The 2-2 draw with Bayer Leverkusen, which ended in the most dramatic of circumstances, leaves the Colchoneros resigned to Europa League action at best, and no further European football beyond next Tuesday’s visit to Porto at worst.
Moussa Diaby blew Atlético away in the opening moments as he smashed the ball beyond Jan Oblak, before Yannick Carrasco revived hopes with a pinpoint finish from outside the box. Eventually, Callum Hudson-Odoi capitalised on sloppy possession to slide the ball home before half-time and Rodrigo de Paul’s second half equaliser was not enough.
The real drama came at the death. The final whistle blew, only for play to be pulled back by VAR for a handball which saw Atlético awarded a penalty. Carrasco stepped up and saw his limp spot kick saved, with Saúl heading the rebound onto the bar before the Belgian finally deflected Reinildo’s last ditch attempt over the bar. Gutting.
Here are three things learned from the encounter.
The end of an era
There was a feeling that there was more to this result than simply being knocked out of a competition. As the players and Diego Simeone stayed out on the pitch beyond the final whistle, they were serenaded by the club’s fans. It was similar in some ways to the reception they received after being knocked out of the competition last season by Manchester City.
De Paul and Griezmann in shock pic.twitter.com/sPuiT1jLGO— Into the Calderón (@intothecalderon) October 26, 2022
Only that time, there seemed to be a real sense of pride. This time around, it is hard to feel much pride for these players. They have underperformed and disappointed throughout the 1 month and 19 days in which Atlético have participated in the Champions League.
You could feel a sort of turning point as Lukáš Hrádecký got down to his left to save Carrasco’s relatively tame penalty, What does this mean for coach Diego Simeone’s future? What does it mean for the prima donnas like João Félix who played a whole three minutes in the club’s biggest match of the season? What does it mean for the club’s finances?
This result was the culmination of a series of mistakes, poor decisions and disappointing displays, and it goes far beyond a simple draw at home to Bayer Leverkusen.
“It’s a difficult moment, tough and unexpected,” Simeone said at his post-match press conference, where Into the Calderón were in attendance. “Even though I think we deserved more, there are two places we can take this — (we can) act like the victims or continue to work. I choose to continue working.”
Five years ago, a similar failure sent Atlético to the Europa League and it turned out to be a victorious campaign that ended in silverware. However, it did signal the end of an era. Club legends Gabi and Fernando Torres both moved on at the end of that season, while Diego Godín and Juanfran followed only 12 months after.
We can expect a similar turnaround this time, particularly given the financial demands that will force the club to sell and reduce the wage bill with a reduced income from the relegation to Europe’s second tier competition — and that is counting on getting what’s required in Porto to reach the Europa League at all.
Even if Atleti had scored that, they don’t deserve to be in the CL.— EiF (@EiFSoccer) October 26, 2022
Level is abysmal for a group that was supposed to be easy on paper. They should have never struggled against any of these teams.
Atleti need to take a hard look at themselves - players, coaches, and board.
But, if anything, the coach doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. If there was one telling line from his press conference, it was this:
“I will continue to insist, as long as I have the chance to be in this club, in getting the Champions League that we need.”
There may be a wave of change ahead, but it does not seem likely that it will be without Diego Simeone. For now.
El Cholo got it wrong, plain and simple
Cholo Simeone is the best coach Atletico de Madrid have ever had, by quite some distance. But on Wednesday night, he got it wrong when he selected Mario Hermoso in his starting line-up ahead of Stefan Savić.
Both of those things can be true, and on this occasion, they most certainly are.
This was only Hermoso’s third start this season and ended a run of impressive defensive performances with Savić alongside Josema Giménez, most recently against Real Betis. The only logical explanation would be that Simeone wanted to avoid risking Savić, who was only one yellow card away from suspension and could have missed the potentially decisive game against Porto.
Instead, there is now less at stake against Porto.
Hermoso barely covered himself in glory in either of Bayer Leverkusen’s goals, positioning himself poorly and generally looking like a liability. Xabi Alonso’s team targeted Hermoso and looked to run at him one on one, bringing about various nervous moments not only from the defender himself, but from his team-mates in dangerous positions.
It’s not all been easy. We must recognise that Simeone went into arguably the biggest game of the season to date without both captain Koke and his central midfield partner Marcos Llorente. Had both been available, it’s easy to imagine this game could have had a very different ending. For example, would it really have been Ángel Correa to receive the ball facing his own goal 20 yards out if Koke were in the side?
In defence, Simeone got it wrong. But his hands are tied. Every man and his dog could see that Atleti desperately needed a central defender this summer, and the club failed to provide their coach with what he needed.
Andrea Berta, as director of football, and the club’s backroom staff and board, must take responsibility for this. Simeone made the incorrect call against Bayer Leverkusen, but poor squad management put him in that position.
For all the talent, the attack isn’t good enough
Yet while we point out the defensive weaknesses and poor squad planning, when we turn to the other end of the pitch, few would argue that Atlético have ever had a more talented group of forwards available in their squad.
Despite that, they aren’t producing results. In five Champions League games to date, Atlético’s forwards have scored just one goal.
Antoine Griezmann’s injury time winner over Porto in the first game of the season in the competition remains the only strike to come from an Atleti forward in the competition. Since then, Griezmann has missed a penalty and missed 1.11 xG.
Meanwhile, João Félix, Ángel Correa, Matheus Cunha and Álvaro Morata haven’t even come close to that mark. And that is where Atleti have gone wrong, with four goals from nearly nine xG in the Champions League this season.
It is a slightly strange trend, as it is the complete opposite from LaLiga, where 15.29 xG has brought about 18 goals. Why that run differs when it goes from domestic league competition to elite European action is a concern that Simeone must look into immediately.
The main factor appears to be mentality. How else can the failures of experienced players like Griezmann or Morata be explained? Morata in particular faded into insignificance against Bayer Leverkusen, marked out of the game by an overly physical German defence.
Then, there’s the Cunha issue. With 12 shots and 1.78 xG this season, he is somehow still yet to score a goal. An impulse player from the bench, much like Correa once was, he is not producing any kind of impact. He brings energy and movement, but there is no end product and patience is beginning to run out.