Atlético Madrid sealed a crucial away victory at the Estadio Benito Villamarín to maintain a fine run of form on the road in LaLiga, which has helped to cement their place in the top three of Spain’s domestic competition.
A 2-1 win came courtesy of an Antoine Griezmann brace, featuring an “Olympic goal” direct from a corner, and another smart finish only shortly afterwards. Nabil Fékir’s late free-kick was too little, too late for the Verdiblancos.
Here, we analyse three things learned from the match.
Antoine Griezmann is this team’s leader
Recently, we wrote about how Antoine Griezmann is Atlético Madrid’s best player. But beyond that, against Real Betis, he showed himself to be one of the team’s heavyweights in every sense.
“It seems that we are seeing the Antoine Griezmann who left, who is a leader of the game. We need leaders. He understands his colleagues and a good link is forming,” Diego Simeone said of his performance.
In the absence of captain Koke, there has often been a void of leadership within the Atlético squad. Josema Giménez and Stefan Savić have at times stepped up, while vice-captain Jan Oblak is not helped by his position nor his quieter disposition. Griezmann surprised many by making the most of this chance to up his game.
For the first time, Griezmann is establishing himself as one of the more experienced players among the Atleti squad and one of the old guard. In the past, he has long been a glamorous option, more a superstar than a war horse. That is now beginning to change.
With five goal involvements in his last four LaLiga appearances, Griezmann’s link-up and connection within the squad is better than ever. He certainly appears to have benefitted from playing more than 30 minutes per match, as was the case in August and September.
He is far more involved, with his number of shots per 90 up to 3 from 2.04 last season, while his number of passes has also grown from 36.48 to 44.22. This is Griezmann taking the reigns and taking control of his role at Atlético de Madrid.
Simeone’s tactics on the road are clear
“Only one team was looking for the victory from the beginning to the end, the one that came out not to lose won,” Real Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini said, and he’d be right.
But, his complaints were worthless after failing to win the tactical battle. And, to be fair to Pellegrini, his explanation for the result did go beyond the initial explanation that grabbed the headlines.
“I think we lacked more creativity for 55 minutes when we dominated the game. We lacked creativity against a team that was very good at the back,” he added.
It is in this second part of his statement that we see the true value of Simeone’s tactics on the road. Atleti have conceded only two away goals from six games so far this season. With 6.24 xG conceded, that may suggest this is down to some good goalkeeping and poor finishing. But it also reflects that Atleti are standing firm defensively. That is essential to this approach.
Atleti’s counterattacking nature on the road of late has allowed opposition teams to dominate play and even bombard the Colchoneros at times, but the cutting edge on the counter which has made the difference. That was the case again on Sunday.
Both of Griezmann’s goals originated from chances which can hardly be deemed as high probability, with a combined total of 0.31 xG. It is that edge in front of goal which has made this tactical approach work.
In both of their last two away games, Atleti have been outscored on xG by their opponents, but have emerged with the three points. Long-term, that suggests this style may be difficult to maintain and continue to bring results. But it does show a backs-to-the-wall approach which has served Atleti well thus far. It’s a far cry from the defensive shambles that have been on display at the Cívitas Metropolitano this season.
The left-sided conundrum gets worse
If there has been one problem area for Atleti this season, it has been at full-back on both flanks. Nahuel Molina’s form on the right has picked up and improved.
But on the left, it has left Diego Simeone unclear.
Against Real Betis, Simeone opted for a new starting combination, deploying Saúl Ñíguez as a left-midfield/left-wing-back with Reinildo operating as the more traditional left-back, tucking inside as Saúl dropped deeper. The closest similarity in set-up was at Mestalla in matchday 3, when Saúl sat in a deeper, more conventional wing-back role with a clear back three. This time, it came after consecutive games with Thomas Lemar operating in a similar, albeit more offensive, role.
Saúl’s contribution cannot be questioned. With 17 duels won, that’s more than any other player in LaLiga this season. He also continues to top Europe’s top five leagues for tackles per 90. His defensive stats are quite simply unrivaled, and he undoubtedly makes Atlético a stronger team defensively.
As can always be relied on, Saúl’s work rate is one of the key factors that set him apart from players like Lemar or Yannick Carrasco. Right now, the former Spain international offers greater reliability and consistency down that left flank. That makes it easy to understand why Simeone relied on him for such a difficult away fixture.
However, it does raise questions. Saúl’s attacking contribution was close to nil. He made Atleti more solid and structured defensively, but contributed little in the final third. Had Betis taken the lead — for example, if Borja Iglesias’ knee hadn’t have been offside moments after halftime — that could have been problematic.
As such, Simeone does face tough decisions. He has different players available for different situations, but no flexible option that could apply to a variety of contexts. Saúl is playing superbly, but he’s a plaster on an open wound needing stitches.