam and drop deeper, much like Cunha had also been afforded. The Portuguese’s skill and style were on display, and he scored Atleti’s fifth goal, while Cunha grabbed the team’s opener in the first half after Carrasco won the ball back.
It will be hard to tell how many of these features, how much of that aggression, will carry over into fixtures against top-class opposition like Villarreal and Athletic Club (teams Atlético face next). But this certainly seemed to be a trial run-out for Atleti, and a promising one at that.