Atlético Madrid have fallen to defeat against 20th-place team Levante in perhaps the most unsurprising surprise result of the season.
Gonzalo Melero’s strike early in the second half was all that was required. Breaking down Levante’s right wing as the pass came through, with Atlético again caught out on the counter, the midfielder’s finish beat Jan Oblak not long after he’d done his best to keep Atleti in the game.
Here are three things learned from the encounter, which could prove decisive in the long-term:
Forget top four, the focus is top six
What is there to say, really?
Levante had won just one game all season. They’d only won away from home once since they last won at the Metropolitano. Yet here we are discussing ANOTHER “shock” Atlético Madrid defeat.
At this point, it hard to see where Atleti will get a string of wins together. And that’s what they need if there is to be any challenge for the top spots in LaLiga.
FC Barcelona are playing better. Real Betis are playing better. Heck, as things stand currently, Villarreal and Athletic Club are playing better, too.
The last six results leave Atleti 11th in the form table for LaLiga, behind even the likes of Elche, Getafe and Osasuna, at a time when four of their past six games have come against teams currently in the bottom half of LaLiga.
With uncertainty both on and off the field, results are only continuing to drop off and the Atlético dressing room seems increasingly tense and fractured. Should there not be an upturn in results quick, it’ll be too little too late — not only for the Champions League, but for European football at all.
All this raises a question: What lies ahead for Diego Simeone? Rumours of talks with other coaches have begun to swirl, and the man himself cuts an increasingly frustrated and tired figure. Failure to make the top four this season would be his lowest moment. Failure to make the top six would be unthinkable.
There’s no such thing as home comforts
Levante winning this tie was what Getafe and Valencia had oh so nearly done in less-humiliating circumstances in recent weeks. In those outings, Atlético’s forwards and late Mario Hermoso heroics had saved the day.
This time around, there was no last-ditch rescue.
Estadio Wanda Metropolitano has never been the fortress or place to fear that the Estadio Vicente Calderón was. But, for a while at least, it was a hard place to visit and take away three points.
In its debut season, only Espanyol were able to win. In the second, Real Madrid joined the club, and Barcelona the season after. But Levante have now become the first side to win there twice in LaLiga, and they are just one of many sides to rock up full of confidence.
“Any team that doesn’t go out with attitude and ambition needed to win can be beaten, that’s what happened to us today,” Marcos Llorente said post-match.
Can you imagine that ever having been said of a Diego Simeone team at the Calderón?
The truth is that teams are optimistic about scoring at the Metropolitano. Jan Oblak has become beatable, averaging one goal conceded per home game in LaLiga, and Atleti haven’t won a home European tie since October 27th, 2020.
Next up: Manchester United. Gulp.
The fear factor has vanished, and teams believe that they can outfight Atleti on their own turf. The recent struggles against sides like relegation-battling Getafe and Levante show that what will truly prove decisive won’t be Cristiano Ronaldo and co.’s visit, but the next three home games against Celta Vigo, Cádiz, and Alavés. Anything other than nine points out of nine is unacceptable.
A lack of fluidity is costing Atleti dearly
When a team like Atlético, with all their attacking might, fails to score against bottom-of-the-table Levante, it’s always likely the forwards will be a hot topic. But the larger concern lies deeper — Atleti aren’t consistently creating anything at all.
In the first half, Levante dominated possession, Atleti had the worse pass accuracy and had completed more passes in their own half than in the opposition half.
That comes from midfield. Neither Koke nor Rodrigo De Paul created a key pass for the second fixture in a row, yet they remain Simeone’s first-choice duo. Koke, in particular, has started the past six games despite not recording a key pass in this calendar year.
The problems were clear in the first half, when Atleti created just 0.16 xG, compared to 0.45 from Levante. Yet for the fourth time in their past eight games, Simeone didn’t make a halftime change. Cholo didn’t think that was required this time. Only nine minutes later, Melero scored and Simeone’s mistake was highlighted for all to see.
“I’ve watched some terrible first half performances in my 40 years, but this goes straight into the top 10,” Goal journalist Rubén Uría groaned on Twitter.
Atleti are relying heavily on Thomas Lemar to provide all the creative attacking spark in the midfield, but he can’t do it on his own. Regardless of the attacking combination selected, and regardless of Antoine Griezmann’s imminent return, it is the midfield where change needs to happen.