It was an unexpectedly unforgettable night at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano, and not just because there was proof that Sergio Reguilón is actually an Atlético Madrid player as he made his home debut for the club four months after joining.
Atlético eased to a 2-0 victory over Elche on Thursday with a scoreline that flattered the home side. The game involved three red cards, two for the visitors and one for Mario Hermoso, with the first coming right at the end of a dull first half where “disjointed” was the best definition of Atleti’s play.
Following Hermoso’s early second half dismissal, Atleti opened up and Antoine Griezmann cut through to slot the ball back onto the head of João Félix to break the deadlock. Later, Álvaro Morata’s shot as he fell caught a fortunate deflection to loop over Édgar Badía.
Here are three things learned from the match which could give an insight into what lies ahead for the remaining two thirds of the campaign.
João Félix isn’t giving up (nor is Diego Simeone)
Thursday was João Félix’s first start in LaLiga since the home defeat to Real Madrid in September. And coming after he, subtly but obviously, declared that he wanted to leave the club, it seemed a final chance to make amends — or even just a farewell after 100-plus appearances for the Rojiblancos.
Four minutes before the hour, João headed in his fifth goal of the league season to open the scoring as he timed his run well to get on the end of Griezmann’s cutback from the byline. But throughout the game he added a spark to the Atlético attack, with some tricky back-heels and smart manoeuvres that opened up space in the box. Elche sat deep and denied space, but the Portuguese’s technical ability helped to create opportunities in the final third, particularly for Griezmann coming in from deep and Morata in the box.
As he walked off on 66 minutes, his longest stint on the field since the 2-0 defeat in Germany to Bayer Leverkusen in September, he high-fived Diego Simeone while avoiding eye contact with the coach. It generated debate among fans as to whether that was a good sign, a bad sign, or somewhere in between. The conclusion likely depends on what you want it to mean, rather than any telltale sign of what is to come in the January transfer window.
️| Diego Simeone: “Joao Felix, while he’s here, I'll try to get the best out of him for the club.” pic.twitter.com/K9HDzl4iMs— Atletico Universe (@atletiuniverse) December 29, 2022
Simeone clearly has his doubts about Félix, but this was a sign that he does want to keep the faith in the forward. Both parties did what was asked of them and there can be no complaints. It may be too late to remedy the situation in the short-term, but much like with Saúl Ñíguez, a failed loan spell may show that the grass isn’t always greener and a return to Madrid could get the best out of the player the second time around.
After all, there’s irony in that João’s close-range header was his fifth goal in his last five Atleti appearances, suggesting that he’s enjoying some of his best-ever form since joining the club.
Pablo Barrios has a future
Anyone watching Thursday would have believed that Pablo Barrios was anything but a teenager making his LaLiga debut. He excelled — dominating play, linking up easily with the team’s superstars, and looking to be one of the most creative forces in the side.
With 12 passes into the final third, at an 83% completion rate, only Antoine Griezmann completed more passes in the danger zone than 19-year-old Barrios. That is some illustrious company for a player making his first appearance against high-level opposition in Spain’s top flight.
Barrios linked up with Griezmann and João Félix more than any other player in terms of passing, and the trio formed a deadly trident behind Morata that allowed them to create opportunities and interchange positions to baffle the organized Elche defence.
What could be intriguing is to see whether Barrios does work his way into the side, and who will be sacrificed if he does. Based on Thursday night, it could well be Koke. The captain has been below-par this campaign and has not returned to the title-winning heights of 2020/21, and Barrios may be the first player to really threaten his place in the side.
There is still room for Barrios to grow, and as Elche’s dirty tricks and physicality with him grew, the teenager’s influence on the game began to fade. That will be something to monitor as we see him adapt and evolve to this level. But Thursday showed his performances in Segunda RFEF and the Copa del Rey against lower-division rivals were just a sign of things to come.
Mario Hermoso remains a liability
The television cameras spotted an Atleti fan in the stands putting his head in his hands as soon as an already-booked Hermoso went to ground to make a challenge on Helibelton Palacios and duly receive his marching orders.
Hermoso’s last two LaLiga appearances have both seen him sent off, against Real Madrid and now against Elche. In both cases, he received two yellow cards in three minutes. It’s a clear issue with Hermoso’s in-game intelligence.
Mario Hermoso’s last two LaLiga appearances have seen him pick up 4 yellow cards in 6 minutes.— Sam Leveridge (@samleveridge) December 29, 2022
Hermoso has never been the smartest or most composed of players, but his desperation to impress on rare opportunities is costing him. It was surprising to see Hermoso selected ahead of Reinildo, presumably having impressed in training, but this dismissal reflects the difference between the two.
Bizarrely, Hermoso being sent off helped Atlético. Where Reinildo offers consistency and composure, Hermoso is unpredictable and unreliable. It leaves Simeone with a dilemma as to how to face the weeks ahead, particularly with Axel Witsel currently out due to illness.
This dilemma underlines Atlético’s need for another defender. Felipe has already been discarded, Hermoso too easily loses his head, and Reinildo has fallen from favour for the time being. José María Giménez faces a lengthy suspension and is injury-prone even if he does avoid that, while Stefan Savić has already missed six games through injury this campaign.
If money comes in for Matheus Cunha or João Félix, it should be the back line, rather than the front, that gets the priority for new additions.