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3 things learned from Atlético’s rugged 1-0 victory over Athletic

Away form is the key at San Mamés.

Athletic Club v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Pablo Garcia/DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Atlético Madrid continued a fine run of form in LaLiga by beating Athletic Club on Saturday night to make it three consecutive wins in the league since the international break.

It was Antoine Griezmann who got the winning strike early in the second half, wrong-footing Unai Simón with a finish from the edge of the box. But it was not an easy night for Atleti, who lost goalkeeper Jan Oblak to concussion late on in the game and had to see out the narrow lead without the Slovenian stalwart.

Here we look into three things we can learn from the game, beyond the simple fact that Álvaro Morata’s disallowed goal shows that football is a non-contact sport.

Reinildo is Atleti’s best signing in a decade

For some time now, this column has served as the Reinildo fan club. But this performance up against Athletic Club was arguably his best yet. The Mozambican was quite simply everywhere.

Even for the 88th-minute “penalty” (a call changed correctly by VAR), he took a ball full on in his face and didn’t even blink. It’s that kind of motivation and strength, both mentally and physically, that makes him stand so far apart from so many of his contemporaries in this current Atlético de Madrid squad.

Having adapted to become one of Spain’s best central defenders on the left of a back three, Reinildo has now reverted to the left-back role which he tended to play in throughout his career before the move to Spain. He’s made it look easy.

Reinildo Mandava is not the superstar of this team, nor will he ever be, but he is what gives this side personality and what helps to set them apart. That his value has more than doubled over the last 12 months according to Transfermarkt should be no surprise. He has stepped up to a new level and his play is exceeding even the wildest of expectations.

It takes quite something to walk away with the man of the match award on a night like this, and while Griezmann and substitute goalkeeper Ivo Grbić deserve their plaudits, there can be no comparison with a man who made an incredible 12 interceptions and got involved in 26 duels.

Add in five clearances and 17 recoveries and you may be hard-pushed to find a more complete defensive performance than this one anywhere in LaLiga this season. That is testament to the echelons of the game in which Reinildo’s displays for Atlético Madrid belong.

Away form matters

With 13 points from a possible 15, Atleti have the second best away form in the league, with a fixture list which has included trips to Mestalla, the Pizjuán and San Mamés. That is no mean feat at all.

Last season, Atleti picked up 11 points more at home than they did away, with seven of the team’s nine defeats coming on the road. That trend has been completely reversed this time around. To date, this season is the first since 2016/17 that Atlético’s away form has put them higher in the league table than their home form.

Of the three trips to the hellish arenas of Mestalla, the Pizjuán and San Mamés, Atlético picked up only one point from nine last season. Yet this year, they have nine from nine. Without conceding to boot.

This was the Rojiblancos’ first win at San Mamés since 2017 and an end to a dreadful record at one of Spanish football’s great arenas. It was a display that showed the kind of fight and desire which have been lacking in many recent visits.

Defensively strong and with a dangerous counter-attacking game, Atlético looked like a true Cholista team, capable of turning it on at a moment’s notice with moments of quality both as a team and as individuals.

Next up on the road is the Benito Villamarín, home to top-four rivals Real Betis. While the fixture list is certainly not doing Atlético any favours, their wisdom and strong performances do seem to be showing positive signs that this team can compete.

A turning point for Griezmann

“I know people want to hear it from me: I’m sorry, for all the damage that I could have caused,” an emotional Antoine Griezmann reflected in the mixed zone after the game. “I’m very proud to have been able to renew and be an Atlético completely. The biggest apology I want to give is on the pitch, giving everything for the team and with nights like tonight.”

It was the Frenchman’s pinpoint finish against his arch nemesis, Athletic Club, which would give Atlético the three points on a night which was summed up by the performance of Griezmann himself.

Having joined the club permanently on a deal until 2026, the 31-year-old is now back in the starting line-up and, despite the blank against Club Brugge, is doing enough to justify his place in the team with his form.

Athletic Club De Bilbao V Atletico De Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo By Ricardo Larreina/Europa Press via Getty Images

In Bilbao, we saw the best of Griezmann flittering between the front line and the midfield, offering real threat while also providing defensive stability. It’s a side to his game that few others can offer and a certain young Portuguese player could learn an awful lot from.

It does feel as though this is a turning point for Griezmann. Fans appear to be edging toward forgiveness for his controversial departure, and he himself is recognising where he has gone wrong in the past.

If Griezmann can take the bull by the horns and lead this team, as he did on Saturday night, on a regular basis, then he could still write his name into the history books for all the right reasons.

Griezmann wanted silverware, it was the main motivation behind his move to Catalonia, but if he could bring it to Madrid with Atleti, he could become a legend. Just ask his wife — she did tell him as much back in 2018.