Atlético Madrid produced their best performance in recent memory — and by far the best performance of the season — in a Saturday victory at Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, against the backdrop of a Sevillian sunset.
Diego Simeone opted to make tactical and personnel changes to his side after the humiliation of defeat in the Madrid derby, and they paid off. Marcos Llorente’s powerful first half strike gave Atlético a deserved lead before the half-hour mark, and Álvaro Morata’s deft dink in the second half sealed the victory.
HIGHLIGHTS: #SevillaFCAtleti 0-2— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) October 1, 2022
❤️ On the day that @Koke6 became the player with most appearances in @atletienglish history, @marcosllorente and @AlvaroMorata ensured they celebrated in style.#LaLigaSantander | #LaLigaHighlights pic.twitter.com/fbVswa7q4S
The only negative to the evening could prove to be the late injury to Nahuel Molina, who hobbled off with what looked like a muscle issue in his left leg (though Simeone said postmatch he suffered only a cramp). Regardless, Los Rojiblancos will head back to the Spanish capital celebrating a win that put a clear dividing line between them and a side who were one of their biggest rivals only months ago.
Here are three things learned from the tie.
Cholo goes back to true Cholismo
What we saw at the Pizjuán was Diego Simeone going back to basics.
El Cholo deployed a 4-4-2 which could have come right out of the 2010s, and a style so direct that it only took seven touches from Jan Oblak to Álvaro Morata via a flick from Matheus Cunha to score the second goal.
In part, that was down to the players made available to him. Stefan Savić and José María Giménez started together for the first time this season and that had a huge influence on the team’s tactics.
Equally, it was clear in who Simeone chose. Selecting Saúl Ñíguez (ahead of the perhaps more-likely candidate Yannick Carrasco) and Matheus Cunha to start (ahead of João Félix), served as a clear reward for both players’ respective work ethic, regarded as among the best in the squad. They may be more conservative options, less likely to light up a game with their flare, but they got the reps they deserved.
In doing so, we saw Cholismo at its best. And there has never been a better contrast to show the value of Atlético’s coach.
On the opposite bench, Julen Lopetegui was stubbornly sticking to his philosophy despite lacking the squad to play to it. This demonstrated a sign of failure to reinvent, while Simeone struck the right chord with a squad that has changed substantially in recent years.
Occasions and games like this one show why Simeone has been with Atleti for a decade, while Lopetegui’s success at clubs have only lasted a handful of years. That is not to play down the Basque coach’s talent, but rather to point out the incredible rarity of what Atlético Madrid have in their coach.
How to get the best out of Marcos Llorente
Marcos Llorente had not scored since May 2021 before this fixture and, if we’re honest, it hadn’t looked much like it was going to come any time soon.
Operating as a wing-back and a midfielder, Llorente has perhaps been the player most-affected by the team’s change in tactics over the last year. Having lost partner-in-crime Kieran Trippier, Llorente’s offensive freedom disappeared and he has looked a shadow of his former self.
But in Seville, he not only impressed, but he showed strong signs of a partnership with Nahuel Molina as well. There were flashes of that in pre-season too, but this was the first time we’ve seen that connection in competitive action.
Against Sevilla, Llorente looked more like the Llorente we saw in 2020/21, when he acted more like a right winger than as a midfielder. With Saúl operating as an interior on the left, the midfield three of Koke, Saúl, and Axel Witsel provided the cover to give Llorente that freedom to burst forward and join Morata and Cunha in attack.
These are the areas where Llorente has proven to be the most effective. His explosive pace and technique mean that it’s where he can truly make a difference. The quality of control and the precision of his finish past Yassine Bounou only further proves that. It was such a fine goal that it was almost worth waiting over 4,000 minutes for it.
If Atleti are to maintain performances like this one in the weeks ahead, much of it may come down to how well Simeone can unleash Llorente down the right. And that may come down to Molina’s fitness after his late withdrawal.
Few players last such a long time at a single club in the modern game. Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. Francesco Totti at Roma. The list is a short one, but Koke can proudly put his name on it. And he’s not a Nacho at Real Madrid, he is the leader and star of his boyhood team. On Saturday, he made record appearance number 554.
¡UN MOMENTO MUY GRANDE PARA TODOS LOS ATLÉTICOS! ⚪️— DAZN España (@DAZN_ES) October 1, 2022
De capitán a capitán. @Koke6 recibiendo el cariño de Gabi en el día en el que ha hecho historia con el @Atleti #LaLigaEnDAZN ⚽ pic.twitter.com/R0rrGboZn9
A fan his whole life, Koke joined the club’s academy as an eight-year-old in 2000. He often spent his weekends going from training or a match straight to the Vicente Calderón to watch the senior team with his dad. His career since, making his debut as a 17-year-old boy and going on to become one of the first names on the team sheet and captaining the side to winning LaLiga, is the stuff of dreams.
In registering an assist for Llorente’s strike, Koke set up his 101st goal for the club. Only Xavi has more assists among midfielders in LaLiga history, and none has registered more assists than Koke has since the start of the 2009/10 season. Once again, he’s put himself among the elite — not only at Atleti, but in Spanish football.
The demands of playing at such a high level in the modern era mean spending your career at one club, playing 40 or 50 games each year, is not as easy as it used to be. For the likes of other local youngsters it has been a touch easier, just as Fernando Torres found out as he established himself when Atlético were playing in Segunda. But Koke broke into the team as it was on the rise, and he was still a teenager when Simeone returned as coach.
It is hard to envisage when we could see a tale similar to Koke’s again — from any footballer, let alone one playing at Atlético de Madrid. He has been instrumental to Atlético’s decade-long success, and the 30-year-old regular for club and country has several years left in him at the highest level. We can certainly expect his tally to end up being over 600 appearances, to say the least.
In the years to come, future generations will ask us about the legend of Koke. It would be easy to argue he is under-appreciated today. But this record may just bring attention to the incredible value the captain brings to this team, and to this club as an institution.