Another Champions League game meant another round of disappointment for Atlético Madrid fans, this time as their team was held to a 0-0 draw at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano by Club Brugge.
The Belgians got to celebrate qualification in Atleti’s backyard, while the Colchoneros were left fearing for their hopes of reaching the next round in Europe’s elite competition.
In a game with plenty of chances, Club’s experienced goalkeeper Simon Mignolet stole the headlines with his saves. The hosts’ best chance fell to Álvaro Morata, as the ball smashed into his unsuspecting face inside the box.
Here are three things we learned from the game.
Simeone needs to make up his mind in attack
In his forward department, Diego Simeone has an incredible range of talent. Morata is Spain’s number nine. Antoine Griezmann is one of the club’s historic goalscorers. Ángel Correa is in the form of his life over the past 12 months. João Félix (more on him later) is the club’s record signing. Matheus Cunha is about as an exciting a young talent as you’ll find.
Yet, El Cholo doesn’t seem to know how to put them together.
Simeone hasn’t fielded the same attacking pairing in consecutive games since September 7, when Félix and Morata played together against Porto days after lining up together against Real Sociedad.
This mix and match period has seen the team fail to score in all three of their Champions League matches since then.
The major issue comes in that each player is so different. Against Club Brugge, Atlético started off without a number nine “reference point.” Correa and Griezmann flitted between positions, with one occasionally dropping or drifting wide, but with neither providing that reference in attack that Morata, for example, does. Then Atleti’s first change saw Morata thrown on to do just that.
It’s not only a question of chemistry or connection between the two men on the pitch — this isn’t FIFA, after all — but it is about setting up a team with a tactical style of play that can be maintained. Morata invites a more direct style of getting wide and putting crosses in, whereas Correa is more likely to go wide and cut in himself.
Simeone appears to be trying to balance out the players available to him to give them even minutes and opportunities. But his focus instead needs to be on identifying a style, rather than giving preference to the personnel.
That is what Cholismo is all about, after all.
João might as well stay at home
What’s worse: Simeone not utilising João Félix, or João Félix’s reaction to not being utilised by Simeone?
Well, they’re kind of the same thing. There is clearly more to this story than simply meets the eye, and it is hard to imagine Simeone isolating Félix to this extent if it were not for something that has gone on behind the scenes. Rodrigo de Paul went out partying with his girlfriend in Miami having asked the club to spend time with his cancer-stricken father, and yet he got minutes against Club Brugge (when he was whistled and booed).
João himself was whistled and booed on Saturday against Girona, and the tide really does seem to be turning on him from both inside and outside the club. Simeone’s refusal to consider him on Wednesday, while every other first team forward did get on, is the latest sign he simply isn’t in El Cholo’s plans anymore.
And yet, we saw a rage almost symbolic of João’s performative acts of petulance. If he really were to be frustrated, it could have been when Matheus Cunha was selected ahead of him to replace Saúl Ñíguez on Wednesdat. Axel Witsel replacing Antoine Griezmann, who had dropped back into midfield by that point, was a move that made sense with under 15 minutes to go.
When asked why he had left João out post-game, Simeone presented an easy answer.
“I saw them generating danger with the counter-attack, I felt that we needed security in central midfield, and Griezmann was tiring defensively,” he explained. Logical.
What wasn’t logical was João’s reaction — to throw his training bib into the technical area as he sat down and took off his boots. It is something so contrary to the club’s values that it is hard to imagine many, if any, Atleti fans having much sympathy for him, regardless of whether they agree with Simeone’s tactical call.
This performance wasn’t actually that bad
Let’s be honest, the result was the worst thing about this game for Atlético de Madrid. Simeone called it “one of the best performances of the season,” which might have been a slight exaggeration, but not by much.
⚪️ #UCL | Simon Mignolet’s On-Target Shots Faced Atlético de Madrid— Jorge López-Torrecilla (@Jorge_ltg_) October 12, 2022
◎ 14 Shots Against
◉ . (0 goals allowed)
Atleti’s xG shows that more often than not, the Colchoneros would have scored with the chances they had. When you add in Mignolet’s xGOT figure (based on how often you’d expect a shot placed there to be scored once the shot is on target), this just happened to be one of those days were Atlético came up against a goalkeeper in monumental form.
Nine saves in total showed Atlético had the chances, and the finishing wasn’t an issue either. This was simply a case of bad luck.
But the issue for the Rojiblancos comes in that there is no more room for bad luck. The away losses in Brugge and in Leverkusen mean Atleti no longer have that comfort zone to fall back on.
And what is more worrying in this jam-packed season is that there is no room elsewhere for manouevre. Atleti are currently fourth in LaLiga, but level on points with both Real Betis and Real Sociedad. Before the next game in the Champions League, against Bayer Leverkusen on October 26, Simeone’s men face trips to play both third-place and fifth-place in LaLiga, with a midweek home tie against top-half Rayo Vallecano in between. That leaves little breathing space for rest and rotation.
While this game was not a bad performance, it does still mean that Atlético’s whole season could already be on the line in the next 14 days.