Atlético Madrid celebrated Diego Simeone’s 600th match in charge by beating CD Arenteiro of Segunda RFEF on Thursday night to reach the last 32 of the Copa del Rey.
There was an early scare as Markitos gave the home team the lead on a tough playing surface just before half-time, but a Yannick Carrasco penalty drew the scoreline level in injury time. In the second period, Carrasco added a second after Pablo Barrios netted on his first start to give Atleti the lead.
In truth, it could have been more. Atleti racked up 4.17 xG, including a missed Álvaro Morata penalty, and on another day could have been in a far more comfortable position than having to mount a late comeback. It’s the story of Atleti’s season.
Pablo Barrios and 10 others
If we said it after the Ponferradina match, we have to repeat it after this one:
Yet again, Atlético’s best player was one not even involved with the first team.
This time, Pablo Barrios was the star. Not only did he score the goal to give Atleti the lead on his first team debut, but he also bossed the game.
On drifting inside to fire past Arenteiro goalkeeper Diego García with a pinpoint effort, Barrios showed a quality and cutting edge that others were lacking. Some, who were in Qatar only a few weeks ago, wasted chance after chance. But Barrios’s 77th minute goal was a 0.02 xG chance.
Barrios accounted for 20% of Atleti’s shots on target, operating as a constant threat on the right and looking to drop back inside to pose a threat from the edge of the box. It was what Simeone may have been hoping to see from the likes of Marcos Llorente or Thomas Lemar, but instead got from a 19-year-old gamble.
The confidence in Barrios’s game was clear. He completed four dribbles from six attempts, showing a desire to take players on and to make something happen, a quality lacking in other areas of the team. It worked as he won three fouls, accounting for a quarter of all of those won by Atleti players. He had the second highest number of passes with 46, and the most won duels with 11 from 18 attempts.
“I’m very happy for the opportunity today, and happy for the victory and the work that the team has done,” Barrios said post-match, reflecting on his debut.
And he may have more opportunities to come.
“The boys are working very well. We need these guys. They are pure energy, they are the lifeblood of Atlético. Now they have a renewed energy, and you have already seen Pablo Barrios’s match,” Simeone reflected.
We must also note that Carlos Martín was unavailable due to a strain. His role in the first team is one that has generated perhaps the most anticipation, given his impressive form for the B team and his winning cameo against Ponferradina. With players returning from the World Cup and others failing to impress in the Copa del Rey, he could still have a chance in the coming weeks.
Thomas Lemar’s latest trial
When you can’t fit a square peg into a square hole, you might as well try it in a round one. Or at least that’s what Diego Simeone seemed to think.
Playing with a back five and a three-man midfield, Lemar was selected in the all-new position of a second striker, supporting Morata in Atlético’s front line. However, he didn’t quite seem to adjust to the new role and looked lost in the action for much of Thursday’s tie.
As his heat map above shows, Lemar was all over the place but had little influence when Atleti were in possession. The Frenchman’s one touch in the box showed how Atleti struggled to find a presence in the final third, with Lemar often drifting too deep and looking more like another midfielder than an attacking player.
That also led to a rather misleading number of shot assists. Lemar was one of only three players to register two or more shot assists in this game, but both came from short passes to efforts from distance with low xG values, which added up to 0.13 xA overall. While he was present, he didn’t provide the end product Simeone would have been hoping for.
Lemar is another player in this squad whose future seems unclear. This latest experiment seems to be another desperate attempt to find a way to make the 27-year-old’s skills work to Atleti’s advantage, but even four years on from his arrival, Simeone seems at a loss as to what the solution could be.
João Félix is partly to blame for his own downfall
Away from the action on the pitch, there was one notable absentee: João Félix. The forward missed out with pharyngotonsillitis.
João Félix suffers from pharyngotonsillitis.— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) December 21, 2022
“I want the best for Atlético de Madrid. Everything that can happen will happen, nobody is indispensable. Nobody. But nobody. Things will be the way they have to be,” Simeone said pre-match. “I have no doubt that João is a very important player. He had a good World Cup and had a great participation with his national team. I hope we can have the João we saw in the World Cup. Let’s hope we give him the serenity, the joy so that he can show in the game what he showed, which was very good.”
Simeone’s change in tone on his attacker is pretty clear. Pre-World Cup he would not hold back in making subtle digs at him, but it seems that the separation has done him some good. Looking at the situation from a more objective point of view, he is reflecting on his talent while also reminding the Portuguese of his responsibility.
It seems that the same cannot be said for the number seven.
Having returned from Qatar after Portugal’s quarter-final defeat to Morocco, João should have been match fit for this encounter after a period in which he had the chance to get ahead of Antoine Griezmann and Ángel Correa in the pecking order.
Instead, he stayed at home. The wantaway star hasn’t trained for several days and opted to sit out a midweek Copa del Rey trip to Galicia. That allowed Morata and Lemar a chance to shine, with Barrios even staking his claim.
It’s clear that João wants out of Atlético Madrid, but he can no longer have any complaints should Simeone not select him in his line-ups for the upcoming big occasions against the likes of FC Barcelona next month.